Saturday, February 18, 2012

When Sh*t Gets Real, or, the Need for a Lower-Cost Higher Education

There comes a moment in everyone's life where you realize how real things are. Growing up in your parents house, living in the safe physical and financial confines of home and college, and being able to live within your hopes and dreams are luxuries that eventually run out. Life hits, shit gets real, and we end up stumbling through a life that we used to have time to sit around the coffeeshop and figure out.

I am a career counselor at a state school in Washington (UW Tacoma) where the students are coming from modest economic means and trying to make a better life for themselves or their families. Students come in to my office wondering what to do with their interdisciplinary arts and science degree and no real experience. I want to tell them "nothing, good luck" because someone should have encouraged them to take some practical steps towards their career a long time ago.

That's not me, though. That's not my job. and I don't mean my job as a career counselor. I mean my job as God has sent me to help these students and give them hope. So, no matter how frustrating it is to sit with these clueless students and wonder who did them the disservice of not telling them anything along the way, I start to come up with a practical plan. "It's going to be hard" is something I might say. "The more you are willing to sacrifice your time and income now, the better off you'll be in the long-run." They walk away with hope, thankful that someone at a college is ready to advocate for their best interests.

I looked at my budget today and realized that I've paid far too much for my college education. (Word to the wise, don't get a liberal arts degree) The Saxifrage School is running a breakout session at the Jubilee Conference today, which has made me so excited about the need for low-cost, practical higher education. Excited that a cure may start to bloom. Excited that there are people starting a school with the intention of giving students a real, practical education and real, practical life experience along the way for a price tag that's worth paying.

I could say a lot more, but maybe y'all should just watch the video below and think for yourselves instead of letting me tell you what to think. After all, that was the original purpose of higher education, was it not?

The Saxifrage Idea from Saxifrage School on Vimeo.


  1. Ah Jake, I must humbly disagree with some of the points of this post. I've been working in higher education for over 4 years and what you have addressed here is a critical part of my every day life.

    First of all, higher education is an investment and an investment that, unlike most other investments, does not lose value over time. Is it expensive? Yes. Is it too expensive? Yea, a lot of the time. But a lot of the time it's expensive because students are not educated about education, live outside their means in other ways and are conned by schools and the government into believing things that simply are not true.

    Also, a liberal arts degree is imperative in today's society. Students who study liberal arts are skilled (ahem, educated) at managing and understanding data in different forms, flexible in the workplace and generally well-rounded contributors to society. Our society is ever changing and the tendency to study narrow fields are damaging to future employment. Darwin's theory is very applicable here: those who adapt, survive. Liberal arts students are well versed and prepared to adapt.

    And finally, I have to add that our government is a huge problem with the cost of education. When Obama took over he said he was going to make education more affordable and financial aid easier to navigate. What did he do? He changed Stafford Loans to Direct loans...meaning that he took loans out of the hands of private companies and placed them in the hands of the governments. I remember my students having to pick loan providers when they received their financial aid awards. Some banks charged a servicing fee, some didn't... but the Stafford loans had an interest rate of 3.4%. HOWEVER, now students don't pick lenders because the direct loans are handled only by the government. And guess what? Those 3.4% interest rates are now 6.8% interest rates. The government is exploiting people's ignorance. It's a shame, but it's true. When the loans that millions of students NEED were in the hands of private lenders, they were cheaper. It's a shame because now the interest rates of school loans are no longer cheaper than the interest rates of private loans. And if education is something that the administration feels is a right that should be available to every person, they have a really crappy (and expensive) way of showing that.

    So what are we going to do about it? I think that if we want college to be cheaper, it needs to be handed back to a free and capitalistic market, so that each school and each lender tries to recruit student with the lowest ticket price. If it all sits in the hand of one body (that is, the government) they have complete control over the price tag.

  2. Abby, I respect and agree with your points in your comment. I would also go back and reinforce my own thoughts because in my position I am responsible for helping students find employment. There are too many that don't have the direct practical experience that is beneficial in finding work right out of school. The job market is definitely different now compared to when you were searching for your job and, in the end, it was your experience while in school and, possibly, people you knew (forgive my assumption) that helped you into your position.

    My argument here is mainly that there is not enough education about education (in agreement with your points). Students are coming in with the assumption that a Bachelor degree will get them a job without having to take extra steps to make connections and develop skills that can be represented on their resume.

    While the government is exploiting borrowers, I will also push back in saying that the costs of schools continues to rise for many reasons that are not in the control of the schools, but also for some reasons that are. The cost of a college education has risen drastically in comparison to inflation. The development of facilities and services (as well as research in universities) has caused a great deal of this cost increase.

    As I am also a liberal arts graduate, I agree that the skills we've developed broadly are incredibly valuable for our life and the education we received is important. I did have to pursue a Master's degree to get where I am and I simply wish I could have avoided another degree to do so.

    1. Jake, I love you brother, but your assumption is way off. I got my job because my liberal arts degree prepared me for the plethora of responsibilities I would hold in this position. I studied Classics and Philosophy, not "Student Recruitment" or even "Higher Education Administration." I also didn't know anyone here.

      And I agree that there is a lack of education on education. In fact, of all of the challenges facing college recruitment today, I find this to be the greatest problem. Ask my boss. Ask the VP of enrollment and they would agree that Abby has spoken up regarding this problem and is active in meeting this need in the community.

      This post hits home and I still stand by what I previously said. Do you think that maybe this has become a point of contention for you because you're still searching for what you want to do in life? If you're not sure where you want to end up, I can understand the frustration in feeling like you have two degrees that lead you nowhere. But while liberal arts degrees may you lead nowhere, they can lead you anywhere. And that's the beauty of it.

  3. Good points, Abby, and sorry for making assumptions about how you got to where you're at. I will say that I definitely needed to get the second degree to land this job because it provided me with the internship experience necessary for this position. I certainly wish I could have avoided getting a second degree and definitely pursued it for the purpose of getting a job rather than for the education in and of itself.

    I feel called to this position at this school right now, so I don't question it. You know me, though, my extra-curriculars and personal relationships definitely come before my career! So I enjoy what I'm doing, but it is not the main source of happiness, that's for sure. No job ever will be for me, though. Thanks for challenging my points!