1.16.2012

School Schmool

It's been four and a half years since I graduated from the University of Houston with a Bachelor's degree in art. Inside those four and half years I've experienced contingencies that many adults in their mid-twenties face, especially upon leaving college: the death of my first car, the college sweetheart moving away, clocking in at the same menial job that put you through school in the first place. But of all things that I've been through there's still something that's just stuck around, and those are my student loans.
Having to deal with these pesky monthly bills have drastically changed the way I view higher education, and has opened my eyes to how my culture views it as well. When I signed on the dotted line 8 years ago I was completely clueless to how adversely these notes of debt would affect my life. Of course, back then I myself was convinced I would easily snag some grand job with my degree so I could handle them no problem. But that's not the case now, especially in this economy. It's not the economy's fault, though it may be a small factor in a pool of many. My issues with student loans and higher education go deeper than just the college years. No, to understand how I arrived at now, you have to know how I was brought up, and what kind of student I am.
In grade school, although I made it into and graduated from one of Houston's most academically challenging schools (HSPVA), I was not very scholarly. My attitude toward my studies was pretty lax, and I worked hard enough to get my stuff in, barely on time, and at the very least in a form that would earn a passing mark. I excelled at art, mainly 'cause all I wanted to do was draw comics, paint, and make videos while hanging with my friends. I did all that other school work because I was expected to. Don't get me wrong, I love learning. But it seems much of the stuff we worked on in grade school didn't grab me, and I just wanted to get it over with.
Growing up and going to grade school it was instilled in me that I would one day go off to college. All of us would (I'm the oldest in a family with four kids). My parents wanted to give us opportunities they didn't have. Growing up I remember they started a Texas Tomorrow Fund for each of us. Going to college was the next step. And then after college you can get a bangin' job that will pay you way more than if you had a high school diploma alone. My parents never had the opportunity we did, to go to school and live at home long after you turn 18. When they hit 18 they hit the road and moved out. Well, with school being just that, school, I decided to keep my major in Visual Art, mainly because I was pretty good at it and it came easy to me. I went to college not necessarily because I wanted to, but because I was expected to. In hindsight, I figured out that that's not the best attitude to have when you're paying a-couple-a-thousand-a-year-plus to attend, well, any institution that will one day have a major affect on your career.
If I was pretty lax about my academics in grade school, imaginee how I was with the freedom and the partying of college. My first year of college I attended an art school in Oakland, now called CCA. I roomed with a best friend from high school, and we did it BIG. That's about the time I took out my first student loan to cover what the Texas Tomorrow Fund wouldn't cover, being at an out-of-state college and all. At the end of the year, my friend decided he was leaving, going to another school. He sited the price of tuition as a reason. Figuring my tuition would be pretty astronomical for the next three years there, I got startled myself and decided to pack it up and head back to Houston. I figured the Texas Tomorrow Fund would definitely cover my costs. "I mean, a degree is a degree, right? No matter where it comes from?" I thought to myself.
I enrolled at UH, which was a waaay bigger than CCA, and way more academically involved (hello, CCA is an ART school). Long story short, I dropped a few classes here and there after the deadline, wrestled with a Minor in Communications that eventually fell through, and I had to take College Algebra four times before I had a passing grade. I obviously incurred many more expenses than the fund was able to dish out. Hello, to more student loans!
Semester after sludgy semester, I eventually reached a point to where I could count the remaining credits left to achieve, and I numbered my days until graduation. I had no idea what I was gonna do when I got out but by then I was sick of being in school. That's right, I had no idea what I was gonna do when I got out. Maybe I thought I'd be a professional comic creator or something. One thing I was bent on staying away from is teaching. It's all anybody ever thought about career-wise when I told them what kind of degree I was getting. I figured if I wanted to teach in the first place, I would have a degree that specialized in teaching. The first year after school was gravy. The student loans had a grace period and I was keeping busy painting murals for gypsies and working my same-old weekend job. But something was noticeably different. Without any kind of schedule structure, like school, or a daily job (my job was just weekends) I was completely free to do whatever would occupy my time.
That worked out fine for a time, but then the student loan grace period ended. Bills started coming in fast and gradually I starting sinking into the quicksand of personal debt and the need for money. I decided to get a job, I mean, why not? I have a degree, how hard can it be? Well, after creating profiles to numerous job sites, endless revisions to my resume, about a dozen or so different portfolios for my art (graphic design stuff for graphic design jobs), and countless online applications, I'm still in the same spot. Even worse really when you factor in that I quit the weekend job after it started taking it's toll on me. And the bills for loan repayment keep coming, even if you put them on hold for a while. I started to question what I was paying for; was my degree worth the headache of repaying all this money? This art degree, that was essentially getting me nowhere, was it worth it?
Although I had my moments of regret, this post is not a "ShouldaCouldaWoulda" post. Instead this should be a cautionary tale. Honestly, there's a part of me that feels cheated. Here I am growing up coasting through school thinking everything will be gravy once I get that degree. All my life I was waiting for this this to eventually get here and happen, and it does but it doesn't work out the way I thought it would. So, I feel like I've been stuck here, saying to myself "Now what?" I guess the part that stings is realizing that I didn't need a degree in the first place if I was just gonna keep working at my old job, and I definitely didn't need a degree to stay at home, sit on my ass and paint and draw comics. But then I'm paying for it (or being asked to pay) every month. So what am I paying for if my degree can't get me a job so I can pay for the degree? And, kids, that's a VERY important question you need to consider before even thinking about enrolling into college.
These days college is marketed to everybody. Most high schools push the college thing on the kids regardless of what they want to do career-wise. And not everyone can afford college, especially with today's tuition rates and books and other expenses. So the first thing you must consider before you think about application forms is what exactly do you want to do with your life. Not an easy question and still it's kinda overrated these days. But it's straight-forward; What do you want to do with your life? If your answer is a resounding "I don't know" you basically have two choices: one, don't go to school quite yet, or two, apply to a school your friends are attending and "get started on your basics." The second one sounds fun but if you're just floating around it can be pricey. I mean, if your friends move away to a different city, you can always move with them and not attend school but just find a job. I mention these choices because college isn't for everybody. If you want to work on cars, airplanes or other motor vehicles, trade school is usually sufficient (or is it? I haven't done any research into trade schools but they sound like a more specialized alternative to college, especially if they offer job placement in growing fields). Plus, if you dive right into the work force after high school, you might tap into something that grabs you directly from experience. I imagine you might be able to feel out certain fields and see where they are headed next, and from there you can decide if college is necessary for where you would like to be headed.
And so, what if you do know what you would like to study right after after high school and into college? Well, there are things you must be aware of, such as: Are you planning on going for a job with this degree? And if so, how does it relate to the field you are studying? And, what does the current job market look like in this field? Go ahead, take a look around. What is our society in dire need of the moment? My guess would be mechanical and chemical engineering, health care, and technology to name a few. Seems like decent paying jobs with decent chances of landing one would be here. All I'm saying here is, don't be surprised if your Communications degree doesn't lend itself to that computer programming job opening, even though you may have dabbled in a bit of app-building as a hobby. If I would have understood how serious student loans are I probably would have picked a degree field that would have lent itself to faster job placement, such as computer science. Although art is a big part of my life, I do have an affinity for science and the natural world around us.
More questions you would need to ask yourself if you do plan on attending college is what school has the best program for the field you want to study? Where have the graduates ended up and what are they doing now? Would you regard most of them as successful in those field? Growing up, as it was pounded in my head that I needed college, one major detail was left out (I suspect 'cause I'm the first generation in my family to attend): College is where you make connections to future career opportunities. This is why those last few rhetorical questions are crucial, and it can potentially strike down the argument that "A degree is a degree no matter where you attend school." For example, I skipped out on CCA after the first year, not understanding it's proximity to Pixar Animation (or other animation or game) studios and any potential connections that could get me in to that company. Who knows what professors, specialists or scouts I would have met during a four year stint at that college. I could have stayed and took out bigger loans, but then wound up with a gratifying position at a prestigious animation/game studio after college. Sure I'd have much more debt, but I would probably have a cool job doing something I love, being somewhere I feel I'm needed, and making enough to pay down that debt. I mean, it's not guaranteed, but I bet the chances of landing a sweet gig like that are much better with a specific degree from a specific school with a few contacts, than a cold-call portfolio and a painting degree from a university in Texas. If you plan on attending college with the idea of working in a specific field when you graduate, where you attend may play a big part in what kind of job opportunities may be available to you when you graduate. 
All of these questions are very important to ponder if you are considering college as part of your future. If somebody sat me down and talked to me about all these different aspects to consider, my future would be totally different right now. I don't blame anybody, it's just how I was raised and what was afforded to me. And I don't regret my college experience (well, some of it) but I certainly wish I knew about all this to consider, which is why I'm writing about these lessons. Student debt can be avoided all together with proper knowledge and decision making. I didn't even touch on any grants and scholarships that are out there to ease the cost of higher education. Here I am in my hometown, which lacks any kind of visual arts industry, struggling to get a job that more qualified people can't even get. I now view school as I view everything else: it costs money, money that I don't have. Sure, I've thought about graduate school, but to me I only think about how much it costs. I can barely afford to pay my bills now, how the hell am I going to attend grad school? And for what? This bachelor's hasn't done anything for me except put me in debt. If I was told this is how being in debt would be, I would have told Sallie Mae to cram it up her ass. Regarding my student loan debt, I've realized I don't have it nearly as bad as some people. Also, my friend Marcus wrote his take on college and it's role in society.
This doesn't have to be you. College is not for everybody. Don't simply do as you are told, command your own future.

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