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Education vs. Working Up The Ladder – Which Has The Bigger Pay Off For Our Generation?

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Lately, I’ve been having many discussions with people: peers, friends, loved-ones, co-workers, and mentors — ranging from “The Lucky Few/Silent Generation” all the way to “Generation Z” – regarding how much a standard 4-year college degree pays off for people, at this day in age, or whether it’s a better decision for most, especially current generations from Generation X to Generation Z, to simply try to gain work experience in a field and work up from there. Upon spending much time pondering this situation, I have started to wonder how other people feel about education vs. working to establish a career at this current day. (Before I go on, I’d like to apologize for any mechanical errors, as this is mainly a stream of conscious thought rather than a formal piece I’ve been working on.) So….here’s my question:

What do you feel is a smarter decision for one’s financial security and future, for our generation: To go to college for a bachelor’s and pay for it with student loans, or to jump into a field and try to establish a career through work experience?

….

Do you remember that time where you could, out of your own pocket, and maybe with a little help from your parents, afford to put yourself through college? Do you remember the days where you started making plans to be a full-time student while working a part-time job and were living independently – perhaps on a Top Ramen diet – but in the comfort of your own apartment, flat, or studio? Do you remember the time where you knew, as long as you went to school and acquired that 4-year degree, that you would be able to land a job, establish a decent career, and provide for your family? ….. Yeah, neither do I, because it seems the notion of a basic college education keeping you afloat for the remainder of your life, is just a romanticized nostalgic idea from when our parents and grandparents were growing up. I grew up in a household that preached, “Education is crucial to your professional future.” And although I personally have a fondness for academia, I have often discussed with family members whether that is still practical advice.
Now, there’s no denying that education is something — we as a country — can always benefit from (and currently are lacking in, on a global comparison). Furthermore, that being more well-rounded and educated as an individual is beneficial for our personal growth. Also, that we can certainly establish a higher-paying job from the get-go, along with having competitive opportunities open to us, when we have obtained our college degree. I cannot deny that my college education has been very beneficial for my personal growth and development of my mind and potential. Ironically enough, I find myself enthralled with the academic lifestyle: being surrounded by scholars and experts in a multitude of fields, participating in intellectually stimulating conversations, exercising areas of the brain I otherwise wouldn’t use on a regular basis, discovering my capabilities of hard-work and accomplishing goals, thriving in an environment thirsting for knowledge, and contemplating concepts I never would have fathomed on my own.

It also should be noted that these attributes do become valuable in desired professionals. However, my point is not to dabble over the personal benefits an education offers to an individual: personal qualities and individual growth, pursuit of happiness, intellectual broadening and stimulation, and honing of interests. I am not advocating for either option regarding establishing a career from a college degree vs. working one’s way up the ladder. I am simply interested in the opinions and observation of others, as to what my peers think, regarding the pay-off of working with (mostly) work-experience or working from an education. My main goal is to discuss whether education is still the sure-fire path to a strong and secure financial and professional future, or if perhaps the long-practiced “keys to success” now require some reevaluation given current and shifting economic times.

Given the above, one has to ask the question, why go to college? For some, it’s purely intellectual growth, but for most, college serves as a means to a better end. The structure of our educational system has been used to, ideally, prepare us for our futures and ultimately, our careers. It seems good-paying jobs one would obtain, from a 4-year bachelor’s degree, are getting harder to come by, and often some fields don’t promise much of a decent-paying career at all. Honestly, the term “decent-paying” might be too much of a stretch even-still, as we watch the disparaging rates of our middle class dwindle away year by year. There are most certainly fields booming in high demand: information technology, engineering and robotics, the medical field, and bio-friendly power/energy efficiency — and with high demand often comes better wages — but for a strong majority of other fields, comes a question about whether it will pay off for a desired household income, gaining some profit and live comfortably while trying to pay off student debt.

When our grandparents and parents were going to school, it was much more affordable to be in college, and to make a living while doing so. People could go to college, a private institution, or a public university by a simple combination of working and some savings without racking up bankrupting levels of student loan debt. In addition to that, people could also afford to work alongside school, and a full-time college student, working as a waitress or busboy 3-4 nights a week, could put themselves through school and afford to get themselves a quaint one-bedroom apartment while enjoying their college years.

However, it seems times are definitely changing, and that what once was seemingly attainable to go to school, maintain a standard level of independence, and then land a career that would pay for itself, is merely a dream of the past or a luxury for a rare few whose interests fall into one of those high demand fields.

Personally speaking, I know people who have had to go back to school, because whatever they got their bachelor’s in the first time, didn’t get them anywhere professionally that would provide them with the means to keep up with the cost of living . I also know of others hitting their late-20s to even early-30s, picking up the phone to tell Mom and Dad they need to move back home, because the cost of living is escalating at an exponential rate and they can’t afford to stay in their one bedroom apartment. I know people who are in their late-20’s to early-30’s, whom even past working a 40 hour work week, can’t even dream of what it would be like to have their own place, as they share their living space with (often more than one) roommate(s). I know of many people in my age bracket, who are consciously avoiding having children or getting married — despite their actual relationships or desires — due to the fact they “can’t afford it.” I know of people who are struggling to pay off their student loans and had to go back to school, just to have some more time to come up with the money, or are struggling to get deferrals because they can’t seem to pay off loans plus interest, while simultaneously providing for themselves and their loved ones. For goodness sake, I know of people with PhD’s who can’t find work or have been homeless at some point after receiving their college degree. The notion of anyone with a doctorate not finding work is beyond absurd and almost completely counter intuitive.

So I ask you, with regard to certain high demand fields offering a six figure salary, is the promise of a secure economic and financial future — from a bachelor’s degree — merely a retired concept of the past for many, or should it still be the prime focus for anyone who is looking for job security and the financial means to provide for themselves and their family before they hit 40? What are your thoughts?

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