Linnea Isaac

Why you should go to college
(especially if you can't afford it)

Class, risk, and reward in American higher education

We have a problem in America with universal career advice that completely ignores social class. Worse, when we do consider class, we condescend and we pontificate: we don't ask the hardest questions, and thus we don't give the best advice. To really have this conversation, we need to get nuanced, but not necessarily in the ways you might think. Consider how differently the cost-benefit analysis of student debt looks in these two scenarios:

Scenario A: You can apply, and you can afford to go through a patchwork of student loans, small grants, and maybe a scholarship if you’re lucky. You can live with your parents, or on campus if you get a part-time job or take on significantly more debt. The burden of your lost income will not have any short term effects on the household, but in the next few years you may have to help out with a parent’s healthcare, or in the worst-case scenario, need to support your family if something happens to the primary breadwinner.

Scenario B: You can apply, and while cost might be a stressor, it’s not a barrier to where you can go. You won’t need to take out many student loans, if any, between a scholarship and your parents’ savings. Between those savings and your parents’ strong careers, the prospect of needing to support your family in the next few years wouldn’t even occur to you. You might choose to live with your parents to save money, or work a part-time job for some extra experience, but living on campus and being a full-time student are both reasonable options.

Both these scenarios are nuanced—neither person is broke, neither person is rich—but the risk profile is completely different. In Scenario A, college could be a massive win for the family’s fortunes, but a mistake—such as dropping out with significant debt or failing to secure a good-enough job right away—could mean financial ruin. Taking a lower-paying job now means sacrificing potential future earnings, but with a steadier return. In Scenario B, there are still some mid-term financial downsides to going to college, but they are very unlikely to be catastrophic, and the long-term benefits are both assumed and seem more attainable.

Class is a deeply asymmetric game, but the different players don't actually have different win conditions—if either person graduates from college, their lifetime earnings will be significantly higher. However, the differences in starting conditions are so great that there may as well be different rules anyway.

But we don’t really talk about this when discussing or writing about the value of an education. If we do, it often stops with a black and white calculus: it's worth it for some people and not for others—if it’s hard to pay for, it’s not worth it. This is simplified, unrealistic, and frankly more than a little feudalistic. The problem isn't that the value (or the "fittingness") of an education changes based on social class, the problem is that the actual cost does. There are big upfront costs, and it’s a long, hard, and uncertain runway to getting a high-paying job.

Even the runway, and thus the cost, depends on class and continues after you graduate. If you didn’t graduate with any particularly in-demand skills, and don’t have family connections to a well-paying industry, it could be a good ten years or more from enrollment until career viability in a job that’s obviously better than you could have gotten without a degree. Some people just can't afford a ten+ year job training program that you have to pay for year after year, on what amounts to a "reverse sliding scale" system—or the ultimate unpaid internship. The factors which shape the cost can be so different for different people that it makes it hard to talk about them realistically. Underemployed grad students living with their parents after graduation debating what to do next are facing a very different problem from college dropouts who had to take a job to pay the bills and now have student loans on top of that. Family support is huge in getting an education: namely, that the support needs to be going your way, not the other way around. Going to college, getting professional training in or out of grad school, and attaining a job with good pay and benefits is in many ways a long and costly investment that your community or family makes in you—or may not be able to make in you.

Despite this, a college education is still extremely valuable for people from any background—and is more relatively transformative for those who have the steepest road to obtaining it. College graduates on average earn tens of thousands of dollars more per year than people with only a high school diploma. Tropes like the "over-educated barista" don't speak to the reality that higher education still consistently correlates with better financial outcomes in the long term.

The benefits hardly stop there—the true value of an education is obscured by solely talking about income. Whether you "get a job in your field" or not, success in your career is influenced by elements of social class that come along with college, such as who is in your network, how familiar you are with industries and jobs that pay better, and frankly, how people perceive you differently as a college graduate.

Consider the network you build in college. Companies take referrals very seriously, maybe more than you think—it can be a completely different application pathway. And on top of the referral benefits, if you are friends with people doing a job, you can see what it took to get there, and you will have the support and encouragement to do so yourself. Proximity to a career is job experience. Even if you never cash in on the opportunity, if your partner (that you met in college) tells you about programming every night, you’ll pick up the basics. If your friends are talking about what their job search looks like, you’ll have a better understanding of how to job-hunt yourself.

And you can never discount discrimination: people subtly treat college graduation as a kind of blank slate regardless of what you did before or after. I graduated at 26, having dropped out more than once along the way, and I then spent most of the next year after graduation working retail. But at my office job, I’m treated more or less the same as if I were a bright-eyed and promising 22 year old new grad, and my career prospects reflect that. It doesn't sit well with me, seeing friends and family who are just a slip of paper and yet an ocean away from me be treated so differently in their careers, but I see it nonetheless.

These factors and many more are all part of the value of education. In fact, the return on the value of education is so obviously high that it seems there's only a few ways you wouldn't see it. One is that you’re already benefiting from all those advantages right now and are just comparing your outcome to the relatively higher success you imagined for yourself or see in your social network. This can in turn be for a few different reasons. You may be frustrated because you entered at a disadvantage and are paying those long tail costs - unsure of the final value. Or perhaps the costs were nearly invisible to you and you are just comparing yourself to the even more wildly successful, lucky, talented, and privileged people you’ve met and read about.

But there's another way you might not see the value of education. It isn't pretty but it happens: you may be so very socially removed from the world of white collar politics and social advancement that these benefits seem completely abstract and vague—like a contract etched in shifting sand. If this is you, then you are who I'm really writing this to. But if this is you, you may not know it. We all read and write and post on the same internet after all, and it's hard to notice what you haven't already seen.

I'm here to tell you that the value of an education isn't inflated, or fading, or illusory, or only for a certain kind of person. It's real, tangible and it's far more valuable than you think—more valuable than we all say it is, though we repeat this narrative for different reasons.

If you can afford college and at least somewhat want to go—if you’re in Scenario B—it is worth it, for all the reasons above and more. But if this is you, you probably already know that.

If you want to go, but just cannot afford it because of the dire short term costs, because there is just not enough time or money or support, because safety and basic wellbeing are on the table as losses, that is okay. I'm sorry. There may be opportunities with a better value proposition and less risk. I believe that class disadvantage means having to allot more resources based on avoiding catastrophic risks than on potentially lucrative wins. This world is full of injustice, but I'm rooting for you anyway. Don't ever let those who could afford the cost talk down to you.

But perhaps you are in an awkward kind of “lower-middle” place. I believe this is far more likely than you probably think it is. In this place, due to the reality of needing to take on debt, the relative commonness of a degree nowadays, the dwindling of grants and scholarships in recent years, the daunting idea of starting a ten year path from scratch today, the horror stories of underemployed humanities majors, and the uncertainty of your family's future, it may not be exactly clear how much of a burden the cost of an education will be. If so, I'm sorry—it's not an easy choice. It really is a long road - and an uneven one. Class still unjustly shapes the outcomes of people who go to college too. Some can't finish. Some graduate and find they do not have marketable skills yet—that they didn't start the program quite early enough or don't have the same advantages as their peers.

But I'm going to be very honest: if you want to go, and if you are willing to fight for it, you should go anyway. Even if the costs seem too high - the rewards are likely greater. And though the costs are now and the rewards later and dependent on factors out of your control, there are little advantages at every step. An unemployed college grad, saddled with debt, who hails from a lower socioeconomic background than their peers who all got cushy tech jobs after school is still, on paper, a college graduate with a network of highly paid professionals. This result alone has an expected dollar value, as gauche as that is to say, which may only be paid out in the very, very long term.

If you want to go but are on the edge, if you’re reading the think pieces about how it's not worth it anymore, ignore all of it. Only don't go if you absolutely can't afford it or absolutely don't want to go. The naysayers are, as often as not, educated pontificators, who are musing on complex social phenomena at a high level of abstraction, and they are paid well to do so. Many are wallowing in a very different kind of resentment than you will ever have the misfortune to experience. They are playing by different rules, so their advice isn't really for you. For many of the resentfully-educated, college was always worth it, and will still be worth it later—they just feel it should have been better, sooner.

This is a long game we're talking about. The social trappings of education alone open doors which otherwise would have been shut. But the education itself will make doors visible which, depending on your background, you may not have even known about before. Things about the world will become visible to you which you believed you knew. You will come to feel as though you had been seeing them before through a deep, gray haze. If you did not come from advantage, this will not be a comforting path. It may make you feel sick, how wrong it is. That's how I feel, sometimes. Sitting on both sides you see the ugly things that people don't want to talk about or can't see themselves.

So, if the costs seem too high but there may be a way, if you want those benefits for yourself and for your family and community, and if you are willing to fight for it, really fight for it - don't let anyone stop you. If we're ever going to change the strange, subtle, and sometimes offensively blatant ways class shapes our world - if we're ever going to make it less wrong - we're going to need more people like you. People who are afforded the power and privilege of a college education, but who have seen both sides of the veil—and just can't quite fully accept it.

Thanks to Theia Vogel for editing.