Archive for June, 2011

June 6, 2011

Finances Determine Even Educational Choices

by Nathan Hershey

While growing up in the 1930s, it was the goal of many young people to have the opportunity to attend college. Before I started college, my mother started attending college at night in 1940, in her 40s. Higher education became a much more important step in personal development and was considered increasingly necessary to enhance career opportunities.

The idea of college being the target of most young people did not come about, as far as I recall, until after World War II with the returning military personnel, many of whom qualified for higher education financial assistance because of the GI bill. The veterans were reentering civilian life, with the opportunity to have money to support college schooling and some attending living expenses. I was not in that category because I was too young to have served during WWII. By the time World War II ended in 1945, I was fairly advanced in high school.

After high school, my parents had sufficient funds to allow me to attend New York University without having to find full work opportunities (although I did work two summers during my college career). Tuition at NYU was $150 per year. The public colleges, such as Brooklyn, City, Queens and Hunter, were very inexpensive. These were institutions without dormitories – nuts and bolts colleges. They were good colleges with libraries, etc, but most of their students lived in the city.

There were some private religious colleges, such as St. John’s and Fordham, as well as some non-religious private colleges, such as NYU, which were also affordable for many lower-middle-class families.  The religious colleges were more likely to have dorms connected to and administered by the school.

Queens College, created in the late 1930s, was located in an attractive area in the borough of Queens. For young people who lived in Queens or others who could access decent transportation to Queens, it was considered a choice opportunity. Residents of Queens were wealthier, so the girls really wanted to go there. Tuition was the same level as the other city colleges in NYC.

While the amounts of tuition I’m describing may seem very small, the purchasing power of a dollar was almost unimaginable to people today. Bus and subway fare was a nickel, and there was uproar when fare was raised to a dime.

One of the questions that I have is: What is the range of education opportunities that young people have in the 21st century, particularly at this time? My sense is that, because of the high cost of higher education, unlike the situation that I had when I was of college age, many young people must borrow substantial amounts in order to support their college education. Many have more than five-figure debt by the time they leave college. For most parents, the understanding is that they will not be able to fully, or even substantially, finance their childrens’ education because of the cost and their middle-class income limitations.

It should also be noted that college education is not necessarily the end of formal education; therefore we now find young people creating further debt for graduate school and the cost of personal needs while attending school. I received a full tuition scholarship from Harvard for my second year of law school. It was $600. Sixty years later, in 2011, one year’s tuition at Harvard Law School is $45,450. I would like to better understand how many young people confront these potential costs that they would incur if they decide to further their education to the extent that I have mentioned.

Perhaps is it also possible for a young person to delay or avoid following the step-by-step approach of higher education by working to the extent possible, using and developing skills in the work force, instead of in additional school.

Alicia chose to end her college education, partly to avoid incurring massive debt. I wonder, if Alicia had had the finances necessary to continue attending college, whether she would have developed differently in terms of skills, interests and the decision of how to spend her available time. If she was a member of a family that could provide her with a considerable amount of financial assistance, without any obligations to return it at some future time, she may have continued attending college, and she may not have developed the capabilities she now possesses.

– Nathan Hershey

20th Century Man

June 2, 2011

Choosing Higher Education: Institution or Ingenuity?

by Alicia Ni'Tracy

Secondary education in America has changed considerably over the past couple hundred years.  Since the earliest colleges and institutions began operating, I believe the demographics and population percentages of those who have participated in collegiate programs have shifted greatly.

I am no accredited historian, and indeed I don’t believe we can take any account at face value, but my impression is that higher education institutions were once places for which a few citizens (among a much lower population) – those financially- and class-privileged, had exclusive access, as a practical matter.  The remainder of the population took apprenticeships or labor employment.

Disparate access to higher education still exists.  However, the disparity is less pronounced in admissions than it once was, and most pronounced in financial burden.  Nearly every college or university student I meet today, in the twenty-teens (2010-2019), relies almost entirely on large loans to finance their access to secondary education.  The few students who do not rely on loans can move on from their higher education with much broader financial options – perhaps using their early wages toward a down-payment on a house or automobile (their spotless credit securing such investments at the lowest interest rates available to a young person).

Those former students who relied on student loans may hit a streak of poor luck – their cheap one-bedroom sublet fell through; they experienced a bout of expensive health problems; the only fair-paying position offered to them was completely against their morals so they took a job in fast food.  All of a sudden, their bills are wildly high.  Then ends the 6-month grace period for their loans (the period after leaving school when they’re not obligated to make monthly payments yet, although interest is still accruing), and their loan provider bills them $5,000 on their massive loan principal and interest.  They attempt to apply for a payment deferment, to save their butt until they’re back on their feet.

“My student loans provider just denied that they received my paperwork, and then they charged me five thousand dollars that I can’t pay.”

My own sentiment is that, upon graduation, with a degree but zero job experience, and large monthly payments toward my debt, I would be a slave to the job market in my field.  I would have no choice regarding which job I took – I would take The One That Was Available.  If I knew the job would be:

A) Boring

Here's the quality job I would be lucky to land.

B) Degrading

C) Un-ethical
D) A Two-Hour Commute

E) In a Basement

F) Require Me to Wear a Suit


G) I Had to Smell Rotten Eggs All Day

I would still be compelled to pounce on that job opportunity before it slipped away to any other desperate sucker with a degree.

This occurred to me while I was studying Photojournalism at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, 2007-2008.  In the short-sightedness of my youth, I had taken loans for two full semesters and one condensed half semester.  I was already committed to over $18,000 of debt.  AIP was grooming me less toward creative documentary photography and more toward advertising.  AIP had lied to me about its accreditation.  I lost my faith in the institution, I lost my faith in the field (seeing so many trained photographers snapping shots in stadiums and wedding halls, which interested me none), and I lost my faith in secondary education.  I certainly lost my faith in paying for it.

Having always been a part of the job market since age 16, I had the job references and the obvious ability and motivation to work.  I decided to become increasingly selective about the job opportunities I took, requiring myself to either truly enjoy the work or at least feel like I was moving toward stability.  It was difficult for a while, with my loans looming over me; they still are, yet now I keep up with the payments.

Over the past three years since I withdrew from secondary education, I have worked as:

* Teachers’ assistant in a youths’ photography studio and lab
* Short-order cook
* Barista and waitress
* Gainfully unemployed
* Bicycle mechanic instructor
* Writer/editor, Memoir assistant and technical assistant

And I have studied, choosing my own instructors and settings and subjects:

* Herbal and nutritional medicine preparation and use
* Wild food and wild medicinal plant identification
* Horticulture, including permaculture and container gardening
* Plumbing, electrical, carpentry and masonry
* Bicycle Mechanics
* Bead working and jewelry making
* Photography
* etc. etc.

I may return to a focus in photography and journalism.  For now, the necessity of nurturing diverse skills in a diverse economy has suited me, happily!  I believe that, if I had continued the academic program I had begun, I would be in a much different position.  I could not afford my own apartment.  I may not have had the time to learn enough bike mechanics to become an instructor.   Certainly, I would not have been able to spend one year unemployed, practicing home repair and gardening, all in order to become more self-sufficient.  And I wouldn’t be starting a jewelry-making business with my mother!

As a young person motivated to always learn more, with a picture in my mind of the person I want to be, with the capacity to teach myself and find teachers in the friends and books and communities around me, I believe I have sculpted my life into my own personal university – one that may be more perfect for me than any institution.

– Alicia

21st Century Woman