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

AND

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

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3 Comments to “Choosing Higher Education: Institution or Ingenuity?”

  1. I was not a fan of schoolwork or educational instruction as I had experienced it by high school, so I dropped out. I tried college, but was so impatient to get out in the world and DO something I cared about that I saw studying things that were not immediately practical as a waste of time. I worked in reproductive health clinics and loved it, but eventually I realized I’d never be allowed to run one without a degree and I became disheartened. I painted houses, which I liked, but it wasn’t working with people.
    It wasn’t until I found out about massage therapy that I perked up about school, actually finishing a course of study. Here was something I could do on my own schedule, a real career which allowed me to combine working with people and with my hands, and it was immediately useful to society. I’m a big fan of trade schools because they prepare one for actual work.
    I did go back and get my Associates degree (apparently I was on the 20 year plan), and I have discovered that I enjoy theory, scholarship, good instruction on any subject, have diverse interests and the ability to learn in many areas that in my teens and 20s I would never have imagined caring about. But I had to zig and zag as I did. The direct route was unavailable to me because the educational system I was placed in seemed to me to be a road heading nowhere I wanted to go, with no roses along the way.
    Some of us have to customize our educations to learn what we need to know. I think that’s because what we need to learn is who we are, and what we would contribute in the world that is unique; we can’t find that knowledge on a track of any kind. It is dicier in the short run, but I can see you are finding your route to be satisfying and rewarding. I applaud you for having the guts to blaze your own trail.

    • It is good to know how you see yourself and how you have seen your development over time. You and I did not always agree on things and Mom was very effective in keeping us separated or apart when we saw things, in your younger years, very differently and when I was pretty intolerant of you as you made your way into successful maturity.

      • I’m pleased that you think I’ve made it successfully into maturity — there was a long while that the jury was out on that one — and I do value your opinion. You seem to have turned out pretty well yourself!

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