Questioning the real worth of college

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

I haven’t graduated from college just yet, but the stories told in the Inquirer’s series “Struggling for Work: The Broken Dreams of a New Generation” have overwhelmed me.

According to the series, students in Pennsylvania carry an average debt of more than $28,000 by graduation.

I am now facing outstanding student loans of $17,000 to $22,000, and counting. I have six classes remaining – a total of 19 credits — to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Temple University’s School of Communications.

For the 2012 spring semester, I was forced to take a leave of absence because I could not pay off the bill from the previous semester – a total of $8,000.

My financial aid package had been reviewed several times, and my family couldn’t take out any more loans. So I could not pay the bill, nor could I take classes. I applied for internships at the Philadelphia Public School Notebook and South Philly Review, landing both. And I’m glad that I did. I learned a lot, and I gained real working experience, real-world experience, and writing samples that undoubtedly will help me when I start my job search.

As I work on the financial piece, I wonder whether college is really worth it.

The Notebook’s summer edition focuses on a broken pipeline to college and raises the question of whether students think college is still valuable. As an intern, I met several college-going advocates who argued that college is worth the cost. Even with drastic cuts to financial aid and funding for public education, they still believe that going to college is the smart choice in the long run.

But like many students who are also struggling financially, I still question whether college is the right choice.

I know college is important. A degree verifies that someone has a learned a basic set of skills and has a general knowledge of what they are studying. Getting a college degree is something that I always wanted to do, so I started early on a path to postsecondary success.

I participated in an academic enrichment program in 7th grade, and that led me toward a private, tuition-based high school in Boston with small classes and a dual-enrollment requirement for juniors and seniors to attend Boston University for college coursework.

I was ahead of the game and excited by my educational track. I entered Temple with 41 credits and college experience. The plan was to graduate early, but that got derailed when I hit the financial hurdle.

At this point, I wonder whether my work experience and collection of writing samples are at least equivalent to a college degree, or enough to find a decent job or continue to intern somewhere that might offer me a job.

But then I think back to the Inquirer series, which indicates that the unemployment rate for workers between ages 16 and 24 is 16.4 percent – double the national all-ages rate. That’s a total of about 3.5 million young people.

If I had a choice and the money, I would finish college — not because I am confident that my degree will offer me hundreds of opportunities, but because it seems like the right thing to do.

But I stilll haven’t paid off last semester’s bill, so I don’t know whether I will be taking classes in the fall. Even if I do pay off the bill before September, there’s a chance that the six classes I have left to take will be full, postponing my graduation even longer.

So back to my question: Is college really worth it?

I’m still trying to decide.