On Monday, presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled her plan to completely eliminate student debt and make college free.
It’s a terrible, financially infeasible idea, which is something that has been pointed out many times over by the more economically literate among us. So, I’d like to ask a different question instead: How did we get here in the first place? How is it that so many young people do have so much debt?
My answer: They were encouraged to take out loans that they could not afford in the first place. They should have known that they didn’t stand a chance of paying these loans back, but because our culture told them that they should anyway, they did — and that’s wrong.
For some reason, our culture is one that preaches that furthering your education is something that is always worth the price tag, and the truth is, that simply isn’t the case.
I know this from experience.
At the end of my senior year of college — which, by the way, I funded mostly through the combination of a modest loan, working, and busting my ass hard enough to earn a full-tuition scholarship, with only a little bit of help from my parents for the first semester only — I found out that I had been accepted into Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism. The only Ivy League journalism school in the nation! To say I was elated would be an understatement. It had been my goal since childhood to attend this exact school, and I could not believe that I had actually been accepted.
Obviously, I was going to attend. This, after all, was a literal dream come true, and my family and friends could not have been more proud of me. I enrolled immediately. I was all smiles as I attended the Open House in New York City with my father, even splurging on my very own Columbia Lions zip-up sweatshirt.
Everything was coming together. I had a fellowship to pay for me to complete a summer internship at Fox News in Los Angeles, and then, after the summer was over, was going to move to my dream city to attend my dream school. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.
That is, until, I thought more about the price tag.
See, I wasn’t really in a financial position to attend Columbia. In fact, in order to do so, I would have had to take out a whopping $80,000 worth of loans. I agonized over this number; it kept me up at night. With the help of discussing it with a few people I trusted, I ultimately decided that I could not afford to attend and withdrew my enrollment.
When I told most people about my decision, they looked at me like I was crazy. I had been accepted into an Ivy League graduate school, and I wasn’t going. What, was I some kind of idiot? How else was I going to ever have my dream job of working in television news without the proper education, and why would I ever turn down what is widely recognized as the best education in that field that our country had to offer?
These people meant well, but they were giving me some really stupid advice.
See, when I decided I wasn’t going to go to Columbia, I was not deciding that I wasn’t going to work in television news. No — I just decided I was going to do it a different way. After my internship at Fox News ended, I secured another one at KFI in Burbank, eventually being offered an (albeit low-paying) job as a traffic reporter. During that time, I worked first as a Boston Market cashier (I will never miss cleaning those bathrooms) and then as a waitress to pay the bills.
There’s no other way to say this: I worked my ass off. With two jobs and an internship, I went months without a single day off. Several days per week, I was waking up at 4 a.m., going to my traffic-reporting job, then going straight from there to my internship at KFI, and then finally, to my job as the closing-shift waitress at a local diner.
I’m not going to lie, it was hard. The only apartment I could afford was so run down that you could easily jimmy the front door to the “lobby” (read: a dirty hallway with no doorman or other security) with a credit card, so poorly maintained that the water would often not run without warning, and so dirty that I once had fleas and scabies during the same week. I slept on a yoga mat for many of those months because I couldn’t afford a bed and was very grateful to eventually upgrade to a couch after a new friend gave me an old one that he didn’t want anymore.
As hard as it was, though, it was also the smartest decision that I ever made. My broadcast experience as a traffic reporter allowed me to be invited as a guest on the radio station at the Washington Times where I later worked, which led to additional opportunities, which eventually led to television, and do you know what? That traffic-reporting job would not have been one I would have been able to afford to take if I had been saddled with that $80,000 in debt.
Attending Columbia had always been my dream, but the truth is, my decision not to go wound up opening the door to things that would have, in the past, seemed too big to even be worth dreaming about. If I had attended, I never would have been in the financial position to accept the kind of entry-level positions that got me my start in journalism and commentary, and I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now.
I understand that this can be a sensitive subject, but I think it’s too important to avoid discussing it just because it’s uncomfortable. I know it can be difficult to try and achieve your dreams when you don’t have the same advantages as some other people may have, but this is a country full of opportunity where amazing things can happen, if you are willing to hustle and be smart about it. The bottom line is, it is just flat-out wrong to advise people that more formal education is always the answer, especially when it’s so expensive — but that’s exactly what our current culture has consistently been doing.
Please understand that I am not saying that college, or even graduate school, is a bad idea. There is value in education, but, as we do with anything else, we should start being careful to weigh that value with the price tag that’s attached to it.