Was it Worth it?

McKenzie Neckar, Author

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College. A place to grow and learn. A pretty simple definition from afar. But, when you’re running right in the middle of it, it’s not that simple. Before you even start the marathon of college, you start to ask yourself some questions. What college do I go to? What do I study? Should I even go? Once you take some time to answer the questions, you get the starting line. It’s just you, standing at the start, waiting for the gun to go off. You think to yourself “I’ve trained for this.” You graduated high school, you researched colleges, majors and career choices. But are you really ready for this? Before you can answer the gun goes off and you have to start running. Roommates, late night study sessions, maybe a few hungover classes pass by. You’re doing it. You’re in the middle of the marathon of college. You keep running. Ramen Noodles, internships, finals and finally you can see the end. Four (if you’re lucky) long years of running later, you reach the end. Graduation. You’re feeling accomplished and, maybe after the first long night of sleep in months, you’re feeling energized. Ready to jump into your career with diploma in hand. Everything’s coming up roses until the first bill is dropped into your hands. Time to pay back your student loans. You open your eyes and without even realizing it, you’re sitting at a cubicle sending emails and answering phone calls with your environmental science degree gathering dust. You sit back in your chair, sigh loud enough for the person in the cubicle next to you to hear and think to yourself “was it worth it?”

This situation isn’t just a hypothetical. It happens to thousands of college graduates every year. They pick a major that interests them not necessarily thinking of where that degree will take them after college. Or, they graduate expecting to find a job within their major but without having any experience in that field, they are left to find another job in hopes of finding enough security to pay off their student loans.

There aren’t only stories of failure though. There are some graduates that keep running after the marathon of college. Because of internships or glowing GPAs and letters of recommendation, they are able to find a career within their degree almost immediately. But sometimes this leads to needing more school, degrees and overall time and money.

So, once they reach that long awaited finish line, college graduates find themselves asking, “was it worth it?”

 

Name: Robby Roewer

School(s) Attended/Graduated From: McHenry County College, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Area of Study: Business Administration and Management

Student Loan Debt: $87,000

Current Job: Sales Representative for Holland Roofing

 

Roewer sits at his sales job while dreams of using his degree are pushed to the wayside. Trying to stay afloat, he doubts he’ll ever use his degree.

 

After graduating from Woodstock High School, Roewer decided he wasn’t ready to make the big jump to a four year university. He settled on attending McHenry County College for a year to build up his GPA and cumulate a few college course credits. This plan was Roewer’s best option considering he had not decided his major yet and he qualified for The McHenry County College Promise Program. This program gives new high school graduates the opportunity for free tuition if they attend MCC full time, maintain above a 2.0 GPA and complete a minimum of 32 volunteer service hours per year. For the first year of his college career, Roewer lived debt free.

“It was the perfect situation,” said Roewer. “I lived with my parents and went to school for free, I wish I realized how perfect it was back then.”

After a year of saving up money from a part time job and finishing 25 college credit hours, he made the choice to take the leap. He started attending University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Roewer enjoyed going to his business administration classes and found his studies interesting. He even made some new friends on campus but, he found himself coming home almost every weekend to spend time with his lifelong friends and girlfriend, now wife, Sara. Because of the lack of time he spent on campus, the larger opportunities to network within his major dwindled.

“Sometimes I wish I would have spent more time [on campus],” Roewer said. “But obviously it worked out for me because now I have my own family, I may not have gotten that if I stayed at school.”

A year after he started attending UWW, a friend asked if he was interested in an internship at a software company. Knowing a paid internship doesn’t come around very often, he decided to jump on the opportunity, even though it had nothing to do with the major he was studying at the time. He interned there for the rest of his college experience.

After graduating with his Bachelor’s degree, finding a job was the easy part. He was given an opportunity to work at Holland Roofing as a sales representative because of the knowledge he had from interning at the software company throughout college.

The hard part was paying off his student loans. Even though he went to MCC for his first year for free and only attended UWW for 3 years, he had accumulated over $87,000 in student loan debt. Believing he had a well paying job for someone who had just graduated college, he and Sara decided to move in together. Sara, who only attended MCC for one year, was not making enough money to support herself. Roewer quickly had to become the breadwinner. Adding on his student loan payments became impossible. He went to his parents with his tail between his legs and asked for some help. His parents kindly took some of the debt load off of Roewer’s back and started paying half of his student loan bill every month.

“Honestly, I don’t know where I would be if my parents weren’t helping me out,”
Roewer said. “[Sara and I] would be drowning.”

Since getting married last summer, the Roewer’s have been desperate to start a family. But ending up with only $100 between the both of them before payday, having a child at this point would put them too far under. Adding together a home, student loan debt and a baby is an equation that the Roewer’s can’t seem to find the answer to.

“I look at my friends who just got their associate degree and they are doing just as well as me or even better,” said Roewer.

Sara also had some options on graduating from a four year university. Although she did not graduate with a degree, she has some thoughts on college and student loan debt from watching her husband struggle from the sidelines.

“Sometimes I wish I had graduated from a 4 year college,” Sara said. “But I look at [Robby’s] situation and I’m glad I didn’t. At this point in my life, my experience is more important than a degree.”

For the Roewer family, the student debt is weighing heavier than the degree or the college experience.

Was it worth it?: No.

 

Name: Jackson Stark

Graduated From: University of Illinois

Area of Study: Molecular and Cellular Biology

Student Loan Debt: $50,000

Current Job: Bartender

 

Stark spotted this uplifting sign while on a hike in Los Angeles. He states that this sign sparked a conversation on going back to school to get his nursing degree.

 

Leaving Marengo High School, a school with a total enrollment under 1,000 students, Stark knew he wanted to go somewhere big. He was attracted to the idea of meeting someone new everyday. His older brother was attending the University of Illinois for a business degree and after visiting him for the first time, Stark knew. University of Illinois, with an enrollment size exceeding 44,000, was the perfect place to feel like a small fish in a big pond.

Stark had always been interested in the health world and decided to study molecular and cellular biology in hopes to find a career as a nurse. He found a passion in science and loved learning something new about the life around him everyday. Unlike some, he actually enjoyed his anatomy classes, pulling apart bodies to see what hides underneath and sometimes spending over six hours in the lab at a time.

Along with enjoying himself within his classes, he found a new freedom being an individual in such a large place, a huge contrast from what he grew up with. He attended football games and weekly parties with his friends. Like most college students, the party to money balance was not balanced at all. To make some “fun money”, he bartended on the weekends. Because of his bubbly personality, he quickly became a favorite with the regulars and went from making “fun money”, to making some serious bank.

“I was walking out of work every night with $600 cash,” said Stark. “I was having fun and making money, it’s every college students dream.”

Even with the long hours he was working every weekend, Stark kept up with studies and graduated in 4 years with all honors.

At this point, Stark was unsure if he wanted to go to graduate school for a nursing degree or try to find an internship within his major. Because of his high amount of student loans, he decided to try to find an internship. Many of his friends had received job offers in the city of Chicago so, Stark asked if he could room with them until he could find an opportunity that would suit him.

After a few weeks of scrolling though internships online and seeing his student loan payments in sight, Stark knew he would have to find something temporary (or so he thought). He had heard through his roomates that the restaurant in the Trump Tower was hiring a bartender. Having four years of experience, he thought he might have a shot at a really great opportunity. He applied, he interviewed and he was hired.

“I was unsure with what my future would look like,” Stark said. “I went back to what I knew.”

He knew how to be a great bartender so, that’s what he did. With the big names and big wallets that came into the Trump Tower, Stark quickly realized how much money he would be making just doing what he knew. He was raking in twice as much as he did at his college bar. And that was just on the weekdays. Realizing that doing something that came naturally to him was making him a living, he pushed his future as a nurse to the side.

“I kept telling myself that I would be able to go back to school in the future,” Stark said. “I couldn’t justify leaving something so perfect for something so uncertain.”

Years later, now living in downtown Los Angeles with his boyfriend, Stark still makes his living serving drinks. But now, instead of serving uppity Chicago businessmen, he serves actors, musical artists, and celebrities. As you might assume, he’s making more now than he could ever had imagined as a bartender in Champaign, Illinois. He is easily paying off his student loans and living a lavish life in one of the priciest cities in America.

But it isn’t the dream he was hoping for.

Because of the lengthy hours at work and having to have open availability, Stark hasn’t found the opportunity to go back to school. His degree in molecular and cellular biology hangs in his house, untouched.

“I wish I could go back to when I graduated and tell myself ‘Don’t be scared of what you’re unsure of, just do it anyway,’” said Stark.

He and his boyfriend have been discussing moving back to Chicago, where their money might take them further. Stark then plans to go back to school for a nursing degree and bartend on the side. He hopes that he won’t be bartending in three years and instead be working in the medical field full time.

“I’m still young but these looks won’t last me forever” Stark said with a laugh. “Bartending isn’t my career, it’s just my stepping stone.”

Was it worth it?: Yes.

 

Name: Ellie Samin

School(s) Attended/ Graduated From: University of Missouri, Southern Illinois University

Area of Study: Marketing

Student Loan Debt: Over $100,000

Current Job: Sales Associate at Pier 1 Imports, Intern at Macon Raine, Inc.

 

Samin had her heart set on attending University of Missouri all throughout high school. She believed that “Mizzou” was her dream school. She had friends from high school that also decided to attend and Samin had daydreams of tailgating and fraternity parties.

It wasn’t soon after her first semester started that Samin figured out that going to college with her high school friends just meant that it was a larger version of high school. Unnecessary drama and childish rumors started circulating around Samin’s head. Samin started struggling with depression and stints of homesickness. She started missing classes, quickly leading to failing.

“I didn’t want to leave my dorm,” said Samin. “I knew how much money and time I was wasting but I still couldn’t get out of bed and get to class.”

Samin only passed 2 classes that year.

After dealing with high school 2.0, she made the decision to attend college somewhere else. She transferred Southern Illinois University in hopes of an easier path to graduation. Even though being almost a years worth of credits behind, Samin felt optimistic.

With drama behind her, she found it easier to go to classes and started enjoying her college experience. She had finally found the college that she had dreamed about. Tailgating, bar hopping, new friendships. But none of this dream was free. She began to notice her wallet running on empty. She started falling behind on her rent and car payments. Needing a quick fix, Samin picked up a part-time job at Pier 1 Imports, working a few days a week. As her wallet slowly filled, her time quickly diminished. She was realizing that just working a part-time job wasn’t cutting it. She starting pulling out more money from her student loans, just to keep her head above water.

“I had nowhere else to go,” Samin said. “I knew it would f-ck me over in the long-run, but I had to do what I had to do.”

After five years of balancing her part-time job, catching up in school and pulling from student loans, Samin graduated from SIU with a Marketing degree. Seeing the starting line of student loan payments coming her way, she had no other choice but to move back in with her parents.

“I had to come to my parents with puppy eyes and hope they would feel bad enough for me and take me back in.” said Samin.

Realizing that her part-time sales associate job wouldn’t make a dent in the overwhelming student loan debt she would soon be facing, Samin starting looking for a job within her field of marketing. The panic began to set in when she noticed all of the job postings had “1-3 years experience” under the requirements.

She settled at looking for internships hoping to find one that paid. She found an opportunity with Macon Raine, Inc., a marketing agency based out of Downers Grove. Blinded by the fact she had found a paying internship, she was stunned to realized she was only going to be making $4 more than she was currently making at her sales associate job. She knew she wouldn’t just be able to face the student loan debt with just the internship having her back. She would have to do both.

Having only three months of grace period, the time you have between finishing school and the start of repaying your student loans, she began saving money from both of her jobs. She was hoping to save enough to pay her student loan payments and have the flexibility to move out of her parents house and into her own apartment. The pipe dream fell short when she got her first student loan bill. $837. Ouch. That amount completely wiped out one months worth of paychecks at her sales associate job and still had to pull from her internship paychecks. There was no way to live on her own knowing the student loan debt was hovering over her.

Now, a year later, Samin is still living at home. Still working as a sales associate and interning at the marketing firm. She is looking for a secure job within her major, but with only one year of experience written on her resume, she is being pushed to the side. Samin has hopes of moving out with her boyfriend soon, but being a college graduate himself, is also suffering from his overwhelming student loans. She is losing hope of being independent.

“Sometimes I wonder where I would be if I had gotten my name out earlier or taken college more seriously,” Samin said. “Sometimes I wake up and think to myself ‘you wasted a hundred grand on the college experience.’”

She’s paying for it now.

Was it worth it: No(t yet).

 

It might be obvious that it’s not only are these three people who are struggling to survive after college ends and the student loans bills begin. But how often does it happen? Is it possible that all college graduates are struggling? The people stated here are only three of the 44.2 million college graduates working towards paying off their student debt. When combining all student loan debt, there is over $1.31 trillion owed. Yes, trillion.

Student Loan Debt Chart – Sheet1

But it’s not all bad news. There are many college graduates that walk out with very little debt. In fact, according to Trends in Higher Education, 30% of college students who have graduated with their bachelors degree, walk out with no debt at all. Colleges give students a great deal of opportunities for grants and scholarships. It’s honestly just a matter of asking.

After all of that, is it finally time to say if it’s worth it? Is it worth it to train for the marathon of college, just to finish and have to start another marathon? It’s up to you.

Every experience is going to be different. There’s a good possibility that if you start the marathon of college, network yourself and work as hard as you can to get what you want, it’s likely that you’ll finish the marathon with many opportunities being thrown your way. On the other hand, sometimes life just pulls you in a different direction and the degree that you have might become unnecessary, making all of that running a waste of time. But, the only way you’ll ever find out is if you lace up your shoes and do it. Even if life pulls you way left after you finish, the experiences that you gained might make life after college easier. It’s up to you to make sure your marathon of college prepares you for your life after.

So, make it worth it.