The Price of Learning

Today was my first day of school.

I have been in the Navy for the past five years, a decision I made after totally screwing up my first attempt at college. I don’t regret those five years, although I very much looked forward to my transition back into civilian life. I deployed twice while I was in, and I got to travel to 11 different countries, some of them more than once. Those will always be some of my favorite memories and best stories.

But this was what it was for, the moment when I took my GI Bill and returned to school, this time with a goal and a lot more discipline.

What I find interesting about our country is our attitude about college. Long gone are the days when going to college really set an individual apart. Long gone are the days when financing this endeavor might be difficult but not to the point of being ruinous. Long gone are the days when seeking higher education was considered the product of hard work and dedication to studies.

I’m not saying that getting into certain universities is easy, or that there aren’t students out there striving to give themselves the best opportunities. Nor am I downplaying community colleges as a starting point. I’m attending a community college myself, and I’m happy to be starting this way.

What I am saying is that college seems to have become an expectation.

One of the reasons why my first attempts at college failed so spectacularly is that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. This was on top of the fact that I had zero discipline when it came to schoolwork: I’m more of an interactive individual, and I suffered for not working that into my plans for school.

The thing is, I signed up for college because that was what I was supposed to do. My parents expected it, my teachers lauded it, and by God my “future employers” would demand it. So I did it. My parents spent the money to pay the tuition and buy the books ( because even though I was working and I was going to a cheap school, I couldn’t do it without help ), and off I went. For a little while. And then I just didn’t go anymore. It didn’t engage me.

I was eighteen, like most first-time college students are, and I thought I knew what I wanted to major in, but I had no clue. And that made me a lukewarm student. Paired with my tendencies to procrastinate, I was all but destined to fail.

That’s not an unusual story.

The sad thing is, despite this common expectation, America doesn’t seem to be focused on academic excellence. Most people who end up with degrees don’t even end up with jobs that bear any relation to what they studied. And Americans are coming out of school with obscene amounts of debt. Debt which they carry with them as they then start careers and families. Debt which might prevent them from buying a home, and may even hurt them as they search for jobs.

In a country where higher education options seem to be abundant, and where the expectation is that every student will eventually get that degree or else face a future rife with poverty, a degree these days is not a guarantee of success, or even preferential treatment in a job market that is flooded with graduates.

And the way the prices are raising on that education — an education which might not be worth what you’ve paid for it in the end — is starting to get very discouraging.

But what modern, prosperous country exists without a focus on educating its youth? It might seem like we’re encouraging our children to pursue higher education. But we’re not making it worth their while.

An example? My father has worked with his company for 30 years and has on more than a few occasions conducted interviews. And what did he tell me as I rejoined the civilian world? That having a degree won’t get you anywhere if you don’t have leadership experience, or social skills, or some sort of working background.

I’m okay on that front: the Navy has provided me with ample experience in a tough working environment and placed me in several leadership roles.

My military service isn’t only going to pay for my education, it might even be the key factor in me getting hired.

I’m not saying that every person should graduate high school and immediately march down to their friendly neighborhood recruiter. It is not an easy lifestyle and it is increasingly difficult to stay in. It is not for everyone.

However, having some experience between me and school has done wonders for my confidence, my focus and my discipline. These things I can bring to my classroom and are making all the difference even today, on my first day.

I just wish that America would reevaluate its stance on education after high school. I wish that it wasn’t ‘expected,’ but a special thing to continue on in school. We don’t value a college degree the way that our parents did, and certainly not the way our grandparents did, and that is a shame. If this trend doesn’t change, I don’t see a future in which my children and grandchildren can make better lives for themselves, and isn’t that always the goal? To make things better?

But to end this on a positive note: I think having a degree is very important, and I salute all my fellow students and especially all the graduates. My aunt finally finished school and she’s almost 50! Get out there and get those degrees — and hopefully we can demand that those degrees are respected. Because, let’s face it, they’re not cheap and they take a lot of work.

Best of luck to those of you pursuing learning at any and all levels!