Friday, June 13, 2014

Thoughts On Higher Education

Would you care to guess how many different schools I have attended since high school? Twelve. This includes both two and four-year programs, accredited and not, as well as vocational and specialized training programs. I have an associate's degree from a community college, an unaccredited bachelor's degree in Contemporary Spirituality, an accredited bachelor's degree in Humanities (the most specific major I could come up with when I put together all my earned credits from 5 other colleges/universities), a certificate in Nutrition, Bodycare, and Herbalism, and certification as a Life-Cycle Celebrant. I am currently a student at One Spirit Interfaith Seminary and I will be ordained as an Interfaith/Interspiritual Minister in June 2015.

You may be wondering why I'm telling you this, and I've probably already lost half of the four people who started reading this post to begin with. (Kudos to the two of you still reading.) I've been thinking a lot about the value of higher education. I only just received my accredited bachelor's degree a year and a half ago at the age of 36. I have friends in their late 30s and early 40s struggling with whether or not to go back to school for a degree. I watch brilliant, successful women struggle with their worth because of their lack of a piece of paper that society tells us is so important. I also watch friends with teenagers struggle with helping their kids make decisions about their futures that I don't believe most teenagers are even close to being able to make. I've watched the cost of attending college increase by 2 and a half times the rate of inflation in this country. I have friends whose every major decision in life seems to be influenced by the fact that they are strapped with student loan payments of multiple hundreds of dollars every month. And recently, my husband who has no more than a technologically outdated associate's degree and a couple of years of liberal arts courses got a promotion at work, where he is happy and thriving and making more per hour than I ever have.

I come from a family where there is a huge emphasis on higher education. Almost all of the cousins I grew up with have a minimum of a master's degree, and many are now teachers. My sister also has a master's degree and works in a specialized field within public and private schools. Simply by association, I have felt the pressure to conform, to get the pieces of paper that say I'm good enough. And although I consider myself to be pretty intelligent and I love learning, even in the context of traditional academia, I don't jump through hoops well, nor am I good at conforming to the expectations of others or what I perceive to be artificially constructed hierarchical systems of accreditation and approval. In recent years, my struggle to try to fit into somebody else's box has been excruciating.

The whole point of officially getting my accredited bachelor's degree was because after many years of fighting it or ignoring it, I decided to say "yes" to the call to ministry that I have heard my entire life. I believed the only way to do that was to affiliate with a particular denomination (pick a box) and get a Master of Divinity (M.Div). This degree is the equivalent of about two to three masters of arts degrees combined, costs $60,000 to $100,000, and from the tales I've heard from people who have gone through it (and experiences I've had with ministers who have earned their "proper" credentials), doesn't do a whole hell of a lot to prepare people for actual ministry. When I look back at my time as a young adult attending retreats and conferences with other Unitarian Universalist young adults back in the day, I realize that the most lackluster worship experiences were those led by seminarians. When I finally allowed myself to think outside the box, my life opened up in ways I never would have dreamed. I am now mid-way through a ministerial training program that is taking me on a growth journey I never could have anticipated, and is preparing me better or as well for true ministry as I can imagine anything possibly could. And I will finish this program having accumulated no debt, and paying only a tiny fraction of what that golden M.Div would have cost me.

Now, I am not opposed to higher education. In fact, all of my college experiences were important in their own ways--some because of what I learned in the classroom, some because of the relationships I formed, others because of all the learning that happened outside the classroom. I do believe that a liberal arts education is incredibly valuable. It opens people's minds and exposes them to new ways of thinking and learning and seeing the world. This is not the kind of value that has a dollar sign attached to it. Higher education is also important for people who have very specific career aspirations. My sister is a Speech and Language Pathologist, a profession which requires a master's for certification and licensure. She knew what she wanted to be, she did what she had to do, and I'm super proud of her. My brother, on the other hand, struggled through a BA in philosophy from an expensive private liberal arts college. Believe me, I think everyone should study philosophy. But I'll never forget the little cartoon hanging on the wall of one of my favorite professors. The cartoon read, "Careers in philosophy:" with a picture of a stick figure in a graduation cap pushing a janitor's broom. My brother went on to learn to fly airplanes and is now a pilot. I'm also super proud of him. The most professionally valuable educational experience and credential I have earned to date is my certification as a Life-Cycle Celebrant. A Specialized 6 month program that cost about $2,200 total.

So here's what I have to say about higher education for anyone who cares what my opinion is on the subject. College degrees in this day and age are over priced and overrated. Not everyone needs a college degree, and a college degree does not guarantee you a better life or more income in your lifetime. Community colleges are under valued and under utilized. I'm all for kids spending a few years after high school exploring their interests, taking some classes in a variety of subjects, and getting a little life experience under their belts before saddling themselves or their parents with crippling student loan debt for a degree that may or may not amount to much financial value. Non-traditional forms of education are also seriously under utilized and underrated. We need more creative thinkers and people who are finding that sweet spot between what the world needs and what makes their heart sing. We also need people to do the jobs that don't require degrees, jobs that require intelligence and talent and a good personality, but are jobs that people with degrees think themselves to be above doing. We even need people to do the jobs that require little intelligence or training, but they require time and effort, and we should pay people well for their time and effort. To receive specialized training for something you love and are good at is an awesome thing. Think outside the box. Listen to what your heart is telling you, if you can, over the roar of what society tells you you need to do to have worth. Do some research, think for yourself, and challenge systems of authority.

If education were free in this country (as it is in, for example, the Scandinavian countries), I'd say everyone should get a college education. But just like healthcare in this country, it's turned into quite the racket, keeping Americans bogged down in debt, nose to the grindstone. Because God forbid we weren't strapped with debt, had time to think about what matters most to us and the world, and had time and energy to do something about it.