The Value of an Education

When I was younger, I went to a university but dropped out due to mental health struggles. I never finished my degree and it was a sore subject for a very long time. I wanted to go to college so badly so when it didn’t work out, I felt like a complete failure. 

In my early thirties, my mental health was a little more stable and I enrolled in a community college. I eventually graduated with an associate’s degree in commercial art. I was never really great at school but the commercial art program was very hands-on; everything I learned was very practical and I actually did really well. I enjoyed my time there. 

But it still wasn’t a four-year degree.

For the longest time, I said one day I’ll go back – even as I got older. That would be nearly impossible with the amount of student loan debt I have, not to mention my other responsibilities – taking care of my daughter and paying bills. Still, I wanted to go back to college…one day.

But something’s changed. For the past few years, I have been able to pursue the things I love – art and writing. I also have a part-time job working in the arts and mental health. It’s perfect. It is right where I need to be, and for once, I don’t want to go back to school. I’m happy where I am.

When I think about college now, I don’t think it would be worth the money. I’ve gotten lots of opportunities without it and I’m fulfilled. Don’t get me wrong – I would be very proud had I finished a degree when I was younger, but it doesn’t seem to matter to me anymore. Is that wrong?

I’m not going to lie – sometimes I feel guilty for not wanting to go back to school. It was something that was expected of me and I didn’t follow through. Shouldn’t I want to finish? Obviously, it’s not impossible or unheard of for someone in their forties to return to college; I just don’t want to. It’s no longer important to me. 

I certainly don’t regret the time I spent at the university. I found a few classes really interesting and some of the things I learned have really stuck with me, but I wonder if I could’ve gotten the same experience elsewhere. Was it really worth the boatload of debt I’m in now?

Can anyone relate? Is a degree really worth it? No matter what path you took in education, if you could go back in time, would you do the same thing? Is there a better way?

Most jobs that actually pay a livable wage require a four-year degree, but if that wasn’t the case, would a college education really be worth it? In many ways, we pay a hefty price to go to school, would a degree still have value? What about the value of the college experience? Maybe it’s a rite of passage that needs to be challenged. 



    Working backwards: a rite of passage is wherever you find it. Don’t sweat a path not followed if you find growth elsewhere. Many people I have known regret the time and money spent on college. People like to create with their hands in conjunction with their minds; art and construction both do this, as do many other paths. Expectations drilled into us when we were growing are a different problem. They are hard to leave behind. As one approach, ask your parents, especially if they are no longer living, and you may find a path to absolve that guilt. You have done well – accept it.

  2. anat says

    Is there a field you are interested in studying for whatever reason? You can take free online courses (as long as you don’t care about having a formal qualification). And if there is a college of some kind near your home you can just show up for some classes (at least the introductory ones) and sit in the auditorium with everyone else. You won’t be able to do any practicals or labs like that, but definitely attend lectures. That’s one of the things I’m considering to do in retirement.

  3. antaresrichard says

    When looking back on my life’s impact, there is a line of dialogue, I have always liked, my atheism aside. It’s an exchange from the play and film, ‘A Man for All Seasons’ which takes place between the characters of Sir Thomas More, a member of the privy council, and Richard Rich. Rich, desperate for a position at Court, desires More’s conferment. More’s advice nevertheless, is thus:
    “MORE Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher. Perhaps even a great
    RICH And if I was, who would know it?
    MORE You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that . . ,”
    Oddly, whenever I struggle with self acceptance or seek to access my worth, this interchange inevitably comes back to mind, helping me to refocus my priorities, my importance, my accomplishments, and utilization of whatever abilities I may possess, great or small, to the benefit of others, be my circle wide-ranging or immediate, concentrating them instead on that which I feel, in the name of love, really matters.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    I suggest there’s a difference between education and training. And arguably, although I hold an honours degree accredited by my professional institution, I would suggest that my “education”, as such, stopped at age 16. It was at that point I was able to entirely drop previously compulsory subjects that didn’t directly apply to my chosen career path (e.g. Latin, French, English Literature). From then on, I was only spending time learning about things that would help me get a job. Is that “education”? Perhaps not. I have a working class chip on my shoulder about the fact that, to me, pursuing an education that would get me a particular professional career was not a choice, it was a necessity. Even when I was young, and going to university was not only free but supported with a maintenance grant, the concept of spending three or more years studying something just because it interested me would have seem wildly irresponsible.
    This translated into a visceral and persistent dislike of those people who felt they could make that choice, people who did degrees with the word “studies” in the title. People who studied bullshit like “History of Art”, that make an interesting hobby but is of actual use to practically nobody, and certainly nobody of my economic and cultural background. People who obviously didn’t feel the need to think particularly hard about how they were going to make living after they graduated. People who had the time available to them to do things like organise protests or get involved in student politics. Rich, entitled parasites, as I saw them.
    In a utopia, everyone should have the time to study what truly interests them to whatever level they can reach. Sadly, capitalism requires we provide value to the capital class, or starve. I’m lucky – I was able to secure and pass the training required to do so. Given a choice, I think I’d prefer to have done one of those “studies” subjects, or History of Art even. What I’ve learned of those things since, in my spare time, has made me a better, more rounded person than the training I got at university. I don’t feel the need for the validation a qualification would give me, but I can’t claim the authority I’d have if I did. Do I need it? Not really.
    Conclusion: unless you need the authority that having the qualification would give you, the choice to not pursue a structured course of study and examination in any subject is perfectly valid. Learn what you like, when you like.

  5. maggie says

    Can relate totally. I didn’t finish my degree and went to community college instead. I worked for about 3 months in the work that my CC certificate qualified me for and then left for much greener pastures. For a while I wanted to go back to university but never did and I must say that I have no regrets at all. I always had a good job that paid well and every time I felt stagnated, I changed jobs. Degree or trade? Hmmmm? If I ever did have to do it again, I would not bother with university but would go into skilled trades.

  6. Jerome says

    If you think it would bring you joy and you have disposable income, then go for it: study something and maybe pursue a degree. But there’s certainly no reason to feel any shame or anything like that in not having one; my life goal was to have my PhD, yet the moment I got it, I felt no different, and no magical transformation into a state of contentedness occurred. All dissatisfactions that existed before remained. So I can wholeheartedly say that any joy from completing a degree can only come from enjoying the journey, and that the destination will give you nothing.

    As for money, you’d be absolutely shocked at how little even STEM postdocs make. Barely enough to keep the lights on in today’s economy. Non-tenured professors are little better, and entry/mid-level industry positions aren’t as lucrative as many think. If someone’s desire is maximizing dollar earned per year of education, various trade schools and apprenticeships make comfy money in a very short amount of time. You can make straight out of high school what a recently graduated PhD scientist makes! The point being: college degrees are lucrative if you can get out without much debt, but their value is decreasing at a rate so fast it’ll blow your doors off. Society can’t function without these high-level degrees (in STEM especially), but the return on their investment is falling so quickly I worry for the future.

  7. billseymour says

    I was a horrible student; and I flunked out of Antioch College, which isn’t easy. 😎

    Like you, my highest educational credential is an associate degree, in my case, in electronic technology from a proprietary technical school.  Also like you, it was something that I was interested in.

    I was fortunate to get a job right out of tech. school at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh where I designed and built an EKG machine with a microprocessor in it (implementing my boss’ PhD thesis in a more practical way).  This was back in the ’70s when large scale integrated circuits were a brand new thing.

    My boss basically left me alone and permitted me to achieve whatever I could.  This was probably the best job I’ve ever had; and it was in that job that I discovered the joy of coding which would eventually become my ultimate vocation.

    My final job was as a programmer for the U.S. Postal Service where I worked for 31 years making a pretty good salary.  I’m fortunate, now that I’m retired, to be able to afford a good bit of travel if I don’t try to afford other stuff that I don’t really want that much anyway.

    So, although I get sonofrojblake’s point @4, I offer myself as another data point to suggest that “follow your dreams” works, too.

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