I’ve been doing some thinking, or maybe I should say re-thinking, about education and what it means for African Americans. Over the years my views on education have changed drastically and that’s largely due to my own experiences in the world…
When I was growing up my parents used to tell me “go to school and get an education…be somebody in this world.” This was all I heard. In my parents’ view, education was the gateway to a career rather than mediocre jobs. And to be fair, maybe that’s the way things were for members of their generation where Affirmative Action was still a player in the game, the black middle class was growing and buying homes, and access to resources were accessible like never before.
Needless to say this is not the world I walked into as a young adult graduating from college prior to the Great Recession.
It wasn’t until I got to college and the hefty tuition bill came due that they (and I) realized for all their crap about getting an education they never bothered to save for my education. They bought cars, clothes, bikes, and other unnecessary bullshit for themselves and for us (me and my brothers) growing up, but neither of them bothered to think to themselves “Hmm…maybe we should put aside some money so our kids don’t start off at the bottom of the barrel.”
So, what happened?
I graduated from Spelman College with about $35,000 in student loans in my name and was promptly saddled with the $28,000 parent plus loan my dad took out to pay for my freshman year alone. Yes, the asshole I have disowned since December of last year, told me in no uncertain terms that this debt was now my responsibility as well.
Oh and this debt was coupled with $6,000 in credit card debt I foolishly took out while in college. I paid $3,000 for dental work on a credit card and I spent $3,000 for gas, books, and other miscellaneous expenses through college on another credit card. After the recession hit, the interest rate on one credit card jumped from 0% to 28%. The interest rate on the other credit card jumped to 14%.
There I was jobless with $63,000 in student loans walking into the worse economy I’d ever seen. I drowning in credit card debt. But at least I had my bachelor’s degree….right?
I found myself deferring the student loans and moving back into my father’s house in my small rural hometown that I swore off. I made minimum payments on my credit cards and watched powerlessly as those payments went toward nothing but interest.
With nothing to do with my life, and a growing “fuck everything,” attitude I decided to spend my time drinking alcohol and watching women slide up and down a pole at some of Atlanta’s most notorious strip clubs with friends.
But then a something happened…
I woke up one more and found $9,000 in my checking account! Where did this money come from?
When I was 16 years old my mother had a heart attack that put her out of work. She applied for social security and was denied over and over again. A year after I graduated from college she was finally granted her social security, which meant the government had to pay her, me, and my younger brother with interest. I got a $9,000 check one year and an interest payment of $3,000 the next year.
I promptly took that money and paid off my credit card debt. I’m happy to say I haven’t touched another credit card since…and I never will.
With the additional money, and a steady part-time job I took in city government, I decided to go back to school and get my master’s degree.
This time I got smart. The total cost of my master’s degree was somewhere in the ball park of $10,000 at a local state school. I paid for it cash. I worked two part-time jobs while pursuing my master’s degree full-time, which effectively put my federal student loans on hold (and came with the bonus of the government paying the interest). This also came with another perk. I was able to re-apply for the veterans educational benefits I was getting courtesy of my disabled father. This was an additional $900 a month. I collected this money until I graduated from my master’s program.
During this time, I learned the art of investing. I began to throw my money into the stock market, which at this point was still in a shitty state but recovering. I made some money. By the time I moved back to Atlanta for a job opportunity I had $12,000 in savings.
I love books. This isn’t a secret. Most of you who have followed this blog know I was a librarian. My master’s degree is in Library & Information Science. My average salary as a librarian was $48k-50k. Hardly a fortune, but it was enough for me to settle into a small studio apartment and aggressively attack my student loans. However, it wasn’t enough for me to attack the student loans in my name AND those in my daddy’s name. So, one day I called his ass up and I told him, “Look…I’m not paying on that parent plus loan anymore. You better figure something out.”
He and I exchanged words and eventually I hung up on his ass. At this point, I’d been paying on that loan for years and I was only hitting the interest. I said fuck it. So what happened next?
After years of trying to get him to take some type of proactive approach towards the loan and call the student loan company (Sallie Mae) he finally did so. What happened next still pisses me off til this day. Sallie Mae, upon discovering that my dad is a disabled veteran, wrote the entire loan off!
I was so pissed off by this development that I stopped talking to my dad for months. Recognizing the reality that he could, and should have, had this shit wrote off YEARS ago, I decided to put that motherfucker on ignore. I did the math and calculated just how much interest I paid on that ONE loan alone I realized it was more than enough to knock out ALL the loans in my name. This further cemented for me just how unbelievably stupid (I mean this literally) my dad is and always has been.
Once I got over the shock, I decided to double up on the payments I was making on my student loans. By the time I was exiting my twenties and moving into my thirties I was student loan free. Consider for a second that it took almost a decade for me to even get to this point.
Today, the only debt I have in this world is my mortgage.
Has my education been worth it?
If I’m being honest the answer is no. I won’t go as far as saying my degrees are worthless, but I will say what I’m doing now is a wake up call to the way this world works.
To be a librarian you have to have a master’s degree…in most cases.
To be an insurance underwriter (my current profession) you have to have a bachelor’s degree…though for some companies it is simply preferred…not required.
As a librarian, I worked hard, received mediocre benefits, and found myself often worried about my tax payer funded position thanks to governmental cuts to the library system. The library system is the first thing that gets cut during economic downturns though it is more widely used during these times as well.
As an insurance underwriter the only thing I really worry about is corporate downsizing which is pretty normal these days with technological advancement. While I don’t believe there is any such thing as job security for any position, this is one thing I do think about from time to time.
As a librarian, raises were far and few. There was no such thing as a bonus. Good luck saving for retirement on your pay. But, depending on the county, you could eventually find yourself vested in a pension similar to that of teachers. Promotion only seemed to happen with whites in the county library system. You get to be a social worker, psychiatrist, police officer, vagrancy officer, truancy officer, librarian, community organizer, punching bag for the poor, homeless, unemployed, and mentally ill while stretching your $40-$50 salary in a city or town with raising rents and cost of living.
As an insurance underwriter I get a raise every year. I get bonuses every year. I have company match for my 401k. I have good benefits. I have corporate perks and discounts. I’ve been promoted twice. I make $75k a year. I have a company pension. I sit at desk all day reviewing business applications for insurance while blasting classic Motown, Al Greene, Donna Summers from the beat headphones I would never have thought about buying on a librarian’s salary.
Just think about what I’ve written above.
Can we look around at all the black people who have gone to college, graduate school, and professional school and still say, “Education is the key to success”?
The reality is it’s not what you know in this world. It’s who you know.
It’s who you know will pull you up with them. For too many of us black folks we don’t know anyone. The few people we do know look just like us, and they will step on your neck before offering to pull you up to their level. With this said, I really think we need to re-evaluate how we think about education.
In my opinion, a four year degree is not worth it. We need to put more focus on trades and business ownership. I honestly believe this is the future. Jobs, those once “safe” white collar jobs, are being replaced by robots and inexpensive workers from Asia.
I’m looking at my own “safe” job and looking for a way to move on to something else that involves me being my own boss. I suggest other African Americans do the same.