- Determining whether or not to attend college is a much different proposition for students today than it was in years past.
- In my admittedly anecdotal experience, individuals of previous generations seem to have more affection for their alma mater than those of mine.
- This has financial implications for institutions of higher education that the one I worked for didn’t seem to understand.
Estimated reading time: 7-14 minutes
With school having recently started and college football season fully upon us, I thought now would be a good time to talk about higher education. And, I’ll get the obvious bit out of the way first. Whether or not college is “worth it” completely depends on an individual’s life circumstances, goals, desires, personality, and so on. I won’t presume to tell any one person that they should or should not go to college. However, I do think the value proposition has undeniably changed in the past couple of generations, and it’s the “why” and “how” of that which we’ll discuss today.
I’d like to start this piece by telling a story about the worst job I ever had.
And it actually wasn’t waiting tables or working for the soulless machine of Big Pharma. Nope. It was the hellhole of nonprofit higher education. Now, I want to make clear that I have nothing against the institution itself or my coworkers. Across the board, they were generally kind, intelligent, interesting people. I also grew quite fond of the school, North Central College, a small, liberal arts, Division-III athletics powerhouse in a wealthy Chicago suburb.
No, my issue was purely with the job description.
But first, some background info…For context, in late summer 2016, I had begun my transition away from the pharmaceutical world. I knew I wanted to pursue work in the field of strength and conditioning, and circumstances would soon conspire to make this a reality. The pharma company I worked for was acquired by a rival and I managed to negotiate myself a healthy six-month severance package.
A couple months prior, one of my good friends secured the position of head coach for North Central Women’s Soccer, and we had joked about me leaving my job to be his assistant coach while I studied for the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist exam.
Well, after I received my severance package, I did just that. And for two months, I lived the dream. I was paid a corporate salary to be an assistant soccer coach, also in charge of the team’s strength and conditioning program. It was wonderful. I enjoyed the work so much that I decided to pursue full-time employment at the college so that I could continue coaching once my severance pay ran dry. The $3,000 annual stipend this college offered for the assistant coach position obviously wouldn’t suffice.
My friend, eager to keep me around, suggested that I speak to his wife, who worked in the college’s Philanthropy/Development Office. Her job was essentially to be an “account manager” for wealthy individuals, wining and dining people with a history of generous donations to the school. Basically, she got paid to have lunches and attend events with successful, interesting people.
She loved it, and she was great at it.
To me, this didn’t sound like a bad gig, so I decided to apply for an open position. Coming from a completely different industry, I probably wouldn’t have been granted an interview if not for my connection to her, but let’s not pretend small colleges aren’t above a bit of nepotism. Plus, my resume looked good on paper (three promotions in less than four years at a Fortune 500 Pharma company) and I tended to interview pretty well.
So, I got the job.
Then, reality sunk in.
My friend’s wife’s position was a much more senior role than the one for which I’d been hired. I’d need to work my way up to something like hers. And this makes sense. You don’t want the unproven rookies chatting up the school’s most important donors. However…
My primary responsibility was to secure $1,000 donations from alumni ages 22-30. I would have no prior relationship with any of them, which meant all initial outreaches would be in the form of cold calls or emails. The provided scripts and templates were, shall we say, fairly transparent as to the purpose of my reason for contacting these prospects.
So, my job was essentially that of a salesman selling nothing, asking recent grads to donate to an organization to which many of them already owed thousands of dollars in outstanding student loans.
Fun stuff, huh?
Needless to say, it was a disaster. Philosophically, I didn’t even believe making such a donation was a good idea for the potential donors with whom I was supposed to interact. If you’re, say, twenty-five years old and have both unpaid student loans and a thousand bucks to spare…put it towards that balance! Pair this view with a deep aversion to cold calls, and my chances for success in that role at that stage in my life were basically zero.
It was the only time I can ever remember being employed and actively calculating how to do the absolute bare minimum amount of work required to keep my job. After about nine months, I even stopped trying to do that. Unsurprisingly, I was called into a meeting with my boss and HR about starting a “performance plan.” At this point, I simply admitted that I wasn’t a good fit for the role, thanked them for the opportunity, and put in my two weeks’ notice.
What did I learn?
Well, to answer this piece’s original question of whether or not college is still “worth it,” obviously the major, elephant-in-the-room problem is the financial commitment. It’s out of control. I remember having a conversation with my dad in 2010 about whether higher education was nearing a breaking point with the ballooning costs. Over a decade later, prices have only continued to rise. This drastically affects students’ lives.
For example, at the aforementioned North Central College, students graduated with an average of $35,000 of debt. At the time, the starting salary for a new grad was around $50,000, but that figure is heavily influenced by one’s chosen major and was often lower. Even if accurate, paying off a loan equivalent to 75% of one’s annual salary is no small undertaking. Additionally, North Central liked to tout that many of its grads were first generation students, but those were the ones most likely to graduate with five-figure debt, and be the least likely to have a robust familial fallback support system to help them out of a financial bind.
Also, the school’s graduation rate was 69%, which, sounded low to me. Through researching this piece, I learned that this figure is actually slightly higher than the national average, but it still means that roughly one third of the students in attendance paid thousands of dollars for something they’ll never end up being able to use. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.
But, besides tuition prices, what’s the other big difference between college today and college decades ago?
I realized something important while speaking to younger potential donors compared to older ones. This also emerged as a theme when talking to coworkers and reviewing notes of prospect conversations from past individuals who had held my position.
Those who graduated prior to the 1980’s seemed to have noticeably more affection for the school than their younger counterparts.
This roughly matched with my own experience and that of my friends with whom I discussed this issue. In particular, those of us who played soccer had fond memories of the Carthage Men’s Soccer program, as well as affection for certain professors we particularly liked. However, we didn’t have any deep sense of gratitude towards the school itself for providing us with a degree.
To that end, I regularly donated to the Carthage Men’s Soccer program, but never to the school at large, and to be blunt, I doubt I ever will. Maybe someday I’ll contribute to the Carthage Career Center, since they were instrumental in helping me find my first post-graduation job, but I would certainly have other financial priorities. For example, rather than to the school from which I graduated, I plan on continuing to donate to North Central College Women’s Soccer as long as my friend is still the head coach. But, let’s get back to the point.
A main difference between now and decades ago is that college currently feels like an obligation rather than a privilege.
In the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, a college degree was a genuine path to a greater degree of success. It provided students with opportunities that a high school diploma simply wouldn’t offer. At the time, one could make a comfortable living with a high school education, but going to college provided a massive boost for one’s earning potential. As such, I got the strong impression that people who graduated in this era felt a greater level of affection for their alma mater, as they could see the tangible impact it had on their careers and their lives.
But now, it’s not quite the same.
It’s drilled into students from ever younger ages that they must go to college if they want to make anything of themselves. They start to feel pressure about where they’ll end up going and what they’ll major in as early as middle school. That’s crazy, right? None of the stops on my career journey thus far have been in the field in which I got my psychology degree, so to think I used to stress about what I should study seems ridiculous in hindsight.
Anyway, with obligation comes pressure and resentment, not gratitude. Add to this the reality that many students sign off on tens of thousands of dollars of student loans at predatory rates before they really know what they’re getting into, and that starting salaries don’t even guarantee that they can make rent in a studio apartment in a big city, and it’s not hard to see why recent grads aren’t exactly falling over themselves to break out their credit card when someone they don’t even know comes a-cold-calling.
So, I don’t blame them.
“My tuition is my donation” was a common refrain we were told to watch out for in the Development Office. Our department head supplied us with a go-to retort, but I honestly don’t even remember when it was, because I never truly bought the argument.
Given the skyrocketing cost of college and the uncertain employment prospects that result, some students understandably feel like their schools have gotten at least as good a deal out of them as vice versa. They don’t feel like they owe their schools anything else, and often resent being asked to donate to an institution they feel is a major contributor to their financial stress. And all this is before we even consider another truism my fellow millennials and I were fed. “The real answer for a financially secure future is more school! Spend six figures on a Master’s Degree to unlock your true earning potential!”
Well, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” and all that.
Because of all this, after I left North Central, I got the sense that smaller schools may be sleepwalking towards a crisis.
I was privy to detailed financial information for the school while I worked there. Around 7% of each year’s operating budget was earmarked to come from donations. If this income line item wasn’t met, the school would be forced to dip into its endowment to pay the bills.
Now, I could be completely mistaken, and perhaps my generation will take up the mantle of generous donors as we enter our 40’s and 50’s and enjoy the accompanying career advancements and income increases. Or, perhaps consistent with data that show millennials are putting off getting married, having children, and purchasing their first homes partly due to financial concerns, college donations may drop further and further down the priority list.
And in order for this to change, colleges will very likely need to find a way to reframe attendance as something young people get to do rather than are expected to do. How would they do this? If we buy the argument that decreasing tuition is unrealistic, we can explore other routes. First, colleges could start with increasing their level of transparency with potential students. They could admit that higher education is not worth it for everyone and promote trade schools as a viable alternative. Further, they could require the financial institutions they work with to dramatically lower interest rates on student loans.
Would any of this happen? Probably not, but it would be a great start. I feel quite confident these changes could help engender feelings of gratitude rather than resentment among graduates. And were this to become the norm, perhaps colleges wouldn’t need entire departments dedicated to soliciting donations. Or at least, those who joined these departments at the lowest level wouldn’t feel like they were stuck with an impossible job.
Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. If you were a young person today, how likely would you be to go to college? If you went, do you think you’d feel compelled to donate after graduation? Reply to this email and let me know!