Wednesday, December 16, 2015

A Passionate Life, Part One: College and Money

The other day, I was talking with a good friend of mine and we were discussing the current student debt problem in the United States. Our conversation focused on how so many young people of my generation are now going to college, so much so that the bachelor’s degree is becoming commonplace and needed for even entry level positions.

There were two things that I can remember that I was told growing up in the 90s, via movies, TV, and the people around me. They told me: “Go and find what you are passionate about, pursue that relentlessly, and above all, Go To College.” This was presented in such way as to suggest that all you had to do was to earn that ‘piece of paper’ and you would be successful in life, making a high level of income, and not having to struggle from pay-check to pay-check. Was that bad advice? Not entirely, but it also was not entirely accurate either. I was not the only child to hear the message. Because I was not alone in acting on this advice, what was once true of getting a college degree falls short in our modern society.   

Going to College

Anyone can make through college with high levels of effort and dedication, but that does not mean that everyone is “cutout,” or intrinsically geared, to go to college, or even should. Does this mean that they are sub-par or somehow inferior? By no means! There are many different skill sets, some of them are useful in academic settings, such as research, learning in a visual way through books, making intuitive connections between abstract ideas and events, and there is other types: such as spatial reasoning, and tactile learning that would enable them to excel in a ”working with your hands” career. Another person may be good at maintaining order and organization, managing small details, keeping lists and records. There are many different strengths and weakness with each personality type (and these examples only cover a few), but not every type may be suited for academic success or those types of careers.

Do I think people should be screened out of college and put into alternate career tracks? No one should be screen out. But, if I could give one piece of advice to others of my generation: “don’t just go to college to find out what you want to do.” You need to find out first what you passionate about before you go to college. What are your strengths and your innate skill sets? To put it another way, what are you naturally good at doing? What are your life ambitions, goals, and income level you are comfortable with earning? Then do what it takes to do that… but that may not mean going to college…. And that is ok!

Keep in mind, there are many extremely important technician positions that may not require a college degree, but that are vital for society to continue. We need all types of positions to be filled for a modern society to run effectively and no job in unimportant to whole, some are more visible, prestigious, but all contribute to the common good. 

Choose Wisely, A Co-Worker Story

One individual stands out in mind. He like so many others didn’t know at first what he wanted to do with his life. I actually didn't meet this person at college, but he was a follow employee at the bank my wife worked at in Texas. He had major student debt, and he held a bachelors degree in Psychology, a field that requires at least Master’s degree to actually do a job. He realized that hated psychology after completing his degree and that he did not want to continue in academics.

Instead, he got a job working at an entry-level position at bank, making minimum wage, which was around $8 per hour there in Texas. He was constantly worried that his car would break down or his rent would go up and he would not be able to afford to continue living, because he would then not be able to cover all of his expenses. From what I could tell, I am speculating a little here: his salary only paid for his rent, his debt payments, gas, and car insurance, but nothing else. I was shocked to learn that after work, several times each week he would go and donate plasma from his blood so that he could earn a little money to buy food. I do not know what he was going to do. He was stuck, financially and physically in a poor area of Texas, not able to even get a little ahead. I often wonder what he ended up doing to better his situation, but I fear that he maybe still living pay-check to pay-check…

Passion, College and Money

Let’s go back to the advice I learned when I was growing up; however, let me take this one step further. We should not only tell our children or future children (as in my case) to find what they passionate about and to go to college…

—Notice I did not way find out “what you are ‘interested in’ and get a degree in that…” I said find out what you are passionate about! Passion is a relentless need to do something, a very active drive, and it is not a passive interest or mild curiosity—

Orange Sunset on Lake Champlain, Oil on Canvas, 9x12, 2014, Location: Burlington. Vermont, by Artist Charles Wolf, Charles Wolf Studio © 2015

We must also give this added instruction to our list: Find out what you passionate about, perhaps go to college if that is required to pursue your life goals, but also, and this is so key, live within your means! Ah, financial self-control… is it possible with the cost of high-end, prestigious ivy-league universities being so high? Truthfully, maybe not, but there are some ways to be financially smarter.

A good rule of thumb is that the last degree you get is the most important. So go to the best school last, however, I would say that because so many people now have bachelor’s degrees the Master’s level is becoming the new standard for most fields. So don’t go to the most prestigious school for your bachelors, because in most cases you need to get a Master’s degree anyway. 

Where Not to Go to College

My main question that I have always had regarding this subject, and I have asked this to many different people (adults, professors, and more) but as of yet have never received a good answer: Why do you need to go the most prestigious university for your Bachelor’s degree? Why? It is a waste of money. Period. Is your future job going to require you to have gone to an Ivy League school or to a University of California campus? Really is it? You spend all that money ($80,000 and up) to be taught by Graduate Students. 

I’ve been a graduate teacher before teaching freshmen in Texas. Was I able to do it? Yes, was I giving the highest quality or best teaching ever…? I certainly tried my best, but I know that the answer is no. Why? Because I was new to teaching in the college setting. I was frankly new to teaching college students in large groups, new to being the leader, running the class and trying to keep freshmen’s interest at 8am in the morning talking about music theory (a topic that I love and am passionate about, but most people find either overwhelming [its like math that way] or even tedious). I mean it was 8am! Who wants to do anything at 8am except eat breakfast?

I have come to conclusion that most people tell you to do whatever they did. When you ask someone for advice whatever they did is typically the answer: 90% of the time. They do this, I think, to justify their former actions, or they feel that what they did was the best course of action. I am glad that they are confident in their decisions, but what astounds me sometimes is lack of applied logic, sound financial principles, careful planning, or even basic judgment. Of course not all of these things will applicable to every situation needing advice, but it is certainly relevant when it comes to the topic of where to go to college — a major life decision that may have repercussions throughout someone’s life, as in my wife’s co-worker.  

An Example of Poor Advice

A classic example of this that I have discussed in other articles on this blog, was the urgings of my Graduate Professors to go to an Ivy League University for my Doctorate in Music, In the field of music, an average starting pay is $36,000 teaching at the college level. Looking at the top music school in the country, Indiana University, a doctorate costs a little over $90,000. Could I get a fellowship… maybe, could be a graduate teaching assistant, maybe… by how much will these possible things that I could maybe get help to offset the massive cost of attendance (another four years of school, time, stress and effort): unknown. To even find out the answer to these questions, I have to be first accepted into the program, but before that, I would have spend money to even apply. Clearly this is not a well thought-out and sound financial plan, but nonetheless this is what I was insistently told to do!

What I did (Advice for You… Maybe)

Ok, so here is what I did when I went to college. Is this what you should do? Not necessarily, and I am in no way telling you what to do. I began at a community college in California where you pay by the unit and can earn an Associate’s degree on the cheap. Next, I transferred to California State University, Stanislaus as a junior and went there for two years for my Bachelors, and lastly I went to Texas State University for my Masters. How did I pay for it? Teaching piano lessons part time, getting government grants and winning scholarships and a few generous family members who were able to loan me some money, which I was able to pay back interest free. Will this work for you… maybe.

 You see, and this is truth, I came from a large family of nine children. We were a low-income family, and I was a first generation college student in my family. I had a good story, a true one, but the type of story that colleges want to be able to tell their contributors. Most, not all, but in my experience, most merit scholarships are not earned by good grades alone. Most merit scholarships are given to low-income, first generation college students, and minority students who also have good grades. My wife actually got better grades than me, but because her parents were financial successful in life, she applied, but never received any scholarships.


So what does this all mean, the student debt situations is unbelievable. People are taking on so much debt; they end up with entry-level jobs, owing thousands of dollars, which may take them over half their lives to pay it off. Clearly, this is not working, and it will be interesting to see the next generation and how they approach college and becoming successful in life. Remember these three things:

     1. Find your passion
   2. Go to college if necessary
  3. Live within you means as much as possible

In Part Two of Finding Your Passion, I give some tips on how to discover what you are passionate about in your life and continue to talk about some of the things that I am passionate about, so check back later this week for that!


Read Part 2 Here! 

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