In early 2009, my life was in a serious rut of stagnation.
I didn’t know what to do. I was 28, and terrified.
Couldn’t hold a job. No social life. Lonely, depressed, and beaten down by drug addiction (the only reprieve I could find from the vacuous void within and the confusion and self-lamentation which wholly corroded me).
I had never really imagined myself going to college. That seemed impossible. Expensive. Out of reach. Besides, my preconceptions about myself as a student established back in high school were dismal at best.
My cousin, who was deeply involved in Academia, routinely prodded me to sign up for classes at Lansing Community College. It took her several attempts to get through to me at all.
Naturally, it helped when a friend told me, “Drew, you’ll never believe this, if you sign up for a Pell Grant (grant for people with a low income), the Government will actually PAY YOU to go to school.”
Well, that sounded cool. And my life was spinning its wheels in the mud. I felt an awful sense every single day that I was an epic failure to core. I needed a change, big-time.
So I went to an admissions event at LCC.
Utterly mortifying and disorienting! Swarming crowds of fresh, young faces and an endless hubbub of energetic chatter. A lot to take in for a recluse with social anxiety.
Worked my way through the Financial Aid and registration processes. Signed up for some basic classes. Pre-algebra was one, since I bombed math on my placement exam.
My friend was right, though. The Government paid me to go to college.
The Pell Grant is set up to provide a certain amount of money based on need, and that amount is generally significantly higher than actual tuition (at least at the community college level). Technically this is so you can buy books (which are criminally overpriced), but even still, there is leftover money for supplies and whatever else.
My attendance at LCC changed my life for the better in so many ways.
For one, I transformed self-limiting preconceptions about myself, my intelligence, and my academic abilities.
I went into my Math 050 class slightly apprehensive (because I thought I was terrible at math), but with the attitude that if I was going to do this thing at all, I was going to do my damned best.
Ended up falling madly in love with numbers for a while. Had trippy dreams that were encoded by algebraic equations. Became so enamored with my success in that course that I kept taking more math courses in later semesters for the fun of it.
Even briefly considered becoming a math instructor (Got over that fairly quickly, but it was still quite significant for what it’s worth).
The most important lesson learned there was, “Wow, if I can be good at and enjoy freakin’ algebra after over a decade of being sure of that to be an unattainable feat, then what else can I be good at and enjoy?”
Also, school retrained me to be social. Throughout my twenties, most of my friendships were based on tripping on drugs. When I got sober, I didn’t know how to have friends anymore until I got back into school. Study groups and class activities became invaluable for me on my journey back to finding balance and structure as a human being.
Being successful in school led me to my favorite employment ever, as a Writing Assistant at the LCC Writing Center. As a student and employee of LCC, I enjoyed some of the most profound connections and experiences of my life.
It never would have happened without a grant. That empowered me to transcend the hole I was in, and that was a gift that defies calculation.
Someone I consider a mentor, James Altucher, thinks of college as a waste of time, money, and energy. And maybe it can be under certain circumstances, especially for people who get into enormous debt for their educations and then can’t even find jobs afterwards.
Community college wasn’t just about finding jobs for me. It was about building structure, character, experience, knowledge, and momentum. It was my rocket ship out of the the abyss.
I would have seriously considered moving on to University, and nearly did so, but I was acutely apprehensive about getting into debt.
See, I had filed Bankruptcy in 2009 because I was drowning in medical bills and delinquent credit card accounts from my reckless twenties, so I said, “No way,” to the prospect of yet more debt accumulation.
What irks me about University tuition, is that it is so expensive just because it can be (similar to why prescription prices are so needlessly outrageous).
Academia is seen as a necessary institution that students will always go to any length to participate in, even if it means giving up their life savings or going into more debt than they can pay back in a lifetime.
That is not only maliciously exploitative to students, but it will backfire on the Institution very soon if the approach is not modified.
We are living in an era in which a self-motivated learner can set up their own curriculum using free and open tools online, go at a faster and steadier pace than traditional Academia can provide, and customize their experience in an unprecedented way.
Granted. You can’t get a degree by watching YouTube videos (yet? Give it time…).
But you can take free well-structured courses by credential professors at HarvardX and Coursera, paying optional small fees for certificates of completion (which may not have the same clout as a degree in many cases, but are bound to look good on your resume and appeal to potential employers who appreciate self-motivated, resourceful and progressive candidates).
Now, there is absolutely value in the structure and experience of studying at a college campus and absorbing the culture there.
But for the Institution as we know it to survive headed into a future in which students will increasingly expect more flexibility and accessibility, we must reduce barriers to entry and treat Higher Education as an asset to the development, prosperity, and stabilization of our society.
Because Higher Education is absolutely an asset.
Public education through 12th grade is already considered essential enough to be paid for by taxes. The public education system has failed so far to provide the value to society that tax dollars are paying for (which is a related but distinct subject for another post).
College education provides more value than just preparing people for jobs. Much, much more value than that.
College sharpens minds, furthers scientific inquiry, expands discourse in all fields of thought, and builds logical soundness in the minds of students (who then would do well to build enough character to be patient and loving with the people in their lives who haven’t developed much logical soundness).
College also helps people build networks and develop new ideas about what to do with their lives and how to find their places in our evolving society.
Denying accessibility to these advantages is a form of classism.
Forcing people who are already poor under the thumb of prolonged debt for the sake of an education with no guaranteed payoff, is quite frankly absurd.
There are many ways to solve these issues.
First of all, keep in mind: Education is more than what’s taught in school.
Education is everywhere if you open yourself up to it. You can learn profound life lessons by going for a walk in the woods with a receptive mind, asking yourself questions about your thoughts, feelings, and actions, taking life-affirming truths from your mistakes, and more. The possibilities of education are limitless.
And you don’t need a degree to be successful. You can make a living in so many ways these days. You might be much better off not tethered to the Institution and its rigid parameters.
But not everyone is ready for that kind of thinking yet, and that’s OK.
Of course the question that always comes up in terms of “free” college is, how do we pay for it?
Some are more than willing to allocate tax dollars to this cause, while others will have none of it. That’s what Flexible Tax Allocation is for (Americans having a greater degree of control than before over how their individual tax dollars are spent).
Ultimately what a lot of people do not seem to realize consciously, is that the Economy is an invention. Completely made up on the fly, and developed over the ages until it became a beast with a weird sort of autonomy of its own.
But hey. We made up the rules once. We can change the rules. If we wanted to, we could reset the Economy completely and start over with a more effective set of guiding principles.
And maybe it will come to that. But for now, our Economy, just like our Academic Institution, is put in the position where it must evolve to stay relevant and bankable. There are a number of developing global currencies that could wipe out our U.S. dollars in a heartbeat. And again, maybe it will come to that. Maybe it should.
So, how do we pay for it? Hicks/You 2020 is currently working on its formal budget proposals. We’ll unveil it when it’s ready, but suffice for now to say it will be, like everything in this campaign, based on reinvention, innovation, synergy, and compassion for all living beings.
What we know is that we must do what’s right for a barrier-free world that works for everyone. And that means making Higher Education accessible for all whom wish to partake of its fruits.