I used to think that I had a lot of college debt. Like, "Here's my luxury sedan, but I keep it in my brain!" level debt. And for what? A degree in English? And then, when I graduated from college, the only job I could find was working at Casey's, a gas station/convenience store. My brother, who didn't go to college, worked at McDonald's.
Then I lucked out and got into grad school and then, long story short, you guys got stuck with me. But I lucked out.
And that was twenty years ago.
It's worse now. Recently, I met a guy with a hundred thousand dollars in student loan debt. In my day, if you met someone with that much debt, they'd been to medical school or law school. This guy has an undergraduate art degree. Now, maybe stupid choices brought him to that point.
But here's the thing — if you don't know a lot of people who have gone or are going to college and you're thinking about going, the question of whether you can afford to go looms large. You ask around and you hear about people with my level of debt or $50,000 or $100,000 in debt and you see them working down at the Wendy's, when you know you can walk into the Wendy's the day after you graduate high school and get a job, the seemingly smart thing to do is to not go to college.
I appreciate that the Governor is focusing on education and, I think he's right that you can't fix poverty if you don't fix education. You have to give people the means to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, so to speak. But I can't stop thinking about this story Blake Farmer did on WPLN about why Tennesseans don't go to college, focusing on Hickman County as a place where almost everyone graduates high school and almost no one goes to college.
The two very closely related issues seem to be that some people just don't think it's necessary and that other people just don't think that it's worth it.
Principal Phillip Jacobs from Hickman County High School tries to spell out the problems with this:
But money doesn’t have to be the ultimate barrier if there is a real desire to go to school, Jacobs says. So he’s frustrated when students tell him they plan on going straight to work. “Where?” he asks. “The factories?”
“Those things are gone and they’re not coming back,” he says. “Now what do we do next? I don’t think a lot of our folks have latched onto the fact that education is the way out of that.”
But that's just the argument for the people who don't think it's necessary. There's a hidden barrier, I believe, one that's masked by people's concerns that it costs too much. And it's this: Even if a college education is worth whatever debt you might accrue to get it, it's not going to be worth it in Hickman County.
This is something, I think, Tennessee politicians haven't been completely honest about and Tennesseans aren't ready to face. If you want to live where your parents and grandparents and all your aunts and uncles and cousins live out in rural Tennessee, you're not going to have the quality of life they did. The good paying jobs you could get with a high school diploma are gone and there aren't jobs for very many people with college degrees.
The thing we're not saying, because it sucks to say it, is that, in order to make a college degree worth it, you have to go where the jobs are. You have to move away.
So, here's the fundamental problem the Governor faces — how do you convince most Tennesseans that having a good job is more important than being near their families? And is it, really?