Lies You Believe About Poverty: Getting A College Degree Fixes Everything

When grow up in poverty, there are a lot of lies that you here repeated so often you start believe them. For me, one that was repeated often by my mother was that if I went to college I wouldn’t have to live like she did.

I don’t actually remembering ever making the decision to go to college, I just knew that’s what you did after high school. I do remember deciding to get a degree in journalism. That I blame solely on Murphy Brown and Barbara Walters.

I knew I was a writer at heart, but I also knew that writing wasn’t a good way to make a living , so being a reporter would be a better option, right?

Yeah, not so much.

My first day of my first journalism class, my professor said that journalism had the highest rates of suicide and alcoholism of any profession and that journalists never made enough money to pay their student loans. It was hyperbole and I scoffed at it. I was wrong.

Part of my bad luck was being born in an era when print journalism was evolving and dying, but part of my “luck” was that my professor was right. Even in the 1990s when I graduated, the country was becoming anti-intellectual and reporters were paid crap.

I once saw a local television reporter asking for a public defender for her DUI ticket because she made barely enough to pay the rent.

Know What to Study

Part of the reason my mother’s advice was a lie was that it didn’t go far enough. While I truly believe people should follow their passion, it’s important to be realistic. And a bachelor of arts is a privilege not a guarantee of a job.

In high school , I loved math and hard sciences but other than being a doctor (not interested, blood makes me queasy) or teaching, I wasn’t real sure what you could do with either of those degrees. If the internet had been, I might have made better choices.

English was technically my weakest subject, but it was my passion. I just wish I had been more aware of the options out there. And that I had listened to good advice. Dr. Falcone, I should have studied Latin American government more and worked harder on my Spanish.

Sadly, the truth of the matter is that people I know who have degrees in the arts — English, film, photography, theater — are generally not working in a job related to their degree. And this has led many of them to become bitter about the usefulness of college in general.

While I can say that every job I have every had said I got the interview because of my degree, I haven’t actually used most of the things I learned in college in the last decade and half.

Understand the Costs

One of the reasons a college degree isn’t the solution to poverty that my mother thought it was is the rising cost of higher education. Since 1980 the cost of getting a degree has risen 169% but wages have risen less than 20%.

So the short version is that it costs more and more every year to get a degree, but employers aren’t paying more for you to have it. They expect you to have one, but don’t want to give you a wage appropriate for it.

When you are in college, and living on college student budgets, the six month grace period between graduation and when you have to start repaying your loans sounds like long enough to get a good job and get settled in. And the payments sound like they are going to be affordable.

But it turns out that isn’t always the case. The average student loan payment in the United States is $393 a month and that’s assuming you attended a public college. Some sites calculate the average student loan payment at $461 a month, meaning you need to earn $55,600 a year to keep that loan payment below 10% of your monthly income.

Thirty years after earning my degree, I earn more than that a year, but I sure as hell didn’t for the first ten years after college when I should have been paying off my student loans. According to a national average across all majors, average graduates can expect to make about $50,000 a year in 2022.

The problem it that’s an average across all major. So when it says an IT graduate makes about $79,000 a year to start, by the definition of average, someone is starting at about $21,000. Since it also fails to take into account where you live in the country, the average is super faulty.

Furthermore, it doesn’t take into account the cost of living where the graduate is earning that income. If you are making $50,000 a year in southern Illinois where I used to live, you are paying your rent and average bills pretty easily. If you are making that where I live now in suburban Philadelphia, you’re going to need a roommate just to pay the rent.

Finding a Job Takes Money and Connections

While having a college degree opens some doors, the reality of most jobs that pay well is that you have to be able to spend the time and money it takes to find the job AND you have to have the money to move to where the job is.

Getting out of poverty means overcoming things live education-barriers and generational poverty and simply having a degree doesn’t fix that. Finding a well-paying job means being able to get to the interview, dress appropriately and having the ability to apply for those jobs. You need consistent internet access and the ability to draft a good resume. For the really great jobs, attracting a head hunter who will do the work for you can make a huge difference. But most people raised in poverty don’t know to do that or how to do that.

Then, assuming you get the job offer of your dreams, you have to be able to afford to take it. When we moved to our current position, we quadrupled our annual income in a year and eight years later make more than ten times what we did previously. But we couldn’t have done that without the money to move.

The reality of poverty is that even when you do things right, work hard and save money, it takes a lot of time, effort and good luck to make it up to middle class.

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Lucinda Gunnin

Lucinda Gunnin

Lucinda Gunnin is a commercial property manager and author in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She’s a news junky, sushi addict, and geek extraordinaire.