In the LearnVest Personal Stories series, everyday people share the details of their money lives, discussing the individual choices they've made and how it's impacted their financial journey.
Today, one woman shares why she feels that—like one-third of other former students these days—the student loan and credit card debt she accrued pursuing a college degree wasn't money well spent.
I enrolled at Colorado State University in 2003 with a big dream to channel my love for animals into a career as a veterinarian.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
My freshman year was a tough, confusing time in my life. Earlier that year my father lost a long battle with an illness and passed away, and I was still reeling from it.
So the transition to school was difficult—especially when I realized that I didn’t want to be a vet after all. I didn’t enjoy the introductory science courses that were part of CSU's veterinary undergrad program, and I was turned off by the realization that training involved putting animals to sleep.
Impulsively, I switched my major during my sophomore year to creative writing and English—two concentrations I thought would give me the communications skills I needed for any job.
It’s with this somewhat cavalier attitude that I also approached many of the financial decisions I made in college.
For one, I was determined to leave my home state of Michigan to experience something new—but I hadn't calculated just how far the very few academic scholarships I'd secured would take me over the course of four years. (Spoiler alert: not far.)
I assumed, like many students and parents these days, that I’d be able to cover the rest of my expenses through student loans. And while I did receive some financial aid, I had trouble securing enough in loans to cover my living expenses, partly because of the way schools calculate “need.”
To make ends meet, I opened a bunch of credit cards and quickly maxed them out on food and housing—to the tune of about $7,000.
But my higher-education money woes didn’t stop there.
For my junior year I enrolled in a study abroad program, spending one semester in Wales and another in Japan. Overseas schools are more affordable than those in the U.S., but the cost of living is pricey, so I wound up paying about the same as a year at CSU.
The only problem? While I was living abroad, I found out that my co-signer—a family friend who’d agreed to help me get a loan for living expenses—backed out. As a result, I had to leave Wales early, and couldn’t transfer the class credits I'd earned abroad because I still owed the school money.
To top it off, once I got back to the U.S., I found out that I was no longer eligible for thousands of dollars in grants, thanks to new rules about studying off-campus and changing state laws.
I felt totally defeated—and out of options. I couldn’t qualify for a private loan due to my overtaxed credit score and no co-signer. Plus, I was already $45,000 in the hole with my combined loans and credit card balances.
So even though I was just 20 credits short of earning my degree, I called it quits with college. I packed up and moved to Chicago with the hope of starting over by parlaying my partial college experience into a fulfilling career—as what, I wasn’t completely sure.
My Journey From Dropout to Dream Career
When I made it to Chicago in the fall of 2008, I moved in with an acquaintance and hit the ground running, applying for every entry-level job I could find—at PR firms, magazines, Macy’s, you name it.
I included my years at CSU on my résumé, which I admit looked like I had graduated. I just hoped no one would notice that I didn't mention a B.A. If an interviewer asked me about it, I was usually honest about my almost-but-not-quite degree, although most didn’t bother. They were more concerned about my lack of experience.
For the first time, I felt completely fulfilled and happy—like I was a special part of a cool team that was going somewhere.
In fact, the only job I was able to find during my several-month stint in Chicago was a part-time gig at a company that set up spaces for events like bar and bat mitzvahs.
Since I needed to save up some money, I decided to move back home to Michigan for a few weeks to create a new game plan. I found some low-paying internships to keep me afloat while I decided what should come next.
I was interested in communications jobs, so I researched magazine writing and learned that New York City was the place to go—although I couldn’t afford to live there. But I learned that Los Angeles had some publishers, too, and since it’s easier to live there cheaply, I headed to L.A. to find work.
Once I was settled, I started applying for any and all blogging positions to get my foot in the door. I scored a few interviews, but a funny thing happened: Instead of focusing on my writing abilities, I noticed the conversations would invariably turn to my interest in social media and the important role it was playing in start-up companies at the time.
As an introvert, I feel at home in online communities, so I started to get hired to run social media channels at various companies. At first, no single gig was enough to sustain me financially, but I was gaining hope that eventually something big would hit.
In 2010, about a year after I moved to L.A., it did. I came across a job posting for a marketing associate position at a clothing company, and based on my experience with other start-ups, they hired me to handle their print ad placements, Facebook and Twitter campaigns, and website optimization efforts.
I soon began helping the company implement other web-based tools, and before I knew it, I was running their entire digital marketing campaign. The company was small, so everyone wore a lot of hats—and I was more than willing to step up.
For the first time, I felt completely fulfilled and happy—like I was a special part of a cool team that was going somewhere. That’s how I knew I’d found my dream career.
My $45,000 Mistake: Why I Regret Going to College
Since taking that job, I’ve run marketing and social media campaigns at a cosmetics business, celebrity websites and, to bring my old veterinary dreams full-circle, even a pet-centric YouTube channel.
Today, I have enough freelance clients to support myself, bringing in between $3,000 and $7,000 per month. Marketing agencies around town know my work, and consistently call me back with new opportunities.
And the crazy thing is that even if I’d never stepped foot on the Colorado State campus, I’m confident that I’d still be in the exact same place I am today—only a few years earlier. Although I took communications courses, I don’t remembering learning anything I actually use in my career, since my day-to-day tech and social media skills are completely self-taught.
This is why, thinking back, I really regret my decision to attend school.
It’s not that I think college is a bad choice for everyone. If you know with certainty what professional field you want to go into, or you need extensive training like lawyers and doctors do, of course it’s a good call.
But considering that most of my friends work in jobs that have nothing to do with the subjects they studied in college, I feel pretty validated in my opinion. I mean, does anyone really need a biology degree to sell insurance?
There is one big lesson I learned from my time in college—and that’s how to better manage money. Taking stock of the mistakes I made in school have informed the way I treat my finances today.
Truthfully, aside from the occasional musings about what I’d prefer to do with the $350 I pay each month toward my student loans, I don’t spend much time thinking about college anymore. And it’s stopped coming up in job interviews, since I can now fill the time talking about my real-world experience.
But to be fair, there is one big lesson I learned from my time in college—and that’s how to better manage money. Taking stock of the mistakes I made in school have informed the way I treat my finances today.
For instance, I’m working hard to pay off the debt I accumulated at CSU, and I’m proud of my progress so far. That $45,000 balance is now about $30,000. I’ve been paying my bills on time for four years, and I'm more conscious of how my actions affect my credit, like keeping a close watch on APRs.
I’ve also learned to pay attention to the fine print on all financial documents, asking questions until I understand everything—a skill that would have served me well while navigating financial aid at CSU.
As a result of these smarter moves, I’ve raised my credit score about 150 points from its all-time low of 560. Next up on my to-do list? Grow my savings account balance.
All in all, I’m extremely thankful for the new financial know-how that my college experiences afforded me, but was it worth the $45,000 price tag that I paid?
I certainly don’t think so.
LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc., that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. LearnVest Planning Services and any third parties listed, linked to or otherwise appearing in this message are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies. LearnVest, Inc., is wholly owned by NM Planning, LLC, a subsidiary of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company.