Charles Thomas: The Low-Risk Way to Jump Social Classes

Last month, the Wall Street Journal published an intriguing article called “Financially Hobbled for Life: The Elite Master’s Degrees That Don’t Pay Off.” The piece profiled a number of Columbia University film school graduates who had earned graduate degrees at the prestigious Ivy League college only to find themselves drowning in student loans.

Now, drowning in student loans is something that many folks of a certain age know all too much about. While I was fortunate enough to graduate from college before tuition prices blasted off faster than Jeff Bezo’s phallic rocket ship, many of my younger friends and colleagues remain saddled with debt loads of over $50,000 from their graduate studies at places like Western Michigan University.

But my friends with their public college debt have it easy compared to the people profiled in the Wall Street Journal piece. Many of the future Francis Ford Copplas interviewed had debt loads far north of $100,000. One graduate, a 36-year-old MFA grad named Matt Black, reported having over $230,000 in student loans but a job making just $60,000 a year.

What he said about his plight really struck me.

“We were told by the establishment,” Black said, “our whole lives that this (an Ivy League education) was the way to jump social classes.”

I’m not sure who exactly the “establishment” is that told Black that a master’s degree in film from Columbia was the way to become a rich and influential member of society, but whoever those folks are, they are sorely mistaken. A degree, no matter how prestigious, is just a credential. Whether it’s a bachelor’s, master’s or even a doctorate, a degree in no way guarantees that someone will be successful.

Success involves so much more than just a crisp piece of parchment. Success often involves a great deal of hard work and a fair amount of uncomfortable risk taking, too. In fact, most of the people who end up jumping social classes are not the people who attend Ivy League colleges. No, the real social class jumpers are much more likely to attend colleges like Glen Oaks than they are Harvard. They are much more likely to use the public college system or the trade school system than attend prestigious East Coast private universities.

Take me for example.

I spent the first eight years of my life on a dairy farm in nowheresville Michigan, living in a 100-year-old rundown farmhouse. After moving to Grand Rapids, I was one of the poorer kids in the working-class neighborhood where I attended high school. Everyone I knew worked blue collar jobs and while I was a good student, I certainly wasn’t stellar. After graduation, I enrolled in a community college for two years before another two years at the closest public college. I lived at home and commuted to class in an old car that I paid for by working as a shoe salesman.

I have never in my life stepped a single foot onto the campus of an Ivy League university.

But in spite of that, today I have a professional job and even own a small counseling business of my own. No one will ever mistake me for Jeff Bezos, but I wear a collared shirt to work and my daughter doesn’t have to sell shoes to pay for her car. While I’ll probably never be a famous author or have an article published in the Wall Street Journal, you are reading something that I wrote in Watershed Voice, which I like to think of as the New Yorker magazine of St. Joseph County, Michigan.

Glen Oaks president Dr. David Devier recently published a piece in this publication touting the benefits of a college education. He makes a clear and convincing case that a college degree of any kind, even one with a low level of prestige, is well worth the financial investment. In his piece, Devier shared a bit of his life story, as well. If you haven’t read it, you should. Devier’s story sounded very familiar to me. He wrote about growing up a “blue-collar son from a blue-collar family.”

But Devier is now the president of Glen Oaks Community College and his collar, like mine, is no longer blue.

You do not have to attend Columbia University to jump social classes, my friends. Heck, if you’re reading this article, you or your children are probably better off going to Glen Oaks than Columbia. It’s certainly cheaper and trust me when I tell you that a community college degree will never limit your future like $230,000 in student loans will.

Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected]


Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.

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