Memoirs of a Professional College Student

I’ve never told anyone this story before—not my wife, not my long-time friends, not nobody. You’re the first to hear it.

Part of the appeal of a northeastern college campus is that no matter the time of year, it always feels like autumn. Maryland is like that. The trees always seem to be fading to red, and fallen leaves pile on the edges of brownstone pathways. While the College Park campus is nestled on three sides by I-95, I-495, and US-1, there are surprisingly few cars to negotiate  during class hours. Even though the campus is large, parking is so terrible that walking remains the overwhelmingly favorite mode of transport. That lack of vehicles, the colonial architecture, and the eternal draftiness within the buildings reinforces an old collegiate feel that causes students and parents alike to nostalgically open their wallets to pay the crippling tuition rates.

My story starts on a cold, clear morning in January of 2008—the first day of the spring semester. For most students this was the first day back from winter break. Not mine, however. I was a new student to Maryland. My transcript said “transfer student,” although that didn’t feel right. “Transient” would have been more appropriate. Or, even better, “Student Lacks Direction.” That direction, apparently, now pointed toward an Economics degree—my third choice (out of three) on my application to Maryland. I was still an amicable passenger in the decisions shaping my college career.

The halls of Tydings were emptying into adjacent rooms as 8 a.m. approached. It felt early. As the stir abated, I held back, opting instead to peer through the small window of the door into my classroom. I was nervous—an understatement, perhaps.

This hadn’t been my first college course; I was a transfer, of course. I’d taken a half-dozen online classes and a handful of courses with fellow Soldiers in Alaska. But, this felt different. This felt like my first “real” class. My first true interaction with the Ivory Tower. 

Dead Poets Society“These are actual college students, Eric, and real professors. These aren’t your fellow Soldiers looking for a good time or those hack professors recycling the same syllabus for a stipend. This is the real deal.”

My perception of a “real” University was shaped by films like A Beautiful Mind and Dead Poets Society. My judgment of the students and staff behind that door were high. I was certain that if I stood there long enough, I would witness a recital of O Captain! My Captain!

Standing at that door, I cowered at the hour, the day, and the semester before me. I could finally place a name to the feeling that had been bubbling up since I woke that morning.

Unfit.

Unsure of what to do, I paced the floor. I would like to lie to you and say that I eventually steeled myself and stepped through the door to face the challenge before me. Indeed, a story of toughness and resolve would work nicely here.

I would like to say that. But of course, that’s not what happened. I took a step, alright—a step backward.

I quit—and in the most deliberate way that one could.

I turned left and walked out of Tydings and into the cold. I hurried down McKeldin Mall and beelined to the registrar’s office. I wasn’t even sure where the registrar’s office was; it was instinctual movement–like sea turtle migrating to the nesting grounds. Once there, I fabricated some cock and bull about not realizing it was the first day of class or some such thing. I disenrolled, right then and there. I walked to my car and drove off campus.

That is the first time anyone has ever heard that story. And, like an infinite number of your own stories, it only exists because I wrote it down. Had I not, the story would have died with me, and been forever unknown.

But now, the story lives! Congratulations, Wife29, you married a quitter.

The End Was the Beginning

The decision to quit opened new questions: Was this the end of my college experience? Was I resigning myself to being a military careerist?

I don’t recall what brought me to re-enroll just days later. Perhaps it was simply the expectation that I would do so. I mean, people were expecting me to be in school—the Army, my friends and family. This was something I was going to do. The universe knew.

Thankfully for me (and this has been a valuable realization), colleges want your tuition. And given how early it was in the semester and the forgiving nature of colleges toward those in the military, the financial ramifications were limited. I was able to re-enroll that semester and the whole scene was quickly behind me. Likewise, the events that followed that day made it ancient history. By “events that followed,” I am referring to the hundreds of credits and four degrees I subsequently earned at various places. But, looking back at that January morning, it’s humbling to see how that train almost fell off the tracks before it ever left the station.

Memoirs of a Professional Student

Last month, I completed my eighth and final college course to obtain a Certificate in Accountancy from Northern Virginia Community College—which has a campus just a mile from our home. This Certificate now sits aside a few others in a cardboard box in our storage closet:

  • Associates of Science from the University of Alaska
  • Bachelors of Economics from the University of Maryland
  • Masters of Business Administration from the University of Maryland
  • Masters of Finance from the University of Maryland

Retire29s DegreesThat list is the end result of 13 years of schooling, which is a pathetically drawn-out amount to time for what I received. And, a frightening amount of time, looking back, as that means I’ve been in college for the same number of years as my K-12 education. Yikes.

Aside from two full-time semesters, that patchwork pursuit on nights and weekends was juggled alongside a full time job. I also wish (really, I do) that this educational path was a streamlined one—one degree to the next, with every class neatly checking a block in a degree plan. But, it wasn’t like that. No, it wasn’t like that at all.

My transcripts brim with idle efforts.

Keyboarding.

Keyboarding II. (I couldn’t get enough, apparently)

Weather? I think there’s an app for that.

Pray tell, British Lit One AND Two?!

This patchwork now numbers 68 classes, with 52 A’s and 16 B’s. Thankfully, only one “C” scare, with Calculus II ringing in at a skin-of-teeth 80.1%.

Author’s Note: Enrolling in a 5-day-a-week, 8 a.m. class with attendance quizzes goes down as one of the classic mistakes in my life.

Sixty-eight classes. Two-hundred and thirteen credit hours. Somehow, it doesn’t seem like a big number looking back.

The Department of Education estimates that each credit hour of school requires 15 hours of work during the semester. Thanks to that aforementioned Calc II course, I can calculate (213 * 15 = X, Solve for X) that I did 3,195 hours of school work over the years. That sounds like a lot of hours. That sounds like a lot of work. It stands to reason that in my educational wake is a trove of material and knowledge that rivals few others. Funny thing is, I can’t remember a damn thing that I did. Not specifically, at least. I recall writing a lot of research papers. I remember combing through a lot of annual reports. I recall the countless mornings during my “Satanic Semester” (more on that below) when the chirping birds would pull me out of a trance to let me know I’d just pulled another all-nighter. I have vivid memories of sitting at a computer, or sleeping in the library, or cramming some chapter. But, what I’m typing, or what I’m reading, is forever dim.

While the memories of what I did have long-since faded into obscurity, I can absolutely tell you what I learned. If you are interested, I will tell you.

How Much Did That Lambskin Cost Ya?

It doesn’t really matter which “lambskin” you’re referring to from the above, the answer is “zero dollars”—or at least close to it.

I’ve never paid a cent of tuition, and I’ve sold or donated every textbook I’ve ever bought.

There are a lot of ways to attend school for free. While I can’t speak from experience for most of those ways, they all sound like reasonable methods to avoid taking on a crippling amount of debt as a new adult. I can, however, speak to my method of free college: employer reimbursement and the Montgomery GI Bill.

Several studies (1, 2, 3) varied on the exact number, but around two-thirds of employers offer some form of tuition reimbursement. However, just 5% of employees at those companies actually take advantage of those tuition programs. Five percent! For all the harping we bloggers do about not getting the employer match, 95% of us are sitting around and leaving “free money” on the table in the form of unused tuition.

Anecdotally, five percent sounds about right. While I was in the Army, I’d wager it was even less. The Army did, and still does, reimburse enlistees for up to $4k per year in tuition. But, Privates will be Privates. And, when a Private gets free time, there’s only two places a Private wants to go—where the beer is at, and where the girls is at. And you can bet that those vastly-outnumbered-women aren’t hanging around the education center.

Now in the private sector, I only know one person at my current job, besides me, who is taking or has recently taken college classes. Professional certifications are a bit more popular, but not by much. It’s not hard to understand why this occurs. Lives get more complicated as we move through adulthood; kids, spouses, careers, and houses get added to the mix of priorities. Additional education feels more like a burden than an opportunity. Plus, the mere presence of employer reimbursement indicates one thing: we already have a job. Those currently in employ are among the least motivated sect on earth, so it should surprise no one that full-timers aren’t looking to sharpen their edge. In short, unless we’re actively looking for a different field of work, more of the same education seems like….more of the same.

Taco TuitionThe whole employer-reimbursement construct has been given new life recently by some forward-thinking establishments like Chipotle, UPS and Starbucks offering even part-timers very generous tuition reimbursements that essentially act as a full ride to a respectable state institution.

Even some of the lesser brethren of the part-time industry have begun to pay slightly more than lip service toward education for their employees. McDonald’s will kick in $700 a year to college, and Taco Bell even has its beautifully named “Live Más” program (ay caramba!). TGI Fridays employees, when they aren’t begrudgingly replacing your bottomless apps, also qualify for $1,000 in tuition. Not too shabby. (These figures are all current as of today. I’m guessing if you read this after April 2017, that these sorts of programs will be even broader and better.)

Of course, these are all just fancy bullet points on a “Welcome to the McTeam” brochure unless the employee (or Army Private) actually pursues an education. Which, unfortunately, is something remarkably easy to put off. Even the GI Bill, which I exhausted long ago, has a 10-year expiration date (after ETS), which too many veterans (about 50%) allow to lapse.

Nothing Special, Except I Was Never Really a Student

Now that I’m over 1,500 words into this piece, I should finally concede that what I did, educationally, is not particularly special. By the age of 28 I completed a Bachelors degree and two Masters degrees with respectable GPAs. With far less stress and in far less time, people have become some of country’s finest doctors and lawyers.

Retire29 - A Degree FraudsterThe educational achievement occurring here is not noteworthy. However, what I humbly believe is noteworthy is that I did this while never being a student. Not in the traditional sense, at least.

Every year at my job, a senior manager sends out a data call to all the staff asking for some information, including: certifications, degrees, and years of experience. This is commonplace for contracting companies, as most bids nowadays require minimum quals for labor categories. Naturally, being the nosy person I am, while I complete my own row, I also peruse the numbers on my coworkers. When doing this, I see something interesting. While there are other Masters degrees rolling around on that sheet, nobody—not even the folks older than me—have more job experience.

I rather like that, especially because all useful knowledge is practical, rather than theoretical (in other words, nothing beats on-the-job-training). So, while the degrees at age 28 are nothing amazing, I think that having those degrees while also being able to (truthfully) say “and 10 years applied work experience” is somewhat good.

That’s exactly what you get, though, when you stay working in one field, work throughout your schooling, and keep your schooling aligned to your work.

Oh, and it also is really good for your financial wealth.

Retire29 Net Worth 3-20-2017

See, no needless blips for tuition payments, and a constant funneling of money into 401k’s and what-have-you.

Be Like Pre

The late, legendary runner Steve Prefontaine was famously quoted as saying that he didn’t see himself as an exceptionally talented runner. Pre believed what made him a world-class runner was his ability to endure more pain than anyone else.Pre

To my detriment, this endurance of pain has been my guiding principle. This was never more evident than during what I call the “Satanic Semester.”

The Satanic Semester was not a result of some malevolent professor or unjust circumstance; it was entirely my own, voluntary, doing. In the spring of my junior year at Maryland, the Army bestowed upon me (thanks to my recent reenlistment) the opportunity to be a full-time student for one semester. A sweet deal, indeed.

I wanted to take full advantage of this opportunity. From past experience, I knew I could ably handle a full load of classes while also working full-time. Ergo, if I didn’t have to work, I could certainly take more than a full load, right?

The trouble was, doing this at just one school was problematic, as I needed the Dean’s approval (note: I did not get Dean’s approval). Refusing to accept defeat, and after a rightful egging of the Dean’s Mercedes (jk), I enrolled as a full-time student in a second University and as a part-time student in a third and a fourth. I suspect that never before in the history of man (and likely never again) will a student simultaneously be a Terrapin (Maryland), a Seawolf (Alaska), a Golden Eagle (Central Texas), and a _____ (UMUC has no mascot).

One semester. Four schools. Ten classes. Thirty-three credit hours.

I pulled so many all-nighters in that 16-week stretch that I can only assume I caused myself some permanent damage. It was common that I would work all night, only to be brought back to reality by the sounds of the waking birds in the tree outside my window. I don’t want this to become a Big Fish story, but I reckon I was doing 3 all-nighters every week for two months. There was no other way. How else can you cram 2.5 semesters into one? I could not even begin to imagine my 32-year-old self taking 10 classes at once. I would sooner die.

Let this be a lesson to us all. The ability of our bodies and minds at age 23 exceeds all known bounds. You can drink a forty of Olde English, work three hours, take a Calculus exam, hit the gym, and chase a couple skirts…all before 6 a.m.

Seriously though, this manner of “success” is a bit double-edged. I know myself well enough to know that I’ll always come through. I signed up for ten classes at once because I knew that, come hell or high water, I was going to pass every class. I wouldn’t fail and I wouldn’t drop out. I wrote a pile of checks that I was only able to cash by sheer will and Red Bull. And even today, not much has changed.

Make Transfer Credits Your Best Friend

This four-schools-at-once approach is a good time to explain a facet of education that goes unappreciated and, thus, underutilized.

Eric's College PlanA common refrain around the topic of “cheap” education is to start at a community college, earn your Associates degree, and “matriculate” to a well-respected four-year school. The thinking goes: same degree, half the cost. I agree with the approach, of course, but fear one stone is left unturned.

Every school I’ve been to (there’s five of them) have transfer credit agreements. In short, credit for a class taken at School A can be transferred to School B. The credit received at School B may be for:

  • The same class (e.g. English 101 transfers to English 101),
  • Can transfer in as an elective (e.g. Western Civ I transfers to Undergrad Elective), or
  • Might not transfer at all (e.g. Keyboarding II transfers as GTFO)

While the 33-credit Satanic Semester was brutal, it was cleverly designed. Before I enrolled in any course, I carefully looked through my degree plan at my target school (University of Maryland), and then looked at Maryland’s transfer credit page. From there, I found classes at Alaska, Central Texas, and UMUC that would transfer to Maryland and neatly fit into my degree.

I used this method due to time constraints (wanting to get a degree in a short amount of time). But, it can be equally as useful due to money constraints. Schools charge wildly different tuition rates. If I had to pay for this all out-of-pocket, then I would certainly have done it the same way—getting “cheap” credits and roping them in to an “expensive” degree. It functions the same as the “Community College to Four-Year School” concept, but it doesn’t stop after your sophomore year.

If You Can’t Work Smarter, Just Work Faster

If you want a perfect insight into how my brain works, watch this TED Talk. It’s describes me exactly.

There are many ways to get through life. Some of us (let’s call them, “Goody-Two-Shoes”) methodically devise a plan of attack, allocate resources, remove conflict, and execute that plan to perfection so as to avoid stress and doubt. Others just wing it. I’m a “winger.” And, you know what?, I’m cool with that. It works for me. All-nighters work for me. Cramming works. Starting a research paper the night before its due might be stressful, but it also might work. Last Wednesday at 1:15 pm I took, and passed, a certification test for government financial managers. I kid you not, 12 hours before I sat for the test, I hadn’t even cracked the book open. Yeah, I had a pretty awful Wednesday, but I got it done. And best of all, nobody will ever know the difference between Two-Shoes and me.

This isn’t some newfangled idea. It’s been around since Adam Smith, only by a different name.

Any good student of economics knows about the law of diminishing marginal returns. To recap, each additional unit of input (be it land, labor, or capital) will produce less than the unit before it. This principle proves why I can no longer get my wife a gift card for her birthday; she needs more…More….MORE…for the same level of happiness.

Said another way, diminishing marginal returns tells us that going from “Average” to “Good” is cheap, but going from “Good” to “Great” is expensive. We see this in a lot of places (antenna to Netflix is cheap, but Netflix to cable is insanely expensive), but nowhere else is the law of diminishing returns more prominent than college grades.
In most classes, “Millennial Student” can exert minimal effort, maintain a sarcastic demeanor, and even perform questionable hygiene and still pull off a “B.” Let’s face it, we live in a world of participation trophies and grade inflation, and “B” is the new “C.”

Millenial Trophy

I couldn’t even tell you the kind of self-sabotage that would have to occur for me to land a “C.” Seriously. I’m pretty sure the paper itself (I’m talking about pulled blank from the printer tray and turning it in) would probably get you a 75% in most classes, and you don’t even have to APA format the thing. To crack 80% (firmly in B- territory), “Millennial Student” probably needs a good hour of research and then ten minutes-per-page of feverish typing.

Eric Typing a College PaperIn short, half-assed-and-on-time is far better than full-assed-and-late or maybe even full-assed-and-stressed-out.

Do you know what they call the guy who graduates medical school at the bottom of his class?

“Doctor”

I know what you’re thinking, “this dude is crazy.” And yeah, you’d be right, except that it works. I’m telling you: it works. Remove the desire for perfection, and you immediately remove a huge roadblock that normally gets in the way of starting, thereby leaving you to get something turned in…on-time. And, believe it or not, whatever you end up with will probably be about 90% as good as whatever you would have done using Two-Shoes’s method.

Now, one thing should be clear. There’s a time when this shouldn’t be your primary strategy. For instance, for classes that actually matter (and you know what they are), you should probably be prioritizing those accordingly as the knowledge gained may (however unlikely) help you later on in your real career. But, keep this little strategy in mind for your darkest moments.

Am I Really Done?

I’ve gotten this feeling before. ‘Burnout,’ that is. But, college is a little bit like having going through labor. Yeah, it sucks when its happening, but give it a few months and it suddenly seems totally doable again. To the point, I’ve retired from school at least once before, and I expect this will be more of a hiatus than a permanent retirement. I have a sort of masochistic relationship with school. I hate it, but I love to hate it. 

In summary, just know this: being in school while you work is possibly the greatest wealth-building, debt-avoiding tool there is. You are increasing your wealth while also increasing your capacity to generate future wealth.

Thank you for reading! And, if you have any unconventional college advice, feel free to add it in the comments below.

Until next time,

Eric

7 Comments

  1. Great post. I worked all the way through my Masters and Ph.D. It took fortitude, but the work ethic and financial savvy it developed in me is something that I’m really thankful for . . . I see students all of the time that don’t experience the struggle of getting an education (I.e., someone else is paying for it). Eventually, everyone has to learn the process, not product, of education and it’s cost – both psychologically and financially. In my opinion, It’s how and when they handle adversity that determines whether or not they will succeed in life.

    Again, great stuff!

  2. I think college degrees are worth it if you can get one without going too far into debt for a major that has no real economic value – like art or piano for example. Professional degrees like accounting, finance, and the STEM fields are most valuable. Or becoming an entrepreneur is not a bad idea either.
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