In North Carolina, kids between the 3rd and 8th grade take an end of the year exam aptly named the End-of-Grade exams or the EOGs for short. One day, after taking the practice writing exam before the end of 8th grade, what feels like many eons ago, my teacher pulled me aside and told me that I had completely bombed and my submission was thrown out. The writing prompt asked “Who has the hardest job in school and why?”

I had chosen to answer that question simply as, “the students have the hardest job in a school.” Looking back, I’m sure my response contained numerous references to the “unfair injustices” forced on the student body; from homework to 5 minutes between classes to shuffle about and the not so secret, secret vending machines tucked away in the teacher only lounges.

As an adult looking back, I still firmly believe that the students have the hardest job in the school, contrary to what the exam grader believed, but my reasoning has changed. It’s not about the vending machines or homework any more. I was wrong about that. Students have the hardest job in school because of the expectations placed on them and the burden of student loans placed in their way.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a place with a well funded school system. In the early 2000s, as schools were facing budget cuts that hit the arts programs first, we were in a position where the district did not have to get as creative to preserve the arts programs that many other school districts faced. All students were afforded the opportunity to test their strengths and put themselves in a position academically to excel. However, very little was said or taught about how to pay for college.

From an early age, society tells us that a college education is key to any success in our lives. We’re taught that high paying jobs and success go hand in hand with a degree from a 4 year institution.  No exceptions. Anything short of that is simply unacceptable. We talk about the value of an education but we never talk about the cost. 

In the background, some parents work their whole lives and save where they can to put their kids through college. Others apply and get scholarships, but what about the rest of us? The ones who will have to take out loans or apply for financial aid? Where is the preparation for an 18 year old who is about to take out a loan for $50,000, $60,000 or $200,000+?

If you told a 14 or 15 year old me that I would have to take out a loan for college, I would have laughed it off and then proceeded to relentlessly berate you about how my teachers and counselors preached that with good grades, I could earn a scholarship and get into any school I wanted. 17 year old me would have just shrugged off the conversation and assumed that my parents would be the one to foot the bill if my grades didn’t cut it.

Well, I was lucky and earned some scholarship money for college. But then, reality set in. According to the Department of Education, 0.2% of all students earned more than $25,000 in scholarship money. Only about 8.1% of all students received scholarships with an average of $4,000 per student. The average cost of just 1 year at a 4 year public institution, including tuition and cost of attendance is just over $21,000. My math skills aren’t the best, but I’m pretty sure that the $5,000 scholarship I got is way less than the cost for just one year.

That’s the root of the problem isn’t it? Education in the US is often described as a right for every child. But it’s more than that. It is an expectation without a roadmap. According to the DoE, 69% of all students take out loans each year to pay for their education and graduate with over $35,000 in debt on average. 

We can continue to focus on math and science in the classrooms, but where is the education for the real math? How can we even say primary and secondary education is designed to prepare you for college and the real world when it doesn’t help a kid understand the cost to get there?

As an adult now, 10 years out of school, with over $23,000 of student loan debt, I can admit I was woefully unprepared for the challenges of college life and the real world. Being impulsive by nature, I rushed off to school at the direction of the adults I trusted in hopes that when I graduated, I would be living the ideal cushy life. 

The truth is, there are 16 million students going off to college each year and only 32,000 of those students will even have $25,000 in scholarship funding. Only 1.5% of all students will receive enough scholarships and grants to cover the full cost of their college education. What happens to everyone else? Are we just left to fend for ourselves Hunger Games style?

For an easy reference, consider the growth of income in the US versus education costs since 1989. According to a report from the Federal Reserve, the average median income has grown from about $54,000 in 1989 to $59,000 in 2016. That is an average growth of about .3% or $200 annually. Meanwhile, the cost of a 4 year instate degree from a public university grew from $26,000 in 1989 to more than $100,000 in 2016. Since 1989, as fees and living expenses have gone up, each incoming class is paying almost $3,000 more than their predecessor.

Looking back now, that’s the direction my paper should have gone. Students have the hardest job in school because of the expectations placed on them by society and the adults in their lives. Outside of the moment, it’s their future, their livelihood and dreams on the line. Students are Apple stock in 1993. You know now what will happen to that price. If you could go back in time, wouldn’t you invest? 

Those expectations might have been right and worked for those teachers, counselors and adults 10, 20, 50 years ago, but times have changed. Education costs have skyrocketed while income has barely crept forward. Education is a right everyone is entitled to.

Students try their best to manage the expectations but are failed by the current system in place. A college degree has evolved to more than just a dream. It is a requirement and a fee that has to be paid to advance in life. We’ve all become focused on the result but as any kid in a science or math class can tell you, the data and process for how you get to your result matter. Show your work.