My parents couldn’t afford it. I mean, according to the government, they “could.” They absolutely couldn’t afford it. I filled out the FAFSA… my parents made too much money (even though they were up to their eyeballs in debt). The entire experience was anxiety-ridden. The annoying guidance counselors, the pressure from coaches and mentors, all the other students talking about college tours and acceptance letters. It all led to a major let-down that made me reconsider what everyone had told me up until that point: “go to college.”
It was that or work a dead-end job in my home town where I would make minimum wage for most of my adult life (small town, small opportunities). Don’t get me wrong, I had the desire to go to college. However, the idea of racking up insane amounts of student debt was not appealing. It didn’t sound appealing at all despite every adult’s best effort to encourage it. That’s why I joined the military. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was a determining factor behind my decision.
I imagine I wasn’t the only one that chose to serve for a variety of reasons that included money for college. One grandfather served in the Navy during Vietnam and the other served in the Army during World War II. My uncle served in the Navy during Vietnam. My great-uncle served in the Navy during the Korean War. I was the oldest child in my family. I spent my entire youth in Boy Scouts. I volunteered my time at charity events. I aspired to be like those men in my family and was already committed to serving my community – why not my nation?
What did I miss out on by not going to college? Parties, drunken nights, and unforgettable stories? Unlikely. At 22 years old, I’m almost certain I could out-drink an entire frat house and still walk into work the next morning. Not to brag, it kinda comes with the territory – the drinking that is. In all reality, I probably just missed out on the 6-figure stockpile of debt incurred by attending a university. That and the wild journey of finding a career post-college.
Oddly enough, I ended up going to college, while serving. It wasn’t the allure of attending a world-renowned college. It wasn’t the requirement to pursue education — I didn’t want to follow the path to become an Officer. It wasn’t even the desire to learn (I had enough technical training to drown that desire).
It was the thought of getting out of the military with nothing to my name but a DD214 and a handful of memories.
The “fear” didn’t set in until after 10 years of service. By this time, I was committed to staying in the Navy until 20 years and retiring. Veterans can probably attest to the fear that accompanies getting out of the military. You start to wonder what “marketable” skills you possess. Most people assume a degree is just a check in the box on your resume. Then again, it depends on the field you want to be in post-military and whether any of your time in the military is applicable to your new endeavors. If you were in a technical field and you wanted to become a government employee, you probably could — without a degree. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I “grew up” and left the military. It would be a fresh start and a new venture much like that high school graduate.
So, I went to college. What a nightmare. Balancing life in the military, family life, and college courses… it felt like a mistake. It took 6 years to earn a “4-year” degree. What a painstaking process. I just endured it and all that it cost me (free time, weekends, my sanity). Sure, it was free since I utilized tuition assistance, but it did not mean much while still serving. That bachelor’s degree felt like a piece of paper. In all reality, it was.
I started to look at jobs and weigh my newfound piece of paper against a master’s degree. Which would open more doors? It appeared that the master’s degree would. I had time left in the military, which meant more free schooling without touching my G.I. Bill — one of the reasons I joined in the first place. Next thing I know, I was enrolled in an MBA program, drowning in coursework again. The nightmare continued. Maybe it will be worth it or maybe I will retire and become an entrepreneur (no degree required).
Along the way, I learned a few things.
- Take the time to find your “why.” Read or listen to Simon Sinek if you need to, or just figure out who you are and what you are passionate about. You will probably regret whatever degree you pursue simply because you didn’t take the time to find yourself.
- Understand where to find resources should you want to pursue college. If you want to join the military in order to fund a degree, do your due diligence. Research the branches, find out what tuition assistance programs exist, and look into grants and scholarships. Don’t join the military “just to pay for college” — you will find a ton of people who didn’t enjoy that route. If you’re in the military, ask around, check out the college office, or talk to a veteran advisor when you find a college that suits your needs.
- Remain passionate about learning. This doesn’t require college attendance. YouTube is free. Scholarly articles are all over the internet. Books fill the public library. Find something that you are curious about and figure out what it is all about.
Don’t join the military because you want to pay for college. It’s a great avenue to pay for school, but you’ll end up regretting the experience. If you’re in the military, and you want to go to school, weigh your options. Accelerated online courses are a kick in the pants if you lack the time to devote your attention to them. Take the time to do some “self-discovery” and learn what you’re passionate about. It would be a shame to get a degree in art if you want to be a lawyer when you grow up. Maybe college isn’t for you — that’s okay. Don’t let external pressure convince you otherwise. Do you.