A good friend posed a question on social media recently on behalf of a young person. My friend and I are about the same age, and the youngster is about the age of our children. She asked roughly: ‘would it be a good idea for this person to stop their school and get a second job to support their significant other (not spouse) until they got their degree?’
My instant and visceral response was ‘not only NO but OH H*LL NO!’ and then my second, reasoned response after a moment’s thought was ‘even if they were married I’d still advise against it.’ Finally, after I really had the time to give it thought (and it wouldn’t go out of my head) I realized I needed to blog about this. Because that first response is all they really need, but I remember being that young, naïve, and noble. And I was in that situation, and I made the wrong choice, and I can speak to these young people: don’t do it. Now, here’s why I’m saying no.
I’m saying no because it doesn’t work. Oh, sure, there are probably rare cases where it goes according to plan. But two things about that: one, plans are never going to survive contact with the enemy (in this case, reality) and two, there are exceptions to every rule. The rule here is: one or both are going to fail. Fail school, fail to keep up their end of the bargain, fail to stay in the relationship, fail to stay well, fail to stay not-pregnant… doesn’t matter what form the failure is. Some forms of failure are totally and completely beyond either of your control. You will fail in ways you didn’t think were possible. I can only guarantee one thing in life: you will fail.
Don’t lose hope. The first plan fails, but you have a backup plan, and a backup for the backup, so eventually, on a path you didn’t even survey from the beginning, you’re going to reach your goal. But you must plan to fail, and quitting school to put someone you have no legal ties to through school, in the hopes that all goes according to plan and they then put you through school… is failing to plan. It’s noble, sure. It’s sweet, and romantic, and the two of you planning to lean on one another while fighting the Big Bad World is no bad way to begin (or for that matter, to go on. Six years in and my current husband and I still do that).
What you cannot allow is the stars in your eyes to blind you to the cold hard truth. Statistically speaking, even with the best possible beginning, only 56% of those who set out to get a 4 year degree do so within six years. Even with a degree, the median income is about $45,000 a year, and while graduates usually out-earn those with no degree, that is not a guaranteed outcome. Any job at all is not a guarantee and the chances are you won’t be working in your chosen field. In the last thirty years, the cost of the degree has doubled, while the median wage has barely increased. You absolutely must walk toward the future with full knowledge that a degree is not a sinecure. I’m not saying don’t work on a degree, I’m saying… get creative.
In this case, I’d suggest creative financing. In other words, work and go to school. It can be done – I just took 4.5 years to get a degree (with two minors) with more than full-time classes (I averaged 16.75 credit hours per semester) while working 2-3 jobs (never less than two at once). Since there are two of you, shared expenses can help alleviate the living expense while doing this. Look at going to a less expensive school. If the school is accredited, no one cares if it’s ‘prestigious’ once you graduate. And in most cases, no one cares about your GPA, either, so it doesn’t need to be a perfect 4.0. Consider that some things you might be paying for are not ‘needs’ and cut them out of the budget. Paying for cable? Honey, you won’t have time to sit watching television. If you have a spare hour, you’ll have Khan Academy videos running. Shut it off and stream if you really want a movie from time to time. Plan to not eat out. The crockpot is your best pal, now. I could go on and on, but that’s probably another post. Before I go, I want to tackle the elephant in the room.
Relationships fail. I’m not sure what the statistics are, but you know that even a full on legal-contract marriage has about a fifty-fifty shot. Just a relationship? We no longer have the societal and cultural pressures (if, indeed, we ever really did outside formal betrothals) to keep them together when the going gets tough, and there are few things tougher than working 60-80 hours a week while someone else is rarely home. It’s brutally difficult to maintain, much less build, a relationship under those circumstances. The reason I said that even in marriage, I wouldn’t advise it, is that young marriages are still building a foundation. It’s not steady and stable and unless you are equally yoked and pulling in tandem, there’s going to be pain, and friction, and you’re proposing to keep rubbing those pain-points where the harness is taking up the slack for years. That puts stress and resentment in an already new and tender relationship. Which is why most of these deals fail. One or the other becomes resentful. Something breaks, and suddenly the deal is off. Even if you stay in the relationship, that broken promise is in there with you, only it’s like a small wounded, rabid weasel, gnawing at you all the time.
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time there were two people. They were young, and in love, and they met in college, then got married. But then they rationalized that if they both wanted a degree, they would have to change their expectations… or they could have one of them quit school, work for the other one to finish a degree. Then, that one would use their enhanced income while the worker quit working to go back to school for a while. It was a noble sacrifice. The selfless love they had for one another made this seem like a wonderful idea. Only…
The person going back for their degree wanted to go to a specific school for a specific (low-paying) degree. But they couldn’t afford to live close to the school, or on-campus, so they moved to a low-cost-of-living place about an hour away from school. The degree-seeker didn’t even make it through the first semester before the long commute palled, and they dropped out. The worker fell pregnant very soon afterward. Neither of them wound up with a degree.
There’s a happy ending, though. Nineteen years later, weeks after her 40th birthday, the worker walked up and received the handshake and diploma folder. She was supported in the audience that day by a spouse (not the same one) who had helped her through this degree, providing her shared living costs to help reduce the burden, and a shoulder to cry on when the chaos of school, work, and four kids was too much. She’d refused to let him take on any of the costs of school, and had maintained a degree of independence in her quest for the degree that would in time, according to one version of their plan, support both of them through putting her on a career path that would earn a stable income in a field that needed workers. To have it be her dream job was icing on the wedding cake.
It was an ugly story at the beginning. It was a very hard-won victory at the end, and won against the odds. I’ve literally been there, done that. And I’m telling you this. Don’t. Don’t sabotage the beautiful selfless love you’re demonstrating by cutting it off at the knees. Be practical. Walk into it with eyes open for the stumbling blocks that will be in front of you. Do your best to plan not only for the pain points you know about, but the ones that can pop up with no warning at all. It is possible to work through earning a degree. It is possible to lean on each other while you do that. But do not put off your own dreams. Find a way to make it mutual and parallel. Because if the worst happens, you must be prepared for it.