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.


30 responses to “Blind Nobility”

  1. Kathleen Sanderson Avatar
    Kathleen Sanderson

    This is an EXCELLENT post. I’ll add this: It *used* to be the norm, in most income strata, for the husband to have a job and the wife to stay home and take care of the house, the garden, and the children; she may also have had some kind of cottage income, or assisted her husband with his shop or his trade. (This was not an unequal division of labor, either — they both had plenty of work to do if the household was going to function.) This arrangement has now become rare — IMO, to the detriment of families and society. Not that women shouldn’t have the *opportunity* to work if they wish to, but it has become *necessary*. Anyway, that isn’t where I was going with this….

    Nowadays, almost all women will NEED to work at some point in their lives, even if they have a happy healthy marriage with a husband who is willing to let them stay home and raise the children. (And that is rare, too.) Her marriage may end; her husband may be out of work for periods of time; her husband may be injured or get sick or die. Family emergencies may require extra income for a while.

    If the woman has foregone her education in order to put her husband through school (it could be the other way around and be equally valid), when these issues pop up, what kind of work is she likely to be able to get? I’ll tell you what kind of jobs I’ve had, with some college but no degree: cleaning motel rooms; stocking grocery store shelves; cleaning in a hospital, an adult daycare, and a large private home; washing dishes in a commercial kitchen; cleaning at a church; secretary at the same church. None of these are anything to be ashamed of, but none of them pay very well; some of them were not even full time. This type of job, plus clerking in a small business, working in a daycare, and waiting tables in a restaurant, are the kind of low-wage job a woman can usually get with no college degree. It’s not usually hard to find a job, it’s just hard to find one that makes enough for a family to live on. It’s hard to even find one that makes enough for one single person to live on. It can be done, but it’s hard. (Living on such a low income, I mean.)

    It’s possibly a little easier for a man who has waited on his education, if he can get construction work or some other tradesman type of job, because those are usually a little better paid than the typical jobs available to a woman with no higher-education. Not all men have those skills — it’s well worth getting some of them even before trying to tackle college, because he will be able to make better wages while earning his way through school (or do like my new nephew-by-marriage and earn and save up enough for four years of college before starting college — he did that by the age of 22). But it’s still a rough go.

    It used to be ‘usual’ for a young couple to wait on marriage (don’t even *think* about cohabitation) until he made enough money to get them a place to live and support a family. This delayed marriage in most cases, sometimes by many years. But they didn’t have the social safety nets that exist now, and there wasn’t room in the extended family for freeloaders. Each family unit was expected to be self-supporting (except in emergencies, usually).

    So my point is that Cedar’s advice is totally spot-on. EVERYONE needs to complete their higher education, whether that is college or some kind of trade school or apprenticeship — I’m a big fan of young people going into some kind of trade where there is a demand and good wages rather than wasting money on an expensive-but-useless college education in feminist studies or basket-weaving. (Unless you plan to make a trade out of weaving baskets, which *might* be possible, but is on a par with the likelihood of an artist being able to support their family with their art — it can happen, but not everyone is going to be able to do it, no matter how much they want to and no matter how skilled they are.) It’s best to do it *before* launching out on the difficult process of creating a marriage and a family. But at the very least, do it together. Don’t have one person leaving him or herself at a disadvantage while the other one takes off for the stratosphere.

    1. Even when I was a SAHM I ran a business from home – and a successful one, to boot. But it required me to learn a huge amount in a very short time, essentially a college education in a very niche market, while handling babies, toddlers, pregnancies, and a host of other issues. Had I already a foundation in small business: finance, accounting, sales, marketing, inventory, so on and so forth that initial learning curve would have been less steep. I spent years exhausted and desperate, and it was not necessary. I don’t want my kids to have to deal with that. Work hard, work smart.

  2. Margaret Ball Avatar
    Margaret Ball

    I’ll add this: As the child of a department chairman, I got to meet a great many graduate students and newly minted Ph. D.’s. A depressing number of them dumped the first wife who put them through college because they felt she was no longer an intellectual equal. One of them actually complained to me that ‘all she could talk about was boring secretarial stuff.’

    1. Kathleen Sanderson Avatar
      Kathleen Sanderson

      I’ve heard of this happening. Pretty darned ungrateful and disloyal, if you ask me. Not to mention can’t keep their word.

    2. Happens in the military, too.

      Both directions– the service member pays for the spouse’s college, and gets dumped; the spouse supports the service member through decades of deployments…and gets dumped for a newer model as soon as the service member retires, because they’re no fun. (That’s where military retirement being available for alimony comes from, incidentally. And yes, it does hit female service members, too; being a military spouse is really horrible for your earning potential.)

    3. Yes, I’d heard this, as well. It’s infuriating.

    4. Teresa L Williams Avatar
      Teresa L Williams

      My sister put her first husband through law school. Very shortly after he passed the bar, he dumped her.

      1. This right here is why professional certifications, etc earned during the marriage are used in alimony calculations (similar to military pensions as mentioned above), even if you haven’t actually earned a dune from them yet…

        (OK, so my family law class was NY specific, and a lot of things have changed in that realm since 2011 when I took it, but I suspect this one is widely true. Not legal advice, etc)

        1. …earned a dune. Huh. I wonder what certification earns you a dune. Surveying?

          1. I assumed it was some obscure, very low value currency.

  3. I took one semester of art school in 1993. I finally got my BA in 2007.

    1. I had one year of college (Bible Major, Camping Minor) in 1996, graduated with my BS in Forensic Science in 2016. It can be done. It’s more painful than doing it a tad more swiftly, as I’m sure you’ll attest.

      1. Most of it was the mad rush thru film school, just in time for the economy to tank.

  4. 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?

    This is a bit of a peeve for me– it’s one of those “everyone knows” things that isn’t actually true.

    It seems to be based off of some years where the number of recorded divorces were half the number of recorded marriages; besides reporting issues (I still haven’t been able to find where a divorce is recorded if they are living in different states when it’s finalized, and several states don’t report either numbers) there’s somebody putting a thumb on the scale by including “separated” in for divorced, and (as I’ve complained about before!) rolling in couples where the husband is traveling for work as “separated.”

    The 2011 census included asking ever-married women if they’d ever been divorced, and ended up with the highest group being 50-59 year old women in 2004, at 44% of ever married divorced. (not sure what the error margin was)
    Eyeballing the stats, looks like 1/3 is a more defensible stat for chance of divorce, going off of history.

    A pretty standard result for studies looking at break-ups of long term cohabitation vs first marriage is the cohabitation fails 5 times more often, although the objective rates for both tend to vary wildly by how they tried to figure it out.

    Marriages that started with cohabitation are about twice as likely to end in divorce, too, and they’re unlikely to make it to marriage at all.


    Basically, if they’re not even willing to commit to marriage that can be dissolved via no-fault divorce, why on earth would you expect them to commit to fulfilling their half of a bargain that can screw up your entire life?

    1. Yes, I know the statistics aren’t quite on. There’s certainly an argument for multiple divorces by the same parties skewing the numbers, as well. However, for the purposes of this post it gets really muddy and it was too long already…

      It’s ugly, no matter how you do the math. It’s a sweet and noble idea but it mires down in human nature.

      1. Yep.

        You’re dead on about not burning up all that nobility and sacrifice when things are good, that’s to get you through the BAD parts!

  5. According to family legend, my Aunt Fay married a man and worked to help put him through medical school.

    You’re probably not at all surprised to hear he divorced her once he got his degree.

    I’m not sure how it happened in the era in which it transpired, but in the divorce settlement, he was ordered to pay her way through medical school. So my Aunt Fay was a doctor, licensed to practice in California.

    Sometimes the marvelous thing happens.

  6. Mark A OMalley Avatar
    Mark A OMalley

    23 skidoo

  7. 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
    With the caveat of “unless you’re trying to enter a ‘prestigious’ career, like law (with an eye on partner at that fancy firm or a judgeship) or foreign policy (aiming to rule the world from the State Dept) – that sort of thing.” Because there are a few careers where it sometimes matters more what sort of person you are (defined by silly things like where you went to school) than what you know and can actually do.
    And with the caveat of “unless you’re 21, with no experience in the field – then your GPA matters because it’s the only measure your potential employer has.” Even there, just do your best. (Employers love someone who can *work and achieve* more than someone who’s ‘smart’.)

    you’re going to reach your goal
    And sometime you’ll find yourself somewhere totally unexpected, not your goal at all, and you’ll realize it’s where you should be. 🙂

    (I’ll come back later and finish reading.)

    1. Yep, there are always exceptions. But they are rare, and if you can’t afford that prestigious school you may, as you reference later, need to change your goal.

      I actually don’t think a college degree is the be-all-end-all of every child’s education. Unfortunately, the Bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma. I faced a lot of resistance when I re-entered the workforce after running a business from home for a decade, even though I could show concrete results (IOW I wasn’t a fake MLM mommy). That’s what triggered my return to college. I’m encouraging my kids into college because at bare minimum an Associates, then work experience, will take them further than high school alone. Annoying, but reality. And my daughter who isgoing into CompSci has been strongly counseled to start working in her chosen field ASAP and rack up all the experience she can…

      But this post wasn’t about that. It was about the specific scenario my friend presented.

      1. scott2harrison Avatar

        And both the HS diploma and now the Bachelor’s degree are required IIRC to make sure that the new hire can read, write and add. Apparently the disparate impact rules prevent employers from just testing for this.

      2. True on the “not main point”.

        As to that, I would hate to throw any cold water on romance where it blossoms. BUT, you need more than a passionate “I love you” to pull off something like that. You require dedication. And if you’re not dedicated enough to get married, then how are you dedicated enough to stick together when the bills are paid?

        1. Objection:
          but marriages can be dissolved unilaterally, relatively quick and easy! (There’s a place here in town that has 90-day easy divorce ads all over the front of their office.)

          Answer to the objection:
          but you can’t do it secretly, and it provides protections against anyone being tempted to treat the other half in an unjust manner.

  8. Johnny Lumber Avatar
    Johnny Lumber

    I know there are a lot of factors at work but one sentence struck me: “The median wage has barely increased while college costs have doubled”. I’d say more than doubled. That statement made me wonder. If wages are not going up, why have the costs gone up? Whose getting the money? I’d like to one day see an accounting of just where the extra money is going.

    1. There’s a link there that breaks it down in more detail. Short answer is: look at the administration.

      1. Kathleen Sanderson Avatar
        Kathleen Sanderson

        Possibly also sports and fancy facilities?

        1. Actually, not usually. Sports brings in huge money, and most sports teams are moneymakers for colleges, rather than being a loss leader. As much as it seems useless to us, they can support other programs that aren’t viable on their own through the funding from sports.

      2. Yep. Especially all those Diversity Administrators and such.
        They cost more than the professors do.

  9. mary martha Avatar
    mary martha

    As a young college student one of my ‘study buddies’ was a woman in her late 40s. She had previously dropped out of college and worked her way through her husband’s college, medical school and developing career while raising his children.

    On the 18th birthday of their youngest child she was served with divorce papers.

    Evidently in the divorce negotiations he was required to pay for her education and spousal support as long as she was a full time student.

    This woman was a great, dedicated student and more importantly, a wonderful teacher who taught all of her fellow students to never, ever stop your quest for achievements in life just to support another person’s success.

    True support in a relationship should go both ways. Each helping the other to succeed.

    Of course, it’s a different if your partner has a medical crisis and needs your support or there is some other emergency.