Back in 2007, when I was graduating high school, I was excited to go to college. My therapist at the time was supportive but to be honest, one of the biggest reasons I was attending post-secondary school was so I could remain a dependent on my parents’ income taxes and therefore still be eligible for their health insurance. MassHealth existed at the time, but the Affordable Care Act did not. While there was a lingering option in the back of all of our minds that maybe I should apply for disability and focus on therapy (the summer before my senior year of high school kicked off an extremely rough depressive period that I still haven’t recovered from), we didn’t know enough about the process to realize that I was eligible. My parents drilled into my head how important it was that I have health insurance, because without it I wouldn’t have access to the health care and medications I so desperately needed to function. While I wasn’t sure at the time what I wanted to do for a career outside of being a stay-at-home mom when the time came, the first thing I always asked when looking into a certain type of job was “what kind of health insurance does this field typically offer?” So even though there were some major issues that weren’t properly addressed, in the fall of 2007 I headed up to Maine to begin my college career.
Long story short, it failed. Miserably. I did well in one class during my first semester, and sought medical withdrawals from all of my classes in my second and third semesters. It became clear pretty quickly that through a combination of me being lazy and in no mental state whatsoever to cope with the stress of college life that I needed to return to Massachusetts and get some intensive care before proceeding with adult life. Except that didn’t work either. Strapped for cash and not really getting out of the house much, my mother encouraged me to get a job – “Just to give you a social outlet,” she said. Except being the perfectionist that I am, I got promoted before my 90 days was even up and instead of getting the intensive care I needed and focusing on my therapy, I was hyper-focused on my retail job instead. It wasn’t until I finally had a long-overdue breakdown that I quit without two weeks’ notice and finally applied for disability so I could focus on my mental health and well-being.
While my bipolar disorder was the primary reason for dropping out, another deciding factor was that I was undeclared during my entire three semester college career. I considered declaring my major as early childhood special education, but I didn’t actually have any interest in it – I was simply attending a school renowned for its training of teachers and people told me that’s what I should do because I wanted to be a foster parent. Being a foster parent is too hard, so be a teacher instead, they said. I spent a decent chunk of money on those three semesters and I couldn’t justify spending any more when I didn’t actually know what I wanted to go to college for. So whenever I ran into former teachers while working in my hometown, I staved off their disappointed remarks and glances by saying that I would go back when I could justify the hefty price tag because I had solid career goals. But the longer I worked in retail, the more content I became with my position. I started imagining my career being at one of the stores in the chain I worked at, working my way up the ranks and excelling in customer service. Or perhaps I would work in a higher-end retail store that wasn’t reliant on commissions once I was settled down. Maybe I could be happy working at something that didn’t require an expensive college education. I started to, in my own way, become an advocate for other people who eschewed university – you didn’t need to have an Associate’s or a Bachelor’s or a Master’s to be successful or even to be a worthwhile human being.
However, my lack of a college education combined with not being able to work took its toll on my self-esteem. I had nothing in my back pocket to make people proud of me. Could I still consider myself intelligent even if I didn’t have a degree? Was I even cut out for college? Did my disability prevent me from participating in an inherently ableist institution – or was I simply too lazy to put forth the effort for schoolwork? Could I cultivate a lifelong love of learning without formal schooling? If I did decide to bite the bullet and go back, was I giving up on my stance that I didn’t need college to feel whole and was I passing judgment on others who chose not to pursue a higher education?
I still don’t have the answers to these questions. And if I were to go back to school, at this point it would be to give myself something to do or to expand my academic horizons and for those reasons alone I can’t justify the cost. American universities are an ableist and classist institution that favor those who are neurotypical and can afford the exorbitant cost (or alternately, those who can handle the mind-numbing stress of working their way through school while giving little thought to their own self-care). I still don’t think it’s fair to expect everyone to obtain a college education, nor do I think it’s necessary. But societal pressure still gets to me, and I sometimes wonder if I’m wrong and worth less because I don’t have a degree. I have to remind myself that, yes, I am intelligent and I can accomplish things, degree or no.