Debt may dissuade some from attending college, although high-school students by and large don’t understand that a college loan is just that. “They don’t realize they have to pay it back,” McCarey says. She’s known more than a few who’ve dropped out of college after two years because it hits them — and their parents — that the money is not gratis. “I don’t think they get it until they get the bill.”
She says that the ones who’ll succeed in college are those in advanced-placement classes who have study skills and keep their GPA between 3.5 and 4.0. “The kids between 2.5 and 3.0, in the regular classes, they’re probably not going to make it.” McCarey is frank, some might say punishingly realistic, with her charges. “I tell them, ‘You might get into college, but the chances of you staying in college are slim to none. You don’t have the study skills. You’re barely getting by.’”
I ask McCarey if scholarship, fine art, self-enrichment, and the love of study appeals to any of her high schoolers. Out of the 1200 at Clairemont, she says, “maybe 5 fit that profile.” Job, job, job is the mantra — neither a degreed profession, nor love of learning, nor a beautiful mind is the goal. It’s odd, too, that with longer life expectancy and second acts encouraged in our culture, Americans equate higher education so thoroughly with employment — except perhaps in the case of a liberal-arts degree. A generation ago, such degrees were a common aspiration.
College avoidance may be cultural. McCarey notes that 53 percent of Clairemont high’s population is Hispanic, and for most, college is doable only if the campus is local (a situation that contributes to the proliferation of online classes). Hispanic kids, she says, often “do not go away to college. Their families don’t want their kids to leave, period. If they go [to college], they live at home and commute. It’s the only way, especially with the girls.”
Why the tether?
McCarey has a story. When she counseled at Hoover High School, a Hispanic staff member told her that parents in her culture didn’t want their kids to roam. That means working and not moving on to, or away, for higher education. It’s a “form of insurance. Many families don’t have insurance — they have children. Their children are their insurance.”
Moving out, and especially going off to college, suggests that the kids “may never come back, [that] in essence [they] may not be there to take care of the parents when they get sick and old.” Many families don’t want their children marrying their professions, thereby divorcing either their families or their communities.
In 2010, student debt in America reached the $1 trillion mark. The explosion of such debt is among the harshest types of economic indenture, afflicting the poor and the middle class, for whom college is an added — not a planned- or saved-for — expense. In the past three decades, while inflation has risen threefold and healthcare sixfold, college costs have shot up tenfold. Some bubble-wary economists believe that college-loan debt — the average in 2012 for a graduate was $26,600; 60 percent of those attending college borrowed; 37 million people owe, about one in ten — is a looming financial crisis on par with the mortgage crisis five years ago. Why? Student debt is now greater than the country’s credit-card debt.
Unpaid bills are just one of many bugaboos that beset Tyler Wayne Davis, who has myriad doubts about the worth of a college degree. He meets me one January afternoon at Lestat’s on Park Boulevard to talk about his blowing off college, something he’s been good at for the 12 years since finishing high school.
An Ocean Beach resident, Davis at 30 is open-faced and warmly relational, less jaded than I feared. He wears a green hoodie and a green hat. Above the hat’s bill is a button — a capital “A” with a circle around it, the insignia of the anarchist. He’s an unabashed champion of social justice who recently married his longtime girlfriend and is vexed that he’s educationally stuck.
Any debt, he says, “really weighs on me.” He and his wife just bought a car, financing $18,000. This was the first real debt for either of them. Their avoidance was “partly out of fear, partly out of principle,” Davis says. “It’s scary. Hell, I can barely pay back friends who loan me $20, let alone pay back a credit-card company that has no remorse.”
We talk about the idea that one of the major problems with college debt — which he has so far evaded — is that it almost guarantees you’ll have to work at a job you won’t like to get rid of that debt. And yet, without a degree and the crushing college bill, you’d probably be working at a job you won’t like anyway.
Davis is not averse to hard work. For years, he’s found jobs, paid and unpaid, working with at-risk kids in summer camps and detention; he’s also worked with disabled adults. These days, he has two jobs: helping home-bound adults on public assistance and managing a group of merchandise kiosks at Belmont Park.
Tyler discusses college
How many times, he moans, has he, when applying for a job, faced the box on the form indicating “college education,” put down his handful of community-college classes, and then been told the cold fact that, learning-wise, he’s underqualified?
Davis tells me a story, one that’s “played over and over in my mind a million times.” While he and the woman who became his wife were living in Lawrence, Kansas, a friend from Austin, Texas, called and said he had the perfect job for him, one in which Davis would set up “social experiments with high-school kids” and create diversity-training programs to defuse bullying. He’s had ample experience in all these things, mostly with Anytown, a program for disadvantaged youth aged 14–18 that is sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice.