It was early afternoon on the Monday after Easter this year. Augustana College’s classes weren’t in session until Tuesday and many of the students hadn’t returned from Easter Break with their families.
Julissa Arce, a freshman pre-medicine major, was already back and on a mission. She was headed to a meeting with the associate dean of student life. It was surprisingly warm and sunny for March in Illinois. The weather worked as the only thing keeping her spirits up from the news she had just received.
Her parents wanted to move to a bigger house in a new town. Buying a home on top of paying tuition would be difficult for her family. She knew they could probably find a way to make ends meet, but over Easter Break she suggested that she come back home for awhile. With about two months left of her freshman year, Julissa dropped out of Augustana College.
Only 56 percent of college students obtain degrees in four-year programs within six years, according to a study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Julissa, 18, is just one of many Americans to push pause on higher education due to financial reasons.
Although graduation rates have fluctuated with each passing academic year, enrollment rates are diminishing. College enrollment in the U.S. has been declining about 1.5 percent each year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. More high school graduates are choosing to join the workforce rather than going to a university.
When Josh Crider, now 20, was a sophomore at South Adams High School, he became an intern at a local Polaris dealership. He spent most days washing four-wheelers, and worked on a farm on the side. It was manual labor. In his first year of farming, he stacked a load of straw wrong, causing it to fall over. Josh learned from his mistakes on the job. This is when he realized he preferred learning skills hands-on rather than taking notes in a lecture hall. He learned a lot about what he wanted for his future. He decided that he didn’t want to go to college.
Josh graduated high school in 2015 and now works at Hi-Way Hatchery in his hometown of Berne, Indiana. He prepares young female chickens to lay healthy eggs by cutting their beaks and giving them shots. On certain days, Josh and his co-workers collect eggs. He estimates that Hi-Way Hatchery is the home to around one million chickens, so he is constantly working on taking care of the young chickens and moving them from house to house.
The median yearly earnings are $28,000 for an American without a bachelor’s degree. Currently, Josh makes about $35,000 a year at Hi-Way Hatchery. Still, many jobs require some sort of schooling.
When she was in middle school, Ashley Trondson, now 18, spent her free time watching makeup tutorials on YouTube. She stumbled upon them accidentally, but she was immediately in awe of the talent and skill required to change somebody’s appearance. This was the birth of her dream to become a makeup artist. Meanwhile, her peers were beginning to think about their future universities.
Dr. Richard Petts, an associate professor of sociology, said that there is a stigma against trade workers in our society. Although they might make enough money to be in the upper third of the nation’s income, trade workers are viewed by society as “lesser than.”
Ashley did some research when she was at Ashwaubenon High School in Green Bay, Wisconsin and found Makeup First School in Chicago. Makeup First is a four-month program that provides certification in several areas of makeup, from everyday to high-fashion looks. The school focuses on the skills required to become a professional makeup artist; it even offers a class on how to start up a business and get a career in makeup artistry.
Ashley knew Makeup First wasn’t a cheap alternative to college. The courses Ashley took in four months cost $6,900 and her required supplies, a professional makeup kit, was $800.
Ashley would also need somewhere to stay during her courses. There was a convent on the same street as her school, and she looked into living there. “I just found that that wasn’t really for me,” Ashley said
There was also a hostel nearby. Although Ashley was fine with bunking in a room full of strangers, her parents didn’t think it was the safest option. She ended up staying for four months in the cheapest apartment they could find, at $1,250 a month. Her parents took out $13,000 in loans, and she fully intends to pay them back.
Julissa also had her parents’ finances on her mind. She picked Augustana because they offered her the most money compared to other schools she applied for. With scholarships and money from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), $30,000 out of the $48,000 yearly tuition was covered.
Julissa plans to work full-time and attend her local community college while she’s home. The associate dean at Augustana gave her a list of classes to take at community college in case she is able to transfer back. Julissa had a $6,000 loan from FAFSA for her first year, so she’s going to work to pay that off in the meantime.
Workers in the Office of the Dean of Students at Augustana told Julissa she might qualify for more financial aid after her parents move. Still, the school’s tuition will raise by an extra $482 per term starting next school year. Julissa will have to wait and see.
One of the hardest parts of leaving Augustana was saying goodbye to her friends. Julissa had become especially close with her friend Jackie, and they already decided that they would be roommates next year.
Julissa told Jackie about her plans to drop out right away. The two girls and their friends went out to breakfast before class on Tuesday so that Julissa could say her goodbyes. Julissa said it was bittersweet. The friends talked about their favorite memories, but it saddened Julissa to know that they wouldn’t get to make any more. Afterwards, Julissa dropped Jackie off at her class, and then Julissa went home.
“I didn’t want to cry, because I wanted it stuck in my head that I was going to come back,” Julissa said. Her future is unclear, but she has her sights set on transferring back to Augustana soon. “I still haven’t cried, but I may cry if I don’t go back.”
For now, Julissa is focusing on taking classes at her community college and getting a job in her hometown of Belvidere, Illinois.
Julissa isn’t the only one hard at work. Since gaining her certificate at Makeup First, Ashley returned to Green Bay and started two jobs at the beginning of this year.
She works as a makeup artist at Glamazon Hair Salon, where she does makeovers ranging from $25-50.
A large portion of her work is bridal makeup. “There’s a bride, so you get that, and then there’s a whole bridal party,” she said. “It adds up when there’s a whole bridal party and they all want their makeup done.”
Ashley is also a sales associate at Elaine’s Wedding Center. There, she helps sell wedding, bridesmaid, and prom dresses. “It’s like Say Yes to the Dress,” she said about her job at Elaine’s. “There are a lot of brides in my life.” She also has her business cards in the store, and she gets to talk to brides about their plans for makeup.
Ashley hasn’t been working at Elaine’s or Glamazon for very long, but she’s excited for the future.
Customarily, makeup artists return to school throughout their career to keep up with changing trends. Ashley hopes to return to Makeup First, but she doesn’t have definitive plans to do so. “I’m really enjoying my job right now,” she said.
Dr. Petts explained that, while our society highly values higher education, it isn’t for everyone. College is not always the expectation in every town or family. The larger society tends to look down on people who don’t go to college, because of the common prejudice that they don’t work hard enough. But that just isn’t the truth.
Among adults between the ages of 18 and 34 who have not gone to college, two-thirds say they have not continued their education because they need to support a family, according to a study by Pew Research Center. Out of the same group, 59 percent said they would prefer to work, and 48 percent said they can’t afford college.
Josh works 45 hours a week at Hi-Way Hatchery, and he also farms on the side. He also has stock in Hi-Way Hatchery. He’s never once regretted his choice not to go to college, and his parents were perfectly fine with his decision.
Ashley is thankful for her family and friends, since they’ve been supportive of her choice to pursue a different kind of education. Her parents’ primary concern was how she was going to build a career out of makeup artistry, but Ashley understands.
“It is a different route than what other people do and of course it’s kind of unknown,” she said. “Because we didn’t know anybody who went to makeup school, and most people I know went to college.” Because of Makeup First’s course about pursuing a career in makeup artistry, Ashley and her parents felt better.
Ashley’s mom was also worried that she would miss out on the social aspect of college, but Ashley says it hasn’t been a big problem. “I do think sometimes that I would like to have that social life,” she said. “But it’s worth it to me. Because I’m doing what I love.”
Julissa’s parents initially thought it would be better if she didn’t leave Augustana. “They didn’t come up with the idea, I was the one who came up with it,” Julissa said. “They didn’t pressure me into anything. It was all up to me and since I didn’t want to put that on them, I decided to just leave and just try to go back next year.”
Julissa’s mom was upset; she didn’t want Julissa to miss out on her education because of finances.
“I’m the first one to go to college out of my family,” Julissa said. “I’m actually the second one to go to a four-year college in my entire family.” Nearly one third of new college students each year are the first in their family to attend. Still, first-generation students are 15 percent less likely than their peers to earn a degree in six years.
College is widely considered to be easy, and that getting in is the hard part, Dr. Petts mentioned. In reality, the majority of people who go to college don’t finish. Over half of America’s college students are labeled as “quitters.” He explained that college really is hard and it really is expensive. Financial issues are a legitimate reason to discontinue higher education.
“I have [a younger sister] in high school right now,” Julissa said. “I was also thinking about her, because she is going to need that help too. I don’t want to take everything and leave her with nothing.”
Julissa feels more confident about her hopes to return to Augustana because she wants to be a dermatologist. According to PayScale, the median annual salary for a dermatologist is $204,000. She started college as an elementary education major, and that made a future of student loan debt much more daunting.
Julissa will either return to Augustana the fall of her sophomore year, her junior year, or she will have to look to a different school. Both Julissa and her mother will be working hard so that Julissa can go back to Augustana in the fall.
Higher education is viewed as a requirement to be in today’s labor force, but college is not the path for every body. Dedicating four years to education without making money is simply not a financial possibility for millions of people, and accepting this will require a shift in America’s values.