College was necessary for me. Will my own child need it like I did?

My daughter won't need college in the same way I needed it — so should I plan on encouraging her to go?

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published September 16, 2022 5:30AM (EDT)

Graduation cap drawn on green chalkboard (Getty Images/Sonya_illustration)
Graduation cap drawn on green chalkboard (Getty Images/Sonya_illustration)

"Maybe you should go back to college, D," Bo, a dude who was about a decade ahead of me at Dunbar High and a fixture on the 400 block of the neighborhood, said out of his wide, shaky jowls. "Be a college man!" 

This was almost 20 years ago, when going to college felt like the answer to everything. Today, I have been a college professor myself for more than 10 years. And with the mountain of uncertainty and chaos we log onto every day, including the student debt crisis, I am questioning whether I want my own child to go to college. The LA Times recently reported on food influencers' ability to make and break restaurants, with some charging up to $10,000 for an Instagram post about a single meal. That's the entirety of many people's student loan forgiveness in one reel. Should I have my daughter start an influencing career now instead? 

The streets sucked the life out of me by my mid-20s. By 2005, most of my remaining friends were in one of two places —the penitentiary or deep in one of the city's many cemeteries. I was lost. I didn't have any real direction outside of guys like Bo pushing me toward school. 

"Listen to me, D," Bo said. "You still young. F**k the streets, man. Don't settle for no job. I gotta job. Man, job's not the way — you have no power. But college — college people run everything!" 

"I'll never touch another drug again," I responded. "That's on everything I love. I need to do something." 

That wasn't my first time thinking about or attempting to go to college. I had been accepted to a number of universities coming out of high school and even attended briefly, but dropped out due to depression, culture shock and a lack of guidance. 

"My man from up top went to a community college. Two years of school and he makes like $190k a year, boy!" Bo continued. "That's better than dope money, because you can keep it!"

I had never really known a person from my neighborhood who had graduated from college.

My eyes lit up at the thought of making a small fortune, having an office and a daily agenda. But clearly there were questions I should have asked at that moment that I did not: 

  • Why didn't Bo go to college, if it's so simple and so lucrative?
  • Why didn't "his man" have a name?
  • What community college did he attend?
  • What did he major in?
  • Who paid him that kind of money and what did he do? 

I was young and green in all matters dealing with being a productive citizen in a legal, structured society. Street smarts and living like an outlaw had been the foundation of my existence. I had never really known a person from my neighborhood who had graduated from college. Maybe they existed and were making so much money they didn't have time to come back and mentor a guy like me. Maybe the people who used education as a way to escape poverty figured out the secrets of financial stability and weren't hungry to share them. But if these imaginary people did it, then maybe I could do it too. And if I'm being 100 percent honest, once Bo mentioned that earning potential, I could not see myself doing anything else with my life. I left that corner, hopped on the nearest computer and scoured the Internet, looking for schools to attend.

I enrolled in the University of Baltimore, a small liberal arts college in the middle of the city, as a criminal justice major. I figured that I would have an edge because I'd spent some years as a criminal, and I believed in justice for us. 

My advisor, a sharp woman with an aggressive smile, welcomed me with open arms. 

"You are young and in search of education," she told me, patting my shoulder a bit too hard. "They could use you on the force!"

"Force?" I answered, clearly confused.

"Yes, young man. The city needs more educated Black police officers."

This woman clearly had no idea who she was talking to, so I didn't hold anything against her. But in my first criminal justice class, I found myself in a room full of cops — or at least, men and women who looked like cops, dressed like cops and smelled like cops. I dropped that class and my other criminal justice course and scheduled another meeting with the advisor.

"I'm not the cop type," I told her. "I need out of this major."

I replaced the cop classes with philosophy courses. Lucky for me I had also enrolled in a political history class, taught by a brilliant professor named Dr. Eric Singer. 

There were important parts of me missing before I attended university — gaping holes that were being filled with my college education.

Dr. Singer, who was finishing his Ph.D. at the time, was young and energetic, and he had a way of explaining history as if it was a colorful soap opera full of heroes and villains and people who acted as both throughout different parts of their lives. After his first lecture, I knew I would go on to take every class this guy ever taught. Two weeks after starting his political history class, I switched my major to history, even though the research skills I was learning had quickly taught me that history majors weren't being handed entry level positions that paid $190,000, or even $90,000, and maybe not even $60,000. But suddenly the money didn't seem as important. In that first semester, the information I consumed started feeling way better than the mountains of cash Bo had initially sold me on. I learned about Black Americans during Reconstruction, poor drug policy, and how toxic Ronald Reagan really had been. And it was fun. There were important parts of me missing before I attended university — gaping holes in my personality, spirit, understanding of the world and ability to dream that were being filled with my college education. And I would love for my daughter to have the same feeling one day.  

I dropped out of my first try at college when I was 18 because I attended a predominantly white school, where my fellow students came from money and generations of advanced education. Culturally, I stuck out like a sixth toe. I was 25 when I got to UB. And my peers, especially the students I connected with the most, were first-generation college students and a little older, just like me. We didn't bond at frat parties or during drinking games. Our connections were rooted in our takes on society as we worked full-time while trying to graduate. We weren't first-generation college students because our parents were ignorant or didn't understand the power of education. We were all from poor families, and college for the poor is still a relatively new phenomenon in America. 

The Higher Education Act of 1965 was birthed out of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. One of its primary initiatives was to provide low-income students with the resources needed to attend college. Prior to the Higher Education Act, college was either a rich person's game or designed for people who could work to pay their way through. Johnson's policy opened up higher education for the rest of us. Before the cost of living and tuition skyrocketed, higher education for all was a beautiful idea; however, I'm sure Johnson didn't know he was planting the seeds that would eventually grow into the $1.75 trillion-dollar forest of student debt we currently reside in. 

"You look good, boy, you taking care of yourself?" Bo said to me at our alma mater Dunbar High's homecoming game the year after I finished undergrad. The two of us, draped in the school's maroon colors, watched the game from the top of the bleachers. "You good?"

"I'm good man, just looking for a job. I want to use this degree," I said. "Where your homeboy work, the one that gets $190k a year?" 

"Ah, man, I didn't tell you?" Bo chuckled. "Dude is in federal prison. He was a scammer. He never went to school!" 

My first job out of college ended up being as a long-term substitute teacher at a Baltimore City public high school. On the first day, I made my way past blunt guts and crumpled up pieces of paper lining the floor around cracked-in-half desks and shells of machines that used to be computers piled in the hall right in front of my classroom. It was the most chaotic place I had ever stepped foot in — even more out of control than my own days as a Baltimore City public school student. 

I want her to have the opportunity to try things and abandon them, then revisit them and excel beyond her wildest dreams.

The school eventually hired me as a staff member because of the teacher shortage, along with my ability to connect with students and mentor them in the way I needed guidance back when I was their age. The school also promised to promote me to a leadership position after I got the necessary certifications. I enrolled in Johns Hopkins University to study education at the graduate level with the hopes of earning a Master's and then a Ph.D. I dreamed of opening my own school one day to provide a different experience than the ones my students and I had. And while studying at Hopkins, I became addicted to creative writing in a memoir class and switched plans again.

I do want my child to have the same kinds of educational experiences and revelations. I want her to have the opportunity to try things and abandon them, then revisit them and excel beyond her wildest dreams. I never would have found my passion for storytelling and my writing career if I hadn't stumbled into that criminal justice class I hated or gotten lost in the history class I loved. That history class sparked my interest in teaching, which led me into the school system and then to Hopkins to study education, where my love for memoir sent me back to the University of Baltimore to get my MFA. That's where I met my first real mentor in the writing world, Marion Winik, who made me feel like I could have a career with words. Without Singer and Winik, I would not be a professor at the University of Baltimore today.

I needed college for exposure and camaraderie. But more importantly, I needed it for connections. Poor people normally aren't able to excel inside mainstream systems because they don't have the right connections. They can't call an uncle or a friend of their dad's who owns a company and is willing to look past their inexperience and offer a competitive starting salary. College has been the gateway to connections for many people like me. But do my wife and I need to spend a quarter of a million dollars to buy our daughter those kinds of connections? After all, we already made them.  

My child is my child, so my network will be her network. She won't need a crafty teacher to trick her into loving books, because at two years old she already demands to be read to every day. She attends an elite early learning center and will probably spend her formative years in a sheltered private school — nothing like the schools I attended. She already has a schedule, a tight curriculum and parents who challenge her consistently. So if she doesn't want to be a lawyer, a doctor, a nurse, or any profession that actually requires a degree, should we assume she will automatically go?

Should we push her to visit campuses and design her adolescence around being a competitive applicant, then spend what will likely be hundreds of thousands of dollars for her to sit in on lectures she can also watch on YouTube, read books she can check out for free from the public library, and gain access to professional networks and connections my wife and I have already established?

Maybe she will have her own reasons to want to go to college besides feeling like she has to in order to succeed. Or maybe the thing that will make her feel the way I did in history class will be sharing with her followers how good it feels to dip a gourmet grilled cheese in locally-grown tomato soup. She's good at that already, and I hear it pays well. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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