Learning to Live: When a College Education is Always 'Worth It'

We've been hearing a lot these days about the value of going to college and the question of if it's worth it. A chapter -- "The Real Cost of Living" -- in my upcoming book addresses this question in depth, considering personal as well as financial costs, but as I mention there, sometimes the money, (the cost), is the last thing considered. Sometimes, going for a college education means having a reason to live another day.

This past weekend at the YWCA Young Women & Money Conference in Oakland, California, I had the honor of being the keynote speaker and talking one-on-one with some amazing women. I spent the most time with a woman I'll call "Anne." Anne approached me, holding back tears. She had just fled her abusive husband who, she discovered, had been trying to kill her and her children by slowly poisoning them. They had slept for years with dressers slid up against doors, never knowing what day would be their last. Finally, after becoming very sick and realizing what it could be, she packed up her 19 and 17 year old and left. Now, Anne lives out of her car.

As I started asking questions to try to discover the best way to help, Anne revealed some amazing things. She goes to school full time for her college degree all while also working full time. Her daughter does the same while her son tries to finish high school so he can go to college as well. Every dime Anne has goes to paying for school. With the rest, she can afford to buy only bread and junk food (which, as we know, is cheaper than healthier options) and she is now both malnourished and obese.

Anne graduates in May. And she's terrified. School keeps her sane and gives her a reason to live. Getting a master's degree is her next step -- an expensive step. I talked to her about her options, including working full time for a while and holding off on her master's degree until her personal life is more stable and her health back on track. You may be thinking, how could she possibly be thinking of going to graduate school when she lives out of her car? Because education is saving her life. Getting an education is a matter of life and death for her -- without it, she'd succumb to her guilt and depression, as she told me. The only things worth more than an education to her are her children, and their education.

Though I've never been at such a dire crossroads, I know what it's like to feel that school is a Godsend. Years ago, when I got accepted to Columbia University's Teacher's College for graduate studies was the same year I filed for divorce. We were together six months before the papers were filed and there were no children (thank the Lord), but, I was left incredibly distraught. To be a divorcee before the age of 30 is not a designation anyone would like to have.

But graduate school was a dream of mine bigger than anything a man or relationship could provide. It filled me up with soul-sustaining pride and joy. It kept me sane, focused and glad I was alive, even while inside, all I felt was despair. Growing up, education, to my mother, (who came to Manhattan from the Dominican Republic when she was 15), as to many immigrants, was the most important thing in life. It was a privilege, a blessing to have and especially for her female children, an option that we were the first to have in her family, in their history -- ever.

The discussion of whether or not college is worthwhile is definitely a privileged conversation. The idea of college for my daughter is surely going to be very different from what college and graduate school meant to me. So as we discuss cost vs. return on college, let's continue to remember that for many Americans and many immigrants, a college education can not only change a life, but save a life. And that is another, worthy conversation to have.