Raised by working-class parents — Dad’s a construction worker and Mom a practical nurse with a GED — the Hopper sisters excelled in school. Briallen earned a PhD from Princeton and lectures in English at Yale, barely earning enough to pay her student loans. Johanna, 20, gave up on college after a year. Debt-free, she works at a bakery for slightly more than minimum wage. They write about their very different college choices in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Briallen worked in child care and food service for a while after high school, went to community college, and was accepted to a selective four-year college but was not offered enough financial aid to go. She finally graduated from a local college with the help of Pell Grants and a lot of debt. She can’t imagine her life without higher education, but as a non-tenure-track academic in a tough job market, she has limited job security, and she owes more than $800 a month in student-loan payments. Her student debt makes it impossible for her to save money or start a family anytime soon, and she is entering her mid-30s.
An honor student, Johanna was admitted by selective public and private universities and a nationally ranked liberal arts college. But the scholarship offers didn’t pay the full costs. She worried about getting a job that would enable her to pay her student loans.
Johanna was wary of graduating with substantial debt and no family safety net, so she took a year off to work and save money and try applying to college again. Her financial-aid offers the next year were no better. She ended up taking classes at the local satellite campus of a state university while living at home and working long hours at a salon to pay her own way.
But after a couple of quarters she discovered that, because of the poor academic advising she had received, none of the introductory courses she had taken were actually required for her degree. Her AP credits from high school should have qualified her to start as a sophomore, but she was mistakenly placed in freshman-level courses.
Her savings depleted, Johanna left school. She works full time for $13,000 a year. She reads, writes and pursues “free or cheap cultural and educational opportunities.”
Johanna hasn’t ruled out college someday, but even community college would require money, time, and faith in the system that she doesn’t yet have. Too many of her college-educated friends are living off of family and food stamps. She’s determined to seek success and self-worth outside of the enormously expensive educational institutions that too often disregard the significant personal sacrifices students make to attend them.
Briallen is trying to talk her sister into going back to college. “She believes higher education is valuable beyond the price, and she hopes it will even prove a good investment someday, if the economy improves.”
Johanna believes her choice to educate herself without debt should be respected.