Today is an exciting day for me, because today we feature a CLASSIC DILEMMA (I’m a huge fan of classic dilemmas). Yesterday, Elizabeth wrote in asking for some advice, and today she’s gonna get some — from me and hopefully a lot of you as well. She also brings to light a giant, elephant-in-the-room issue with the education system in our country that’s really aggravating to me.
Elizabeth is in a pretty favorable spot right now, so it seems. She has a job that pays well, and — well, just let her tell it:
Hi there. Soooo…I am a 25 year old looking to go to grad school. Presently, I have a decent job and more than a decent salary. However I REALLY want to go back to school to get my master’s in teaching (I want to teach high school mathematics). This decision has a giant opportunity cost (I lose my salary to pay for school, and then will make about 1/3 of what I do now as a teacher) but I think a career as a teacher will make me happy. I wish I had enough mulah saved up to go back to school without taking out HUGE loans, but at 25 I haven’t been working long enough to save up. I also live in the city, which comes with a price. Know of any scholarships out there for grad students wanting to take on a public service career? Any advice would be appreciated!
Elizabeth’s problem is a universal one — go the safe route with what I’ve got, or seek my passion elsewhere? — but it’s a rare variant of the stuff we usually talk about around here. After all, you guys usually write in because you don’t have money and you need to find money so that you can go to school and then get a job like Elizabeth’s where you can make the kind of money she makes.
Today, however, we’ve got Elizabeth, who already makes great money, but would like to be making much less money (as a teacher), but in order to do that, she needs to borrow a lot more money (to spend on the extra education) to get a teaching job where she can, at long last, make less money.
First, let me explain why the whole situation is tragic to begin with. I emailed with Elizabeth privately, and she explained a bit more about her job. She’s a quantitative (read: lots of math) analyst in the finance industry, where her job is to study and improve the mathematical models her company uses to rate investments.
I think it’s safe to say, then, that Elizabeth is very good at math. Plenty good enough to be teaching high school students. But thanks to the backwardness of many state education systems, ELIZABETH IS NOT ALLOWED TO TEACH MATH.
Why? Because she doesn’t have a degree in education, or at least a minimum number of credit hours in education. That’s right — in a lot of states, being an expert at math (or whatever one’s area of expertise may be) isn’t nearly enough to actually teach math to young people. Ridiculous as it may seem, many states put more emphasis on teaching teachers to teach, rather than teaching them anything worth teaching.
So, we get people like Elizabeth — math wizards who would love to take their math wizardry to American classrooms, where it’s desperately needed, and make new little math wizards. Everyone wins — Elizabeth is more fulfilled, students get a great teacher and America gets a sorely needed bump in our overall math proficiency.
Ah, if only. Instead, we take Elizabeth’s willingness to sacrifice and twist the knife in her a little bit more. We say, “Oh yeah, thanks for being willing to come work for relative peanuts…but before you do, you’re going to have to take out, oh, somewhere between $30 and $60 THOUSAND DOLLARS in loans for the privilege of doing so.”
Quite a different story. And so, instead of having a brand-spanking-new math teacher in the schools ready to roll, we have Elizabeth on this site, asking me what the hell she should do with her life. Yeah, I’d say the system’s a little broken.
OK, rant over. Let’s talk Elizabeth. What should she do?
1. Try before you buy. Judging by the numbers bandied about here, I’d say Elizabeth has a six-figure income, or very close to it, and she’s only 25. This puts Elizabeth in the waaaaaaay highest percentile of people her age in terms of earning power, and hence, it’s not a position we want her to just toss aside if she’s not absolutely sure that the grass is actually gonna be greener on the other side of the cubicle.
So, how does she make sure that she’s going to like what she finds down the rabbit hole? With certainty, I recommend that she tries teaching math part-time or on a volunteer basis first. There are Sylvan Learning Centers and similar companies all over the place who would love to have her. Those are good places to go and dip your toe in the water before you leap into the ocean.
2. If happiness is your goal, minimize the costs of punching the educational ticket. I don’t know where Elizabeth is considering going to school for her master’s degree, but I know she lives in a large metro area with a variety of public and private options. I advise pursuing the cheapest public option. If the happiness goal is to get into a high school classroom and start teaching math, then I don’t believe that goal will be significantly enhanced by choosing a private or prestigious school to earn the degree that’ll allow her to get there. The difference in costs can be enormous, and the difference in her life due to carrying around tens of thousands of dollars more than is necessary in student loan debt will be even larger.
3. Save some money first! Yeah, this isn’t a new idea, but it’s worth repeating. If you’re going to ditch the high-paying job, save as much as you possibly can. Regardless of the very real good feelings associated with following your heart, you’re still gonna miss the fat paycheck when it’s gone.
4. Is part-time school an option? The viability of this idea depends on exactly how soul-crushing Elizabeth’s day job really is. If she’s already half-dead inside and her heart is blackening more each day, then part-timing it probably doesn’t sound like a very good idea. However, if it’s still tolerable, a workable solution may be to attend school part time and earn the degree a little more slowly without having to dip into student loan debt, since her sweet salary will still be coming in.
5. Do follow your dreams. I know this dovetails into the whole-life advice category rather than just school, but hey, I’m no one-trick pony. 🙂 Regret is an awful feeling, whatever gives birth to it. But it’s better to regret trying something than to regret not trying it. It’s all about control. Did you take control of your own future, your own life? Or did you let fear and doubt take control of it?
Obviously you want to weigh all your options, but after doing that for a good amount of time, one day you’re going to wake up and feel like one path is the right path.
Take that one. 🙂
All the best,
“Judge Josh” Barsch