Rural Life

A Professor’s Letter to Small-Town Graduates

photo by P. A. Jensen

Going to college can be the single most expensive decision of your life, but it won’t be the most important. You might want to reconsider why you’re going to college. Next, reconsider where you’re going afterward.

And why you’re going there.

You may think I’m exaggerating about how expensive college can be. If so, consider this: when you buy a house, you can always sell it back. Sure, you might lose money, but at least you’ll get something. Same with a car. When you spend your first dollar on education, though, you’re instantly in the hole. Unless you’ve figured out how to scoop out your brain with a melon-baller and sell it on the black market, you’re out of luck.

If that sounds like pressure, that’s because it is.

And the pressure builds no matter where you go to college, or even if you go on full scholarship. Maybe you’ve taken economics, and are familiar with the term opportunity cost. See, even if college is “free,” you’ll still spend four years there, probably earning very little money. Compared to staying home and working, you’ll be financially behind after four years. You’ll have missed the opportunity to make money, regardless if you spent money. That “costs” something.

And if you spent money on tuition, too, you’re not only out the money you spent, you’re out the money you didn’t make.

Welcome to the real world.

Thinking about college in this way raises the question why anyone would go at all. There are reasons to go to college, of course, but the reasons are painfully simple. Historically, there have been only two of them—only two good ones, anyway. Fortunately or unfortunately, though, those reasons have changed.

The first reason to go to college is to learn, or to expand your worldview. This probably sounds odd to you, but that’s because you were born in the 21st century, and have always had a world of information at your fingertips, and even in your pocket, with the Internet. When I went to college—which was before you were born, but not by much—colleges and universities had cornered the market on knowledge. The people who worked there and the books in the libraries held a lot of information, and you had to go to campus to get it.

Today? Not so much.

Again, you might think I’m exaggerating. Again, I’m not. We know the Internet is powerful, of course, but you might not know that there are countless—literally countless—college courses offered online for free. Totally, completely free. And these courses are put together by real professors at real universities. This is a real thing. Check it out. Some of them are even “hard.”

Also, whole companies exist to bring you online courses that are taught not just by professors, but by award-winning professors. The courses range from history to math to science to religion to philosophy to current events to business to yoga. And you can buy a semester-long course, one that you can take from the comfort of your home, at your own pace, for about as much money as you can make in tips in one shift at a small-town diner, or mowing a couple of lawns. (I know—I’ve done both.)

Do you have to go to college to learn? No. Not at all. Today with the Internet you can get a better, wider-ranging education for free than you could for a small fortune at a small university thirty years ago.

Nor do you have to go to college to “expand your horizons.” Kids from small towns used to go to college as a kind of rite of passage: you went to college to meet new people from different places. The people who didn’t go to college were stuck at home, often in church or at the bar, reliving the “good old days.” There’s a kernel of truth there: after all, when you’ve gone to school with the same twenty-some kids your whole life, like I did, some variety is important. And when I went to college, one of my lecture classes had literally more students than my hometown. There were new faces and new experiences, to be sure, and that was probably a good thing.

But again, the Internet has changed this. You can learn more about other cultures strictly online, I suppose, but you can interact with people, too. You can learn about events that you can attend. Places to go. Things to see. Instead of bulletin boards in the student union and strangers across the hall in the dorm, like in my day, you can fill your mind with novelty online. And then see them in person, sometimes. At least, if you make an effort, anyway.

If this sounds like weak tea to you—if you think this is no substitute for the college experience—consider two things. First, compared to what? Do you think that going to a small regional school within an hour of home in northern Minnesota, like my parents did, really provides some sort of grand cornucopia of ethnic diversity? Hardly. Even if the opportunities are there, most students don’t take advantage of them.

Second, at what cost? College costs are skyrocketing, and to go into debt—or even to incur the opportunity costs of college—to “broaden your horizons” seems like a stretch. Volunteer for AmeriCorps, if you’d like. Or, work for two years and then volunteer for AmeriCorps, if you’d prefer. Or, read to a senior citizen, or drive the disabled to the doctor. In the winter. Or, better yet, volunteer on a nearby Indian reservation. Or in a nursing home. It’d be cheaper, for sure, and a different kind of eye-opening, probably.

(What, is that not the “right” kind of eye-opening? Not the right kind of “horizon-broadening?” Hm. Maybe your ideas about “broadening horizons” were actually more about cleverly disguised résumé-building. Don’t worry—narcissism cloaked in flowery language about helping others is a common problem, and not just in your generation.)

But I digress. Regardless, the argument for expanding your mind and your worldview at college was always overblown, but it’s especially overblown in the age of the Internet. Spending more and more money to expand your world makes less and less sense as our world gets smaller and smaller.

The second reason to go to college, at least historically, was to get a good job. Again, there’s a kernel of truth here. Also again, there’s a lot of myth woven into the fact.

We’ve all heard “statistics” about how college graduates earn more money than everyone else. Those statistics are faulty. And we’re being nice here: they’re faulty at best, and irresponsible at worst.

Sure, it’s true that people with college degrees earn more money than people without, but the reasons might surprise you. These reasons center around two groups of people: the achievers and the slackers.

Let’s start with the slackers. There are people, it turns out, who are just “bad at life.” Yes, yes, maybe some of them were dealt a bad hand of cards by the gods. Maybe some are deranged or sick. Sure. Forget them. Many, many other people, regardless what cards they hold in their hands, decide not to play them. They’re lazy. They make epically bad decisions. Worse than being lazy or making bad decisions, though, many people feel entitled to lots of nice stuff just for being their pretty little selves. They want to win without playing any cards at all.

These people are everywhere. Everywhere.

These people are slackers. Don’t be a slacker.

See, slackers don’t keep jobs, or make money, or support themselves, or anyone else, for that matter. And these people wouldn’t keep jobs or make money or support themselves or anyone else even if you sent them to college, even on full scholarship. No matter what, their slacker-ness comes out in the end.

And these slackers never went to college, of course, or at least they never graduated, so for the purposes of our “statistics,” they get lumped in with all the people without four-year degrees. As if these slackers are the same as your town’s master electrician, or something.

Stupid, right?

So, the average income for non-college-graduates is artificially low, thanks to the slackers, who are somehow incapable of earning an income, regardless of education. Similarly, the average income for college graduates is artificially high, on behalf of the achievers.

My wife is an achiever. She got straight A’s in high school. Got into Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts colleges. Got into top medical schools. Did her residency in her chosen specialty at perhaps the top medical institution in the country, if not the world.

See, she would achieve no matter what. She would be successful regardless if she went to college. College didn’t have much to do with it.

If she had become a plumber, she’d own a company. A big one. Don’t doubt me on this. If she had gone into retail, she’d have been not just the floor manager, but the general manager by about the time you graduated from college. Then, maybe she’d have gone to community college at night, or done something online, just so she could work at corporate. Again, this is not an exaggeration. The drive in this woman is borderline pathological.

And, because she had to spend thirteen of the first eighteen years of her life in school (because the state told her so), she achieved there. In everything she tried, in fact. So, she went to college for free. And achieved there. So, she went to med school. And achieved there.

This is a pattern. This woman would do well, and therefore make money, no matter what. The fact that she earns money had surprisingly little to do with her college education, either: very little of medical school has anything to do with anything that is learned in college. From the perspective of the med school, college is a hoop to jump, a way to screen out the pretenders. Med schools do it this way because they can. My wife would have learned everything she needed to know for med school in a single year after high school. (Think I’m joking? The requirements are about thirty credits—two semesters. And she’s smarter than you are. And than I am.)

But, because this particular achiever sat around for four years in college, spinning her wheels, her earnings are lumped into the group who “went to college.” In fact, many or most of the achievers these days go to college, meaning our “statistics” are skewed yet again. This doesn’t mirror reality: my wife bears little resemblance to a frat boy from a crappy university who graduates with a C average in business administration and starts as the assistant manager at the coffee shop, with the high school kids, and never gets out of student-loan debt. Which actually happens.

Again, stupid.

So, comparing incomes of people who did and didn’t graduate from college is deeply, deeply flawed. (It’s a classic case of “correlation” vs “causation.”) The master electrician is different than the frat boy, and would have been regardless of education level. The anesthesiologist is fundamentally different than the slacker, even in a world with no colleges at all.

Still set on going to college, no matter what?

The harsh reality of the 21st-century education system in America is that too many people are going to college, but again, the real reasons are not the reasons we typically hear. It’s not just that too many people who aren’t “smart” enough for college are going, though that’s undoubtedly true. It’s not just that the college education has become watered down to accommodate the increasingly lazy and stupid students, though that’s true, too. Instead, when I say that too many people are going to college, I mean that the benefit of a college degree often isn’t worth the cost in general, and it’s worth even less when so many people have college degrees. The college-educated labor pool is saturated, meaning that the price for their labor goes down.

You haven’t been told this, because it doesn’t sound polite. Well, here it is: don’t you dare wade into that labor pool unless you know what you’re doing.

What are you doing, anyway? Why are you considering going to college when we need plumbers and welders and diesel mechanics, especially when they are in demand and make more money than the average college graduate?

As mentioned, college can be worth it if you get a degree that helps you make enough money to overcome the cost (and opportunity cost) of going to college at all. Simply put, there are still some college degrees that are worth something. Typically, those degrees are a) hard to get or b) unpopular. Or both.

Some degrees are relatively hard to get, like those in science, computer science, math, and engineering. Career-wise, those are a pretty safe bet. (With that said, even many high-tech companies, including several you’ve heard of, don’t require a four-year degree anymore, as long as you can, you know, do the work.) If you’re going to college in one of those fields, and you’re not a slacker, and if someone who doesn’t love you would agree that you’re not a slacker—or even resemble one—then you’re probably going to be okay.

Good for you. Have a good time in college. Make sure to pay attention to the events on campus, and make friends with someone who’s a different color than you, or talks funny. Or both.

Other degrees are more unpopular than they are difficult, like teaching. I come from a family of educators, from everything from high school math to elementary music, so I can say this with certainty: teaching sucks sometimes. But again, compared to what?

We often hear about how little money teachers make. This is both true and false. Are teachers paid less than they’re worth? Are good teachers important? Do they play major societal roles? Maybe, certainly, and of course. But teachers, at least in Minnesota, work exactly 180 days per year, don’t have to work weekends (unless they coach), have the ultimate job security, never or rarely get relocated, and have great benefits and retirement plans. Yes, regardless what you’ve heard, all of this is indeed true, at least compared to the average college graduate who works 180 days per year. Who are few and far between, by the way. So, skip the debate about whether they’re paid too little—I’m just saying that compared to other college graduates, you could do worse than teaching.

But not social studies. Or elementary. Or physical education. There are lots of people who want to teach these things, and you might have to bounce around to get a job. Instead, try math. Physical science. Home economics, too, or whatever it’s called these days. Languages, too. You’ll be in demand. You might be able to negotiate a higher salary, too, if the union will let you.

What? You don’t want to teach these things? Neither does anyone else. That’s why there’s demand. Doing unpopular or difficult things is how you make money, it turns out, whether in teaching or anything else.

And that’s a major part of the “career discussion” that you probably haven’t heard, and that’s sad. We talk to young people today about “finding their passion” and asking “what they’re good at.” Yes, yes, those aren’t trivial things. But we often fail to ask other, more important questions. How hard are you willing to work, every day, for the rest of your life? Are you willing to take a hard job that others can’t or won’t do? These questions are also relevant for your career, and are actually the most important questions regarding whether you’ll be employable, and how well you’ll be paid.

(We told you this wouldn’t be easy, right? You’re not a slacker, of course—you know, the people who feel entitled to nice stuff just for being their pretty little selves. Right? I know you’re not.)

You get the gist. Yes, there are reasons to go to college, but those reasons are a) fewer and b) different than the reasons you’ve probably heard. For a segment of the population, somewhere between slacker and achiever, it can make sense, depending on the major.

You may indeed choose to go to college. Again, good for you. But again, you’ve got to make that choice with your eyes open. Don’t get blind-sided by reality.

Speaking of reality, I addressed this letter to “small-town graduates.” Regardless if you go to college, being from a small town is going to be important for you, believe it or not. And again, it’s not for reasons you might think.

By now, you might realize that I’m not a sappy person. But I do know this: you’ve probably got some things going for you that you don’t even realize. It turns out that you just might be okay, after all.

All of us small-town kids have heard about how sheltered we are. We’re backwards. We need to experience the bigger world. We’re fish in small ponds. There’s truth to that, surely, but it’s a half-truth. I’m here to tell you, after teaching at the college level and after simply existing in this country for enough decades, that you have some advantages, too. There are at least two, actually.

First, it’s been my experience that people from small towns view work differently than people from suburbs and cities. This is different than what you might have heard, that small-town kids are hard-working. Some are, and some aren’t—there are slackers everywhere. No, I mean that kids from small towns tend to view work more realistically, or more pragmatically.

When we talk about small-town kids and work, we often oversimplify by portraying rural America as some foreign land of milk and honey, where everybody is one step from Laura Ingalls. You and I know this isn’t true. However, if for no other reason than rural jobs are more likely to be stereotypically “hard,” often having to do with resource extraction (e.g. mining, farming, ranching, logging), you’re probably not as far removed from stereotypical “work” as some other kids have been, at least on average. So, merely being in a small town for almost two decades means that you’ve probably seen lots of different kinds of “work,” and “hard work,” too. That’s more important than you might realize.

Another difference in small towns involves, believe it or not, economic diversity. Of course, both cities and small towns have dentists and receptionists, foremen and laborers, and superintendents and teachers. In small towns, though, kids are more likely to grow up knowing kids from a variety of economic backgrounds—with the owners’ and managers’ kids alongside the workers’ kids. Also, because of the nature of small towns, where everyone is lumped together, those kids are more likely to be friends with—and not just know—kids from a variety of economic backgrounds. That’s important, too.

It’s important because other kids grew up in places with defined neighborhoods or suburbs, where people are sorted based largely by income. There, the upper-crust kids live with upper-crust kids, and think it’s normal, or even inevitable, to be upper-class. The poorer kids grow up with other poorer kids, where everybody’s parents work for someone else, if they work at all. They aren’t friends with, or on the volleyball team with, kids whose parents are their own parents’ bosses. That’s a narrow worldview, especially regarding work, and hard work.

Altogether, then, in a small town, if you’re the dentist’s kid, you know better than to complain about how hard your dentist/mother is working, at least if the ditch-digger’s kid is around. Yes, your mother is working hard, but it’s a different kind of hard work, and you know better than to try to equate the two kinds of work at all. Similarly, if your dad digs ditches in a small town, you know better than to think that all people with more money have it easy, because you know your dad doesn’t work nights—in every season—like the doctor does.

People who live in sorted neighborhoods or suburbs? There’s less of that awareness, or that balance. They’re surrounded by people just like they are—or more like they are—and they tend to commiserate with each other. That’s the first step to victimhood, and to laziness. And you know who’s lazy?

Slackers. Don’t be a slacker.

It’s easier to get context when you have the fuller picture that small towns can offer. Didn’t think you were so worldly, did you?

The second thing about you that will determine your success? You know for a fact that people can indeed live decent lives in small towns. You think I’m joking. I’m not.

While those of us from small towns might be ignorant of the ways of the big city, many people from cities and suburbs are also ignorant about rural America. Maybe more so. See, you and I had to go to the big city growing up, at least once in a while, for doctor appointments, or state tournaments, or even just shopping. City people? Many of them haven’t set foot outside of metro areas, and the rural America they’ve seen is the tourist-y parts. We’re both ignorant of different things, but that ignorance is asymmetric, because we’re all living in an increasingly metropolitan world.

Of course, it’s important not to paint with too broad of a brush here—after all, many people who grew up in rural areas move to urban areas, which is why so many rural cities are shrinking—but you’ll be surprised to learn how many people think life stops at the last Olive Garden or Starbucks on the way out of town, and that Nowhere starts when you see the first few acres of field or trees. To some city folks, anybody past the last suburb is a hillbilly, and any city without a Target is just unlivable.

I’m not totally serious, but you’d be surprised how little I’m joking.

While this may be bad for us as a society in general, it’s good for you as a future adult. See, realizing that it’s possible—even just possible—to live a fulfilled life in a small town is an advantage. You understand that there are real benefits—real trade-offs—to small-town life. You can actually weigh options.

City people? Even if they think they know about small towns, living there isn’t truly an option for many of them. They could never make it happen. You know, just couldn’t.

I know that you might be itching to get out of town. I was exactly the same way. But unlike some “I know better than you” stories from sanctimonious elders, my story isn’t one of grand realization. I didn’t get burned in the city, only to come crawling back home. This happens, no doubt. No, I’ve lived in almost literally every size of city, and I came to realize that the trades weren’t worth it in metro areas. Sure, I missed home—we all do, no matter where we grew up—but when I started adding up the trade-offs, city living just didn’t make sense to me.

And a big part of that arithmetic is cost of living. When you look to buy a house, and when that same house in your hometown would be a third of the cost (with a bigger yard, which is to say a yard bigger than patio and a garden), you start thinking. I did, anyway. I started thinking about why the mortgages for houses in the neighborhood where I grew up were less than my rent in a 400-square-foot apartment in the city.

What was I getting in return? What was the trade-off? Having seen both sides, I could make an informed choice.

You, friend, have options. You can go home, where it’s less expensive, where you won’t be as strapped, and where you’ll still feel comfortable.

City people? They have no choice. They don’t do that arithmetic, at least in the same way. They’d be a fish out of water if they had to “settle” for living in a small town, where they—gasp!—saw people from work at the post office. Or if their kids also played volleyball with their coworkers’ kids. It’s like a giant invasion not of their privacy, but of their anonymity, which they’ve had all their lives.

Think I’m joking? Just ask my wife.

No, city people are stuck. They complain about the increased costs of city living, but they keep on paying, because they happen to be from a place where so many people think they want to live, whether for work, or for the amenities, or for the “social life,” or so they can be close to museums and other attractions that they would visit just as often if they lived an hour away.

Also, they’re literally stuck: in traffic, it turns out. You’ll get sick of that quick. City people think it’s part of life, like the weather. (Seriously—we listen to the weather report, they listen to the traffic report.)

But what if you’re from a tiny town, like I was, and you need to move to a bigger place for work, like I did? Here’s another secret: the “bigger” place to you is still Nowhere-ville, or just past Nowhere-ville, to a city person. Sure, maybe you need to move to a bigger place to have the career you want, but that doesn’t mean, at least most of the time, that you need to move to the biggest place. There’s lots of in-between, but it’s all Nowhere to someone from a city. The logic still holds, I think—you’ve still got a leg up, even if you leave your hometown.

Again, it’s an advantage. Use it or lose it—it’s up to you. Remember that you have the small-town card—you don’t have to play it, but don’t be scared to play it, either.

Remember who doesn’t play any of their cards at all, though? Slackers. Don’t become a slacker.

After years teaching in college classrooms and advising students in my office, I’ve seen kids from lots of backgrounds, and I’ve seen lots of paths. I’ve also seen lots of dead ends. I know how people your age view “work,” both in the sense of working hard in their classes and setting up a career.

I also know firsthand that a lot of achievers come from small towns. Maybe you’re one of them—I was, too, decades ago. Regardless if you’re an achiever, though, remember that your path might come back to your small hometown. Remember, too, that your small hometown can meaningfully guide you on your new path.

How does that path look?

Go to college if you want, but do it for the right reasons.

Live in a place that you love, but know what that actually means.

Work hard, just like everybody, or everybody you’d want to be, anyway.

Being from a small town is not a curse, but it’s not a blessing, either. It just is. And it will help shape who you become.

It will shape you no matter where you decide to call home. And no matter where you need to go to get there.

Just play your cards right.



P. A. Jensen is editor of Rurality Check.

He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.



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