Every morning I drink coffee with The Unyielding Claw of the Universe. She’s also known as Mrs. Shoffner. For the past couple of years we’ve bought caffeinated beverages at the same Starbucks and chatted as we drank them. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. I learn about the things she’s learned in her 35 years as a junior high English teacher, and she gives me shit about my caramel frappucino.

This morning I mentioned to her that my ancient car had just destroyed itself in a storm of black smoke and Japanese plastic. I complained about how expensive cars are now and about all my other financial burdens. And I described how in particular my student loan debt was crushing me—a staggering amount that I could never pay off, in return for a degree that hadn’t enabled me to earn the kind of money I’d expected. In fact, I told her that I thought all student loan debt should be forgiven for the good of the country.

Mrs. Shoffner laid her trifocal gaze upon me, and I felt as if I might have just done something bad with a dangling participle. She said, “Young man, did you freely assume this obligation? Was a hooded fellow wielding a red hot iron standing behind you when you signed the loan agreement?”

I smirked at her. “I did, and no, there wasn’t anybody like that behind me.”

“So you agreed to the loan, and then the rapacious lender altered the terms, perhaps increasing the interest to usurious levels. Is that the case?”

“No, but that’s not the point.”

“What then is the point?”

I told myself that she was from another generation and didn’t understand how unfair the current system had become. I resolved to be gentle. “You can’t get anywhere without a college degree these days. That’s just a fact. And college tuition is outrageously expensive. There’s no way to get that degree without borrowing a huge amount of money.”

I gave Mrs. Shoffner a polite smile and waited for her to acknowledge my explanation. She returned my polite smile and waited, offering the impression that I had incompletely conjugated a verb. I toyed with my frappuccino’s straw until my discomfort at last forced me to say something else. “I did the thing I was told to do in order to succeed. I got the education. But the game is rigged. I can’t get a job that pays enough, and now there’s no way to pay off the loan.”

“I see,” she said, and she sipped her black coffee with a double espresso shot. “Who told you to do this thing?”

After blinking twice I said, “Everybody.”

“Then everybody promised to employ you at a sufficient wage to repay your loan. Correct?”

When I frowned at her, she continued, “Or perhaps those who loaned you the money promised to employ you in so lucrative a position?”

“That’s ridiculous! You’re oversimplifying a complex—“

Mrs. Shoffner lifted her arthritic hand in a gracious motion, displaying her palm as if it were the Wall of Troy. I stopped speaking.

“In fact, no one made a binding promise to provide you anything, other than money that you must repay. Perhaps you heeded certain nonspecific advice, but it was you who chose to borrow money, and you invested in an education.”

“It was a bait and switch!” I said.

“Your education has intrinsic worth, but perhaps you fail to value Steinbeck and the Pythagorean Theorem. I myself find Pythagoras as nauseating as a rancid codfish. But you nonetheless made an investment, and you may have invested unwisely. If you purchase a house anticipating it will appreciate in value, and it then does not so appreciate, do you expect the loan to be forgiven?”

I cherished a fleeting image of ramming a cranberry scone up Mrs. Shoffner’s nose. Instead I said, “No, of course not.”

“Then how is this different?” She sat there, straight-backed in her navy blue polka dot dress like Socrates’ cruel maiden aunt.

I didn’t even have to think. “This involves people’s livelihoods. It’s about their jobs. It’s more basic.”

“Then perhaps you should have considered your livelihood before you borrowed this astounding sum. For example, if a man intends to become a poet, he might not choose to borrow $50,000 to finance the endeavor, unless he intends to repay the debt over 200 years.”

I leaned back and sighed. “Fine. Maybe I should have thought about all of that back then. Maybe. But this is where I am now, and I’ll never get out of it.”

Mrs. Shoffner looked around the coffee bar while pursing her rose-pink lips. “Perhaps this establishment is hiring. With a second salary I am sure you could pay off your loan in a few years.”

I gaped at her. With my mouth open that wide I’m sure she could see my tongue, and maybe my tonsils. Maybe even my stomach clenching at the idea of a second job.

“Why not?” Mrs. Shoffner grinned. “That is how I paid for college.”

Instead of answering, I just smiled at the old lady and lifted my cheap plastic cup in a toast. I knew I’d never convince her, so I’d pretend to capitulate and never mention it again.

She touched her cup to mine and said, “I know that you are not convinced, young man, but carry away with you this one idea. Nothing is ever fair, and the game is always rigged. Acknowledge that, and you shall be far more successful.” She winked. “Besides, what else do you have to do with your time? Sit around with vindictive old bitches and drink coffee?”

My recollection of the day I signed up for my student loan. (Photo from http://www.entrepreneurrookie.com)

They won’t let you cut out a guy’s kidney unless you have a college degree. I asked. And it has to be a medical degree. Medieval Russian Literature won’t convince them to let you scrub and order a nurse to hand you any of those obscure, scary surgical instruments. So, if you want to do something like this, I recommend snagging a college degree or two. Even if cutting out kidneys holds no appeal for you, a degree looks really snappy on a resume. It gives you something to list below your first job at Hobby Lobby and above your personal interests in Angry Birds and pornographic origami.

Keep in mind that if you don’t want to do something specialized like medicine, the exact type of degree may not matter much. I personally went for one of those degrees that makes some people say, “What do you expect to do with a degree in THAT?” Now, I would like you to please do me a personal favor. The next time you hear someone say that to a kid, look around for the heaviest thing you can lift and hit that person on the knee with it as hard as you can, because he is a damned moron who deserves to limp for the rest of his life.

I’m not the brightest guy on my block, but my degree never kept me from getting a job. Think of an employer’s problem this way. Employers only hire when they’re in pain. If everything was fine and they weren’t in pain, they’d just keep the money and not hire anybody. Now, if you were in pain, say from your hand being crushed in a car door, would you care whether the guy running towards you was a certified mechanic?

If you’re considering college, I’d like to share a little of my perspective. During my years in college there were facts being tossed around by the bushel basket. But in the end I learned only three significant things.

First, I learned what makes soap work. I mean how soap works from the chemical standpoint. I won’t go into the details, but this is the coolest piece of knowledge ever, and learning it justified every dollar and every hour I put into college.

The second thing I learned was almost as great. One day I was walking through the Student Union. That’s the place on campus where guys go to pretend to study while they look at pretty girls out of the corner of their eye. A crowd blocked the hallway, and I saw that the dean of my university was giving a speech. I had never before heard him speak nor even seen him in his actual flesh. Then I heard the golden, magical portion of his speech. He explained that he, the administrators, the professors, and the staff were the university. The students would come and go—we were transitory, and when we moved on the people who ran the place would still be there. We, the students, did not count—and we’d damned well better not forget it.

That did make me cock my head in a Scooby-Doo moment. But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to kiss the man right on the mouth. Oh, certainly he was a nasty sack of moose piss, but amidst his mean-spirited locust swarm of a diatribe soared a single white dove. That dove landed on my shoulder and said to me, “Grow the hell up.”

The third thing I learned was, oddly, about learning. Sometimes people call universities “institutions of higher learning.” People do not call universities “institutions of higher teaching,” and there’s a reason for that. University professors will point you in generally the correct direction, but they have better things to do than spend a bunch of time teaching you stuff. It’s your responsibility to teach your own damn self. During my college career, the occasional dedicated teacher manifested, but as a rule my professors treated students the way alligators treat their young: “There’s the bayou, kid. Either teach yourself to hunt or get eaten by a muskrat, I don’t give a shit which.”

To summarize, my advanced university education consisted of the lovely mystery of soap, the revelation “Grow the hell up,” and the directive “Teach yourself if you don’t want to remain as ignorant as a sack of rusty screws.” Everything else was secondary, although I admit that lots of it was interesting.

I consider it all to be time and money wisely invested.