Higher Education — A Millennial’s Survival Story

June 18, 2024
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Meet Ricardo

A United States military contract, Larry Walker's Hall of Fame career with the Colorado Rockies, and my time spent in the postsecondary education system: 8 years. This not-insignificant amount of time spent working towards a goal tests an individual's mettle. For anyone, if it’s seen through to completion, it is formative to their being. Altogether, my educational accomplishments are remarkable in some ways, yet unremarkable and untraditional in many ways. To me personally, they are proof that even a mountain-man Coloradan can achieve his goals through persistence, tenacity, and a “tough it out” attitude.

An Uphill Battle

The toughest challenges I actually faced for most of those eight years can be summarized as a scarcity of resources. Time and financial scarcity were the main two, which were way bigger than the scarcity of scholastic ability or academic resources.

I would not be amiss to say that a majority of prospective college students are in a similar boat. Societal pressures to go to a “good” college pile on top of social pressures to attend a “fun” school, which piles on top of pressures to pursue scholastic or need-based financial aid, all of which piles on top of the stress of working while in school or taking out loans. If a student made it through high school and is capable of jumping through these hoops, they are almost certainly capable of earning a college degree. This is a good thing, considering that many jobs, even those that don't require a college education, are offered by employers who consider a basic undergraduate degree to be table stakes. Even as a high school senior, I knew college was important because I wanted to work in Information Technology.

As a high school senior, what did you want to be “when you grew up”?

The first year I took community college classes, I was still a 3.35 GPA high school senior, a part-time clerk at The UPS Store, and in a leadership role as captain of the boy’s swim team. That entire senior year consisted of early mornings, late nights, and copious levels of self-discipline. My reward: finishing high school with thirteen undergraduate credits under my belt.

Where My Education Began

That first school, Arapahoe Community College, had an open-door admissions policy and a concurrent enrollment program for high school kids that covered tuition costs. I would recommend starting college this way to anyone — even mediocre or nontraditional students had access to remedial classes and free academic support services that simply aren’t offered at many universities. ACC’s class sizes were small, the academic rigor was definitely present, and the classes were guaranteed to transfer to any public Colorado university. Bowing to the pressures of attending a traditional, “fun” four-year university would have been a disservice to my future self; favoring affordability was the right thing for me to do. ACC was the top school in terms of affordability. However, after finishing high school, I still had to work two part-time jobs and live in my parent's basement to afford the tuition that merit-based scholarships did not cover.

This was fifteen years ago (2009). It was a tough time to go to college, and it is still not any easier.

The US postsecondary education system is not tone-deaf to the affordability issue, but government subsidies and market forces have combined to push the cost of getting a degree towards unaffordability. Efforts to improve affordability continually backfire and have proven ineffective at fixing the underlying system.

The stakeholders impacted by this issue are numerous: young people entering the workforce, businesses needing to hire workers, policymakers concerned with the economy, and the universities themselves are all imperiled if the unaffordability trends continue. Professor Scott Galloway proposes new federal policies targeting public universities: reducing tuition, expanding enrollment, and increasing vocational/certificate programs. In my view, this sort of radical shake-up is overdue. Following the status quo leads to less opportunity and a grim, bleak outlook for future generations.

Reaping the Rewards & Setting Sights Higher

I earned my degrees debt-free with grit and a stroke of good fortune under conditions where this outcome was uncommon, but still possible. Strong academic performance at the community college, extracurricular involvement, and receiving awards increased my profile in ways that helped my scholarship applications stand apart from the pack. I applied for (and diligently followed up on) a full-ride scholarship at the University of Colorado Denver Business School. The gamble paid off when I found out I had been awarded the scholarship a few weeks into my Junior year. With the cost issue mitigated, I turned my focus toward completing the Information Systems program and securing an internship that eventually led to my first entry-level IT position.

I learned a great deal in this first IT role. Importantly, I learned how to learn at the fast-paced rate required to compete as an IT worker. This job even bankrolled my MBA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

This path is still available to the best-performing group of young people who wish to follow in these footsteps, but it can require an unpopular compromise of social lives and their selection-set of schools.

My advice to a young person remains: you can achieve great things when you grit your way through it.

My advice to leaders in our country is to make sure that there is the opportunity for young people who demonstrate a willingness to work hard enough to pull off similar feats.

My education was fundamental to starting my consulting business and positioned me for success as a lifetime learner. A large part of what I bring to the table as a consultant comes from having this background. To me, it remains a privilege to bring my tenacity, problem-solving abilities, and positive outlook to engagements with my clients.