Both of my parents have college degrees – and my father even worked at a local college – so when I was growing up, going to a four-year college to start my career was always the unspoken expectation.
I am one of nine children in my immediate family. My mother was a stay-at-home mom for almost 20 years while my father worked hard to provide for his family. They have always fostered the individuality of each of my siblings, but a four-year degree was always a pillar of success no matter the career choice.
What I didn’t know then that I wish I had: There were other options.
‘Torn over the value of a college education’
A recent USA TODAY/Public Agenda Hidden Common Ground poll found that many Americans “felt torn over the value of a college education, grappling with how to afford it in the short term and its value in the long term.
“Younger participants expressed worry about student loan debt,” the study found, “the amount of time required to earn a degree, and questionable pay-offs when it comes to jobs and careers.”
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I found that to be true in my own life. My college choice was due to financial availability more than career preparation. By focusing on a different kind of education (vocational training), I am able to make a living while paying off my student loan debt.
I finished my four-year degree with honors – and no next steps
I was interested in becoming a pilot, but I couldn’t afford to attend the college I wanted and pay the flight school fees. After I added up all my scholarship and grant offers, I chose to attend Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia, the college where my father worked as the director of campus activities, and study the more general field of mathematics because it seemed wise financially.
As an aspiring pilot and an aviation enthusiast, mathematics was the most valuable degree. My college tuition was mostly paid for, but I financed flight school out of pocket and with loans.
I finished my four-year degree with honors, but unfortunately I had no next step forward into the field I wanted to enter. Because I had a part-time job working as an assistant math teacher in a local charter high school during college, I continued to work there. I never wanted to be a teacher, but my math degree had not lined up any other jobs that aligned with my passions.
Even worse, pilot jobs require hundreds of hours of flying, which requires tens of thousands of dollars that I did not have. And the degree that I had spent four arduous years earning did not get me any closer. I ended up borrowing $15,000 for flight school but left the program before I finished.
I graduated from college in 2016. And a year later, I decided I had had enough of searching for a job and not finding one that matched my interests. I remembered that when I was flying, my mechanical knowledge of the aircraft was nonexistent. I couldn’t change the oil or begin to troubleshoot any issue because I knew nothing of the underlying mechanics, just the cause and effect of knobs and switches. That lack of knowledge did not sit well with me, so I began researching mechanic jobs.
Looking into aviation maintenance technician (AMT) schools, I was impressed by not only the shorter time to graduation but also the more affordable courses as compared with my bachelor’s degree.
I chose Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, a Part 147 Aircraft Mechanic Training School, not only for its impeccable reputation and high graduate employment rate but also for its rigorous schedule. I started at PIA with no mechanical experience. In 16 short months, I had graduated with a mechanic job in hand.
‘Student debt is a thief’
Looking back, I cannot say I regret choosing the four-year degree because the investment of my math professor and the intense work I did to earn that degree did build my confidence. I learned so much about myself, and that every obstacle, every problem in life, can be solved and overcome. But PIA was more aligned to my passion, more affordable, and it provided a good-paying job faster.
Student debt is a thief. If I could have avoided any of it, I would have.
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And it’s worth adding that my husband, who attended a two-year tech school, has no debt and is making six figures just seven years after receiving his airframe and powerplant certificate to become an aviation mechanic.
My choices and experiences built me into the woman and mechanic I am today, but my future children will be exposed to more options than I was. Having married another AMT who took auto shop and forestry classes in high school while I attended a college prep high school, I see so much value in knowing one’s options, as we all have different passions and skills.
Samantha Cortese Taunton is a 2019 graduate of Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics Myrtle Beach Campus and now works as a mechanic at Pratt & Whitney in Columbus, Georgia.
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