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Both of my parents have college degrees – and my dad even worked at a local college – so when I was young I went to a four-year college starting my career has always been the unspoken expectation.
I am one of nine children in my immediate family. My mother was a stay-at-home mom for nearly 20 years while my father worked hard to support his family. They have always fostered the individuality of each of my siblings, but a four-year degree has always been a pillar of success, regardless of career choice.
What I didn’t know when I wish I had: there were other options.
“Torn apart by the value of a college education”
A recent USA TODAY/Public Agenda Hidden Common Ground Poll found that many Americans “feel torn about the value of a college education, wondering how to afford it in the short term and its value in the long term.
“Young participants expressed concern about student loan debt,” the study found, “the time it takes to graduate, and questionable job and career earnings.”
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I found this to be true in my own life. My choice of university was more due to financial availability than preparation for my career. By focusing on another type of education (vocational training), I am able to earn a living while paying off my student debt.
I completed 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 afford the flight school fees. After adding up all my scholarship and grant offers, I chose to participate Emmanuel College in Franklin Springs, Georgia, the college where my dad worked as director of campus activities, and I was studying the more general area of math because it made financial sense to me.
As an aspiring pilot and aviation enthusiast, math was the most valuable degree. My college tuition was mostly paid for, but I funded the flight school out of pocket and with loans.
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I completed my four-year degree with honors, but unfortunately I had no next step in the field I wanted to enter. Because I had a part-time job as an assistant math teacher at a local charter high school while in college, I continued to work there. I never wanted to be a teacher, but my math degree didn’t line up other jobs that matched my passions.
Worse still, pilot jobs require hundreds of flight hours, which requires tens of thousands of dollars that I didn’t have. And the diploma that I had spent four difficult years obtaining did not bring me closer. I ended up borrowing $15,000 for flight school, but left the program before I finished.
I graduated from university in 2016. And a year later, I decided that I was tired of looking for a job and not finding one that matched my interests. I remembered that when I was flying, my mechanical knowledge of airplanes was non-existent. I couldn’t change the oil or begin to troubleshoot a problem because I didn’t know anything about the underlying mechanics, just the cause and effect of the knobs and switches. This lack of knowledge did not sit well with me, so I started looking for mechanic jobs.
Search in aircraft maintenance technician (AMT), I was impressed not only by the shorter time to graduation, but also by the more affordable courses compared to my bachelor’s degree.
I chose the 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 without any experience in mechanics. In 16 short months, I had graduated with a job as a mechanic in my pocket.
“Student debt is a thief”
Looking back, I can’t say I regret choosing the four-year degree, because the investment from my math teacher and the hard work I did to get this degree boosted my confidence. I learned so much about myself and how every obstacle, every problem in life can be solved and overcome. But PIA was more aligned with my passion, more affordable, and offered a well-paying job faster.
Student debt is a thief. If I could have avoided all that, I would have.
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And it should be added that my husband, who attended two years of technical school, has no debt and is earning six figures only seven years after receiving his airframe and powertrain certificate become an aircraft mechanic.
My choices and experiences have made me the woman and mechanic I am today, but my future children will have more options than me. Having married another AMT who took auto shop and forestry classes in high school while I was attending college preparatory high school, I see so much value in knowing his options because we all have passions and skills different.
Samantha Cortese Taunton is a 2019 graduate of the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics Myrtle Beach Campus and now works as a mechanic at Pratt & Whitney in Columbus, Georgia.
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