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Is College Worth It? Recent Grads Share Their Experiences

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Is College Worth It? Recent Grads Share Their Experiences

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Is College Worth It? Recent Grads Share Their Experiences

Is College Worth It? Recent Grads Share Their Experiences

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Elissa Nadworny/NPR
Throughout the last academic year, we've followed a group of students who graduated from high school a few years ago in Montgomery County, Md.,
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When young adults set out to pick a college back in 2010 and 2011, they were making a decision of a lifetime amid big financial obstacles: soaring tuition and the great recession.

And as they progressed through their college careers, a debate over the value of college grew louder.

A long held mantra – that the best investment is a good education – is increasingly being called into question. Some politicians, high-profile entrepreneurs and even educators, have become publicly skeptical of the worth of a degree that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain.

In that context, NPR's Robert Siegel set out to learn how nine bright and engaging college students feel now about the choices they made back then.

How have they handled the financial burden? And how well positioned do they feel for the future? Robert spent a year visiting with people who made a variety of decisions – attending a big state university, private college and community college.

To help pay for college, Alejandra Gonzales worked at the admissions office at University of Maryland, College Park. Kwame Abrah for NPR hide caption

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To help pay for college, Alejandra Gonzales worked at the admissions office at University of Maryland, College Park.

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Alejandra Gonzalez

College: University of Maryland, College Park

Major: Political Science

Where She Is Now: Graduated college in May 2016. Teaching English in France for a year.

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"I had absolutely no idea what I was jumping into when I decided to attend college. Going to UMD was about getting to know people with completely different experiences from my own." (Sept. 2016)

Karie Cheung graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park. Kwame Abrah for NPR hide caption

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Karie Cheung graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Karie Cheung

College: University of Maryland, College Park

Major: Community Health

Where She Is Now: Graduated from college in December 2015. Currently working at the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services.

"Because both my parents didn't get the experience of college ... I just wanted to have that traditional, live-in-the-dorm freshman year, go to all the orientations." (Sept. 2015)

"I always thought that going to college was getting that higher degree, to be the first in my family to get a college education. But I realized I grew a lot at the University of Maryland ... socially, emotionally and definitely mentally." (Sept. 2016)

Rhys Hall talks with Jason Nichols, a professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Kwame Abrah for NPR hide caption

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Rhys Hall talks with Jason Nichols, a professor of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Rhys Hall

College: University of Maryland, College Park

Major: Sociology

Where He Is Now: First-year graduate student in Sociology at the University of Connecticut.

"I will not hide the fact that college was going to validate the sense of security in myself, a sense of accomplishment in myself." (Sept. 2015)

"One tip that I would give based on my experience is applying to grants and scholarships. You might fill out 10 applications for essays and only win one, but you know what? You've just won $500. And it builds up." (Sept. 2016)

Becca Arbacher graduated with a double major at Columbia in New York City — one of the most expensive colleges in America. Elissa Nadworny/NPR hide caption

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Becca Arbacher graduated with a double major at Columbia in New York City — one of the most expensive colleges in America.

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Becca Arbacher

College: Columbia University

Major: Physics and political science

Where She Is Now: Graduated from Columbia in May 2016. Now works at Booz Allen Hamilton as a data scientist in Washington, D.C.

"I've been very lucky to grow up in a family that treated my undergraduate education as a time for exploration and really figuring out what I wanted to do." (Sept. 2015)

"Columbia was sometimes difficult to enjoy in the moment. There's a lot going on, there's a lot of expectations ... Since graduating, it's a lot easier to look back and appreciate the benefits and the incredible opportunities that I had while there." (Sept. 2016)

Evan Bonham studied music production at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Elissa Nadworny/NPR hide caption

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Evan Bonham studied music production at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

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Evan Bonham

College: NYU Tisch School of the Arts

Major: Recorded music

Where He Is Now: Graduated in May 2016. Looking for a job in music production. Hoping to move back to New York City.

"Anybody could honestly learn how to produce music on their laptop. [The] whole basis of coming to this institute was learning how I could walk into any studio, right now, and basically run a session, how to use different programs to make music, how to work with an artist, how to make money off of making music." (Dec. 2015)

"My parents made it possible for me to go into school and intern every year. I wish I could have had the ability to have a job during school and help pay off some of my loans or help pay off some of my living expenses, but I'm glad I took that opportunity." (Sept. 2016)

Margie Fuchs sits in one of her favorite classes at Georgetown University, Romantic Poetry, taught by Professor Duncan Wu. Elissa Nadworny/NPR hide caption

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Margie Fuchs sits in one of her favorite classes at Georgetown University, Romantic Poetry, taught by Professor Duncan Wu.

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Margie Fuchs

College: Georgetown University

Major: English

Where She Is Now: Graduated in May 2016. Spent the summer teaching English in Hungary and Slovakia.

"At Georgetown, most of the classes, for me at least, are smaller, which means that it's a more intimate setting where you really get to interact with material and other students and professors, in ways that challenge how you're thinking. You see new points of view and I think that is fantastic." (Sept. 2015)

"I graduated with a lot of student loans and yes, since graduation I can definitely feel that clock ticking for when it comes time to start paying your student debt back." (Sept. 2016)

Carlos Mejia-Ramos

College: Montgomery College

Major: Political Science

Career Goal: Law school

"I didn't feel like I was making less of a decision by going to Montgomery College ... I was able to stay at home and save money." (Sept. 2015)

(NPR Ed lost touch with Carlos after the interview.)

Nancy Chen chose to go to community college at Montgomery College. On Monday nights, she works for the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department. Elissa Nadworny/NPR hide caption

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Nancy Chen chose to go to community college at Montgomery College. On Monday nights, she works for the Rockville Volunteer Fire Department.

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Nancy Chen

College: Montgomery College, Takoma Park

Major: Nursing

Where She Is Now: Planning to graduate in May 2017. Works at the National Institutes of Health and is a volunteer firefighter/EMT in Rockville, Md.

"I'm able to save money for vacations and my future. It's taken me a little longer, but I'm in no debt and I'm still enjoying life to the fullest." (Sept. 2016)

After three years at community college, Jake Meile is following his dream of being an actor to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. Elissa Nadworny/NPR hide caption

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After three years at community college, Jake Meile is following his dream of being an actor to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

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Jake Meile

College: Montgomery College, 3 years. American Academy of Dramatic Arts, 1 year.

Major: Theater

Where He Is Now: Acting student starting his second year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan.

"In private school, I felt stupid for not getting into a four-year ... Montgomery College was an attainable goal, a small-scale place I could take time, then transfer." (Sept. 2015)

"I've gotten to meet all these people from all over the world, with all these different experiences. From the acting standpoint, you realize how similar humans can be, just put into different situations." (Sept. 2016)

How We Did This

Throughout the last academic year, we've talked to students who went to high school in Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. It's considerably more diverse than the rest of the nation: Nearly one-third of its residents are foreign-born. It's also more highly educated: with more than double the national average for bachelor's degrees.

Jessica Cheung contributed reporting for this series.