My Higher Education Panic, or How “Larry Crowne” Induced a Minor Breakdown

A few months ago, while he was underwhelming the rest of the world, Tom Hanks’ most recent character, fiftysomething college student/Julia Roberts-seducer Larry Crowne, sent me into a downward spiral. Maybe not a full-blown nervous breakdown, but certainly an unbecoming, hyperventilating, snot-and-tears meltdown. (To quote Ethan Hawke in one of my favourite films, “Do you find me attractive…? You do. You’re strangely attracted to me right now. You’re oddly, oddly attracted to me.”)

The thing is, Larry is “downsized” from his job at a Walmart-like corporation, despite frequently making Employee of the Month and being super friendly and inspiring and generally a joy to be around.

Why is he fired? He doesn’t have a degree. Instead of going to college, he went into the Navy, serving his country by serving up three hot meals a day. But his selflessness, work experience and dedication count for nothing. Managers need to have degrees so he’s out on his ass, with only a coffee mug as consolation. Thanks for nothing, Walmart-like corporation.

Larry Crowne poster, with words "Larry Crowne" in capital letters and Julia Roberts behind Tom Hanks, on a scooter (motorbike), both laughing.
What kind of college is this, exactly?

Sure, they were just looking for reasons to lay people off and his lack of a degree provided the perfect excuse. But it also confirmed what I’ve long suspected: not having a degree makes a person vulnerable.

Cue tears.

The thing is, I’d love to have a degree. I’ve even tried to get one. Twice.

I dropped out of college (actually university, seeing as I’m British) after I got really ill in 1998. Eleven years later, I tried again – and promptly relapsed, which was a kick in the teeth that made me wonder if the universe was trying to tell me something. After being in bed for weeks, sleeping twenty hours a day and wondering how I was ever going to have anything approaching a life again, thankfully, my health slowly improved. But I’m still only able to do a handful of hours of freelance writing every week, from home, in my pajamas.

As a freelancer, no-one cares to ask about my qualifications. They only want to know about my credits, and I actually have those. (Yay me!) But I worry. I worry I’ll never progress to a staff job without a degree. They’re such a ubiquituous qualification for people of my generation (‘cos they were free when I was 18) that to not have one marks you out as either an iconoclast or an ignoramus and most people seem to suspect the latter. I know that most media jobs are scrutinised by HR departments who weed out applications by chucking out those who don’t have the prerequisite degree. They don’t want to read all my stories to see if I have talent. They’re busy, and that’s not their job.

But I don’t want to freelance forever. It has its perks (in most fields, being ill and working from home in PJs is considered an impediment to progress) but it’s financially challenging and means a lot of rejection and uncertainty. My dream is to go to an office every day, picking up a Starbucks on the way in before bitching about traffic with colleagues, having a morning meeting, and seeing friends for lunch. (I know. I’d probably get bored of all that in the space of two weeks, but I’ve spent most of my adult life housebound, allow me my work fantasies as I allow people to say “You are so lucky to not have to leave the house every day!” without punching them.)

Close-up of Julia Roberts wearing a motorcycle helmet with an Italian flag motif. Her expression is pinched, bored, and contemptuous, all at once.
If you go too long without a degree, your face can freeze like this.

Several people have suggested I could do a degree by distance learning, which I’ve looked into. The Open University will even let me transfer credits. But because of the way the courses are organised, I’d have to take 30-60 credits a semester. I can barely work as it is without adding studying to the mix.

I could wait until I feel stronger and try full-time again. But having dropped out twice, the Student Loans Company is unlikely to give me another loan for my first year, and I don’t see how I’d save up enough to fund myself anytime soon. I could try to transfer into the second year, but the universities I approached about that idea a couple of years ago gave it a big fat no. And then there’s the fact that course fees have escalated to nine thousand pounds a year at most universities. That may be a drop in the ocean compared to US college costs, but it’s still a hell of a lot of debt to take on as I approach my mid-thirties.

For a while, I thought the answer might be part-time study, but while I could do that at my local university without paying any fees, I wouldn’t get any funding to cover living costs, either. Basically, there’s no way for me to get a degree right now. Possibly not ever.

I’ve told myself it doesn’t matter. That I’m all zeitgeisty. Or at least, The New York Times thinks so. Steve Jobs (RIP) didn’t have a degree. Richard Branson has managed nicely without one. And it’s just a worthless piece of paper to the founders of Twitter. A Guardian journalist even claims that the downturn in university applications in the UK is a good thing, and a freelance journalist friend of mine has employed a journalism apprentice (who dropped out of university as a result) giving her contacts and on-the-job-training in an attempt to ensure the profession isn’t only for those rich enough to fund degrees and unpaid internships. I want to believe this is the future.

Tom Hanks as Larry Crowne, standing in front of a lecturn with two microphones, in front of a blackboard. He wears a blue t-shirt and a white undershirt.
Sing it, Larry.

But I’m not a tech genius or a entrepreneur. I’m not going to invent anything or sell some computer code for a billion bucks and I hate the idea of setting up a company. I just like writing and letting someone else handle the business stuff. And I feel sad that I don’t have a degree, even if they’re overvalued and too expensive and the subjects I love are not vocational enough.

But unless I can get one by osmosis, I guess I’m going to have to take a less conventional route to success. I’m going to have to believe that I can do just fine without a degree, even if Larry Crowne couldn’t.

But I might have a paper bag and a box of Kleenex on me at all times, just in case.

Images via: poster | Julia | Tom

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DianeS

Freelance journalist. Obsessed with US TV, memoirs, and pizza. Tweets a lot. Abhors onions.

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