Why I Turned Down a $70K Graduate School Scholarship

Sep 11, 2019
4:15 PM

Graduate school in the United States is a capitalist scam.

Before I begin, I want to acknowledge the hard work and achievements of minorities, low-income, and all students who have and continue to be underrepresented in academia and push against all odds to succeed in these spaces that are not easily accessible to us. That is a huge achievement. Take pride.

This is also not a critique at folks who made the decision to continue their educational endeavors, but a critique of the United State’s failed higher educational system that demands students to be in debt the average of $57,600 for a Master’s degree with one in four people averaging $100,000. This is not the only way to bring value to our lives or expect to create an impact on our communities and we should not be expected to fall in debt simply because it has been socially expected to do so.

A few months back I received my acceptance letter from the University of Chicago’s Social Service Administration Graduate program and a few weeks later I also received an acceptance from the University of Michigan Master’s in Social Work program. The hours I spent studying for the GRE, writing and rewriting graduate school applications, and stressing over letters of recommendation had finally paid off.

I cried. I was very proud of myself. On top of that, both schools were offering me very generous scholarships to attend so I was certain I would begin graduate school this ‘19 fall semester.

Still, the biggest problem continued to cast a shadow over my acceptances—the price tag. Even with generous scholarships, I was still looking at paying out of pocket roughly $60,000. That is the price for a two-year program where the country’s average salary for a licensed clinical social worker is $55,683. These institutions profit from our dedication to support our communities, but at the expense of financial freedom. Graduate schools in the United States chain us to years of debt. We have been told that a degree allows us to “better ourselves,” “get better-paying jobs,” and “support our community.”

This is false. 

Our self-worth and the value we place on each other should not be based on the name of the institution where we received our degree or if we received a degree at all. This system of educational hierarchy devalues people based on their work or employment. I do not matter more because I work with asylum-seeking children than my dad who is a janitor or a cashier at Wal-Mart. Our values do not change because of a degree. We need to stop correlating the importance of a person with their work. These are separate entities and under capitalism, they become one because, in order for us to continue to justify the exploitation of workers and unforgivable “minimum wage” or working conditions, we need to see ourselves are more valuable than others. This is hard to do because many immigrant parents have instilled these ideas in us.

“Go to school so you can better yourself and not be like me.”

I am 27 years old and many of my friends have already completed graduate school and law school. The social pressure to simply accept the price tag is insurmountable. The social acceptance of expensive education is so normalized that when I told people I decided not to attend, shocked, they asked, why? 

We are programmed to believe that attending graduate school no matter the financial cost will grant us access to better-paying jobs like the generations before us, but the reality is that it doesn’t work like that, especially for people of color.

In order for us to uphold the ideals of capitalism, we must buy (sometimes literally) into a system that disposes us to continue to live paycheck to paycheck because we are “passionate about our work” but often times at the expense and exploitation of our mental health and our own financial stability. I have dedicated the last five years working with nonprofit work and people have praised me for “doing great work” but those praises aren’t paying my rent. Those praises do nothing to secure a livable income, all it does is allow the government to leave crucial human rights work at the hands of people who dedicate their lives to attempt to fix years of injustice caused by hundreds of years of colonization and exploitation.

My work is important because we live in a system that tells young people of color that good work for our community is more important than living comfortably. All while those in power continue to make money and keep capital within their own circles.

I am not sure if I will apply for graduate school again, but I do know I will only accept if I receive full-funding because I know there are multiple ways to support the liberation of our communities and it doesn’t have to come with a $60,000 bill. It is a false dichotomy that continuing our education is the only way to grow and support our communities and it’s okay to search for different endeavors in a system that leaves us with such shitty choices. 


Alejandra Quintero was raised in Riverside, California with roots from Michoacán, Mexico. A first generation graduate from U.C Berkeley, she is an unapologetically loud advocate for immigrant and human rights who enjoys reggaetón and tortas.