College: Who needs it?

Most people don’t. Let me get this out of the way: there are many jobs that can only be done professionally after many years of careful supervised study. If you are going or went to college to do one of those types of jobs, this post isn’t about you.

This post is about me — and other people doing things that just don’t benefit from a college education.

I fully realize this is non-conformist thinking. Most people will dismiss what I’m saying as crackpot stuff. But let me tell you what I think is truly crazy: going into debt before you even get your life started. With college debt for even the most simple of degrees starting at $30,000, one has to ask who’s crazy — the people assuming that debt for the sake of a college degree or the people who decide to skip the debt and go to work?

First, some foundation: College is really expensive and people pay for it for a long, long time. It sounds obvious, but people don’t seem to really understand it, so read it, and let it sink in. Is it any wonder that our nation is getting deeper and deeper into debt? People are starting their life in the hole. One salient paragraph from the article linked above:

A 22-year old student graduating this year who consolidates their $40,000 loan at 6.125 percent will need to pay $243 a month…until they’re 52. By that time, they will have paid $47,494 in interest alone.

So, is this necessary? Rarely.

Let’s dispense right now with that myth that says College = More Money. Wrong. College may be necessary for certain, specific lines of work, but College does not cause increased earning over a lifetime although it correlates with it. (Sad aside: I bet half of the college graduates from last year couldn’t explain to you what the difference between causation and correlation actually is. Those are the same people who think big profits equal big profit margins and vote for candidates who promise to take on Big Oil. But I digress.)

Check this out: Five reasons to skip college. An excerpt:

In fact, there is plenty of evidence that what really matters is how smart you are, not where–or even if–you went to school. According to a number of studies, small differences in SAT scores, which you take before going to college, correlate with measurably higher incomes. And, according to a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the lifetime income of high-school dropouts is directly associated with their scores on a battery of intelligence tests.

Those correlations contradict the notion of a causal relationship between college degrees and increased earnings over a lifetime.

Let’s get on to another simple fact: College doesn’t teach you all that much. Another excerpt from the above linked article:

For, in truth, most professions–journalism, software engineering, sales, and trading stocks to name but a few–depend far more on “on-the-job” education than on classroom learning. Until relatively recently, lawyers, architects and pharmacists learned their trade through apprenticeship, not through higher education.

Let’s take software engineering, a subject I happen to know a bit about. I can say with absolute, unequivocal certainty that there is nothing about computer science college can teach you that you can not learn on your own. I know this because I: 1. Spent the summer between my last year of high school and first year of college learning all sorts of computer science-y things on my own, and 2. Spent the first year of my time in college bored out of my mind in my computer science classes. Every now and then I would wake from my stupor to help a fellow pupil or correct an error on the dry erase board.

What’s the difference between a computer programmer with a college degree and a computer programmer without one? The guy without the degree has a four year head-start on the guy with the degree.

But there’s more — colleges don’t even teach real programming skill in the first place. (Seriously — as a programmer, I find the notion of someone holding a computer science degree who has never used pointers a complete absurdity.)

My first undeniable truism of college:

Going to college to “learn” is like taking a one month vacation to Mexico for a taco. And putting it all on a credit card. With no job. Fact 1: Tacos taste better in Southern California. Fact 2: Tacos in Mexico may or may not be made out of what you expect a taco to be made out of. Fact 3: Any idiot can fly to Mexico for a taco: it takes a smart person to realize that money is better spent eating at an upscale Mexican restaurant in Southern California. Fact 4: Taking vacations when you don’t have a job or money just isn’t wise.

A big lie our culture has embraced is the notion that learning only occurs in institutions. We are all collectively taking a vacation from a job we don’t even have just to fly to a foreign country to eat a taco.

Lost? Okay: the guy who stays in his own country to eat a taco and has a job is the guy who reads books to learn instead of mortgaging his future for a college eduction with the same goal.

Going to college because one “loves to learn” is just crazy. I love to learn. I can spend $100 on books and learn more than a college student does in an entire semester — unless you count all that nonsense about “socialization” where one “socializes” with tons of other people who know just as little as they do about the real world and spend weekends chugging beer to prove it (or, if they’re a little more mentally developed, maybe they chug lattes). What’s more, I can actually live my life while I read the book. You know, like working. I suppose the guy who reads books does miss out on the “Psych 101″ factor — that college thing were one semester of Psychology (even when you are majoring in computer science) suddenly makes the college student an expert in human behavior. I guess there are trade-offs.

Here’s my second truism of college: If you go to college and yet don’t know exactly how it will benefit you in your specific career, you are wasting time and money. Here’s a little-realized fact: College will still be there in another couple of years. If you haven’t decided what you need to learn yet, you should not be spending your money (or your parents’ money) — especially not debt — on college. So don’t go to college without a plan. If you can’t make a plan, then go do something real for a while first. (Hint: going to college is as far from real life as you can get.) This country is full of opportunity, and you don’t need to shell out tens of thousands of dollars to explore your options. And if you butt up against someone who says you’re nothing without a college degree — forget ’em. Move on. Make your own life.

Here’s a third truism: People who go into debt for tens of thousands of dollars and come out of college with a degree they will never use are not running on all thrusters. There exists no rational, justifiable reason to spend so much money on something that is not going to directly enhance your life in a tangible way.

You think saying most people don’t need college is crazy? I say going to college and only coming out with a piece of paper, warm and fuzzy feelings about “learning,” and over $30,000 in debt and no job is crazy.

The fact is, education has become a multi-headed monster our culture worships. Money and time is burned on the altar of institutionalized education, when real life — character, honesty, tenacity, hard work, and independence — is only learned through experience.

If you’re a college grad (and kudos to you for reading this far!), don’t be insulted. Take stock of your accomplishments in life. I think you’ll find that the gains you’ve achieved in your life are not due to time you spent in college, but what you did with your life. And if you haven’t got their yet? Don’t worry — it’s only four years.

PS: Before anyone says “what about heart surgeons,” please read the first sentence of this post before embarrassing yourself.

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4 thoughts on “College: Who needs it?”

  1. There’s an article in the new Atlantic by a college professor frustrated at how many of his students simply don’t belong there. It’s not that they’re unmotivated; they just lack skills, or intelligence, or both. I’ve read only excerpts so far (the article isn’t online yet), but it sounds pretty interesting.

  2. Hi Tommy,

    If by “lacking skills” the professor is referring to basic skills that one should have before entering college, that sounds like an indictment of High Schools. I’ve also read articles pointing out how unprepared students are when they enter college.

  3. My web page tries to explane this with data from the federal government stating the bottom quarter get no economic return from college and those in the third quarter don’t make enough for a good economic return!

    The real problem is society wastes money on the bottom half because everyone must be given a chance, even those with little academic ability.

    Many eduators are trying but as long a the public doesn’t want to hear it, little will change.

  4. I think highly motivated people not in those “lines of work” you referred to should absolutely not be in school. They don’t even offer degrees or good classes yet in my career field because it’s less than 10 years old. I learned on my own and the Lord has enabled me to do just fine.

    There is also the unmotivated group – yeah, why waste your money and time. Go get an job.

    However, I still think the grand portion of people should aspire to go to college, even though college was an absolute waste of time and money for me.

    Despite my ability to escape the land of degree-driven, 9-5 jobs, this required a few steps along the way for me. Without a degree, those steps would have been much more difficult.
    entrepreneurial endeavors that allow one to escape the societal bias for having a degree require a drive and ability to communicate and persevere far beyond most people’s willingness to extend themselves.
    Most white collar jobs require a degree, whether the snobbery is justified or not
    Most people honestly just want to earn a good living and/or don’t want to be the boss and the thought of starting a company makes their stomach turn.
    Eventually every job market like technology matures and most jobs will start requiring degrees except for those individuals who can clearly differentiate their unique value to the person hiring them for a project or permanent job
    People need to learn that profit margins don’t mean diddly squat unless you are comparing investments. I go round and round with clients who ignore opportunities based on something someone stuck in their head about ROI when (A) they have no backup and (B) they ignore overall profits which is the true measure of if I get into a business. If I have record profits, margins are only valuable for improving or for comparison.
    hopefully in college they’ll learn to differentiate between “their” and “there” ;)

    Good post, though – appreciate anyone working to stem college degree snobbery! :)

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