Is a College Degree Worth It?
What do you say to an ambitious 19-year old when he says that he wants to drop out of college?
What do you say to an ambitious 19-year old when he says that he wants to drop out of college?
“Why would you give up the opportunity for a great education after everything we’ve been through?”
The value of a college degree is decreasing, which begs the question:
When is it worth it to drop out of college?
First we have to identify: Why should you go to college?
According to Collegeboard, the most popular answers are:
- To meet new people
- To get a good education
- To learn about yourself
- To get a good job after graduation
Second we must address: What is your investment?
Third we must analyze: Does an 18-year-old need to spend five years and $100,000 for the opportunity to meet people, get a good education, learn about yourself, and land a “good job”?
Let’s break it down.
How much is meeting people worth?
Adults tell you that your network is everything. That it doesn’t matter what you know, it’s who you know.
And I agree with that. But is college the best bang for your buck for meeting people?
College is the only time in your adult life when you are surrounded by people in the same age group (besides retirement homes). Meeting new people face-to-face is awesome and one of the biggest benefits of college.
Critics might argue that 18-year-olds can still meet people elsewhere, but let’s face it: college holds a monopoly over the young adult population.
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How much is a “good education” worth?
With the rise of accessible information, learning something new has never been easier. Can you get educated without college? Scott Young did.
Scott became famous after he received an unofficial computer science degree from MIT. For $2,000 and over the course of ten months, Scott took all the required tests and courses that MIT put up for free online. And even though he didn’t have an official degree, employers still wanted to hire him.
Many prestigious colleges also put their courses online for free including Yale, Stanford, and Berkeley. There are high-quality courses covering every subject on Lynda, Udemy, Coursera, CodeAcademy, and CreativeLive. On top of this, anyone can learn anything from the world’s greatest experts by reading their books, listening to their podcasts, or connecting directly with them online.
So why do people still think you need to go to college to “get educated”?
A college degree proves that you can survive 4+ years following a system to “success.” But trying to learn with this college mindset can be inconvenient.
For example, a lot of students double major or have a major and a minor. If they suddenly discover a deep love for another topic, but already spent three years studying psychology, the student has to stay an extra two years to switch and finish her degree. Conventional wisdom tells students to tough it out and finish her psychology degree, even if she doesn’t plan to do anything with psychology.
But are you learning for the degree or for developing real world skills?
People come to college to learn and explore their curiosities. But employers judge new grads on what they majored in and where they received their degree from.
It seems strange that if you want to ride a bicycle, you have to spend your first five weeks inside a classroom learning about riding a bicycle before stepping on the pedals.
When my dad taught me how to ride a bike, he told me to get on and start pedaling while he held the bike upright from behind.
He let me go unexpectedly and I fell. After a few more attempts, I was able to ride a bike on my own in 30 minutes.
No textbooks, no homework, and no time wasted learning about wind theory.
Why doesn’t college take a similar approach?
Instead of focusing on classes, why not have young people working on a real problem? Have teachers guide them along the way (mentorship) and have students fail again and again until they succeed (experience)?
In today’s world, college is no longer a necessity for anyone to get educated and obtain real world skills.
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How much is learning about yourself worth?
When teenagers enter college, they usually know very little about themselves and their future. They don’t know what career path to take, what subject to study, or what they’re passionate about.
So if someone is lost and confused, that person is gonna spend $100,000 and the next five years of their life to find the answer! But can you learn about yourself without this huge investment?
What would you do with $100,000 and five years of your young adult life?
- You’ve always wanted to try acting? Go audition for roles and meet people in this space.
- You were curious about coding? Go to your local library, log onto Code Academy and learn how to code.
- You’re interested in startups? Join a startup, connect with other entrepreneurs, or start your own business!
You may enjoy studying marketing, but if you don’t actually work for a company’s marketing team, how can you be so sure?
Go volunteer in a third world country. Teach English in Japan. Work on a meaningful project. Intern for a company you admire. Apprentice under your role model. Start your own business.
Why wait five years to explore your interests when you can do so immediately?
The best way to learn about yourself is by doing. The most efficient way to prepare for adulthood is to do “adult things” like go to work, have greater responsibilities, live on your own, etc.
Can college help? Sure. But looking at the opportunity cost and other alternatives, the return on the investment today is questionable.
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How much is “getting a good job” worth?
The real question is: Does college even prepare you for a good job after graduation?
If it does, then why do college grads make up 40% of the U.S. unemployment pool? And why do 46% of college grads work jobs that don’t require a degree?
For some jobs, degrees are mandated. You can’t become a teacher, doctor, or lawyer without a degree.
But even in those careers where college is a legitimate investment, it only works if you stay on that path for the rest of your life. And how often do you hear stories of people changing careers when they get older? Millennials typically switch careers every four years, so how can you be sure you want to do one thing for the rest of your life at 18 years old?
What if you want to do something different?
The future job market can be risky for two main reasons:
a) We don’t know what our jobs will be like in 10, 25, or 50 years from now
We had no idea what the internet was 25 years ago. Who knew web development would be such a sweet gig? Or that a social networking platform was going to be the next big thing?
How could we have trained college students for jobs that didn’t exist yet?
Young people have to understand that the future will have thousands of new jobs that no one has discovered yet. Maybe virtual reality will take over the world, Bitcoin will become our main form of currency, and blockchain will eliminate lawyers and accountants.
Some entirely new technology may appear.
We don’t know.
And if we don’t know, how can we best prepare?
Is the best answer spending four years learning about business marketing theory when those strategies will be irrelevant once you graduate?
The best answer is developing skills that can be applicable to any discipline like leadership, communication, and critical thinking. It’s not surprising to see successful entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman, and Paul Graham all majoring in philosophy while they were in college.
b) Employers want to hire people with experience
If you were a business owner, would you want to hire Sarah, who had marketing experience working for four previous companies? Or would you hire Joe, who is a fresh marketing graduate from a local university with no work experience?
The answer is obvious.
Once you hire Sarah, she’ll immediately be a valuable asset. Quick to contribute, Sarah will hit the ground running and truly help your company.
With Joe, you have to slowly onboard him to get up to speed. Joe knows some of the stuff Sarah knows but has never done it before, which makes work and collaboration extremely slow.
Companies crave people with experience, which is why graduates hate those annoying entry level job descriptions:
“Must have 4+ years of experience.”
“Must have bachelor’s degree”
How does this make sense for the average college graduate?
It’s a horrible cycle because to get experience, you need a job. And to get a job, you need experience.
So where does college come into play with this?
Some people argue that you need a degree to get your foot in the door for your first job. But that’s strange.
After five years in college, why haven’t students gained real work experience? Why are students constantly learning how to ride a bicycle instead of actually riding it?
It’s expected that when you don’t have anything on your resume, you get a low skilled job or an internship to gain relevant experience. The point is that you’re always trying to be on some sort of vehicle: tricycle, bicycle with training wheels, whatever.
“But companies won’t hire you without a degree…”
Most companies haven’t budged their traditional ways and that’s understandable. How could they possibly change something they have held to be true for hundreds of years?
After interviewing hundreds of successful people in Education of Millionaires, Michael Ellsberg saw how formal credentials were entirely the wrong focus when looking for work.
“Vastly more important, or orders of magnitude, is the strength of your network — the breadth and depth of the circle of people who trust you, feed you tips about job openings, and would vouch for you to an employer — as well as your demonstrable portfolio of real-world results.”
If you want to work for a company that requires a college degree, even though you already have better hard skills than the fresh college grad, then go get a college degree.
I know it sucks, but that’s how the game works. For now.
But why haven’t companies changed their positions when this benchmark no real results about work performance?
“There is a long literature in psychology showing that job performance and college grades are poorly related,” says Peter Cappelli, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who studies hiring and the American workplace, in an interview with The Atlantic. “It is remarkable how frequently companies rely on hiring criteria for which there is no evidence of it working.”
Some companies, like Google and Ernst & Young, are notorious for not checking certifications. In an interview with the New York Times, Google’s chairman and head of hiring, Laszlo Bock said,
“When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people.”
Another valid question to ask is, why would you want a job that requires a BA?
“If the way they’re deciding that they should hire is that you have a history of compliance, which is what school is, I’m not sure that’s going to put you on the arc to get you where you want to go”, entrepreneur Seth Godin says in an interview with Michael Ellsberg.
“We want it both ways [and] we say ‘I want to be innovative, artistic, and creative in my career. But I want a job with 50,000 employees that interviews me on campus.’ Well why are you surprised, after you get the job, that they treat you like a cog in the system? That’s who they come to campus to hire.”
The job market is changing faster than higher education can keep up. More companies are starting to catch on that this is the start of a new movement in the workforce.
Employers are looking for skills and real-world experiences that young people should desperately strive to achieve.
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So why are young people today willing to spend $100,000 and 4+ years to go to college?
Because they want structure, support, or their friends are doing it.
But as time progresses and this discussion continues, students will take a step back and realize their massive student loan debt and the opportunity cost associated with this major life decision.
Dropping out is not as black as white as most people think it is. Take risks.
What’s the absolute worst that can happen?
If you try to self-direct your learning for a year and everything fails, college will always be there.
What can people do today as an alternative to college?
Today, you can…
- meet people easier than ever
- learn anything easier than ever
- learn about yourself easier than ever
If you want something like college but more tailored to you and your specific interests, check out these alternatives:
Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal, started the Thiel Fellowship where he gives young people $100,000 to drop out of college and start something that will change the word.
There are shorter programs like Unschool Adventures that takes young people on short retreats that teach independence and responsibility.
Young people can join organizations to teach English abroad in exchange for free housing. Or travel solo and get lost in a new country and immerse themselves in a foreign culture.
There are hidden opportunities to apprentice under someone you admire. In Recession Proof Graduate, Charlie Hoehn worked under amazing entrepreneurs like Seth Godin, Ramit Sethi, Tucker Max and eventually Tim Ferriss by pitching free work to them.
People can self-direct their learning altogether. Give yourself assignments and tests learning the material you want to learn. Read The Art of Self-Directed Learning by Blake Boles to learn more.
James Altucher’s book, 40 Alternatives to College, offers ever more options. The point is that there are effective and affordable routes available to “get educated.”
The value of a college degree continues to be reexamined. Companies are putting more focus on hiring candidates with real-world experiences. More affordable alternatives to college are now available and the internet has allowed anyone to “get educated” from the comfort of their own home.
If you were 18 today, would you still go to college?
Tam Pham's Blog
I write about my adventures, learnings, and reflections on living my weird, unconventional life. Subscribe below!