Is college worth it?

Many people who I respect and admire advise against going to college. I’m a big fan of Gary Vaynerchuk and James Altucher, and both of them are adamant about college being useless.

Although I agree with them in some respect (many careers do not require a college degree nowadays, so you are doing yourself a huge disservice by going to college), I also think that the “college isn’t worth it” is a generalization that needs to be contextualized. So here is my attempt to begin the conversation about this.

College is expensive

When I hear people talk about how one shouldn’t go to college nowadays, it is almost always in the context of the high tuition costs.

Plot twist: What if college was free or very cost-effective? Would these people still argue that college isn’t worth it?

I don’t mean “free” in a Bernie Sanders sense. I’m talking about earning a full-ride scholarship to attend college. I’m talking about going to college because the career that you feel a calling for requires a college degree, if not an advanced one.

And if you decide to go to college, be smart about it. There are ways to make it cost-effective: from scoring merit and need-based scholarships to saving money by attending community college or state schools. One other option that not many people are talking about is doing service work for a year (like AmeriCorps) and then receiving scholarships from those service organizations to attend school.

Don’t go to college to “figure things out”

Going to college to “find yourself” is a costly proposition. If you’re taking out huge loans to get that 4-year degree, think again. I made a similar point in my other posts, like this one.

I think you should attend college once you have a general idea of what career you would like to pursue for at least 3-5 years – not what you want to do for the rest of your life. Why did I say 3-4 years? Because it’s very likely that you will change careers a few years later. And that is just fine.

So if that career that you’re thinking about requires a college degree or if having a 4-year degree facilitates the entrance into that career, then college makes sense. But that begs another question: How do you know what career you want to pursue? That’s an entirely different conversation – and a crucial one to have. I hope to address my thoughts on that in a future post.

There are jobs that require a college degree or an advanced degree

I’m not just talking about becoming an accountant, lawyer, teacher, or doctor. For example, I want to work for USAID and most of their positions require a master’s.

Another example: one of my friends wants to become a CPA and then work for the FBI as a forensic accountant. I’m not joking: he’s worked for a Big 4 accounting firm for many years now and loves the profession. But he feels like his calling is to use his skills for the public good. That’s his reason behind wanting to do forensic accounting for the FBI.

So would you say that my friend should’ve stayed away from college because it’s not worth it?

My point here is that people who advocate against college should contextualize their message to their audiences. They should at least acknowledge that there are careers that require a college degree. And college is the path to pursuing those careers for many people.

Gotta be careful making generalizations, Gary.

Not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur or build a business

If you think about it, who is usually spreading the “college is worthless” message? Usually, it’s entrepreneurs, actors, athletes, artists – that is, people who are in professions that by their nature do not require a college degree.

So whenever you hear about college being useless, who is spreading this message? If it’s an entrepreneur, of course they’ll tell you they learned so much more from building businesses as opposed to studying business theory from textbooks.

That makes a lot of sense. If what you want to do is build successful businesses, college will not help you get there. So enrolling in Entrepreneurship degrees is quite useless, in my opinion. But if you want to be a top accountant or a CFO for one of these very successful businesses, going to college will be helpful.

There are so many careers where experience is so much more valuable than a degree in that field (for instance, a filmmaker, marketing professional, or writer). That’s why the earlier point Don’t go to college to “figure things out” is so important.

College gives you structure

Sure, you can study on your own. But that requires intense discipline to make it happen. Research shows that only 3-4% of students enrolled in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) actually completed their courses. This link and this link back up this claim.

You must be a student, but also a teacher coming up with the curriculum for your self-designed “degree” while assessing your overall progress. Most people can’t do that, especially when they’re 18. As a result, they give up.

College, on the other hand, gives you a structure. It’s far from perfect, but it works most of the time.

And sure, you need to be disciplined to succeed in life. Sure, self-study is really important. But you need to build that learning muscle. Doing it on your own is like being in a silo. You can achieve some results doing that, but think about the benefits of being exposed to professors who really know their craft and who can share it with you.

Don’t be naive

Simply having a college degree won’t guarantee you’ll get that dream job of yours. You also have to network, understand the job market, and be ready to get rejected many times.

There are no guarantees in life. Don’t be naive.

The bottom line

Take all the advice with a grain of salt and make an independent, informed decision about your future.

PS: I wrote a similar post about going to graduate school. You can check it out here: To Grad School or Not?

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