5 Reasons to Rethink College

Originally published on Thought Catalog.

Everyone knows you have to go to college to be successful.  Sometimes everyone is wrong.  Here are five reasons to rethink college as the best path to a fulfilling career and life.

1) It’s expensive.

Here’s a chart showing college debt and earnings for degree holders.

Guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  Charts and graphs and studies like this can’t help you make your decision about college for two reasons:  Because data can never show causality and aggregates are not individuals.

When it comes to causality, it’s pretty unclear college is doing the work.  Yes, degree holders on average earn more money than those without degrees.  People in Florida on average are older than people in the rest of the country.  Does Florida magically speed the aging process?  Degrees don’t magically make people more productive workers either.

College is a sorting mechanism more than it is a forming mechanism.  The types of people who get into and complete college are the kind who would command higher salaries anyway.  Some studies have followed people who attended Ivy League schools and others accepted to those schools but who chose lower ranked schools instead.  There wasn’t a difference in lifetime earnings.  In other words, Ivy League caliber people don’t need an Ivy League education to have high earnings.

As for aggregates and individuals, consider the following question: Are pickup trucks a good idea for 18-25 year olds?  Are they worth the cost?  How many studies would it take to prove it?  It’s obviously a dumb question.  There is no one answer for all 18-25 year olds.  Aggregate cost/benefit analyses for all 18-25 year olds buying pickup trucks won’t mean much to you in your highly personalized experience.  It’s just as ridiculous to come up with a single answer to questions about whether college is worth it for young people.

Data can’t do the work of deciding.  The only answer that matters is whether a particular path is worth it for you.  What do you want to get?  What are the possible ways of getting it?  What do they cost?  The cost is not just money but time, foregone opportunities, etc.  Whatever your decision, know why you’re doing it.  Which brings me to…

2) Most people don’t know why they’re doing it.

I ask high school students if they plan to go to college.  They all say yes.  When I ask “why” I have never heard anything but some variation on,

“Because I have to”, or, “To get a job”.

Then I ask what kind of job they want.  Crickets.  They don’t have any idea.

That’s perfectly fine – most teenagers don’t know and probably can’t know what they’ll be doing in ten or twenty years – but it’s pretty odd considering their entire reason for going to college is to get something about which they know nothing, including whether or not a degree will help them.

So the formula is, “I want X.  I have no idea what X is or what’s required to get it.  Therefore I’ll spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars on college.”  Maybe logic classes aren’t taught in high schools.

College may be a necessary or valuable way for you to get what you want out of life.  Then again maybe not.  The point is, you need to do some exploring and experimenting to find out.  You won’t know if your calling in life is marketing by sitting in a classroom and reading about it.  Spend some time around people who do it and see what it’s like.  If you love it, do you need a degree to do it?

The cultural narrative on college is, “Buy it!  Buy it!  No amount of cost or debt should factor into your decision, because it’s always worth it!”.  That’s a terrible way to make sound decisions about anything.  Remember the last time everyone was saying, “Buy! Buy! The price can only ever go up!”? (Housing bubble anyone…)

But maybe you’re going to college just for fun, which leads me to…

3) Most don’t enjoy it (and the parts they do enjoy can be had for free).

Parents and students tell me all the time that they’re unhappy with college.  Do you know what the number one complaint is?  Surprisingly, it’s not how much it costs.  It’s how much it sucks.

The number of young people who are bored in class and disappointed with the caliber of professors and students is staggering.  Students feel disengaged.  The part they like least about college is attending class and official duties.

If you sent a visitor from another planet to a typical college class and asked them to observe and report back to you what they thought they were witnessing they’d probably guess by the pained, dreary looks and lack of engagement it was some kind of penal colony or experiment where the students are being paid huge sums to endure fluorescently lit torment.  Nope, you tell them, these people are actually paying thousands to sit in the squeaky chairs and Snapchat their friends with a distracting TA in the background.

The things they love the most – parties, socialization, late night conversations, football games – can all be had without paying tuition.  Heck, if you really love a particular class or professor, I bet you can sneak into her class without registering and take it anyway.  I’ve never seen professors checking who’s current on tuition before the lecture.  They’d be thrilled to have someone in the class who was actually interested!

So why do people go?  Most don’t do it to stand out from the crowd, but to be normal; to blend in.  In that sense, it works.  But that might not be such a good thing…

4) It’s one size fits all in a world that demands customization.

Sure, there are lots of different majors and classes, but the approach is almost exactly the same in every case.  Follow rules, meet arbitrary deadlines with arbitrary assignments that will be glanced at by TA’s, passively listen to lectures and memorize answers you never need to know (because, you know, Google exists now).  

Chances are the job you’ll have in ten or twenty years doesn’t even exist yet.  That means the most valuable life and career skills are the very ones the classroom setting isn’t conducive for.  Adaptability, entrepreneurial thinking, creative problem solving, networking with people who can help you, etc.  In the classroom setting entrepreneurship is called cheating and networking is called missing class.

You can’t rely on your university to be your brand.  You are your own company, “Me, Inc.”, and you have to develop valuable skills and knowledge and find ways to communicate them to others.

The good news is, things you’ll really need to succeed are available in myriad forms, most much cheaper than the university.  Get a job.  Get a bunch of jobs.  Travel.  Talk to a lot of people.  Read.  Take online courses.  Write.  Figure out what you enjoy and practice it.  Work your butt off.  Anyone can graduate college.  It takes a lot more work to list what you want to gain and find the best way to get it.  Customize your life.  Don’t assume a degree can do this for you, because…

5) It doesn’t signal much anymore.

I overheard a classmate in college talking about how hard the test was (it wasn’t) and how many girls he wooed the previous night (he didn’t) and how hung-over he was (he was).  Right then and there I had an epiphany: He, like everyone else in the classroom, would probably graduate from this place.  Like me, they’d go on the job market and have the same degree.  Suddenly I felt the market value of my impending accomplishment plummet.

Let’s be real.  The only reason people keep paying so much for college is for the signal a degree sends to employers.  Sure, the other parts of the college bundle are great, but they can all be had in other, better and cheaper ways.  It’s the signal that keeps people buying.  But that signal is weakening and the value declining.

I talk to a lot of business owners.  They don’t care much about degrees anymore.  They want experience, proof of work ethic, and ability to quickly and coherently answer an email (only about seven people under the age of 25 have this ability).  College is the new high school.  Everyone does it, so it doesn’t make anyone stand out.  In fact, not going to college and having a damn good reason why might stand out a lot more.

Top venture capital firm Andreessen Horwitz specifically looks for entrepreneurs who were college dropouts, because it’s a good sign they are courageous and confident in their idea.  Google is one among many businesses to recently remove degrees from job requirements.

Get experience, gain confidence, learn what you like and don’t like, work hard, build skills, knowledge, and a network around your interests and goals.

College is one option among many.  Don’t do it just because everyone else does.  Those are the same people who bought a bunch of Beanie Babies as a retirement fund because everyone else was.