Over in the threads of my post on Amy Chua, there’s an interesting sub-thread on the question of whether or not it’s worth going to college. This is a topic I see popping up with increasing frequency on the intertubes these days, and I have to say I find the very question somewhat ludicrous. So let me be clear right here at the top:
Assuming that you’re young, smart, and disciplined enough to get through with a degree, then it’s a no-brainer: You need to go to college — even if you have to borrow money to do so.
Before I explain why, it’s probably worth reviewing the reasons I keep seeing given for why you shouldn’t go. The arguments against college these days usually fall into one of three categories.
- College is too expensive. There’s no doubt that getting a four-year degree costs quite a bit these days. One of my sons is a senior in high school who is considering the University of Oregon, and because of this I know that the total estimated cost to pay for room, board, books, tuition, and a Duck degree over the next four years is around $100,000. Even the smaller and less prestigious Oregon state colleges will make your wallet about $80,000 lighter when all is said and done. If you think of college as a financial investment (and you should), then, assuming you retire in your mid-to-late-60s, you would need that degree to allow you the potential to earn an average of a little more or less than $3,000 a year after taxes (depending on where you live) over what you would have otherwise earned just to break even.
- Other than STEM Degrees, College Today Doesn’t Prepare You for a Career. Or, as I like to call it, the You-Have-To Do-Whatever-You-Majored-In-Or-It-Doesn’t-Count Argument. A growing sub-strain of this argument is the claim that in today’s economy, the only jobs worth having are those that that require a STEM college degree.
- College Exposes People to Ideas That Are Different From Mine. I suspect this perspective looks larger on the intertubes than it does in real life, but I do see a lot of this theses days: a lot of fringe libertarians, social conservatives, religious extremists, even men’s rights advocates argue that higher education is a cesspool of impure ideas that leads the young astray and keeps the Grand [insert your pet cause here] Utopian Ideal at bay for that much longer.
Ordinary Times readers being Ordinary Times readers, allow me to casually dismiss that last one and focus in on why the first two objections are so deeply flawed.
Let’s start with the first and most cited objection — that college is so expensive as to be a bad investment.
My observation is that the people who make this argument generally tend to be both young and relatively inexperienced in the job market. Young people have always had a tendency to take current economic trends and extrapolate them out through the end of time. Always. Thirty years ago, young college graduates assumed that within a decade they’d all be surrounded by the kinds of absurdly expensive jets, mansions and yachts Robin Leach showed them each week on syndicated TV. Five years after that, as the post-Reagan debt-created recession was sweeping Bush the Elder from office, young people knew that the American Dream was dead and that no one would ever be wealthy again. Five years after that, the tech-speculation fad had young grads convinced that the trend of being highly paid to produce ideas and concepts no one was willing to buy was simply the way that business was going to operate from then on. Ten years ago, people in their twenties and thirties would argue till the cows came home that everyone could just keep flipping real estate with one another all the way to an early and cushy retirement, regardless of asset base.
Young people today are no different. They have lived through a terrible recession that is only recently being countered with the most excruciatingly slow and unsatisfying of upswings. For them, bad economic times are just the way things have always been. It makes sense, therefore, that they assume jobs sporting nice salaries and benefits are simply gone, never to return. For those of us who are older, however, this is all part of a cycle we’ve seen replayed over and over. Sorry, pessimists, but the idea that an industrialized country with 300 million people, vast natural resources, stable infrastructure, and diverse economy that just happens to represent more than a quarter of the planet’s accumulative wealth will soon be playing out Road Warrior scenarios in real time is about as realistic as… as… Well, it’s about as realistic as the notion that we could base a long-term economy on selling our houses to one another over and over ad infinitum. In fact, when I think of those people I know who are my age that buy into the current America-is-permanently-doomed scenario, they tend to be the exact same people who used to argue that a house-flipping-based middle-class economy could and would go on forever.
All of which is to say that just because you can’t earn as much as you’d like today should not be taken as proof that you won’t be able to accrue wealth over a 30-50 year period in the future. And make no mistake, college degrees help you accrue wealth — and not just for the reasons you think.
When I used to hire people — for any position — those with a degree (almost) always got consideration over those without. And like most other people hiring for white-collar jobs, I didn’t really care what someone had majored in so long as they successfully majored in something. Because from an employment perspective, the most valuable thing college teaches you has nothing to do with which school you attended, or which your professors you studied under, or even what you major was. College teaches you something far more valuable, but it’s often after years or decades of working in teams that you truly understand that you were ever learning it at all. Simply put:
College teaches you how to set and acheive regular goals, using complex and new ideas as part of a larger group, under conditions where you must be entirely self-sufficient in your accomplishments while being totally accountable to others for your individual performance; what’s more, you must learn to satisfy both the objective and subjective criteria of those judging that performance.
That’s a lot more valuable lesson than it appears at first blush.
You don’t really learn that in high school, where teachers and parents hover over you and where if you’re simply bright you can get fantastic grades and high SAT scores without putting in any effort at all. (I am a living testament to this.) Maybe there are some entry-level jobs that don’t require a college degree that teach these skills, but I can’t think of even one. Most entry-levels require you to do mindless repetitive tasks, usually under a tight net of micro-management. And here’s the thing: if you want the best odds of making good money throughout your career, then I don’t care about what field you choose: you need those skills.
Are there some people out there who eventually learn how to do all of that who never go to college? Of course there are, but they’re really pretty rare. I spent decades working with hundreds of owners, upper management types and top performers of hundreds of different companies, and I think in all that time I’ve met maybe three guys that proved to be the exception. Are there any business owners out there who are successful in the long-term that just don’t have any of those skills, period? Probably, but they’re even more rare. People have tendency to think that it’s the piece of paper you get when you graduate that allows people with degrees to be more successful than those without — like a membership card into an semi-exclusive club they can present to those handing out successful careers. They’re wrong. College grads are more successful in the business world because the very act of achieving a degree teaches you how to be more successful in the business world.
If that’s not enough, then consider this: a college degree gives you more options, not just now but for the rest of your career. Maybe today you’re a 27-year old poli-sci major struggling to find an entry-level job anywhere, and in that case maybe those “options” aren’t that clear. But odds are, someday you’re going to be thirty-something working as an X at ACME, Inc. and you’re going to wonder if being an X at ACME, Inc. is really the best life has to offer you. If you have a degree, the odds are staggeringly better that the answer to that question is “fish, no.”
As to the STEM argument, well, that’s territory I’ve covered before. To quote my own bad self circa 2011:
The notion that not having a hard science degree cripples your career options is also ludicrous. Off the top of my head, here are just a few industries that are heavily populated by people with “soft” degrees in non-labor positions: Insurance, credit finance, advertising, healthcare management, social services, marketing, sales, utilities management, construction management, property development, banking, journalism, publishing, telecommunications management, attorney, entertainment, hospitality management, human recourses, distribution and warehousing, wholesaling, not to mention any of the jobs running, managing, or selling any of the things that those with the “hard” degrees are doing.
In fact, unless you actually work for a science-specific venture such as an engineering firm, computer programming company, or biotech startup, here’s a useful exercise: Go find the people in your company that make the most money. If you are unsure who they are, here is a hint: The highest earners will be in sales, the next highest will be the top executives. Ask them what their major was. See how many under-graduate chem majors you find compared to the “soft” majors. (The answer may surprise you!)
Or to put it another way: I’ve noticed over time that the people who tell me STEM degrees are the only viable way to earn a living on Mondays are invariably the same people who bitch to me that the sales guys, marketing reps and upper-management types where they work make more than they do in their STEM jobs on Tuesdays. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against a STEM degree – if you can get one, that’s awesome and it will absolutely serve you well. STEM gives you even more options, because you can just as easily go into sales or management as the poll-sci grad, should you choose to do so. I just reject this (largely internet-based) notion that a non-STEM degree is somehow “worthless” or “unmarketable.” (Though I should note that the common flip side of the STEM argument is equally ludicrous. If you became an Art History major because you assumed that by doing you’d automatically be paid to paint and talk about art for the rest of your life and now consider a job doing anything else as tuition money down the drain, then you probably do need to at least consider a career-mindset reset.)
So seriously: If you have the mental and financial means to get a college degree and you don’t have one already, go get one – even if you have to borrow money to make it work.
And if you do have a college degree, stop trying to tell other people how they should stick to the GED career route.
 Besides, let’s face it. If, in the unlikely event that you’re an OT reader who subscribes to this kind of thinking, what the hell am I going to say that you’d even listen to? Let’s be honest: I’m clearly part of the secular-commie-hippie-redpill-liberal-Satanic-feminist-Jewish-Muslim-Illuminati-moonlanding-faking-sheeple cabal working to enslave The People, or I wouldn’t write this s**t.
 I say “almost” because there are two obvious exceptions: Are you were old enough to have a verifiable track record of success managing people and complex tasks elsewhere — one that is so amazing I just can’t imagine choosing someone else? If not, did you serve in the military, and work your way far up enough in the ranks to prove that you must have had success managing people and complex tasks?
 Yeah, yeah, I get that engineering and computer programming are valuable skills – but having a skill and being successful using it are actually two completely separate things. There are a lot of people out there that have engineering, computer, and all kinds of other skills who still can’t get past entry-level positions or even hold a job, even in the best of economic times.