Is College For You?

These days, attendance at a post-secondary institution is becoming almost mandatory. Employers are increasingly demanding at least a Bachelors’ degree to even allow your foot in the door. What high school was in 1977 is what college is in 2007. I’m not even joking.

Now that I’ve scared you (assuming you are still living with your parents, trying to decide what to do with your life) I have some better news. Going to college may not be right for you. There are alternatives.

A Common Goal

Just because everyone you know is planning on post-secondary education, and everyone says it is an absolute necessity doesn’t mean it actually is. “Everyone” is frequently wrong.

bookmarkFirst ask yourself what a college education will do for you. Does your desired career require one? Some careers like law, graphic design, media, film and marketing generally require education of some sort. But only one of them actually requires a college degree!

For graphic design you can go to a vocational school, community college, or teach yourself. Put your own portfolio together and show it to prospective employers (if you insist on actually getting a job. It’s best to work for yourself in that field, like anything else.) Don’t blindly attend Art Institute and shell out $24,000 per year for something you can learn on your own or at a community college. I almost made this mistake.

And do you want to start your own business? A degree isn’t even a requisite for that.

Worried about missing out on the social scene college offers? If you live near a major university, just take a class you are interested in, hang out at some of the campus club/activity centers, or attend a club meeting and talk to people. Getting into the “college scene” is possible (actually, it’s fairly easy) without going full-time.

If you are dead-set on furthering your education, consider a vocational or trade school. Many of these schools offer training and direct, hands-on experience in your field of choice for a relatively low cost. It’s amazing how many people insist on going to these expensive, renowned, private liberal-arts colleges and shelling out tens (sometimes over 100s) of thousands of dollars. What is this about anyway? The prestige? The tradition? The ivy-covered brick and standing in The Princeton Review? Please.

Here is an example of two very different paths.

Person A (age 19) got into roofing and ceiling work for a year while doing yard work and random home repair services for neighbors. Soon, he began to recruit friends and other able-bodied people to work with/for him out because he was getting so many requests for help. Before long, he started his own roofing business, is now making over $70,000/year and has no college debt. In fact, he plans to take some classes in a few years once he has serious savings just because he would like to try something new and loves to learn.

Person B (age 22) went to a highly ranked, just below Ivy league college for four years with a double major in anthropology and political science. This person was extremely interested in how ancient Mesopotamian cultures interacted with each other, their voting systems, and how they elected other ancient Mesopotamians to leadership roles. After four years of school and $70,000 of college loans, this person toiled around for three years, forced to take administrative assistant, restaurant, office and retail jobs just to keep his head above water to pay off the loans. Apparently there are very few jobs for people who want to teach about the politics of ancient cultures.

capanddiplomaAt first, it sure seemed like person B was doing something more rewarding, more practical or “better.” But who is really better off in the end?

This is not uncommon at all. College is not for everyone. It’s important to look at the trends, look at what is out there, and really consider whether the debt load is worth it. The system is actually set up to make people fail, because what we are learning in school often has very little to do with the actual job market.

I Still Want to go!

If you are going to spend your hard-earned money for an education, be damn sure you are going to try. Don’t BS your way through classes. Don’t pay people off to do your assignments for you. Don’t go to sleep at 4:00am on the day before your mid-term because you wanted to get hammered. In fact, don’t get hammered at all. Really learn, and appreciate the experience. Make sure that you are serious about what it is that you intend to do with your degree. It’s never too late to change direction in life, but it IS too late to go back and not take out those loans of imprisonment.

Some people do create wonderful careers that would not have been possible without attending school, and (especially) moving on to grad school. Make sure that you have a very good shot at being one of these students and actually try. Do some internships or start your own projects related to your interests. Work with some professors. Grades are not as important as experience, but they matter if you are planning on graduate school.

Chances are good that if you found this site, you are hardly interested in a traditional 8-to-5 career. I can promise you that it is MUCH more difficult to escape the rat race if you have college loans to repay. They are pretty much a one-way ticket into the workforce for many years to come. You’ll HAVE to earn enough to cover these loans. What a sham.

Closing Thoughts

College is not for everyone. It is actually only for people who know what they want to get a degree for, and know that this is the only way. If you are one of these people, then a post-secondary education is good for you.

If you are not, (which I believe is true for about 60% of those that go anyway) then give the matter serious thought. What do you want to do with your life? What are your goals? College is the “default” option for people, because it is what everyone is doing. If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, it’s probably best to figure out what your interests are first.

It may be more difficult to “get anywhere” without a degree, but it’s certainly not impossible. Once again, community college and vocational schools are something to consider for their cost and their practical application to today’s workforce. Consider avoiding entry into the workforce if you can, though. Try to explore making your own income. If you start a business that is even a bit successful it can be wonderfully freeing, and you are more likely to do something that is really “you”, because you’ve customized it to fit your interests. (And if not, you shouldn’t be in that business!)


1 Comment

  • trade/vocations vs philosophy/science November 2, 2007 at 9:17 am

    It seems to me like this isn’t a debate of *if* college is right for you. It’s a question of what program is right for you, but I really don’t think you can compare trades and vocations to that from the land of philosophy and science.

    Who would trust a lawyer who hadn’t been to law school? (How would s/he pass the bar?) How do you know a self-taught graphic designer knows the difference between sans and serif fonts?

    Colleges and higher education get you in the door. The school and program you come from implies the knowledge you already have. If you choose off the wall subjects, such as ancient societal politics, you do so knowing that there’s not a lot of doors for you.

    There will always be trades work available, always. You’ll always need a plumber, electrician etc. If that’s what you want to do with your life, fine, you can go the journeyman route, learn everything “old-school” and do just fine or you can go to a trade/tech/vocational school. But if you go to school and choose a degree at random because you can’t think of anything else then your heart isn’t into it then you’ll never be satisfied and probably did waste the time there.


    Don’t forget Person C (age 25):
    Person C goes to solid 4 year university, studies hard and graduates with a pair of degrees in related fields. He then proceeds to advance his education to the Master’s level, indebting further. Choosing to enter the workforce, his advisor assists him in finding the dream job using all his degrees with a starting wage over $66k/yr, making the debt payments trifle.


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