What is College Good For?

Recently, there’s been a quick uptick in the amount of writing on the internet meant to steer the popular opinion away from going to college and instead, encourage young teens to learn through gaining real world experience. A quick scan of my RSS feed right now shows two additional posts on the topic. James Altucher is one particular individual that commands quite and audience and speaks to the inefficiencies of college  and several alternatives.

All of these articles putting down the use for secondary education include many of the same arguments:

  • College costs a lot of money, and it almost always forces students into debt
  • College students aren’t likely to use much of the coursework they study in their real jobs
  • College takes roughly four years to complete and much of that time is spent partying – not actually learning a trade
  • One could argue that college forces students into a certain path and removes any and all opportunities for creativity and “figuring it out”

Having gone through college (and graduate school) myself, I can certainly agree with a few of the main arguments. Sure, college is expensive. I dug myself a hole in student debt that I’m continuing to pay off right now, albeit at a quick pace. I’m certainly not using much of my main coursework in my job now (I studied Human Performance, but now I work for Automattic, a digital publishing and tech company). I certainly spent much of my four years partying (sorry Mom). But, at the same time, I think we’ve gone a bit overboard.

While the arguments for postponing secondary education or skipping it altogether seem to make sense on paper, the numbers don’t add up in real life. Several of the assumptions the proponents of this idea are making don’t apply to everyone and anyone.

1. You don’t need a college degree to start your own company.

I agree. You certainly don’t need a diploma to come up with the next great idea. Hell, if famous creators like Steve Jobs can do it, why would anyone bother with going to college?

Well, for one, not everyone is meant to start their own company.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that there is a perfect career out there for anyone and everyone. For some, that might be an entrepreneurial adventure. For others, that might be working at a desk from 8-5 and bringing home a steady paycheck while working for “the man”. Neither is better or worse. They’re simply different. Telling someone they’re going to be better off skipping out on a college education assumes they’re going to prefer more of the former hustle-till-you-make-it career path. However, some folks don’t have the drive for that kind of lifestyle or simply don’t want that kind of career.

2. College is expensive.

Sure, having debt when you come out of a four-year degree program isn’t exactly the best scenario. Unless you finished from a top school in a career field in high demand, you likely aren’t going to be making that much. But, for all of those students that finished in debt, there were hundreds of thousands more that found a way to finish with absolutely no debt whatsoever. They pursued scholarships and worked jobs to avoid having student loans. I, for one, could have been one of those lucky kids had I been a bit more mature with my decisions (I ended up getting a dog and trying to live in a two-bedroom apartment by myself).

The argument that college is expensive ignores the fact that tons of options exist for students that don’t want to have to take out student loans. If you really want a college degree and you don’t have the money to pay for it, work to get a scholarship. There’s plenty of them out there to apply for.

3. Much of your college coursework is fluff.

I suffered through Calculus for an entire semester, finally passing with a “B” after many sleepless nights of studying. I also sat through Meteorology and Jogging class. Still, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a cumulus cloud and any one of their compatriots in the sky. In addition, I took Jogging class a few months after finishing cross country season and during a time when I was training for a marathon because it seemed like a good way to get easy runs in during the week. Were those classes a waste of time and scholarship money? You bet.

I equate easy coursework to watching TV or reading your favorite fiction novel during your work day. It doesn’t further your education, increase your productivity, or make you any more money, but still, you need the reprieve from constantly working all of the time. Sure, I took some easy courses particularly during my first two years when I was still “figuring it out”. But, I also hunkered down and finished all of the majors like Chemistry, Physics, Anatomy, etc. The easy A’s gave me an outlet of enjoyment in between bouts of work.

4. You aren’t going to use any of the info you learned in college.

I’m never going to have to balance another chemical equation in my entire life. I probably won’t have to diagram a sentence or explain the steps of mitosis ever again either. Hell, I’m lucky that I remember the quadratic formula. But, I’m glad I sat through those courses and spent all of those nights studying for two reasons:

  • It gave me a chance to figure out how I learn best, which I’ve applied many times already.
  • At some point, it’s nice to have a foundation of knowledge so you don’t have to run to the internet every time the news mentions a scientific word over three syllables.

5. You don’t need to go to college to party hard and make friends.

One of the most popular aspects of college is the party atmosphere. I certainly spent my fair amount of time in the bars and tailgating for football games. I met people that I’m happy to still call my friends. Hell, I met my fiancee in graduate school.

Opponents of college argue that a tuition is a huge price to pay for kids to party all of the time and stay up until 5am vomiting over the toilet. Having spent more than one or two nights in that exact scenario, I can agree. However, I’ll also say that I’ll remember those nights and those friends for the rest of my life. To me, it was worth every penny of college tuition, and it helped me to learn many valuable lessons (like responsibility and self-control).

6. You can learn everything from college in a few books.

Ah, if only every kid that skipped college was digging their head in books trying to learn Biology. If everyone were that self-motivated, we wouldn’t have many of the problems that we do in society today.

The Benefits of College

So, if this whole “skip college” thing is overhyped, what exactly did I get out of my six years at the University of Florida?

Responsibility

As this was the first time I lived on my own, I learned how to take care of myself including getting groceries, paying bills, and getting my lazy 18-year old butt out of bed. This apparently took awhile as I overslept new hire training for my first job by 45 minutes.

For most students, this is like a trial run at real life. While some can just take off and fly, others need a bit of a test run before going out on their own.

Exposure

I took a ton of different courses, met even more interesting people, and had some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Could this have happened outside of college? Probably. But, college was a catalyst.

Opportunity

I recently read a fantastic argument for secondary education by Chris Yeh. Chris is a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur and Writer. In his piece (aptly titled College Is For Trying), he argues that the four years of secondary education are a fantastic opportunity for students to figure out what exactly it is they want to do in life and experiment. I agree.

Diplomas

One of the most overblown arguments in my opinion is that a college degree is overhyped. They aren’t necessary to be successful or to land a job.

Do you need a college degree to make money? No. But, the simply fact is that a degree in today’s world is the norm for most jobs. Unless you’re starting your own company, I guarantee a degree is going to be on the list of requirements. It’s just one of the ways we separate the viable candidates from the pool of potentials.

So, is college necessary for success? Certainly not. It’s easy to point out the individuals that skipped out and made it. This is not meant to take away from those individuals that were extremely successful. It’s simply to point out that the path of skipping college isn’t the best option for 100% of high school students. Telling everyone to skip college is a generalization that can lead to lots of unhappy and broke 20-year olds.

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