Why Go To College?

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I mentioned in last week’s blog post that I am hearing more parents, who are themselves college educated, talking about encouraging their kids to consider alternatives to college. I wanted to take a bit more time to explore this, because to me this is an issue that still doesn’t get enough air time. I am not at all against pursuing higher education, but it is clear to me that:

  1. There is a very wide variance around what it means to get a “college education”

  2. Not everyone is counting the cost, and weighing it against the benefit

  3. There are many alternative career paths that can be intellectually enriching, as well as lucrative, that don’t involve going to college

In particular:

What is a college education? For many young people who have no idea what they want to do with their lives, historically college was a place to “find yourself”. It was a place to be exposed to new thoughts, new ideas, and to perhaps learn to think independently. Hopefully at the end of the exploration there was a degree that would result in a fulfilling career that paid better than you could have gotten paid had you not pursued the higher education.

Fast forward to today, where the luxury of spending upwards of $250k or more to “find yourself”, and have 4 years of prolonged adolescence, is something that can only reasonably be shouldered by those who have a very deep financial support system (ie rich people). To make the most of a college experience, you need to:

  1. Know what you want to study to get a particular job when you are done

  2. Evaluate whether that particular job will pay the bills

  3. Have the internal discipline and focus to actually get through college successfully in the alloted time.

But to ask most 17 or 18 year old kids to make these sorts of decisions is unreasonable for most. Unfortunately, the advice that many young people get today come from parents who are living in a paradigm that no longer exists — that a college degree means better financial prospects. It also comes from schools whose rankings depend on the percentage of graduates who go to college — a misplaced kpi if there ever was one.

But what are the alternatives?

1. Alternative education paths: In direct response to the burgeoning costs of college, there are now numerous certificate programs and other places to go to invest in skills. What college should be, and once was, is a place to get better skills to command a higher wage. Now there are places like the Lambda School or General Assembly where people get specific skills in tech at a fraction of the cost of a college degree. This is not an endorsement of those particular programs but more an observation that there are now new ways to upskill that should be considered.

2. Focus on trades. There is a snobbery that exists among many that getting a trade is for those who don’t have the intellect to go to University. Hogwash. Being a plumber, electrician, HVAC repairman etc can be as intellectually challenging as any “professional” job, and also has the same opportunities for management, customer interaction etc. Also most trades are highly technical (as everything is more computerized) so for people who actually gravitate towards working with their hands and who like to work on technical issues, it can be a perfect match. Yes- you are more likely to be dirty at the end of the day, but for those of us who have lived under fluorescent lighting for years know, there is something to be said about getting out and not living like a mushroom.

3. The military. Joining the armed services has always been a great training ground for young people who want to learn about themselves and the world — as well as develop skills. When I was teaching at the University of Nebraska many years ago, I marvelled at how the students who came from the service were so much more focused and organized- and knew exactly why they were in school, as compared with their peers. For many, the armed forces is also an excellent career.

4. Starting your own business. Probably the hardest of all paths, there are certainly notable success stories of people who bypassed college to jump right into their life’s work. Richard Branson is one of my favorites- he had started a business in high school and then dropped out — to become who he is today! I am not advocating dropping out of high school, however when you look at the long list of successful people who took a path that didn’t involve higher education, you begin to realize that there are many ways to live a successful life.

Bottom line is that success can mean a lot of different things- not just how much money you make. But rather than asking a young person where they are going to go to college, why not ask them why are you going to college? Rather than taking as a given that everyone should go to college, why not consider that there are many ways to enrich your skills and to pursue the life that was meant for you? You just might save $250k in the process!

Jay Gopalakrishnan