If I can offer a word of caution for those of you who are thinking about going back to school, it is to be deliberate in the school you choose, if you choose to go at all. While it may be the case for most public high schools, not all universities are created equal. Is going to college really the best choice for everyone? Not necessarily.
What Everyone Else is Doing
When I graduated high school in 2004, a college degree still meant something. However, I was never taught anything about the intricacies of choosing a major, a career, or even just getting to know what I wanted. When it came to school, I was a naive teenager. I mindlessly enrolled at university because I thought that was just the next step in life, and I wanted to continue to be with my high school friends in college. I chose computer science as my major because I thought I liked computers.
The liberating feeling of being an independent adult eventually consumed me. I wasn’t going into debt, but I was still quite reckless when it came to spending money. I had a part-time job making $6.00 per hour, and often found my bank account hovering near zero. That’s when I began to think, “If I just keep going to school, I will eventually get a better job that pays a lot more.” That’s what we are socialized to believe, right? Those with a college degree, statistically speaking, generally are more financially successful. But should we trust those statistics? Let’s take a deeper look at that statement.
When politicians and social scientists tell everyone that having a degree correlates with making more money, it does not mean that having a degree automatically guarantees you a good, high-paying job. Nor does it make you more likely to even get a better job, or so much as earn you any more respect than not having the degree. In the past, people who made more money generally did have a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, their degree did not earn them more money; they did. You see, it is not about the degree you have. It is about your personality traits, your tendencies, and what you know. 30 years ago, if a person was ambitious enough to get a bachelors degree, then they were probably also ambitious enough to be successful in the corporate world. They already had the personality traits and the mental skills to succeed before they even went to college. Back in that day, it was considered impressive to have a bachelor’s degree because very few people actually got one. Now, the bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma; it seems like almost everyone has one, and it’s simply regarded as unimpressive.
33% of American adults now have a bachelor’s degree, and the percentage is rising. Why is that? It’s not because tuition has become more affordable. In fact, tuition is much higher now than it ever has been, and there is also more student debt than ever before. The biggest contributing factor is the market crash that happened in 2008, otherwise known as “The Great Recession.”
The Focus on Getting a Job
Most adults were taught from when they were children that going to college would make them have a better life, and that it would allow them to get a better “job.” Historically, having a job was a luxury, but not a necessity. People lived off of the land. In more recent history, aside from college being too expensive for most, it was fairly easy in a city to get a decent job without going to college, so most people didn’t. That’s the problem: the focus on getting a job, or being someone else’s employee. Not only have we been socialized to believe that going to college will get us a better job, but we have also been socialized to believe that we should be seeking out a job in the first place. So what happens when the market crashes and thousands of people are laid off when they hold such a strong value in having a job? They look to be an employee elsewhere. What happens when they cannot find a job elsewhere? They go back to that belief that if they had a college degree, they would get a better job. Naturally, college enrollment has increased exponentially since the market crash because of this belief.
I quit going to school after about a year because I wised up and realized that I needed to save money, but also to figure out what I wanted out of life. This was before the market crash. I still had that mindset that I needed to be employed to be happy, and I still had that mindset that I needed to eventually go back to school to be decently-employed. After the market crash and having had such a hard time getting a decent job, I went back to school. I still didn’t know what I was doing, other than increasing my chances of better employment (or so I thought). This time, I had changed my major to Pre-law. I was tired of being poor and tired of being treated poorly as a lowly hireling and chose to become an attorney because everyone says that attorneys make a lot of money and get respect, right?
I regret to admit that I really got stuck in the mindset of “going to college means getting a better job.” I eagerly-anticipated getting my Associate’s Degree, soon to find that the Associate’s Degree is like an invisible degree; generally speaking, you do a lot of work, spend a lot of money, and it doesn’t help you at all. So naturally, I thought that getting a Bachelor’s degree was the answer. It wasn’t. My major changed from Computer Science to Pre-Law to Sociology. I never really knew what I was doing. I just knew that getting a degree (seemingly any degree, from any school) was the key to success.
Thinking About Who I Am
Perhaps studying Sociology was a good move, at least in a sense, because there is a strong focus on critical thinking and research which would allow me to expand my mind and give me more perspective on life. During my Senior year at university, I was involved in a few extra-curriculars, and I pondered a lot on life and what was important to me. I realized that what was important to me was autonomy or self-reliance, simplicity, creativity, family, spirituality, and health. I realized that I was going to college for the wrong reasons. I also realized that even though Sociology was a great major for a deep-thinker like myself, it wasn’t lucrative at all. Even though I knew it already, I ignored that thought and tried to convince myself that I’d get a better job when I graduated.
As a Sociology major and a Business minor, I began to analyze the way universities operated. I noticed that they are very much like corporations, and I started to get the feeling that they regarded me as just a paying customer rather than a student, per se. Not only this, but in my social statistics class, I learned that statistics are generally flawed and open to interpretation. This translates to grades and GPA as well. I realized that despite my strong, earnest effort in some classes, I would still get a “B,” whereas in other classes I would barely do anything and I would earn an “A.” I learned that the grade a student earns is largely up to the professor’s perspective of that student. I drew the conclusion that grades are not an accurate representation of a person’s knowledge, effort, or diligence. While that conclusion made me feel better in a way, I realized that traditional school was really not as great as they say, so I resolved to seeking out experiential learning.
While still a student, I began researching alternative schools that I could attend after graduating. I wanted to go somewhere that wasn’t a traditional institution, didn’t operate like a corporation, didn’t assign grades (or loopholed statistics), and focused more on experiential learning and critical thinking rather than memorization and regurgitated knowledge. I had learned that entrepreneurial values are what makes any person stand out these days, and I knew that seeking out a school with these values would benefit me 10 times more than simply getting a degree. While I did find a few private organizations that I wanted to be part of, most of them had a corporate orientation that I didn’t like, so I kept the idea for alternative education in the back of my mind while I finished school (it was my last semester, so it would have been stupid to drop out).
When graduation came, I learned that I was one out of roughly 5,000 undergraduate students graduating that semester (just at that university!). This upset me and made me feel as though I had wasted a lot of time and money at a traditional institution just to be mediocre. This reinforced the feeling of being regarded as nothing more than a paying customer rather than a student. This also reinforced my knowledge of the market being over-saturated with college graduates.
I went back to the job market and was offered a position that didn’t require a college degree. In other words, I would be under-employed. I tentatively accepted this offer out of financial need while I continued to look for a better opportunity. I didn’t find anything. I kept this job for a year, feeling under-valued and over-qualified (both in education and prior work experience) the entire time.
Here’s what I wish I had known before ever venturing into the college trap:
- The most important thing to do is to first figure out what you want out of life. Many people find out who they are while in college. But this isn’t to say that you have to go to college to find yourself. Take risks, go travel, try new hobbies, volunteer, take personality tests, get to know people from different backgrounds and cultures, and do what you can to figure yourself out. Once that is done, you can make better decisions for your education, or perhaps you will decide that formal education is not right for you at all.
- Going to a traditional school isn’t always the best choice. If you are pursuing a career that absolutely requires a specific degree (such as a doctor, lawyer, or teacher), then go for it. Otherwise, there are amazing opportunities for self-learning online and plenty of lower-cost alternatives to learning what you want to do. I personally feel like I’ve learned a lot more just by doing independent research than I did as a student. Some people criticize information on the internet and dismiss it as being untrustworthy, but just use your intuition and make sure you are finding good sources. Even scholarly articles have their flaws. If you’d prefer experiential learning, sign up for a few workshops with small, private schools instead (such as this one)! You’ll save a lot of time and money avoiding college if you don’t actually need to go there.
- You’ll learn a lot in college, but most of what you will learn is outside of the classroom. In other words, it’s all about life experience. If you decide to go to school, you will get more life experience if you choose a school where you have to move away, be on your own, and make new friends and develop new interests. Traveling domestically and abroad has also really helped some people gain life experience, as well as volunteering, or simply getting diverse work experience.
- Not all institutions are created equal. I went to four different institutions as an undergraduate, and I really noticed a difference between each one of them. Some offer programs that others don’t, some feel more like high school rather than a place for intellectualism, some are open-enrollment, some have a school-wide focus (such as social justice, the arts, sustainability, etc.), and some are just diploma factories (easy A’s). Don’t just pick the most convenient school to attend. If you do, you won’t get much out of it. Do your research and find which schools align with your personal values, which ones offer the programs that you are interested in, have a good reputation for your chosen field, are in a location where you wouldn’t mind living, and those that fit within your budget.
- Due to the market crash, college degrees don’t mean much anymore. Lots of people have them. Don’t just mindlessly go to school for the sake of getting a degree (like I did). If you really don’t have a good reason to get a degree, don’t waste your time or money getting one. Just “getting a job” isn’t a good reason.
- Our society has evolved back to entrepreneurial values. The United States of America was founded on entrepreneurial values. It’s all about independence, self-reliance, and freedom of speech and thought. We shouldn’t have to rely on our employers or any government system for our livelihood. Even Thomas Jefferson feared that putting too much focus on getting a job would make people too dependent on their employers and they would lose their freedom as a result. I personally feel that when I have a job, I’ve lost my freedom. Instead, Jefferson supported entrepreneurship, or even just living off of the land independent of other institutions. Mike Glauser mentions in his book, Main Street Entrepreneur, that being self-employed is quickly becoming even more secure than having a job. He predicts that most work will soon evolve into being contracted work. So make an effort to become independent; learn a trade, start a business, etc.
- Statistics are fallible, and most often have loopholes. There comes a certain point where you will inevitably have to reference statistics of some kind, but don’t base your decisions entirely off of statistics (or even scholarly articles, which also often have loopholes). Statistics say that having a degree (any degree, from any school) largely increases your chances of making more money, but they ignore the fact that people who don’t have a degree can still make a lot of money, and a lot of people who do have a degree still don’t make very much. As humans, we have a strange desire to quantify everything (even things that can’t really be quantified). As mentioned above, even school grades and GPAs aren’t an accurate representation of anything. Use statistics as a tool to increase your perspective, but don’t always take them to be absolute truth.
- Happiness has nothing to do with money. Money is simply another statistic. It is our way of attempting to quantify the value of something. But really, the best work you can do is something that you find to be personally meaningful. Seek out a career that provides a direct benefit to you other than in terms of dollars. Most people find that this means serving other people. Sure, we need a little money to survive in this urbanized world, but that should never be our priority. If you spend your life chasing money, you will never be truly happy. What most of us want is not actually money, it is simply to feel secure and loved (unfortunately, most of us confuse love and security with the accumulation of material possessions). Whatever you end up doing will most likely make you some money, and often it is enough to be secure, so long as you are financially responsible.
- Knowledge is power! Admittedly, I watched Schoolhouse Rock and I knew this long before I went to college. However, you don’t need to go to a formal institution to get knowledge. It used to be that you had to either go to school or read a lot of books to gain knowledge. Thanks to the internet, gaining knowledge is now fairly easy and very accessible. Keep in mind that knowledge isn’t the same as wisdom. That’s why experiential learning is so important; it bridges the gap between knowledge and wisdom.
My whole purpose in writing this is to get the word out that university degrees are usually only helpful if you really need a specific one for a specific career. I want to stop people from going to college who don’t really know why they are going. I spent ten years and tens of thousands of dollars getting a bachelor’s degree only to find out that it wasn’t at all what I was told by so many others. The idea that getting a degree (any degree, from any school) to get a better job is completely antiquated. Especially since the market crash, we have seen a major shift from the value in having credentials (such as formal education) to the value in having experience (marketable skills). Overall, learning a trade, living off of the land, and being self-employed are the most secure options for our ever-changing society. All of those can be learned independently of formal education, either through self-learning or through apprenticeship. What matters most is that you are being true to yourself and that you are feeling secure. Don’t just do something because it’s what everyone else is doing. Be deliberate in your decisions, be mindful in your growth, then you will rise above the rest.