This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

“Is It Worth It To Go to College?” Part Y: Some Misconceptions That Need Clearing Up

I want to say at the outset that the whole raging discussion about whether or not it “pays” to go to college is bogus. It pays to go to college if what you ultimately want to do for a living either requires a college education or makes it substantially easier to get ahead. If you want to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an airspace engineer, the whole question is moot: you HAVE to go to college, or those fields will be closed to you. By contrast, if you are kind of just floundering about, not sure what you are good at or what you want to do with your life, it’s important to realize that as a time-killing endeavor, college is both really expensive and, in many instances, too damned hard.

I suspect, however, that the “controversy” is really meant for people who aren’t particularly good at anything, and aren’t particularly interested in anything, so the only issue for them is whether college represents the easiest way towards the most amount of money. Short answer: it doesn’t, but then, nothing does. Yet for what it’s worth, I feel that these people get bombarded with a lot of misinformation, and so there are a few misconceptions that should be — but aren’t, usually — addressed:

Misconception #1: “You can be successful without going to college” = You can be successful without hard work, major sacrifices or exerting your brain to learn stuff. I think this is the core attraction of not going to college, even if it always remains unsaid. This is what people who are put off by the idea of all-nighters hear when they are told they can be successful (read: financially secure) without a college education — because that’s what they want to hear. But it’s nonsense. Whichever path you take, college degree or no, you will need to invest major time and effort, acquire a massive set of skills and work about a million years before you become reasonably well-off. You certainly are not going to get anywhere near “successful” doing unskilled or low-skilled jobs.

Misconception #2: “You can make six figures without a college degree” = You can make six figures in an easy, stress-free job on a 9-5, M-F schedule. Take a look at this list of “six figure jobs” that don’t require a college degree, for example. The most important thing you should notice is the enormous range of incomes within each of those fields. If you can make between $30,144 and $180,434 a year as a real estate broker, is it really a “six figure job”? What distinguishes people at the bottom of the ladder from those at the top? Keep in mind, while minimal qualifications for being a real estate broker may not include a college degree, I bet you most people at the high end of the range are college graduates. Or how about being a “hotel executive chef”? That’s right kids, just become an executive — easy as pie; never mind that culinary school, while not technically a “college”, is comparably expensive and just as demanding, and that such top management jobs are very scarce, in a field that’s fiercely competitive.

The list I linked to is not exhaustive, by the way. It’s not impossible, for example, to make six figures waiting tables. Provided, of course, that you are willing to work long hours, Friday and Saturday nights, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and St. Valentine’s day; and you are knowledgeable enough about fine food and wine to be helpful to extremely sophisticated customers; and you have the appearance, demeanor and pronunciation suitable for working in a fine restaurant; and you actually get a job at a fine restaurant, where openings are few and far in between.

Or follow the list’s suggestion on becoming an airline pilot, a job which is not only glamorous but may — may — pay as much as $200K a year “depending on experience” (read: maybe thirty years from now for a couple of months before the next airline crisis forces you into an early retirement). Of course, this is actually a very demanding job that involves, among other things, chronic sleep deprivation, but as long as you don’t have to study French, who cares? Right?

Bottom line: whether they technically require a college degree or not, six figure jobs are very competitive, highly skilled and extremely demanding.

Misconception #3: College is a waste of time because they teach you a bunch of things you won’t need. The purpose of higher education is to teach you to think, by subjecting your mind to constant stress. Teaching specific marketable skills is secondary. In other words, higher education is, ideally, like athletic training for the mind — and complaining about “wasting” effort on stuff you won’t “need” is a lot like saying that your gym workout shouldn’t include the Stair Master because you already know how to climb stairs. Internalizing great amounts of factual knowledge and complex abstract ideas makes one’s mind flexible and capable of performing well in a job that routinely calls for complicated problem-solving and exercise of judgment in environments with multiple variables. You retain that ability even if you forget the exact details of how to solve an integral equation or how to use the subjunctive in Spanish. This capacity for complex abstract thought and analysis is the difference between a competent professional and a well-trained monkey. The fact that trained monkey jobs have been hemorrhaging out of this country at a far, far greater rate than competent professional jobs, should give you some pause before you decide which one you want to be.

Misconception #4: College is a waste of time because you still end up having to learn things on the job. If you think that the “norm” is learning how to do a certain set of things once and then doing them the same way for the next fifty years, until you retire in Florida with a bungalow and a boat, you can just forget it. Modern economy and the state of technology require workers to be flexible and to update their skills constantly. If you are eighteen now, know that sometime before you retire, you may have to change occupations — perhaps more than once. Even if that doesn’t happen, you still will constantly need to adapt to the times. College degree or no college degree, you will have to spend your productive years learning things on the job, always.

Misconception #5: Instead of wasting your youth on college, you should buy a house and start a family. You can always go to college later. Americans’ obsession with home ownership at any cost and on any terms is a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say, one of the most common mistakes that I see Americans make is buying homes they cannot afford and having children they cannot provide with financial stability. The more financial and familial obligations you take on, the harder it will be to go back to school. And kids? Forget about it. The healthiest and most problem-free child will drive a bulldozer through your finances and put a huge drain on your time. Everything, everything — starting a business, changing jobs, going on vacation, and yes, going back to school for a college degree — will become harder by several orders of magnitude once you have saddled yourself with the double yoke of home ownership and parenthood.

Misconception #6: Bill Gates. Enough said. Quick, how many college dropouts are there? And how many Bill Gateses? For every billionaire without a college degree, how many people without college degrees are flipping burgers for a pittance? Only fools base their plans on exceptions. People like Bill Gates succeed in spite of not having a college degree, not because they don’t have one. And that is a big difference.

Misconception #7: A house is a better investment than college. I’ll grant that college loans are usually not dischargeable in bankruptcy (unlike mortgages), but a college degree possesses one important advantage over a home: it cannot be foreclosed upon. Defaulting on your education loans can put you in a lot of hot water, but the one thing that neither banks nor the government can do, is force you to unlearn or remove any mention of your education from your resume. Education is also less susceptible to natural disasters and mold.

Misconception #8: The prudent and responsible way to choose one’s future occupation is to rely exclusively on monetary considerations. There are few things in this world that will drain your mind and soul of every last ounce of joy as having a job you don’t care for. As hard as it is in general to drag yourself out of bed at 6:00 a.m. on a dark and cold winter morning, imagine what it would be like doing it while having yet another horrible and pointless day to look forward to. Time-wise, your job will take up the lion’s share of your life. You will spend more time with your job than with your spouse, your children and your friends combined. Having to devote so much of yourself to something you don’t care about will take the joy even out of making six figures — and you likely won’t be good enough in a job you don’t like to make that much, anyway. Taking pride and enjoyment in what you do is essential to having a happy life. Do something that you like, and are good at.

Bottom line, as much as I hate clichés, there is no free lunch. Whether or not you go to college, becoming successful will require tremendous amounts of dedication, talent and sacrifice. The cost and the time involved in getting a college education is merely one factor of many to consider when deciding what to do with your life.

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One thought on ““Is It Worth It To Go to College?” Part Y: Some Misconceptions That Need Clearing Up

  1. I think the debate, at least the one I heard, is more about market distortions created by tax payer subsidies and the subsequent effect of sky rocketing tuition costs creating huge student loan debt. So… the ROI for doctors, you and engineers etc. But I have to confess I spend more time with economics than how people “feel” about things.
    Excellent piece!

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