A few months back, I posted to Twitter that by the time my followers' children reached college age, college would be irrelevant. The exact wording appears to be lost to time, but you can imagine the response I got. Let's just say I was in the minority. I promised to elaborate in a forum that allowed me to exceed 140 characters, and here we are.
Unfortunately, it has taken me almost 2,000 words to articulate the personal side of this issue: that my wife and I are disinclined to raise our son with the expectation that he must go to college to succeed in life. I realize this is not the article I promised—it does not prove that college will be irrelevant in 20 years—but I hope it is still interesting, provocative, and that perhaps it lays a decent foundation for the bigger argument. I look forward to your comments, because although I have strong opinions on the matter, discussion about it fascinates me. If it seems to be a topic that fascinates you as well, I will write more about it.
Here's the gist of what I'll be saying, in FAQ form:
- Do I anticipate sending my son to a traditional four-year college when he graduates from high school? No.
- Do I think college is a bad idea for everyone? No.
- Do I think college is ever worth going into significant debt? No.
- Do I think there are lots of better ways to spend the amount of money that college costs and accomplish the goals of a college education—even if you could pay cash? Yes.
A Hard Realization
It dawned on me one evening as I sat at my desk writing a check to a student loan creditor: college had not been worth all the debt it had put me in. Sure, I’d had a great time, met some really wonderful people (including my wife, who is the most really wonderful person I’ve ever met) and I’d learned a thing or two. But if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t have signed those promissory notes.
For the next half hour, I sat, daydreaming about all the things I could do if I didn’t have this monthly payment monkey on my back. One of the things I caught myself imagining was contributing to a 529 plan for our son’s college education, so he wouldn’t have this much debt. I was quickly struck by the delicious irony of that dream. And then it really hit me: what if college was a bad investment, period? What if Abel would be better off not going at all?
It’s marked indelibly on our brains: “You can’t succeed if you don’t have a college degree. You’ll never get a good job unless you go to college. Without that degree, you’ll never get where you want to go.” We all know this, have known it, for as long as we can remember. It’s about as controversial as tying your shoelaces in a bow.
There’s just one problem: it simply isn’t true.
Naturally, not everyone is Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, both of whom made fortunes after dropping out of college. But that doesn’t mean an average person can’t be successful without going to college. In fact, I think you’re at least as likely, maybe more likely to succeed in life if you don’t go to college immediately after high school.
I recently conducted an informal poll on Twitter, asking “Why does one go to college?”
The answers came fast and hard for the next half hour, and they broke down into a handful of main categories:
- To train for a career and/or boost a resume
- To learn how to learn
- To expand your horizons: socially, geographically, culturally
- To have easy access to sex or to find a potential spouse, depending on the college the respondent attended
- (Interestingly enough) Several people mentioned that college was simply the expectation for a high school graduate. I couldn’t agree more that this is true, or less that it is a valid reason.
My thesis is simple: college is far too expensive to be worthwhile for most people as a career catalyst, and you can obtain every other benefit better and more cheaply without going to college.
My wife and I believe this firmly enough that we have decided not to encourage college for our son, who is four years old at the time of this writing. (That loud popping sound was all four of his grandparents blowing a coronary artery. Don’t worry, Mom and Dad; we’re still going to save some money for him, just in case.)
Counting the Cost
Here is the estimated cost of college in 14 years, computed at Sallie Mae’s “College Answer” planning website. I will use the cost of four years at a private college as a basis for these arguments. If you want to propose a state school as an alternative, that's fine; just realize that the problems with the model still exist, and in many cases, the benefits are lost or severely reduced.
- Four years at an average private college: $243,110
- Four years at an average public college: $62,864
- Two yeas at an average community college: $11,695
These numbers do not include room and board or books. As anyone who has attended college knows, those extra costs sting and cut deeper every semester. Add these necessities to the total, and you’re easily over a quarter million dollars, and that’s before the cost of typical college-kid tomfoolery.
This also assumes that you pay cash, which is less likely with each passing year. Far too often, the cost of college is financed, fattened up with interest, and paid over ten years—or worse still, in a trend that preys on the ignorant, consolidated by private lenders and stretched out over fifteen or twenty years so as to “lower your total monthly payment.” The leaden burden of ill-advised debt is what has recently dragged our economy deep into the sea of recession. Please don’t believe the lie that a piece of paper in a frame is worth more than financial freedom.
But even assuming you can earn the degree without taking on debt, the cost is so astronomical that any student or parent ought to think long and hard about the wisdom of placing that big a bet based on the life goals of a 17-year old. Have you met many 17-year olds lately? How many of them would you willingly hand $250,000 cash and say “Here: use this to prepare yourself for the job you’ll want when you’re 45!”? Not many. But that’s what you’re condoning if you assume every four-year old kid has to grow up to go to college.
All That Cash, and For What?
This financial ruination might be easier to stomach if it actually resulted in job preparedness or made your resume stand out, but it doesn’t, at least not at a rate of success that could possibly justify the risk. Think back to college: how many of your friends graduated with a degree in the program they entered college to pursue? How many of your friends are actually working in their field? And the really nasty, hairy question: of those who are, how many are putting their expensive knowledge—the stuff they learned in college, not the stuff they taught themselves or learned on the job—to use every day?
Think of it another way: how many job postings nowadays generically require “a four-year degree”? A lot of them. You may consider this a terrific argument for obtaining a four-year degree. But the more sobering interpretation of this reality is that bachelor’s degrees have been generalized and commoditized into irrelevance. A four-year degree is the high school diploma of the new century, only it costs a small fortune to obtain—and worse, if you really want to distinguish yourself, you need a graduate degree anyway. (By the way, this is not a sustainable model. We can’t afford to live in a world where a master’s degree is the distinguishing feature of a resume. I predict companies will soon start getting serious about otherwise skilled, qualified applicants who don’t have a college degree.)
If Not College, Then What?
I’d like to suggest that one more reason just about every high school graduate goes off to college is lack of imagination: they simply cannot fathom doing anything else. Well, I can. As a matter of fact, this is where it gets fun. Dream with me.
If you were to enroll in a middle of the road private college this year, four years’ tuition would cost you $94,282. Let’s be absurdly generous and imagine you could live, eat, buy books, and entertain yourself for four years on $5,718, and we’ll round it up to $100,000. Here are three better ways to spend that money and still get the benefits college offers. Keep in mind, we’re trying to set ourselves up for financial success while having a life-changing experience. And don’t forget that you could always go to college later in life.
- Buy a 3-family house in a decent part of town. Put $75,000 down, live in the smallest apartment, and put $400 in the bank each month. With the remaining $25,000, buy a reliable used car and a year’s worth of groceries and gas. The ladies will love you. If you are a lady, the guys will fight over you.
- Invest $75,000 in mutual funds. Go get a two-year degree at a cost of $5,000, living at home with your parents until you graduate. When you do, put the remaining $20,000 down on a small home and start your career as a nurse, dental hygienist, or administrative assistant. Keep investing. Retire at 45.
- Spend two years traveling the world. Visit every inhabited continent briefly in the first year. Then, in the second year, return to the two cities you liked best. Live and work for six months each in each. If you decide to come back home afterward, you’ll be poor financially but incredibly rich in life experience. And trust me, the companies that matter will clamor to hire you rather than your friends who are just coming off their sophomore year bender. Remember, college diplomas are a dime a dozen. (Well, they are from the employer’s point of view. From the applicant’s perspective, this is a laughably inaccurate cliché.) How many resumes include six months learning Spanish while working as a barista in Argentina?
Case Studies to Make the Dean Blush
Still think college makes too much sense to pass up? Here are a few stories that prove the lie. All are true stories of people I know, people whose phone numbers I could give you if you wanted to check my research:
- We recently had three doors replaced on our house. We hired a local carpenter to do the work for us; he was professional, prompt, and the work was superb. His price was fair, but let me tell you: his hourly wage is apparently a hell of a lot higher than mine. And I went to graduate school as long as most lawyers do. When he finished his work each day, he cleaned up and went home to his wife and kids and promptly forgot about my silly doors. He never went to college.
- My sister is a nurse. She went to a community college for two years, earned an associate’s degree, and could now work as many hours as she wants in any city in America. Unfortunately for her bank account, she only figured out she wanted to be a nurse after she figured out she didn’t want to be a social worker, which only happened after she had borrowed a good $30,000 to get a degree. If only there had been some other system by which she might have figured that out.
- One of the groomsmen in my wedding graduated a year after me in college. His degree was in religion and philosophy, but his first serious job was doing web design for Ford. Yes, that Ford. He is self-taught. His portfolio, which he developed without the help of any department head or advisor, spoke for itself.
All these numbers and stories lead me to my conclusion, a very personal decision that I nonetheless predict more and more parents will make as the educational models in our country change. The assumption that college is the only (or best) natural step to take after high school is erroneous and financially treacherous. That assumption stops with us and with our son. We will save money to contribute to his post-secondary education, but by no means will we insist that education take place in an institution of higher learning. The value just isn’t what it used to be.
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DISCLAIMER: I usually avoid disclaimers, but this time I probably need one. The opinions expressed in this article are my own and are do not represent Artisan Church, where I serve as a pastor. They are not intended as pastoral counsel; nor should they be applied without discretion. Each situation is unique. As the nerds say, your mileage may vary.