Is college worth it? Should you go to college?
Or is college a waste of money?
Going to college has long been touted as the end-all-be-all for every aspiring young adult. And older adults, too!
Go to college. Get a job. Get married. Have kids. Pay taxes. Die...
But the narrative is changing and that age-old advice is no longer the golden rule to the American dream. We now see college graduates with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt working at McDonald's or Walmart.
Now, there's no shame working low-wage jobs. But you don't have to pay a quarter-million dollars to do it!
I'm not saying college isn't worth it. Far from it. College CAN be worth it—for certain people who know exactly what they need and how to get it.
In this article, I will discuss who I believe college is right for, and who should probably avoid it.
So is college right for you? Let's take a look:
First, A Quick Backstory
I went to college. I got a bachelor's degree in marketing and management, and a minor in psychology.
And I have to say... my four years in college were some of the best years of my life. Not because of college parties. But because it was the first place I was able to truly be myself and meet people and discover what I cared about.
Before college, I HATED school. I got good grades, but school itself felt so meaningless and boring. And I was bullied—that didn't help.
I decided to take a year off from school after High School. During that time, I worked at Dollar General.
I quickly realized that I hated working there even worse than I hated school, and during a breakdown where I cried at work, I vowed to go back to school so I could at least stop going to this damn job.
I was an ugly caterpillar and college was the cocoon that turned me into a beautiful butterfly.
Let me explain:
Before college, I barely knew who I was or what I wanted. I had a vague inkling that maybe I wanted to start my own business one day, but that was far off into the future and seemed un-do-able (is that a word? Oh well.)
But college changed everything.
It was the first place I went that no one knew me. I could be whoever I wanted. I could learn whatever I wanted. I could choose my own classes (within reason) and my own schedule! It was the most freedom I'd had in my life up till that point.
During my four-year college degree, I met some of my best friends, was the president of two different clubs, learned how to speak in front of an audience, and honed my writing and research skills.
But most importantly, college gave me a sense of belonging and purpose that I'd never had.
Here I could pursue my passions and interests and be rewarded for it. I could connect with the teachers outside of class (it was a small campus) and ask them questions directly.
In fact, I did that often—I became good friends with two of my professors. These two professors pushed me to start my own business, and one of them even became my first customer.
If it wasn't for the kindness and guidance of my professors, I may never have started a business in the first place! Or at the very least, it would have taken me much longer and I wouldn't have had someone to ask questions and guide me through the process.
By the time I stood up on that stage and was handed my college degree, I was a vastly different person from the timid, depressed kid that walked up to those giant buildings to take a chance and change his life. I was transformed from that ugly worm to a beautiful butterfly.
So for me—college is worth it. But not because of the money or job the degree could get me, or even what I learned in class. Rather, college was worth it for me because of the people I met and the transformations I had.
Still, I don't use 95% of what I learned in college classes and what I do does not require a college degree. And my experience isn't typical.
Most college students never take the time to truly immerse themselves in the college experience or take advantage of everything it has to offer. Most college students don't or can't talk to their professors outside of class and don't take initiative to join or be a leader in clubs.
Worse still, most college professors are not business owners who are willing to teach their students.
So I believe my experience was extremely atypical and lucky. This means that the typical college experience, in my mind, is very much NOT worth it.
But let's back up even further for a moment.
Why Was College Even Created In The First Place?
Before I answer if college is worth it for you, we need to answer one crucial question...
Why was college created in the first place?
If we know the history of its purpose, we can make a better decision of whether or not it's right for us. So let's dive into a quick history lesson:
College was created back in the 1600s for two purposes:
- To train clergymen for the church.
- To give rich people more prestige and bragging rights.
That's right—of Harvard's first 500 graduates, half went on to serve the church and the other half graduated with liberal arts degrees so they could brag about their Harvard diploma. It had nothing to do with the American dream of getting a job like it does today.
About 200 years later, in 1825 when the University of Virginia was founded, college shifted from being a way for the wealthy elite to brag to teaching practical skills.
People now went to college to learn agriculture, engineering, and mechanics. College produced factory and field workers to bolster the workforce.
Another hundred years later, in the early 1900s, the purpose shifted once more from practical labor learning to be all about the experience. Campuses became big, beautiful architectural works of art. Enter: Fraternities and partying.
Finally, in 1944 the GI Bill was released, allowing veterans of World War II to get stipends to cover tuition and expenses. This bill was even nicknamed the “magic carpet to the Middle Class,” which permanently linked higher education and the American dream!
Things were great for a while—tuition was low thanks to government assistance, and most college graduates were able to get a good job.
However, that all started to change in the 1970s when the government began to pull funding from universities, largely due to student protests of the draft and a decrease in military research from universities.
Side Note: Isn't it interesting (and kinda sad) that most of this has to do with war? If only we could just all get along. Anyway, back to it...
Due to the decrease in funding, colleges were forced to raise tuition. This shifted higher education from being a public service to being a more traditional for-profit business model. And at the center of their aggressive sales pitch was the idea that a four-year college degree was required to have professional success.
Still, it wasn't bad for a while. Costs were still relatively affordable and most college grads were able to get a job. Up until the last 15 years or so, college was an easy and obvious choice, even if tuition costs were rising.
Now, however, financial costs are rising much faster than inflation, and more than half of all college graduates are unemployed or under-employed (working a job that doesn't require a bachelor's degree). And most students are buried in student loan debt. Yikes!
That's not to mention that it's now 2021 and we're going through a pandemic where unemployment rates are soaring. So now let's get back to the question at hand...
Who is College RIGHT For?
I can't tell you if college is worth it or not for you, specifically. But I can tell you who I believe SHOULD go to college, who SHOULDN'T go to college, and why.
College is right for two people:
The first person college is right for is anyone who knows exactly what they want to do for a career, and that career requires a college degree to pursue.
Examples of this include doctors, lawyers, IT workers, etc.
However: That doesn't mean you should go if you THINK you want a profession like this. You could end up going and hating it like many people I know have done.
While college can be a great place for discovery, it can also end up becoming a costly mistake. Rather than risking it on a coin toss, the better plan is to figure out what you think you want to do, then go shadow someone in that field for a few days.
Job shadowing means going to a place where someone works in a field you're interested in and just following them around all day to see what it's really like.
For example, my sister Mia recently wasn't sure what she wanted to do with her life. She's about to graduate high school. She knew she was interested in both real estate and physical therapy. So she job shadowed her physical therapist and her friend who was a real estate agent.
In doing so, she realized she didn't like physical therapy as much as she thought she would, but she loved real estate! And guess what? No college degree required.
It's pretty easy to find someone to shadow. Just think of the career you're interested in, look up people in that career in your area, and start reaching out. Most people would be happy to show you the ropes!
If you can't find someone, start asking around. Ask all your friends and family members, teachers, acquaintances, post it on Facebook. Anything you can do to let the world know you're looking to shadow someone. You'll find someone.
In addition to job shadowing, you can spend time talking to people in the career you want. Either phone calls, in person, or over forums such as Reddit.
If you go on Reddit and search for your respective career interest, I guarantee you'll find a subreddit (a forum) about it. These people are happy to help you decide if the career is right for you.
In fact, I suggest reading these r/PersonalFinance subreddits!
The second person college is right for is anyone who needs a life transformation.
If you have absolutely no idea what you want to do with your life, college CAN be right for you. But I say this with a lot of caveats.
If you go this route, heed this advice:
- Do not go to an expensive college. Find somewhere that is affordable, just in case you don't end up finishing or you can't find a job path afterward. My student loans were only $32,000!
- Commit to fully immersing yourself in everything college has to offer. Join the clubs, talk to your professors, make friends. Hell, go to a few parties. Just don't go to class and go home and skip out on taking full advantage of what you're getting with those tuition dollars.
- Try lots of new things! Try classes that sound interesting, or weird, or not like anything you've ever tried before. Go in with the mindset of stretching and discovering yourself.
But I will say that just because you feel like you need a life transformation, doesn't mean college is the answer. While it can be, like it was for me, it also might not be.
There are plenty of other ways to have a life transformation besides university, such as traveling the world, living in an RV, trying a new class or hobby, joining different online communities, trying a career change... the list goes on.
Who SHOULDN'T Go to College?
Don't fall into the two above categories? College probably isn't for you.
I don't believe college is for anyone who:
- Just wants to go to party.
- Is only going because they feel like they have to or were told going to school and getting a job is the only path to success (it's not).
- Knows what career they are interested in and it doesn't require college.
- Only cares about going for prestige or because they feel like it's the only way they can be "good enough".
So... Is College Worth It?
College is NOT—I repeat, is NOT—the only path to success. In fact, it's often not even a path to success at all, but rather just crippling student loan debt and a whole lot of regret.
I'm not telling you this to scare you or to say you shouldn't go to college. Only you can make that decision for yourself.
What I am telling you is that financial freedom and monetary success does not require college. College won't teach you crucial skills, such as how to build assets that will help you retire young.
Case in point? Elon Musk is now the richest person in the world, and he doesn't give a damn about a college degree when hiring for Tesla or his other massively innovative companies.
Likewise, when I hire people, I also don't care if they have a degree.
Instead, Musk (and myself) look for people with a drive to learn, to discover, to solve problems, and to make the world a better place. We look for people who are willing to take responsibility for their own actions, not pass blame on others.
So should you go to college? Well, that's something that only you can decide.
My Tips for Deciding if College is Right For You
While I can't tell you whether or not college is right for you, I can give you some advice on how to make that decision for yourself.
Grab a pen and paper and jot down your thoughts to the following questions:
- What do I want from life? Why? This could be ANYTHING! Let your imagination go wild. Do you want a private island? To travel the world? A mansion? A nice car? To help people? To build a loving family that you spend most of your time with? To make your own schedule? To work for a world-changing company? Only you know what you want. Be sure to write down WHY you want it, as well! You may find out that what you originally write down isn't actually what you want.
- What do I NOT want from life? Why? If you struggled with the first question, this one should be easier. Write down the things you don't want—to be bossed around, to work 9-to-5, to have to clean the floor, to deal with annoying customers or co-workers, to do X, to deal with Y. You get the idea. If we know what we DON'T want, it's easier to figure out what we DO want!
- What am I really good at? Self-explanatory.
- What do people tell me I'm good at? Is there something everyone always tells you, "wow, you're really good at X!"? It could be listening, playing a video game, sewing, talking, exercise, cooking, etc... the list goes on. Write it down.
- What am I naturally curious about? What is something you WANT to learn about? It doesn't have to be a college subject. It could be absolutely anything. Write down every subject you're inherently curious about.
- What do I already know a lot about? Do you know a ton about nutrition? Building things? Jet planes? Gardening? Whatever you know a ton about, write down.
- Why do I want to go to college? Now, the coup-de-grace: Why do you even want to go to college? Why are you here, reading this article? Is it because mom and dad said you should? Because your friends are going? Because society said it's the only way to be successful? Or is it because you're genuinely interested in going, or you want to follow a career path that requires a college degree?
These questions are meant to train you in figuring out what you want, without the added baggage of figuring out how. How will come later, first we need to figure out WHAT and WHY!
There is a concept in Japan called Ikigai that's said to be the secret to a long and happy life. The goal of Ikigai is to combine what you love with what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for. See the chart below:
Where your passion, mission, vocation, and profession overlap is your Ikigai, or your life's deepest purpose. And we all have one.
Whether it's music, art, public speaking, cleaning, family, whatever it is. Don't limit yourself by believing that what you love and your profession can't be one and the same.
You have an Ikigai waiting for you. By journaling your answers to the questions I've shared and pondering what they mean, you can discover it. Meditate on it. Go out for a walk in nature and think about it. Go for a long drive. Take a shower. Whatever you need to do to let your mind wander without distraction from a screen or another person, do it.
You don't need anything beyond a high school diploma to be successful. Hell, you don't even need that. All you need is to discover your deepest interests and pursue them with reckless abandon. Don't be sucked into the mindless narrative that "going to school and getting a job" is the only answer.
You make your destiny. And you know what the right path is for you.
I hope this article helped you in some small way to decide if you want to become a college graduate. With or without a college degree, you can make more money and be happier if you discover your Ikigai.