When I set out for my first day at college, I had two goals in mind: (1) graduate with a bachelor’s degree and (2) pay for everything out of pocket. Though it hasn’t always been easy, I am comfortably on my way to accomplishing both of these goals. From time to time, however, I wonder if going to college was the right decision. My trepidation increases after adding up the money I’ve already spent on my education, already nearing $10,000 and sure to be well over that figure by my final semester. (For more information, see "Best Alternative to College: Launch Your Career Now.")
So Why Do It?
At the end of a grueling work week, while finishing up some educationally worthless homework assignment I often think about all the other things I could be doing with my time. No doubt, the hours I spent reading about how female athletes are portrayed by the media or drawing a picture of what I think a scientist looks like (and yes that was a real assignment) could have been used toward far more productive activities.
The truth is that I only decided to attain a college degree simply for the sake of having it to be certified.
So why do I continue my college education? After all, given that I hope to pursue a career in banking, it seems unlikely that my four long years at college will help me write auto loans. The truth is that I only decided to attain a college degree simply for the sake of getting certified.
It may seem trite but there are many career paths one can follow only with at least a bachelor’s degree, even if what one learns in school is irrelevant to the job. And while most people realize this, few of us do anything about it. We simply acquiesce to this cultural imperative.
A Corrupt Bargain
For the individual, going to college under these circumstances is the rational thing to do: future earnings will surely cover the costs, even if one’s college education does not in any way make the applicant more qualified. Nonetheless, the ubiquity of people with college degrees is almost inarguably bad for the American economy. Though propagandizing public school teachers may insist that people with college degrees have higher incomes than those who don’t, the truth is deeper and more complex than they are willing to admit.
While it is certainly true that, on average, the more advanced degree you have, the higher your income will be, this does not in itself prove that one is the cause of the other. To believe so would be to commit the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. It could be, perhaps, that more intelligent people – those more likely to go to college in the first place – make more money simply because they are in fact more intelligent than their peers. Their degree may merely “certify” how smart they are. It may be the case that college has become a filter, not an educator.
From online colleges and individual certification programs to internships and technical schools, there are more than a few options for the cost-minded student.That is not to say that going to college is an unprofitable venture – far from it – but rather that for many people a college degree has no value beyond what our culture needlessly ascribes to it.
A Better Way
Of course, many people do in fact need college degrees to work in certain professions; I would be more than a bit hesitant to visit a “doctor” who had not gone to medical school. That being said, our society is slowly moving away from the outmoded way of “résumé building” whereby people try to achieve the best GPAs at the most prestigious schools. Indeed, many employers today are less concerned about where an applicant went to school than they are with the applicant’s actual skills.
Doubtless, traditional four-year institutions do teach actual skills. That is not the question; the question is do they teach those skills efficiently? Compared with the plethora of alternative educational methods today, I believe the answer is “no.”
From online colleges and individual certification programs to internships and technical schools, there are more than a few options for the cost-minded student. Take community colleges for instance: they offer affordable, high-quality educations to people close to their homes and often provide flexible scheduling and online courses. In some areas, graduates of two-year institutions earn more than their university graduate counterparts.
As John Marcus of the Hechinger Institute explains, “The increase in wages for community college grads is being driven by a high demand for people with so-called ‘middle-skills’ that often require no more than an associate’s degree, such as lab technicians, teachers in early childhood programs, computer engineers, draftsmen, radiation therapists, paralegals, and machinists.”
The most glaring difference between community colleges and four-year universities, however, is the cost: about $4,860 a year for the former and $9,139 for the latter ($22,958 for out-of-state tuition at a public institution, and $31,231 for a private university).
What I need to know can be taught more effectively at a lower cost by some other means.
This of course does not mean that everyone should go to a community college. But it does show that one does not necessarily need an expensive bachelor’s degree to earn a decent living.
I go to a school known largely for its engineering programs, without question a discipline which requires an education beyond what one receives in high school. However, it is also true that engineers do not usually dissect pigs on the jobsite; that being said, why must they take a biology class in college? Does the knowledge gained from reading an umpteenth edition $200 biology textbook really help them do their jobs? Probably not.
Anyone who has gone to a four-year college has likely asked similar questions. Why are we covering material that I learned in high school? Why do I have to buy a textbook we’ll only use occasionally? Why do I even need this degree? To the more critical student, the answer is abundantly clear: I don’t. What I need to know can be taught more effectively at a lower cost by some other means.
College is a scam; the world just hasn’t realized it yet.