4 Smart Reasons Why College Isn’t for Everyone

Don't laugh; after running the numbers he most likely decided it made little sense to attend a traditional American college.

Some things in life are painfully overrated.

Take camping, for instance. Or iPhones.

I’ve never understood the allure of luxury cars or the Baby Boomer generation’s collective fascination with Bob Dylan either.

And although it pains me to say this — because it will probably ruin any chance I’ll ever have of scoring a date with her — let’s not forget singer Katy Perry too.

Here’s one more thing that’s overrated: college.

I know. They told you that if you want to be successful, you’ve got to earn a sheepskin from one of those hallowed venerable institutions of higher learning.

Guess what? They lied.

Don’t believe me? Well, here’s a few reasons why you should:

For most people, college is a really bad investment. Over the past 30 years, the cost of college has risen more than 1000%, far outpacing inflation in general. If the price of other products rose as quickly as college costs have, today we’d be paying $13 per gallon for gasoline — and $22 for a gallon of milk. As the price of college continues to go through the roof it becomes more and more difficult — if not impossible — for folks to realize a decent return on their investment unless they pursue a technical degree, or study to become a doctor or lawyer. That why there’s an army of shell-shocked graduates out there right now with a worthless college degree and nothing to show for it other than a relatively low-paying job and a boatload of student debt. Besides:

Not everybody is college material. If they were, 54% of all Americans who enroll into college wouldn’t eventually become dropouts. Look, college is hard enough for those who are motivated; for people attending who don’t really want to be there, it’s almost impossible. So it makes little sense for anybody to attend a university unless they’re fully committed to getting a college education, especially when you consider the average cost of tuition, room and board for a 4-year college is approximately $20,000 annually.

The time spent in college earning a degree can often be put to better use gaining experience. True, certain professions like doctors and licensed professional engineers require college degrees. But there are plenty of jobs out there where it makes more sense to skip college and immediately embark on a career because on-the-job experience is more valuable than a post-high school education. And while those who decide to skip college won’t have a college degree after four years, they will have accrued four years of valuable experience under their belt. Even better, they’ll be $180,000 ahead in the ledger book, assuming they earned a modest average salary of $25,000 annually over that same period.

There are plenty of relatively good paying jobs available that don’t require a college degree. According to US Labor Department projections, 63 percent of all new jobs that will be created between 2010 and 2020 won’t require a college degree. In fact, Forbes identified 20 surprisingly well-paying jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree; many of those listed require just a high school diploma or equivalent including administrative services managers (median income: $79,540), construction supervisors ($59,150), wholesale and manufacturing sales reps ($53,540), electricians ($49,320), plumbers ($47,750), and insurance sales agents ($47,450).

Of course, I’m not advocating everybody skip college. I’m just saying it’s not for everyone.

Statistics show that people with a bachelors degree will earn 1.66 times more over their lifetime than someone with only a high school education.

Then again, there are plenty of millionaires out there — and approximately 30 billionaires — without college degrees.

Ultimately, what’s most important is that you find a career or vocation that you really enjoy because, when you’re passionate about what you do, the money becomes almost irrelevant.

Photo Credit: Anyjazz65

Comments

  1. 1

    Olivia says

    I studied graphic design at a great school, receiving a Professional Certificate, (all the studio classes, without the academics). It was plenty of prep for my chosen career. Places want to see your portfolio and problem solving abilities, not your sheepskin.

    However, while working at a design studio I got to look over a dynamite portfolio. The kid took only individual classes from high profile teachers at several schools. The big difference was he knew exactly what he wanted to be when he “grew up” and matched the schooling to fill in the gaps.

    The down side, most of us are clueless when we finish high school.

    • 2

      says

      “The down side, most of us are clueless when we finish high school.”

      This is so true Olivia and it’s one of the biggest reasons why many students don’t get a proper return on their college investment. Instead, after college they wind up working at Starbucks, living at home, in huge debt, with a degree ending in “apology”.

      I recommend a business degree for anyone who doesn’t know what career they want to pursue. It holds some credibility with employers and the subjects are useful both for entrprenuers and in the corporate environment. With a business degree, you can migrate to many related field, including sales, marketing, management, accounting, etc.

      For those who don’t want to study business, here are the future growth fields.

      * Information Technology
      * Accounting & Admin
      * Health Care
      * Engineering

      Notice these are difficult areas of study and are math and science intensive. That’s why there is high pay and employment demand.

      • 3

        Matt says

        Engineering is NOT a future growth field (at least not here in the US). Yes, there will always be a need for engineers. Just not a very great need. The problem here is that it’s just WAYYY too easy to ship engineering jobs abroad to low wage countries like India and China. I’m not saying NOT to study engineering. Just that engineering is not a good field to go into if the only reasons you’re doing so are because you think you will make good money and jobs will be abundant. Rather, it is a field you should go into only if you are passionate about it.

        • 4

          Michael says

          You are absolutely wrong. Getting a degree in Engineering shows that you are willing to put the time and effort into any job you might run across. And even if you don’t get an engineering degree, that degree itself shows that you have the work ethic and can put in the hours to make yourself stand out.

          But jumping back onto the job availability, you couldn’t be more wrong. the hottest jobs right now are Civil Engineering, Software Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Environmental Engineering, and Petroleum Engineering. The only engineering majors that aren’t really in demand right now are Electrical and Mechanical, because those are so common and a dime a dozen.

          Please look up different job growth rates on BLS.gov, and Forbe’s – then we can talk.

          • 5

            Len Penzo says

            Great comments, Michael. I agree with you on every point except one: As an engineer myself, and one who hires engineers from time to time for my job, let me make clear to those contemplating an engineering degree that mechanical and electrical engineers will ALWAYS be in demand. I suspect their growth rates are lower because there are so many more of them compared to the other engineering fields.

            As for Matt’s comment — I agree with him when he says do not go into the field unless you are passionate about engineering. (Frankly, I can’t imagine anybody being able to go through the torture required to earn an engineering degree who wasn’t passionate about the field!)

    • 6

      Len Penzo says

      @Olivia: “The down side, most of us are clueless when we finish high school.”

      Sad but true. That’s just one of many reasons why, as my father-in-law loves to say, “youth is wasted on the young.” :-)

      @Bret: Great comments, my friend! Generally speaking, the college degrees that require the most pain to earn are the ones that pay the highest wages. There’s a reason for that, of course. A lot of kids simply make the wrong decision up front, preferring to take the path of least resistance by avoiding those math- and science-intensive courses. That obviously makes for a funner experience in college, but they sacrifice a lot lifetime earnings in the process.

  2. 7

    Jenna says

    The first five paragraphs took the words right out of my mouth. Total agreement with you. And if people wish to go to college, fine for them, but it is NO guarantee of future financial success; know so many people who should not have gone.

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      My 15-year-old, Matthew, is definitely NOT college material for many many reasons.

      In fact, I am actively encouraging him to put all of his efforts into pursuing his current passion of cooking by getting a job next year working at a local restaurant where he can begin to learn the basics of the industry. As I’ve told him, that will mean starting with washing dishes and busing tables. The good news is he’ll be spending his teen years learning the basics, rather than his 20s — which is what he would surely end up doing if he went to college and eventually dropped out.

  3. 9

    says

    Unionized Plumber in Canada ( $35/hr ) Subject to change but could be $70,000 + Overtime. Three cheers for Apprenticeships !
    Most College students exit that same time period with Loads of debt. My Networth increased by over $200K while I was getting my Plumbing license.
    However guidance counselers didn’t even consider this an option.
    For Shame :(

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      When I was in high school back in the 1980s (I know — don’t say a thing) my high school had lots of vocational programs for kids who wanted an alternative path to college. Machine shops, carpentry, drafting … we even had a multi-bay auto shop where kids could learn to be auto mechanics. Sadly, those days seem to be gone.

      I blame that on the “college is the only way to succeed” mentality that took over not long after I left high school.

    • 12

      Len Penzo says

      Back in my college days, I saw Bob Dylan in concert (only because he opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) and I couldn’t understand ANYTHING that came out of his mouth. Not. One. Word.

      Oddly enough, I was completely sober at the time too.

  4. 15

    says

    Too many people blindly follow the go to college advice. I did too but at least I got an accounting degree out of it and a good job. If I had decided to major in liberal arts I would have been in for a world of hurt.

    • 16

      Len Penzo says

      Interestingly enough, Lance, although I earned a valuable degree in college that’s been very good to me financially over the years, if I had to do it all over again, I’m not so sure I would go to college. I think I’d throw myself into whatever it was that I loved more than anything else (in my case, electrical engineering wasn’t #1, #2 or #3 on my list) and try and make a business out of it.

    • 18

      Len Penzo says

      Hut! Hold on, Joe. Hold on …

      The average person who goes to college and earns a bachelors degree makes, on average 1.66 times more over their lifetime.

      But 54% of everyone who goes to college eventually drops out before they earn that degree. Then consider that probably half (if not more) of all people who actually beat the odds and earn bachelors degrees, end up with diplomas that are in relatively low-demand and/or are not coveted by employers who pay high wages. Add it all up and that’s not a sure bet by ANY means!

      In fact, that means the average person has a better than 50/50 chance of wasting their time and money when they decide to go to college.

  5. 19

    says

    I don’t really think that college itself is the issue. If you strategically plan to get your degree based on what is needed in the market today. In my field (IT) we have a heck of a time finding American kids who are getting CS degrees, and ready to enter the job force.

    Your points about getting behind the curve while racking up debt are valid, but there is still no doubt that for most folks, they have very limited earning potential if they never get their degree.

    • 20

      Len Penzo says

      I hear what you’re saying, Jefferson.

      Part of the problem is that a lot of kids aren’t interested in IT, engineering and other science-based professions. And I find that a bit ironic considering kids today are more technology savvy than ever.

      Unfortunately, speaking from experience, kids who strategically end up choosing to get a, say, CS degree that aren’t passionate about CS will most likely turn out to be mediocre employees at best. Not all, but most.

      While on vacation a couple years ago, my son and I were lucky enough to get a private behind-the-scenes kitchen tour by the head chef of a very nice Washington DC hotel (we met him by chance in the hotel elevator). The chef said something that stuck with me after I asked his thoughts on the importance of culinary school. He said he’d rather hire an unskilled passionate kid than a culinary school grad who didn’t truly enjoy cooking. He summed it up this way: “Passion is more important than skill because you can teach cooking skills in any kitchen — but not passion. You either have it or you don’t.”

      • 21

        Kenny says

        I am a prime example that college is not for everyone.

        While in HS I was working PT doing grunt work in the field I’m currently in now (technology engineering). I graduated HS, started working FT in this field. I began attending college that year PT. after a year of college I gave up.

        22 years later I am a Senior Executive in the same company a self taught board certified professional engineer. This will be my first year eclipsing 400k$.

        I would attribute the following factors to my path.
        Passion for what I do.
        Knowing in HS what I wanted to do.
        Clear goals that would always escalate throughout the past 22 years.
        My wife who is my silent partner in my career.
        Mentors in my career field.

        I also have experienced the pain of educational loans. My wife was double engineering major at two ivy league schools. While she graduated top of her class, once in the real word she decided she hated engineering and has not worked one day in the field.

        • 22

          Len Penzo says

          That’s terrific, Kenny! Thanks for sharing your story.

          Readers: Remember Kenny’s story. Don’t let anybody try to tell you that one needs a college degree to be successful. It’s just not true.

    • 23

      lukasz says

      Jefferson I hear what you are implying about IT majors, but in what areas of the US. I have two friends that are seniors at Montclair State University in New Jersey and are even having a difficult time finding a ” unpaid internship” simply to graduate. In this case if they can not find a job to work for free to graduate, how are they suppose to find jobs after completing their degrees?

  6. 24

    says

    I am pro college. But I also feel we are doing an injustice to the high school students for not educating them on the implications of their career choice. There should be a handson course or workshop or something that walks them through different career choices, what the real work for the college degree involves (an English major should know they are most likely to become a copywriter than win the Pulitzer prize), how much loan they have to take for the degree and budget with the realistic salary they are expected to get after graduating. That will at least give some students a wake up call.

  7. 26

    SassyMamaw says

    I’m glad to see this post, Len. I think a lot of young people feel pressured to go to a four year school. There are a lot of technical schools and business colleges out there that will teach kids the skills they need to get a decent job without so much debt.

    • 27

      Len Penzo says

      Absolutely, Sassy. The Forbes list of good paying jobs that I linked to also highlighted a lot of careers that required 2-year associates degrees like nursing and dental hygienists. That’s a bit more than a high-school diploma, but still less than the 4 or 5 years it takes to get a Bachelors degree.

  8. 28

    Ashley says

    There are way to many people that are finishing high school and going onto college to do an arts degree simply because they have no direction.

    Instead they should take a year off, try a few different jobs for 6 months and then travel the other 6 months.

    I’d really like to see a community driven program where students can try 3-4 vastly different working environments (e.g corporate office setting, trade setting, education/nursing setting) to find out their interests and what those workplaces are actually like.

    • 29

      Matt says

      REALLY, REALLY, REALLY good idea! As someone else said before, most people are clueless as to what they want to do after high school. And there really isn’t way to ‘test drive’ various different careers at that time. Even college internships are often NOTHING like actually working in the field that you are studying. As a result, SO many people don’t find out they really don’t like the field they studied until after they have already graduated!

  9. 30

    says

    I completely agree that college isn’t for everyone. Take my wife and I for instance. When we got married I was framing houses making $12/hr, my wife, a barista at the local coffee joint making minimum wage plus tips. We were barely scrapping by week to week. Then, my wife, being the dreamer that she is decides that she needs to go to college. We had many talks, and I thought it’d be a great idea for myself as well. She chose pre-law, I went for accounting. Now the difference between my wife and I; I’m pretty consistent — think square accountant, her, well she’s consistent….consistently inconsistent. That said, I finished my degree going from $12/hr to $70k/yr, she just amassed $15k in debt. However, had I gone to college right after high school and not waited (matured) for 4 ½ years, I probably wouldn’t be in this position and I thank my wife every day for pushing me to go, inadvertently. College; for me a win….her, well the verdict is still out.

  10. 31

    Spedie says

    College is not for EVERYONE. But, for me, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I have a CS degree. I spent no where near what is mentioned. I went to community college and then a state school – perhaps 20K total. This was 12 years ago.

    • 32

      Len Penzo says

      I hear ya, Spedie. I graduated in 1988 and went to a state college; my entire college expenses (room, board, tuition, books, etc.) over a period of 4 years and 3 months came to just under $15,000.

  11. 33

    says

    I’m pro-college and even pro-semi useles degree (hello BA in History with a minor in Writing), but the biggest problem I see with college right now is that we think every 18 year old should go- or that every 18 year old should know what they want to do with the rest of thier lives. Guess what? They don’t. I’m pretty certain that’s as much of a factor in the 54% drop out rate as not being college material. It’s also a major factor in why it now takes the majority of people 5-6 years to get a 4 year degree- they change majors as the grow and realize they don’t want to actually be whatever it was they decided they were going to be at 16.
    I believe we should reset our societal expectations to people not going to school until mid-20s. Take time to get some real world experience and to figure out what you want to do. Know what going to college will actually do for you.
    Going to college is simply what most kids “do” after high school right now. It’s just like moving from the middle school to the high school. They do it because it’s what they are supposed to do, not because they want it (or even need it).
    Based on purely personal experience- education means more and provides more benefit (with the benefit of the student getting better grades) when they go back later in life, after working, after figuring out what they like and don’t like, etc. (Again, based solely on my grad school experience and C going back to school, but we’ve both seen it in the other students, too.)

  12. 34

    says

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. Look at how much a licensed electrician makes hourly and then think about how much one would make if they had many working for them. I have a college degree and I will support my kids getting one as well but I will not force them into it.

  13. 35

    melisande says

    Love, LOVE this article, thanks so much Len. My story is similar to Kenny’s. I graduated high school in 1988 and although I was in AP courses, giving me almost an entire freshman year’s worth of credits, I knew definitively that I could not tolerate another class much less 4 years of schooling. I wasn’t going to waste my parent’s money and my time on something I knew I’d never complete.

    I took a FT position as a bank teller, in order to secure health insurance and start a retirement plan. While my peers were eating Ramen noodles every meal, I was earning a meager income, socking away as much as I could into my 401(k), and gaining years of experience. I also learned how to budget a household and realistically prepare for the future. I sometimes think that’s missing in college because the focus is on the degree and what it can bring to the table. I think we all know that there’s more to life than a piece of paper and a job, even if they go perfectly to the letter, which rarely happens either.

    At the end of their 4 years (sometimes more) of college, I had been promoted twice, my salary had almost doubled, and I had purchased my first house at age 21, which I paid off at age 34. Meanwhile, the majority of my friends were in considerable debt and starting out in their careers, many not even their chosen field.

    After 11 years in the banking industry, rising to managerial level in consumer lending, I started my own company in administration, finance and accounting for non-profits in 5 states. That was 14 years ago and I’m on the verge of hiring my 24th FT employee as I can’t keep up with new companies approaching us to audit or assume their back office operations. I’ve taken some courses and attended plenty of seminars and conferences but no formal degree(s) hang on my walls.

    I know without a doubt I did the right thing for me.

  14. 36

    Desdemona says

    I enrolled in school as an English major because I loved to write. The university advisors were very honest that it would be difficult to make a good living outside of academia. After freshman year I ended up using my English credits as a minor and switching to a business major. I ended up as a business writer, which is a decently lucrative job that is also flexible enough so I can find time for creative writing. Just thought I’d share because I think my path is an example of directing a passion into a realistic plan (that, in this case, does include college).

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