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How Useful is a College Degree These Days?

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college

I don’t think college is a good idea for most people today. Let me explain.

My freshman year of college was in 1998. I was 18 years old when I enrolled at a private university. At the time, I was excited to begin college and find out what it had to offer.

But 13 years later, after working at different jobs and observing others’ career experiences,  I’m not excited about college anymore. And I’m the guy with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in education.

Case studies from my social circle

Here’s an interesting experiment. Think of the people in your life who do well at work, enjoy what they do and make a reasonable wage. Ask them what role college has played in their career so far.

I did this experiment and found that college played a non-existent or very small role for the majority of people whose careers I admired.

Take the best man in my wedding, for example, who graduated from college with me. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. He only worked two years in the field because he didn’t like the corporate grind. He taught himself online marketing and now he works from home as a web content writer, editor and SEO specialist.

My friend from high school has many college credits but never completed a degree. Instead, he became a plumber after completing an apprenticeship.

Another high school buddy started a home improvement business. Though he didn’t earn a college degree, his business is doing well and he’s thinking about hiring.

My friend’s husband worked his way up the ranks in the construction industry and became a manager. At 30 years old, he’s already paid off his house. He makes around $100K per year. He never finished college.

My friend’s cousin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. However, he couldn’t find a job in that area, so he looked into a career in the restaurant industry. With serving experience under his belt, he learned bartending skills to become more marketable. After working as a bartender for some time, he applied for a management position at an upscale restaurant where Michelle Obama once dined. He got the job — and he’s only 24 years old.

My story

My career journey is similar to my friend’s stories. After I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, I got a job as a teacher. Wanting to make more money and increase my credentials, I completed a master’s program in education. However, I burned out on teaching so I looked into other industries for work.

I stumbled into construction inspection and landed an entry level job making $8/hour. To increase my earning potential, I studied hard to pass multiple certification exams. In a few years, I was making more than I ever did as a teacher. Also, I’m much happier with my present career.

I partnered with my online marketer friend and created an online course to help inspectors pass certification exams. I’m happy to report that the course is starting to earn a modest part-time income. Also, I leveraged the skills I learned from this project to move to a marketing role in the construction industry.

Consider options other than college

Now I’m not saying, college is a 100% bad idea. But the conventional advice “go to college to get a good job” definitely doesn’t hold the same weight as it used to.

There are many non-college work options if you’re willing to look around and consider underrated jobs that don’t get much coverage by the mainstream media. Vocational schools or apprenticeships that lead to blue collar jobs are not glamorous, but these jobs pay the bills and often have good employment opportunities.

Another option is to start at the bottom and work your way up in a company you appreciate. Where do you regularly spend money? Consider working for those businesses. What industries are you interested in? Try to get any job with companies in those fields. Once you get your foot in the door, you can start working toward advancement by learning as much as you can about your company and the industry. Sales is a great option if you can learn how to sell.

Spend some time browsing through the jobs at the Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. You’ll find many decent paying jobs that don’t require a college degree.

Your turn

In this tough economy, what are your views on college and its usefulness?

Gabriel Kramer is a commercial construction inspector. He create an online course at SI Certs to help inspectors pass ICC certification tests.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://twitter.com/universityboy Martin Hughes

    In a tough economy, college can be even more useful. Or even more sucky…

    A big problem is in the conventional advice that you mention. If you imagine higher education automatically leads to a good job, a successful life, lots of money, and an easy ride to your dream destination, there’s a massive, painful bump at the other end.

    What’s important is for people to ask how relevant a degree may be to them personally. The answer won’t be clear, but if people don’t consider it at all, the potential for mistaken choice is massive.

    There are many reasons to go down a degree route, but the reasons must be individual, thought out and serious. If the main goal is related to money or career, you’re right to point out that there are many ways to succeed in that direction without taking the college route.

    That said, it doesn’t mean you or any other college grad made a mistake in attending. And I hope you still took away some great experiences, even if they aren’t related to your career and current life.

    • Dlhartford

      Martin,

      I completely agree and could not have said it better! Like the author, I know plenty of folks who have no college degree who do quite well. However, I am probably a bit older than most on this site. Many of the folks that I know started their careers before everyone had a college degree. I often wonder how they will fare if they ever lose their job/their business tanks, and they have to start all over again. I would be willing to bet that it will be much harder to start again without that piece of paper. In my mind, a college degree is similar to a ticket to an event — it is needed before you can even get in the door!!

    • http://sicerts.com Gabriel

      Yes, the conventional advice can be a trap for many people. I think many students enroll in college because “it’s the right thing to do.” But they don’t realize that college is not right for everyone. And I’m not just talking blue collar work.

      Take my online marketer friend. He says if he was to do it all over again, he would have never have gone to college. This guy is super smart. He got a 3.90 GPA without studying very hard as an accounting major. But for his current industry, college is irrelevant.

      The key is researching jobs you’re interested in and figuring out how to get employed. Sometimes you need college. Sometimes you don’t. You really need to have a plan for creating a fulfilling work life.

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  • http://www.21stcollegian.com Rishona Campbell

    A college degree is an important social marker. I dropped out of college and lived and worked as a non-degreed 20-something. It was very tough to prove myself professionally and people marveled at “how smart I was” for not having a degree. Ironically I work on a lower level now, post-degree. But I still would not take the chance of not earning one. I will also say that since I am a Black woman from a poor background, this weighs in on my opinion as well. Given my race, my gender, and my socioeconomic background, very few people would take a chance on me and bring me on as an employee. Sure I have my skills and talents…but my home address and appearance are a lot for many hiring managers to get past. Having earned a college degree from a major university, “Ah-ha”….they start to get that I’m just as competitive as the rest.

    And that is mainly what a college degree is about…confidence and social attainment. If you are born into that, then sure, forego the college degree!

  • http://www.iantang.com Ian Tang

    I agree that “go to college to get a good job” definitely doesn’t hold the same weight, that’s because every other person has one. It’s a requirement for most jobs.

    Call centres reps are demanding degrees.
    Why? … because when they get 1000 applicants & many of them have a degree, so the use the degree as a filter out candidates.

    The college/university studies doesn’t match up to the real world anymore. 1/2 of all major can’t be applied to real job. Most science student have to go back to their college for a jobs in academic research projects. Excluding job from colleges/universities there probably less than 1% of the science student that find a job that can apply their bachelor’s degree (without additional P’hd, B.Ed, specialized masters …).

    Look at Journalism … Those companies and jobs are going/gone, but the schools are still pumping out journalism degrees. The same thing happened to engineering, most of those jobs are outsourced or replaced by robots 1-3 decades ago by manufacturing companies; while a ton of engineering students that had just graduated.

    Don’t get me wrong, there is still value in the degree. Each major teaches their own thinking/working process … which its own values after a couple years of work. As for getting a good job … it really depends on the major you choose & the amount of work in the market.

    The college degree now is like the high school diploma 20-30 years ago.
    Thus the saying should change to: “go to college to get considered for a job”.

  • Anonymous

    I totally agree with what you said about the DOL’s handbook. I think in general high school graduates need to be encouraged to spend more time researching future careers and also taking more time off in-between college and high school. I think part of the problem is that many of us blindly rush off to college without knowing what we want to do first (hand raised here) … if it was more acceptable to take a few years to work, save money, and explore different industries, future students might be able to make a better decision in regards to what career and degree is best for them.

    • http://sicerts.com Gabriel

      Great points! I would add that you can do a lot of career research during high school and even earlier. I think we underestimate the abilities of these young students to make a career plan and to be inspired to do a particular career.

  • Valfunc

    I agree with you 100%..at once they saying was, : in order to get a decent paying job, you need a college degree”. Will I got a Bachelors degree in Criminal Justice and a masters in Management with the focus in Criminal Justice and everytime I apply for a position within that field I get denied because I don’t have experience in the field. Without a degree I was making close to $45,000 annually and now with the degrees I am not making any money…can’t get hired by anyone now…go figure on this one.

  • http://www.facebook.com/benjamin.schuman Benjamin Schuman

    All commenters have good points. Ian is right that many employers (especially for less specialized jobs that will have a diverse group of applicants) use degrees as screening devices. This, in a way, is a sign of the degrees deflated value, but the sheer volume of employers who look for degrees can not be discounted. Ironically, it is the more specialized jobs (and higher-paying) jobs that care less about degrees.
    Rishona also makes a good point along similar lines. Many people who go around saying “I didn’t need a degree, and look where I am now!” take for granted that their background takes care of the social status that many people can only get from having a college degree. We go on about how Bill Gates didn’t graduate from Harvard, but we neglect to mention that for him, dropping out was no risk- he was very talented, had good connections, and had also received a better college preparatory education than many Americans receive at their universities. I think it’s important to consider that, as much as “college isn’t for everyone,” dropping out and being an entrepreneur is for even less people.
    Overall, though, I think that this article was great. I expected it to be one of the typical “don’t go to college, start a blog just like me!” posts, but it wasn’t. Sometimes college gives people a leg up, but it often just sets back their entry into the (low-wage) workforce by four years, which is damaging.
    The advice I give to college-age kids who are having doubts is this: If you have any goals that can be achieved without going to college, do them now. You can always go to college later.

    • http://sicerts.com Gabriel

      I like how you flipped the conventional advice upside down by saying you can always go to college later. Usually people say, go to college right after you graduate high school, but this advice is not very good for many people (like the people I mentioned in the article).

      With the online education explosion, it’s a lot more convenient these days to get a degree later in life even if you have a family and a full time job. Plus, if you wait to earn a degree, your company might be able to help with tuition.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9628525 Karolyn Chowning

        Nice – I agree! We heard “if you don’t go now you’ll never go” and “you won’t go back if you don’t finish” — not their fault, it was true before this rapid pace of change.

  • Me

    “But Mommy, the Emperor has no clothes!”
    Self-serving Capitalists feed each other while the aptitude of the cogs decreases.
    “Yup, sounds good to me, anyway, how’s my Haliburton stock doing these days.”

  • http://www.phlebotomycertify.com Bill

    It’s all relative to the individual. The push to get so many people into college has left a major gap in the service and trade industries, though. Perhaps that where the future job openings will be located. Technical school is also a great alternative.

  • http://entryleveldilemma.blogspot.com Edward – Entry Level Dilemma

    A case study of my friends:
    D. got his degree in Mechanical Engineering. He spent 5 years designing equipment that makes soda bottles but got tired of the constant traveling and is now the resident engineer for a local gas company.
    M. got his degree in Electrical Engineering. 8 years later he is still working for his first company (own by his college advisor) designing equipment used for fiber optic communications.
    SE got a BS in Finance and an MBA immediately afterward. He is now a CFO.
    SM got his bachelors in Philosophy and Religion. Took a couple years to figure out what he wanted to do and went to law school. He starts with the DOJ next month. Sure, his bachelor’s isn’t a match to his career, but a degree was needed to get into law school.
    ST’s (I have a lot of friends with S names!) degree didn’t have anything to do with his current job at Merrill Lynch, but he needed a degree to get the job.

    The disappointments are myself (degree in Physics, working in construction, but trying to get a job in geology…geology was a part of the Physics department at my college). And my friend J has a degree in art and works as a mover for a company that hires starving artists.

  • http://parisianfeline.wordpress.com Tatiana

    I think college – like many things – is an intensely personal decision and its impact on people can’t really be broken down via a very narrow experiment of looking at what your peers accomplished. That being said, many people overlook how college has an impact on people who are impoverished or come from oppressed racial groups. College does offer people plenty of opportunities that aren’t available to you if you don’t attend. Simply because a handful of people you know – or read about in the paper – didn’t like college or find it useful DOESN’T change how for many other people, college can be a gateway into something else. Sometimes a better life. We can’t overlook the importance of something, simply because it can’t be applied to our specific experiences.

    College can and does teach you a lot. I would say that if your friends hadn’t gone to school, they might not have known that their career wasn’t working out for them. People keep blogging about mistakes and failures being integral to our learning experience, and that’s no less true in this case. Or in mine. I went to college and hated it. I didn’t do well socially in school (ever) and didn’t really walk away with Lifer-Friends or BFFLs like most people do. I’m sure in another 1-2 years I won’t know or talk to anyone I went to school with. This frequently clouds my judgement about college and if teenagers should attend.

    I think if you know what you want and can afford to go – do it. It’s a valuable life experience that can’t be replaced with anything. Period. Simply because you – or others – didn’t like college, doesn’t mean that college has no value. And honestly, many of the people who go to college just sort of go to party, socialize, work and try to graduate as soon as possible. There aren’t very many people who use their time in college wisely – so when they finally graduate, they have a degree that they don’t know how to use and have no skills in how to navigate the job market. So they need to start from scratch. This is a dilemma created by the attendee, not necessarily the institution in and of itself. This is why many people have no use for their degrees once they graduate because they have to learn how to market themselves and get different types of skills, which will probably take you away from your original BA/BS.

    But I wouldn’t discourage anyone from attending college, or getting a higher degree. College has been around a long time, and it’s not going anywhere any time soon, no matter how unhappy it made some people (like me!) or how little people viewed it after they left (ie: like most people).

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  • Jalexd

    Wow, you really miss the point of what a higher education provides. The college experience enriches young people in many more (and more important) ways than just preparing us to earn money. This is the attitude that will eventually make the US dead last in the world. The knowledge, idea and intellectual exchange, interaction, broadened awareness, confidence building, sense of community/ connection and other invaluable experiences we get at college benefit us for life, not just for our careers. It is very sad that you and a growing number of people believe that studying philosophy, the language arts/writing, history, art and other “non-essential” subjects is a waste of time. We are turning into a country of greed-centric, robotic Philistines. Pathetic!

    • http://sicerts.com Gabriel

      I would argue that you can get all those things without college and at a much lower cost. Plus, there’s evidence that American colleges are not doing a good job teaching its students.

    • http://naturalherbalanxietyremedies.com Kirsty C

      And largely unable to write a coherent sentence. Not going to college means, for most people, also never reading Jude the Obscure, not knowing who Gertrude is, and not knowing that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a book. Forget debating the merits of Marxism, Christianity, and quantum mechanics, in French. Preparation for “the real world” – or the day-to-day grind of work and personal commitments – is not what education is for. It is for enrichment, which is worth the money. Although, admittedly, my heart does start to pound when I see that envelope come through the door round about the 20th of the month.

    • Wesley

      Why is education always so sentimental and histrionic to some people?

  • Kristen Gjerde

    Honestly, I could do my job well with no college degree and I keep wondering why I went to college. I know my parents really wanted me to, but now I think an apprenticeship program or a job right out of high school would have been a better solution. I do believe that having an higher degree can be useful, if you know what you’re doing with it. I got my degrees in Political Science and Economics with no real clear idea with what I wanted to do with them. If you are getting a professional degree (like in healthcare, law, business administration, eg…) then it can be useful, but otherwise if you’re like me and just going to school to have a degree, then don’t.

  • http://www.printinginabox.com Justin

    Great article, and I’m very inclined to agree. I think that the current generation is changing the go to school ==> get a job model so much that it will be near-irrelevant soon. With fewer and fewer jobs being created, many people are finding news ways to make money for themselves, which often involves getting involved in new and unfamiliar industries or going into business for yourself.

  • http://twitter.com/ekimnamwen mike n

    you are right, for most people college is a horrible investment and a waste of time/money/energy. college is extremely overpriced, overrated, and outdated. universities care more about profit-maximization and retention than they care about providing a high-quality education at a reasonable price. students are treated like customers or cattle, depending on how you choose to look at it. sure, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

    i went to college and it was the worst decision of my life. all i got was a horrible education and a mountain of debt. it definitely didn’t prepare me for the real world. sadly, millions of other people are in my same boat, but very few of these people are willing to speak up about it. the idea that college is the best path for success is a myth. for a very small percentage of people it’s a great idea, but for most people they would be wise to choose a different path.

    this is why i’m producing a feature documentary titled ‘The Elephant on Campus’. my goal is to open people’s eyes to the problems of higher education in america and hopefully inspire real reform to this corrupt and broken system.

    • Laura

      i’d like to help you with your documetary

  • http://usingamericanenglish.com CharlesKelsey@Learn English

    I have felt this kind of feeling before as well that college doesn’t seem to do anything but just give a mere impression that you have finished or step into a college level or degree. In my country having a college degree is no use for me. Many people who finishes college ends up as sales girl in a convenient store or mall or if not stays at home which takes 4-5 years before being serious with work since because there a lot of jobless as well who would want to work just anything as long as they have something to get on each payday. If you reach the age of 25 for both men and women it is worst since almost all companies do not hire you anymore since you are OVer the limit age.

  • http://isomorphismes.tumblr.com isomorphisms

    More and more people are asking this question these days. I wonder if the college bubble is really going to burst (soon).

    Thanks for sharing your friends’ stories. More high-detail data points are helpful.

  • Jrandom42

    Not going to get anywhere in science and engineering without a degree.

  • White Media

    I hate to say that college is useless, but the general BA isn’t going to cut it anymore. It seems that it is more about who you know in certain fields or if you have a PhD in other fields. I certainly don’t envy students in college now, with he struggling economy and the cost of loans.

  • http://www.cancercolorectal.info Cancer de colon

    With the online education explosion, it’s a lot more convenient these days to get a degree later in life even if you have a family

  • http://twitter.com/candacemgraves Candace Graves

    Thanks for the article, Gabriel. As a college student who loves PR but hates school, I literally think about this every day. While I spend more time independently researching than learning in the classroom, I feel stuck because employers will grant me more credibility if I have that piece of paper… Oh well, not sure what my other options would have been. Besides, without college I wouldn’t’ve been about to have the same internship and networking experience. There are always pros and cons.

  • http://www.getmyexboyfriendbackfast.com Steff @ ex back

    Hi Gabriel,

    What you’re saying here is apparent in so many levels. But I suppose I won’t ask my children to skip college, as it is a valuable part of living. I’m referring to the experience itself – attending classes, mixing with fellow students and enjoying a new sense of freedom. There is no substitute to experience. And when you mix with bright people, you develope your inner self just like one of them. An expensive experience, I’ll have to say.

    Leaving high school and into college is a turning point in one’s life. Yes, you do make a lot of money as a plumber, more so if you have a few workers under you but your personal development would be quite different from how you would be if say, you enter law school. I’m not putting down any specific profession. Just to make a point to say that what you do after high school can really shape you into adulthood. Whatever you’re molded into will most likely be what you’ll be for the rest of your life.

    I myself is not highly educated. Even though I’m not doing something directly related to my field of studies I do treasure my time in college and appreciate how it has left an impact on me. It is after this when we enter the workforce that you’ll discover that paper qualification don’t matter so much after all.

  • http://junhax.com/ Paul Jun

    This headline was the question that has been repeating in my head for the past few months.

    I started at community college for all the wrong reasons: because my parents wanted me to.

    I failed my way through, having to retake classes, spend more money, but survived with my head intact.

    I transferred to a 4-year for Print Journalism with a minor in PR. During the summer I started my own blog, did massive self-educating and studying, and found my passion for writing and blogging.

    Dropping out of school and just focusing on the blog is an idea that has been reoccurring in my head. I asked friends, mentors, and advisers and got mixed results.

    Although I feel that having an education is great, as well as networking with students, getting to know what the college-life is really like, I believe getting a degree in anything is irrelevant if the person isn’t fully passionate about what they do, and exercise and their craft everyday on their own.

    The problem with college students nowadays is they don’t start until they graduate. The time is to start during their journey in school.

    Most kids in college are going for the wrong reasons, which is why they end up being in crazy debt, and still not knowing what they want to do with their “Business” degree.

    There has been a crazy increase in the number of graduating and attending students . . . I bet in a few years that will plummet back down because people — and eventually mass media — will realize and send the real message: start now, do what you love, self-educate, and realize that having a degree is just the bare minimum.

  • Rob Meyer82

    Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, etc. are turning over in their grave. Simple fact: knowledge for knowledge’s sake is essential. Believing this “college is a waste” is just what the capitalist owners want: an uneducated mass of cattle willing to do anything to make a buck.

    This thinking is why innovation is dying in this country.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_AUAG7S5NSAMUWMKJFXWDOSE5CE Bradly Hale

    Well, the economy is tough on everyone. You need every bit of edge you can get over other candidates for the same job, promotion or business opportunity. A college degree gives you just that. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to get a job without a college degree or that a college degree guarantees you your dream job immediately after you graduate. I’m just saying that the right degree –be it an associate degree or a bachelor degree- from a reputed, accredited college can definitely help your financial prospects in a tough economy.

  • http://www.tech-trip.com/ Jeff Thomas

    In this economy everything you said is 100% true.

  • Teahou

    I agree, mostly. I was going nowhere for a long time due to no education. I recently chose a new career path and got a 2 year degree, now I am rolling along just fine. I would not have been able to get the job without the degree, but on the flip side, all I needed was the 2 year, a 4 year would have been a waste.

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