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The Real Reasons College is a Bad Investment

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Student debt

Hating on universities and the uselessness of their degrees is trendy. A quick Google search will offer you hundreds of rants detailing the pointlessness of secondary education. Yet while college has become a bad investment, it’s likely not for the reasons you have in mind.

Not so long ago, young adults were sent to college for the purpose of becoming educated, socially aware members of society. The goal of a college education was the learning process itself and the acquisition of beneficial knowledge.

But something changed. Along the way, colleges realized that their graduates were given priority in the job market. College diplomas transitioned from simple indications of education to bargaining chips holding measurable monetary value. People started noticing the increase in net value associated with a college degree.

And just like any other private business, colleges across the country responded to rising demand with significantly higher prices. At this point—at this price—college was no longer simply an educational experience; it became an investment.

Today, young adults pay thousands of dollars to colleges for one reason: to get jobs. And yet every year, too many kids are walking off their campuses with expensive degrees and no jobs.

It’s no secret that our economy is in a tough spot. It would make sense that much of the flak directed at universities is simply the result of frustration with our high unemployment rate. But few are looking past the temporary issues and discerning that a complete overhaul is needed.

Here are the real reasons why college is a bad investment:

1. It’s debatable whether colleges even offer valuable information anymore

The course hours a student invests in a degree can typically be divided into thirds: major-specific courses, mandatory courses and electives. For the major-specific third, courses are based on information required to prepare you for a career in that field. Outside of a job context, the information has little value.

The electives third is impossible to categorize. If an academic can publish a paper on a topic, he or she can teach a course on it. You can find offerings on everything from insect anatomy to dinosaur history. And while taking that Web design class is probably the most productive thing you’ll do in school, it’s going to be difficult demonstrating how your History of Rock and Roll elective has transformed you into a more valuable member of society.

The final, mandatory third is comprised of the courses your institution requires all graduates to complete. For most colleges, this section of your degree is the closest you’ll actually come to the traditional idea of a liberal arts education. This is where the bulk of your educational value is supposed to be derived.

Unfortunately, quality tends to follow the money, and these courses are no longer the breadwinners for their universities. The vast majority are taught by graduate students, and even if you’re lucky enough to get an actual professor, he or she is likely using the university as a research grant and completely uninterested in being an effective instructor. You’ll probably end up reading bullet points from a textbook or PowerPoint written 10 years ago.

2. The educational value you do receive can easily be acquired elsewhere

The legitimate value of a university lies in its professors. You’re paying people to teach you because, theoretically, they have experience you don’t, information you need and the ability to impart all of this to you. If every course was taught by a quality professor, I wouldn’t be writing this article; I’d be re-enrolling for an additional degree.

But the opposite tends to be true in today’s secondary education system. I graduated from a major program that was ranked third in the country, at a school that is considered one of the country’s finest public universities. Yet most of my instructors were incompetent grad students, uninterested professors or ineffective communicators. That may seem harsh, but consider that for three-quarters of the courses I took, not a single piece of beneficial information was provided by the instructor that couldn’t be found in the textbooks.

If the professors aren’t providing the educational value, there is none, because everything else can be acquired via the textbooks or with a simple online search.

3. For 90 percent of careers, all required skills are learned on the job

“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but we’re attending college to get a job, so aren’t the major-specific courses worth the expense?”

For a handful of careers, yes. If you plan on going into engineering, public accounting or psychology, the major-specific undergraduate courses you’ll take are essentially required training. You can’t start down these career paths without acquiring an undergraduate degree.

For most careers, however, job-related skills are learned through an entry-level position. This is why music majors make up the highest percentage of medical school applicants. It’s why biology majors end up in law firms and why anyone still dares to get a philosophy degree. You learn what you need to learn on the job, rendering your degree useless on a practical level.

Is there any reason to get a degree?

If you aren’t going to be an engineer, you aren’t going to learn anything and you aren’t going to receive any actual job skills, is there any reason to go to college? Here’s where we discover the truth about our secondary education system.

For the last few decades, college degrees served as a guarantee for mediocre employees to make middle-class money. But the middle class is on the decline. Those who have acquired and perfected a skill set are rising to the top of the economic ladder, while those who put their trust in the pay-to-be-hired system are finding themselves with nowhere to climb.

If you must go to college, there’s still a chance at stability with a college degree. As the economy picks back up and more mid-level jobs open up, many will fool themselves into thinking the system works—until the next downturn, when the value providers will further separate themselves. Degree holders across the country will watch their savings deteriorate as they wait for the next upswing of mediocre jobs.

If you don’t want that to be you, use your time and money to learn a marketable skill and then spend the rest of your life perfecting it rather than throwing a ton of money into a degree.

Jacob McMillen is the proudly regretful owner of an accounting degree. He writes blogs on everything from awesome manly topics to Chicago injury law firms and enjoys thinking in his spare time.

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.

  • Sebastian Daniels

    Great article. If you are majoring in one of the STEM majors then college is useful, but for the some of the others maybe not so much. As you highlighted most of the skills for a job are learned on the job and if you want to do something within a liberal arts or social science major, then you usually need to get a masters or PHD.

    The most helpful thing I learned in college was improving my social skills and learning some life lessons, but easily could have been learned on my own without spending the money.

    http://www.findingonespath.com

    • Jacob McMillen

      Thanks Sebastian. I’ve never met someone who was worse off for having attended college. As you mentioned, there are a plethora of important, non-academic skills and experiences that students tend to learn in a college setting. But it would seem, as you suggested, that these skills can be learned elsewhere at a significantly lower cost.

      I didn’t mention this in the article, but I think the single greatest benefit to college is that it forces young adults to focus and learn at a time in their lives when the temptation to simply have fun (or worse) is at it’s strongest. It’s easy for me to point out that college textbooks can simply be purchased and read without having to pay tuition, but without the external motivator of an upcoming test, how many 20 year-olds are actually going to do that?

      • Sebastian Daniels

        That is true. It can help straighten the youngins out. At the same time I managed college with decent grades without really focusing on my studies. I crammed for a lot of info and then dumped it after a lot of my tests and I know a lot of others who did the same. I think a problem with society is that we tend to force people into the belief that they have to go to college.

        I enjoy learning but I like to learn on my own or with the help of someone who isn’t grading me. I am finishing up my first book and am working on being a writer. The main criteria for that is to just sit and write and read a lot.

        Plus with the internet today you can just look up most information at the click of a button.

        The main use of college is developing critical thinking skills. Learning how to analyze problems. In that regard college did its trick. It has made me somewhat cynical and I question everything. Yeah to college!

        • Jacob McMillen

          Haha indeed

        • http://www.judithgargyi.vpweb.com Judith

          Expensive and time consuming way to get critical thinking skills. Highly recommend Career Choices and Changes by Academic Innovations, Inc. For $100 it includes an interactive My10YearPlan.com (yours forever to adjust). I am 60, and wish I would have had this course. Btw, excellent post.

        • http://curvesnangles.wordpress.com/ Karen J

          *College* isn’t the only part of the system that needs review and revision ~ the critical thinking skills you mention, Sebastian, should be developed (notice: not *taught*!) all thru the schooling process, instead of merely “how to regurgitate facts for a standard test” and “how to be a good little cog” who doesn’t rock the boat.

          I regret my lack of college, not so much for lack of the degree, per se, as for the lack of exposure to a randomly broad variety of *other people’s life experiences*.

    • bsaunders

      STEM is not a magic bullet. Twenty years ago that magic bullet was law, and look how that turned out. The real problem is overly literal thinking about the relationship between college and job. To get a job, a person must demonstrate the ability to create some value. Demonstrate is the key word. Studying, say, history has value. It’s silly to assume that the knowledge and research methods of history apply only to being a historian.

  • robbdeep

    Convincing everyone that college is waste of time is another step toward a populace that ignores history and accepts less and less and asks fewer and fewer questions.

    We fought hard for education. Now we’re telling ourselves its not worth our time unless it’s in a STEM major? Think of Confucius, Cicero, Sir Thomas More, Rosseau, so forth. They’re legacy is being trampled on in the name of technological progress.

    I can anticipate the argument, “the internet makes knowledge available to everyone”. This is not true. The net provides information. But without the necessary skills to properly engage that material and determine its validity, what’s the use? Mis-information abounds and is accepted as fact because it’s on wikipedia.

    A world where knowledge is considered a waste is a true dystopia. This can’t be the future, can it?

    • Megan

      I think education for the sake of education is a wonderful thing – as long as you’re going into that with open eyes.

      The world needs thinkers and artists – but unless that thinking and art results in some benefit that others are willing to pay for – it doesn’t *reward* them. (I’m not making a value judgement here, just an observation.)

      Those philosophers you mentioned had influence because they had an audience.An audience that today can be available to anyone – with or without a degree. Let’s face it – if after 12 years of elementary and high school, someone doesn’t know how to learn, or to validate the truth of something – the problem isn’t with college – it starts much earlier then that.

      • http://www.judithgargyi.vpweb.com Judith

        Megan, you are so right…much earlier…where are the parents?

        • Lê Như Bảo

          That’s all well and good,” you say, “but we’re attending college to get a job, so aren’t the major-specific courses worth the expense? My blog : Hoc tieng anh online , Dich tieng anh sang tieng viet , quang cao facebook

        • Jacob McMillen

          Parents are absolutely the biggest factors in a child’s education, whether they realize it or not. But that’s another book series for another time.

    • Jacob McMillen

      The whole point of my argument is that college no longer provides a valuable education. This may not have been true ten years ago, and since I was only able to attend a single university, it is certainly conceivable that there are schools out there committed to actually educating their students rather than simply increasing profits. That being said, the current college system as a whole is no longer about educating students.

      • Filip Lekovic

        You might want to look outside the boundaries of your own country. Plenty of world class higher education institutions have attendance free for those in that in that country. Look at Scotland, Denmark and Sweden.

        • Jacob McMillen

          Yes, this is absolutely written within the bounds of going to school and working within the United States.

    • bsaunders

      Having taken a few online courses myself, I think these courses would be extremely difficult for a person who hadn’t previously had a solid traditional education.

    • Jacob McMillen

      Did you even read the article Robb? Or are you just title trolling?

      Not once did I argue against education. My argument is against dropping a hundred grand and believing what you ended up with is an actual education.

      The Internet provides information, as you mentioned. Textbooks provide information. In many schools today, the textbooks you read and powerpoints you view are the extent of the “educational” process, rendering no further value to the student than could be attained by simply purchasing the textbook, as I explicitly stated in the article.

      I’m all for education. I’m just as dismayed as you are with the lack of awareness and understanding possessed by high school and college grads today. And this is precisely why the system needs to change.

  • http://www.alisonelissa.com/ Career Coach, alisonelissa.com

    I really enjoyed this piece and this line in particular – “At this point—at this price—college was no longer simply an educational experience; it became an investment.”

    One other angle in support of your argument is that the need to impress your boss with your degree becomes less relevant when you are an entrepreneur. (And entrepreneurship is on the rise.) No client has ever asked for my transcript. All they want to know is whether or not I can help them solve their problem.

    That said, a huge benefit of college is the network of peers, professors, and alumni you gain access to.

    • Jacob McMillen

      Thanks for the feedback. Networking is probably one of the biggest benefits of attending college, although I would argue that only students with above-average initiative really take advantage of this benefit. So the argument could be made that people with that type of initiative would find ways to network without having to pay the college price tag. At that point, it does become somewhat of a circular argument though.

      Entrepreneurship is certainly the answer to the question, “How can I succeed without college?” I would question whether entrepreneurship is, in fact, “on the rise” as you suggest. If you have statistics on this, I would genuinely love to see them. As far as I can tell, entrepreneurship has always been and always will be something that appeals, in theory, to most people, but will only be ventured into by a small percentage of the populace.

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  • Brad Deal

    Why bother with High School? If the Internet is good enough for college, than it must be better for High School. Let’s start em off right.

    If the jobs were still here then the author would be saying how important it is to get a college education. It’s a circular argument.

    Conversely, the damn fool Ivy League economists who said it was good to send our manufacturing jobs overseas should be sent to the school of hard knocks. And kept there until the economy improves.

    • Jacob McMillen

      The ironic part of your comment is that your issue is with our lack of manufacturing jobs… jobs which do not require a college education.

  • brucifer49

    I know educated people may have a lot of useless knowledge in their heads, however the most useless people I have ever met were university graduates. They are not smarter nor or they any more diligent than someone who has worked in a particular discipline for 2 to 3 years. Master’s and PHD’s get over yourselves. The best education in the world is experience and the military training which costs you nothing.