I have long believed in the importance of a formal education. My father was a university administrator, and my mother a K-12 school teacher. Both placed high value on the pivotal role that education plays in determining one’s fate in life. So there is no doubt that the value of education is deeply ingrained in my genetic code.
As I was crafting this article, a buddy of mine who runs a computer repair service in Denver was intrigued when I revealed the topic. He mentioned his own experience of having dropped out of college three times, unsure of what he wanted to focus on. “While I appreciate to this day what I did learn in terms of accounting, critical thinking, economics and liberal arts,” he said, “my life became directed toward more practical interests in the work world. So I never went back to complete a degree.”
I often find myself reflecting on those who may feel pressured by family, friends and society to go to college even if they may not, like my computer friend, be deriving practical value from it. Regrettably from a very early age, we are all pushed down this narrow trajectory which suggests that higher education is the ‘be all and end all’ route to achievement.
My life and that of my brother certainly swung into this jet stream, compliments of parental influence and other mitigating factors. In 1986, I received my Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology–an achievement that elicited that oft heard refrain from others of “So what are you going to do with that?” Comments from the peanut gallery aside, I did go on to a successful career as a health care human resources executive before graduating from a west coast university twenty years later with a Masters of Public Administration in Health Services Administration.
My brother, with a couple of Masters Degrees under his belt, has been pursuing credits towards an interdisciplinary PhD…. even though he is in the enviable position of already having a secure future as a result of his ongoing stint in the military.
Bucking The Traditional Education Paradigm
Despite having received a job offer three days after getting my Bachelor’s Degree, my father made a startling comment and quasi ultimatum. “Son, you should always have a backup plan. So even though you have an offer on the table, I strongly suggest that you go and apply at Sears Roebuck.”
After my initial shock at this statement, I began to recognize that his underlying message could best be summed up as “Find a stable company where you can work for 30 years so you can retire to the comfort of a lazy boy recliner, proudly wearing your gold watch.”
Fortunately, I declined his advice and followed my own path. Others? Well, many have not been so lucky since they followed the desires of others, versus their own heart. We all know people who went to college because their whole family went to college; attended law school because daddy went to law school; want to pursue medical school because of the promise of serving others and making big bucks. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred there is some sort of DNA imperative which aligns ones career pursuit with that of a family member or a major influencer in ones life.
Despite my inherent belief in a college education, I profess a deep reverance for those who chose to run counter to what the collective masses think and simply pursue life on their own terms without feeling tethered to a college degree—-Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Branson and Steve Jobs are among those who immediately come to mind. And then there is the heroic protagonist Howard Roark, who in Ayn Rand’s book The Fountainhead gets kicked out of architecture school for boldly deciding to conform to his own values versus those of the school. His architectural contemporary, Peter Keating, relented to the masses and ultimately suffered the consequences.
My message here: That the real winners in life are those who have the courage to think for themselves and to embrace their own authentic path. And in some cases that might involve saying no to college.
Below, I’ve listed 7 reasons why you, too, may want to pursue an alternative path that doesn’t include pursuing a diploma. Sure, there’s no denying that having that piece of paper is still widely regarded as an entry point to opportunity, akin to having a basic pair of shoes in which to step out into the world. So be forewarned that those who run counter to what the collective masses think can expect to encounter a raised eyebrow out there, or worse.
Reason 1: Autodidactic Learning ROCKS!
Autodidactic as in self-learning. As Mark Twain said, “I’ve never let my schooling interfere with my education.” For example, I’ve found that those who drop out or delay their education to travel the world are some of the sharpest people I know. Through this route they often acquire a richer, more contextual orientation to the world than an academic textbook or a college lecture could ever provide. Much like the message articulated in Warren Berger’s book A More Beautiful Question, autodidacts discover that live experiences embedded with curiosity, inquiry and imagination are the proverbial gold standard of a well-educated person. Being broadminded allows one to converse thoughtfully and intelligently with all suitors. Moreover, the argument can be made that we digest more when we feel engaged and excited about the learning experiences we encounter.
Formal education aside, the preponderance of what I’ve grown to know over the years comes from my commitment to lifetime learning. I am a voracious reader who digests dump truck volumes of books each year. Today, I am engaged in learning Spanish through an app called Duolingo. And later this year, I’ll be enrolling in one of the free online courses available through Coursera. It’s an emerging learning site that’s garnering a lot of attention, as growing numbers of employers seek out top talent for open positions there. All this despite the fact that Coursera does not offer any formal degrees.
Reason 2: Student Loan Burdens Suck!
Obtaining a Graduate Degree was one of the most rewarding and intellectually stimulating experiences of my life. But was it worth the $40,000 student loan debt that I am still paying off?
Well, I’m not so sure.
In a way though, I consider myself lucky when compared to those pursuing an Undergraduate Degree. Total student loan debt and average per student debt levels among this demographic are at an all-time high. So is the percentage of student loan defaults, at 15%. So it begs the question as to whether an Undergraduate Degree is worth it when you emerge from the fray with $30,000 to $50,000 in debt obligations.
Even worse are professional degrees in medicine and law that can leave one trapped with six-figure levels of debt. That’s one of the reasons why a retired pediatrician friend of mine is encouraging those who salivate at the prospect of becoming a doctor not to do it. I think he may have a point there.
Reason 3: Fewer Jobs Require Degrees
I know of a man in Northern California who owns a glass installation firm, specializing in commercial high-rise buildings. He was lamenting the struggles he faced in recruiting qualified glaziers; artisans who select, cut, install and replace glass for these buildings. What’s interesting here is that these jobs do not require a degree. And the starting salary is a sweet $65,000.
This is a prevailing trend that shows no signs of abating, due to a shortage of blue collar workers. Perhaps most notably, half of all university graduates are currently working in jobs that don’t even require a college degree. According to a Career Builder survey, since 2001 the percentage of recent college grads in jobs that don’t require a degree skyrocketed from 34% in 2001 to 44% in 2012. Stories abound of young graduates who end up working as baristas, bartenders and taking mail delivery service jobs to pay for rent, food and those ballooning college loans.
So you might be asking, where do I think all of this is headed? Well, check out Reason 5 in this article for more of my thoughts.
Reason 4: Luck May Trump A College Degree
In addition to a college degree, hard work and preparation are often cited as keys to life success. Imagine then the surprise of many when Presidential hopeful Donald Trump recently remarked that “everything in life is luck.”
I’m certainly not sipping Trump’s Kool-Aid, but I do think he is spot-on with this comment.
At 24, three years into my freshly minted career as an HR Generalist right out of college, I accepted the top HR position at a small rural hospital in Indiana. While it could be argued that my B.A. in Sociology was a factor, an even larger one was the reputation of my mentor who provided me with a stellar recommendation. It should also be noted that this job opportunity came to my attention via a chance encounter with a staff member at the American Society for Healthcare Human Resources Administration who was also kind enough to recommended me. Ultimately, she was the catalyst for not just this, but also a second senior level position in Chicago.
Years later, I recommended the Human Resources Generalist who worked for me at a community health center in California for a Director of Human Resources position at a non profit. Despite having 20 years of experience in the HR field, she has no degree.
Reason 5: Apprenticeships Are Emerging As The New ‘Career Normal’
The apprenticeship movement harkens back to the colonial days of blacksmiths and shoe cobblers who learned a trade from a master in the field. Fast forward to present times, where I believe that the quickest and most effective entry point will not be a degree but an apprenticeship program. To be trained by a mentor or a master is rapidly becoming the best way to build up a body of expertise in a specialized field. And a growing number of these opportunities are in areas that don’t require a degree.
By way of example, we are in the midst of a tech boom here in Denver which has resulted in a massive shortage of programmers and coders. The good news, for those seeking great paying work in a field of high demand, is that there are plenty of opportunities available that don’t require a 2 or 4-year degree. Certification programs such as Turing and the G School combined with an apprenticeship can provide quick access to a career that doen’t require a lengthy and costly college matriculation.
Reason 6: Higher Education’s Questionable ROI (Return On Investment)
For years, all the buzz concerning a college degree has centered around the boost it can provide to your earning potential. However, many graduates are shocked to discover they experience slow pay growth combined with expanding cost-of-living expenses.
In particular, many 4-year colleges remain wedded to curriculums that are theoretical in their orientation. This runs contrary to what college graduates actually need in order to be successful: real world skills that are valued in the employment marketplace.
To this point, I recently had a coffee meeting with a Professor of Management from a major Denver area university, a conversation that ended up being excruciatingly painful. Having sought him out for his advice, I was shocked at the lack of practical insights he was able to deliver in response to my questions. While trying to decipher his theoretical pontifications, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the hundreds of students he instructs every year, poor souls who are clueless about the lack of depth they’re receiving through his teaching. Tragically, many professors who dwell behind the hallowed walls of academia are unable to convey the distinction between the theoretical and practical, leaving so many students with a return on investment that doesn’t translate into meaningful employment. A friend of mine, a former University Dean was in full accord with my assessment here, noting that at the university at which he worked, computer science students were unknowingly subjected to courses involving archaic software like Cobol and Fortran.
This dearth in return on investment is perhaps most prominently apparent at our nation’s law schools where law school enrollments have been on a steady decline due to tuition increases, a decline in graduate salaries, and an overall contraction in the legal industry. It has been widely reported that law school enrollment at our nation’s 204 ABA-approved law schools took a precipitous fall to 199,775 in 2014, down nearly 7% from 2013 and about 18.5% since 2010, according to the Section of Legal Education. Indicative of sentiments regarding this ROI decline, there has been a spate of class action suits initiated by former law students over the past several years, alleging that their schools hoodwinked them with misleading reports of their graduates’ successes. As a result, many found themselves trying to keep their head above water at low wage restaurant server jobs and department store positions, while attempting to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loans.
Reason 7: Entrepreneurial Options Abound
The seventh and final reason I offer here is that there is no better time to jump into the the entrepreneurial fray, if you have the inclination to do so. Pursuing a college degree can not only delay an idea whose timing is white hot, but it can put you massively in debt, gobbling up resources that could have been directed towards your new venture.
On this front, I LOVE what the Thiel Fellowship is doing for students under Scott is a wr22 years of age who have a dream they want to move towards, versus spending 4 years of college on a potentially worthless degree. This foundation, the baby of Peter Thiel, former co-founder of PayPal, offers a total of $100,000 over two years, as well as guidance and resources so the recipient can drop out of school to pursue other work, whether it be scientific research, creating a startup, or even working with a purposeful social movement. The ultimate goal of the program is to align kids with the funding and mentorship support necessary to successfully execute their idea.
Michael Scott is an independent journalist examining the intersection between free markets and economic freedom. You can follow him on Twitter @biz_michael