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Beware Going Back to School

By Marty Nemko

So many of my clients have been disappointed with their college and grad school experience. They found many courses of little use. They wonder if there might not have been a better use of the thousands of dollars and years of their lives.

Many students never even “get the piece of paper.” Nationally, only 1/3 of freshmen graduate in four years. 55% never graduate. They drop out having spent much time, money, and self-esteem. Decades later, many of them still think of themselves as losers because they couldn’t finish college.

Imagine you’re a patient. A physician recommends a treatment that takes years to complete and costs many thousands of dollars. He doesn’t tell you that the odds of the treatment working are less than 50/50. What would you do if the treatment didn’t work for you? Right. You’d sue, and you’d win in any court in the land. Yet, colleges routinely commit this educational malpractice thousands of times a year and yet not only do we not sue, we continue to fund colleges richly with our tax dollars and alumni donations.

Many of my clients attended college or grad school, confident that the piece of paper, if not the education, would prepare them for a rewarding career. For many of them, especially those in the social “sciences,” it has not. I feel particularly sorry for those who took five, six, sometimes ten years to complete a bachelor’s degree only to find an oversupply of bachelor’s degree holders. That forced them into careers that a high school graduate could do. Even sadder, many of those people, unable to land decent employment, went on for a graduate degree and afterward--unless they went to a designer-label university--were still unable to land a job commensurate with their education. Now they are hugely in debt, feeling they’ve largely wasted some of the most productive years of their lives.

Colleges get away with providing a shoddy education because college offers an enjoyable out-of-classroom experience: the varied extracurricular activities and the chance to meet interesting people.

More importantly, colleges get away with providing a bad education by promulgating the misleading statistic that the more degrees you have, the more money you make. The main reasons that’s true have nothing to do with the education that colleges provide. Degree holders earn more because employers use a degree as a criterion for screening job applicants. Another reason that college graduates earn more money than non-graduates is that the pool of college-bound students is brighter and more motivated. You could lock the college-bound in a closet for four years and they’ll end up earning more money than those who don’t attend college.

Before going back to school, think of whether you might not be better off at what I call You U, in which you find a mentor to help you craft a learning plan consisting of articles, book chapters, in-person or online extension courses, workshops offered by your professional association, and on-the-job training.

But you ask, “Don’t employers want to see a degree from State U, not You U?” Yes, some employers will refuse to consider the value of a You U education. But many employers are more enlightened than you may think, especially if you say or write something like, “I believe I'm worth a look because I don't have an M.B.A. Having heard that most people use little of what they learned in graduate school, I decided to go outside the box and craft a more useful education. (Insert what you did at You U.) But now comes the moment of truth. I believe I prioritized substance over form, but will you interview (or promote) me?”

Colleges must change greatly if they are to move from America’s most overrated product to the invaluable institution it markets itself as.

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