Sure You Should Go to College?
By Marty Nemko
You’re a good student, so you should go to college, right? After all, you’ll be much better educated and end up with a better career, right? Only losers don’t go to college. Right?
Even if you can get into a prestigious college, you may be wiser to skip college at least for a while, and instead, start your own business, talk your way into a cool job, land an apprenticeship, join the military, complete a short career-preparation program, or do a time-out year filled with interesting adventures. At the end of this article, I’ll show you how to maximize your chances of succeeding at all of those.
But you might ask, “Why not go to college first?”
One obvious answer is the money. At the sort of public university that readers of this article are likely to attend, the sticker price for four years of tuition, room, board, and other standard expenses averages $60,000, at a similar private college or university, $150,000. And the average student takes not four years, but 5.2 years to get their bachelor’s degree. Remember too that especially if your family is middle income, much of your financial aid will be loan, not grant. That means you must pay it back—plus interest.
But you say, “I keep hearing that college graduates earn much more over their lifetimes than non-graduates. That’s one of the misleading statistics colleges foist on you. Of course, college graduates, on average, earn more. But that’s in part because the pool of the college-bound is brighter, more motivated, and have more family connections than the non-college bound. You could lock the college-bound in a closet for four years and they’ll earn more. Yes, college adds value to your marketability, but for the right person, the alternative ways to spend your college years described in this article can add as much or more.
You might also argue, “But college isn’t just about preparing for a career. It’s about becoming more educated. “ In theory, you’re absolutely right. But because of the way colleges are run, much of what you learn in college is of little value to most students: professors’ idiosyncratic theories, unproven models, impenetrable literature, etc, often taught in auditorium-sized classes by professors hired and rewarded on how much research they crank out, not on how well they teach. Many students graduate from college feeling their academic experience has not lived up to the brochure hype the college used to get them to enroll.
Remember, in deciding to go to college, you’re giving up at least four of the most productive years of your life. As a young person, you don’t realize how valuable four years are. Chances are, as a teenager, you feel like you’ll live forever, but ask any person over 60 how much money they’d give for an extra four years of energetic, productive life. It’s usually quite a lot.
Who probably should go to college
Students who enjoy school-based learning. Professors can usually keep their jobs even if they’re bad teachers. So, to get a good education, you must make the significant effort to discover who the good instructors are and often beg your way into one of those desired professors’ classes. You also have to be motivated enough to show up at class even though in most university classes, the professor won’t notice or care that you’re not there. Few professors take attendance. To get a really valuable education, you have to be willing to ask questions of the professor in class, and in private sessions. All this requires an unusually motivated student.
Students who do school better than they do life. Some people don’t do life well. They can ace school exams but lack the common sense to realize they should have dumped that jerk months ago or lack the restraint to avoid maxing out their credit card.
Or they’re fine when told exactly what to do: “Show up MWF 10-11, read the textbook, pages 202-317, write a term paper on the Doppelganger in 19th Century English Literature, but struggle in the less structured real world.
Or they make a poor impression on people—they’re shy, obnoxious, or unattractive. Alas, in this society, looks count.
People who do better at school than at life are wise to go to college—their education and the sheepskin will partly compensate for their real-world limitations.
Who should consider saying no to college
People who are impressive to others and are burned out on school. Over my lifetime, I’ve gotten to know hundreds of successful people. For some of them, a degree, especially a degree from a prestigious college, was key to their success. But other people succeeded without degrees, usually because they were impressive people: smart self-starters who were likeable so others were willing to do things for them—like hire them even though they didn’t have a college degree. Such people also often started their own successful business.
Many little-known people have succeeded without college, but there are also many famous ones, for example, Jesse Ventura, Madonna, Malcolm X, Steven Spielberg, William Faulkner, Bill Gates, Eleanor Roosevelt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Maya Angelou, Barbra Streisand, Michael Dell, Jane Austen, PBS’s Nina Totenberg, Walter Cronkite, Ted Turner, Bob Dylan, Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarentino, cookie maker Debbie Fields, Dreamworks co-founder David Geffen, former Israeli president David Ben Gurion, oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller, Warren Beatty, Woody Allen, famed anthropologist Richard Leakey, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, Dustin Hoffman, Buckminster Fuller, Alexander Graham Bell, Wendy’s Founder Dave Thomas, Walt Disney, Rosie O'Donnell, Thomas Edison, Blockbuster Video founder and owner of the Miami Dolphins Wayne Huizenga, NBC mogul David Sarnoff, Ernest Hemingway, Sally Field, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Steve Jobs, Coco Chanel, Roots author Alex Haley, chef Wolfgang Puck, Robert Redford, John D. Rockefeller, satirist H.L Mencken, Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, and seven presidents from Washington to Truman. ABC-TV’s Peter Jennings dropped out of high school!
You’ve struggled your way to average grades. Are you one of those students who managed to struggle your way to a B in math but didn’t really understand many of the concepts? Did you find yourself clamoring for the Cliff’s Notes as you plowed your way through not understanding Hamlet, yet somehow by studying hard, managed to eke out a B in the course? And when you took the SAT, you scored under 950?
Here are some truths that the colleges—which are businesses and want your money—don’t want you to know:
n Of every 100 freshmen with the above profile, fewer than 25 at so-called four-year colleges will earn their bachelor’s degree, even when given six years!
n Such students’ time on campus is often a non-stop assault to their self-esteem, from that first class when they’re already confused, to the final exam, when they experience that terror that most of us have experienced when we know we’ll do badly.
n Even if such students defy the odds and graduate, they often fare poorly in the job market. There is an oversupply of bachelor’s degree holders. Even many strong students struggle to find a decent job. Plenty of college degree holders are folding sweaters at the Gap for $10 an hour, driving a cab, or hawking real estate. Marginal students have an even harder time.
Students who are mainly going to college to figure out what they want to be when they grow up. College is a poor place to do that. Too often, you choose a major because the introductory class was fascinating and you did well in it. That doesn’t predict you’d enjoy and do well in the major. Worse, most majors have little to do with careers. Most college graduates end up in careers not related to their major.
It’s better to figure out what you want to be when you grow up by exploring your high school’s career center, seeing a career counselor, or using a family connection to get you a better job than you could get on the open market.
Okay, so perhaps you’ll consider an alternative to college, but how do you maximize your chances of success in that alternative. These strategies will put you ahead of your competition.
A Time-Out Year. A year filled with out-of-school adventures can help you find career clarity and/or increase your motivation to work hard at college. For example Lex Leeming spent a year building a log cabin on a ranch in Wyoming, helping a documentary filmmaker in upstate New York, serving an apprenticeship in a dive shop in Micronesia, and working as a gardener on the Italian island of Elba. “When I came back, I was totally psyched for my studies.”
Worried that if you take a year off, you won’t go back to school? A Princeton Review poll found that 55% of students surveyed who took time off reported getting better college grades afterwards and 57% said the experience enhanced their job searches.
Perhaps the most cost-effective way to set up a Time-Out year is to find options in such books as Taking Time Off, The Uncollege Alternative, The Backdoor Guide to Short-term Job Adventures, and the out-of-print but wonderful Summer Options for Teenagers. Also check out services that put together a custom time-out year for you at www.whereyouheaded.com, www.interimprograms.com, and www.leapnow.org.
Talking your way into a cool job.
People can get much of what they want just by asking for it. If someone says no, ask someone else, and someone else, and someone else. Learn to shrug your shoulders at rejection. Even extremely capable people are rejected much more often than they are accepted. The good news is that you only need one job. Career counselor Tom Jackson describes a successful job search as NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, YES.
So, think of a cool job that doesn’t absolutely, positively require college. Then call people in the field, yes strangers, and say something like, “I’ll be graduating high school soon and would love to learn (insert job-- cinematography, for example). I’m willing to work my way up from the bottom. Might you know someone who could use someone like me? I’d imagine someone gave you your first break. I’m looking for someone to give me mine.”
If you can’t think of a job that excites you, you might consult my book, Cool Careers for Dummies. It contains insider profiles of over 500 cool careers, including many that don’t require college. Or scan the index of your Yellow Pages—it contains thousands of job categories. Then call all the phone numbers in a job category that excites you.
While many employers will turn you down, if you make enough phone calls, someone will give you a shot. Before taking the position, ask enough questions to help you assess if the position will likely be dead-end or a career launchpad.
Starting your own business.
Keep your business extraordinarily simple. Simple businesses cost less to start and much less can go wrong. And be assured, people have made lots of money owning amazingly simple businesses, for example, a small chain of espresso carts in desirable locations such as near a commuter train station.
Normally, it’s safer not try to come up with a new idea—you then become a guinea pig. Instead, copy an already successful formula. For example, does a nearby burrito store always have a line of customers out the door? If so, open a burrito store in a similar nearby area. You can find extensive information and free coaching on starting your business at www.sba.gov. Click on “starting your business.”
Finding a good apprenticeship
There are over 800 careers—mainly blue-collar, working with your hands—that you can prepare for in an apprenticeship. These programs are usually four years long and consist mainly of on-the-job training under an experienced supervisor, during which you earn half the pay of your supervisor. Practical classes supplement the on-the-job training—for example, if you were in a biomedical equipment technician apprenticeship, you’d take a class on how to use math in that career. To find your state’s apprenticeship website, go to www.nastad.net and click on “links.”
Joining the military
The military trains you for over 200 careers, 92% of which, after your few-year stint, can be pursued in civilian life, everything from personnel recruiter to graphic designer to x-ray technician. Before enlisting, you’ll take tests to identify careers you’d likely succeed in, and then the military will usually allow you to choose one. Links: www.goarmy.com, www.navy.mil, www.af.mil, www.marines.com., and www.uscg.mil.
Finding a good short vocational training program
Depending on the career, these programs can take as short as a few weeks (for example, to become a phlebotomist—someone who takes your blood for medical tests), to two years (to become a court reporter.) These programs prepare you for careers ranging from agricultural equipment repairer to stone mason. Your first stop should be at the websites of your local community college(s). Vocational programs at community colleges will generally be inexpensive and accredited (approved by an external review body.) Private vocational/career colleges also exist. They often offer quicker, more convenient training, but are typically expensive. Be especially careful to verify that a private career/vocational college is accredited. To find out about vocational training in your state, go to www.ed.gov/offices/OVAE/resource/statelink.html.
Attend You U.
No matter which of the above you pursue, consider “enrolling” in what I call You University. Just because you’re not enrolling in college doesn’t mean you can’t become an educated person. In fact, you may become more educated, in a more personalized way, more quickly by attending “You U”. You simply ask instructors at local colleges, extension programs, or adult schools if you can sit in on individual courses you find interesting. Without having to worry about meeting graduation requirements, you can take what you want, and only do the assignments you find of value. If a course isn’t meeting your needs, you can simply stop showing up.
Dealing with pressure
Chances are, once you start telling people you’re thinking about not going to college, you’re going to get pressure: “What? You’re not going to college?” or “Son, you’re making a big mistake.”
The best way to counter such pressure is to have a solid game plan that explains why, for you, the road less traveled is a wiser one. For example, “Mom, you know I’ve been going through the motions in school. I just don’t know why I need to learn this stuff and I’m not really learning it—I’m cramming for tests and the day after, it’s out the other ear. If I go to college, I’m afraid I’ll be one of those millions of kids who goof off, waste a year or two and lots of money and then drop out. At least for now, I need to try another path. Maybe later if I’m more motivated, I’ll go back to college, but for now, the Small Business Administration is helping me develop a business plan. And on the side, I’m going to audit a class at the university on entrepreneurship and another on philosophy, just for the heck of it. Mom, I really want your support.”
Odds are good that most people with half a brain will recognize you as something special, something better than the millions of sheep who plod off to college.
If you’re not sure whether you want to go to college, apply. That buys you extra months to contemplate your decision. Most colleges will even defer your admission for a year, which will give you risk-free time to try out an alternative to college.
But whatever you decide, make your choice based on what seems right for you rather than on what’s expected of you. So many people go through life making decisions based on what other people will think of them. Sad. Do what’s right for you.
© Marty Nemko 2004-2013. Usage Rights