Is College Necessary?

“Is college necessary?”

It’s a question that touches a nerve – especially with parents of young adults, people who take great pride in their academic accomplishments, and disgruntled souls paying off hefty student loans with what could have been a house payment while working jobs they don’t like.

A recent post at the blog College Startup profiles 15 high-profile entrepreneurs who are not college graduates. Like most riffs on the “is college necessary” theme, the article misses the point. What people want to know is, “Will college help me get the life I want?”

College offers students: credentials, education, experience, and connections. To determine the value of college, it makes sense to take each of these assets separately.

Credentials: If an individual’s calling is to be a brain surgeon, then there’s no room for discussion. No academic degrees, no brain surgery career. For many people, the value of a degree as a credential is over-rated. Specifically, a credential is no more than a marketing tool in in many occupations: a bachelor’s degree may impress a prospective client or employer, but it won’t make the sale. People without degrees often seem to overestimate their need to get one later in life. Life coaching clients may regard a degree as proof of credibility, but there are ways to build credibility that don’t take years or cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Take away: If you’ve got it, flaunt it. By all means put that PhD on your business cards. But weigh the usefulness of the credential critically.

Education: Does knowledge live within the bounds of campus libraries and the heads of people with particular letters after their names? Universities can grant a person easily navigable access to great teachers and programming, intelligent peers, and facilities such as laboratories and libraries; however, self-directed learners can find most of what college offers – and more – in the wide world. Some of the world’s great minds are more available for direct correspondence on the internet than they may be with their students.

Take away: Knowledge wants to be free, so it is!

Connections: Cynical thinkers suggest that the opportunity to make connections is the primary offering available at many schools. Visits from professors’ business contacts, late-night bull sessions with people who may someday be CEO, and membership in alumni networks can all be valuable as a graduate moves through life.

Take away: Getting connections in this way is probably most important to those who don’t already have them. Of the student who grows up in the projects and the one whose dad is a well-placed business executive, the former has a lot more to gain from expanding that circle of contacts via attending college. (See Malcolm Gladwell’s “Getting In” for more on this.)

Experience is … the wild card.
Ultimately choosing to go to college, whether at 18 or at 80 means foregoing other experiences to do so. So, perhaps the most important question to ask is whether or not attending will provide experiences the student can use. Possibly the worst reason to go to school: to extend a comfort zone and avoid new experiences in the world. This applies equally to the high-school partier looking for an environment where alcohol flows freely and the laid-off office worker who figures that law school “can’t hurt.”

Take away: You only live once. What’s on your “bucket list”?

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  • I agree with you that there are some technical jobs such as surgeons who must undergo rigorous training. But training is not the same as education. Adaptability is a vital skill in work and in life. We need to know about history so we don’t keep making the same mistakes. But most of all education should nurture curiosity and a love of learning.

    My education was not only free but I was paid living expenses. I did have to take exams to qualify, and have a portfolio to be accepted. I came out of the British art school system in the 1970’s. One way to describe it is creative anarchy. Students found tutors that would help them become more differentiated as individuals rather than conform and compete. It was a life-affirming experience that fostered my curiosity to learn.

    I left home at age 16 without much of an education. I roamed about in my native England and across Europe and North Africa before starting college at 24. I had many jobs (all of them menial) but I gained another sort of education. I have always been a voracious reader and I was promiscuous in my literary tastes. I came across Ivan Illich’s book, Deschooling Society when I was just 17. It certainly made an impact on how I saw education.

    Sadly, much of what passes for education in America today exploits young people and their parents. Instead of encouraging a love of learning so we can become autodidacts, it fosters dependency on a financially draining system. High school children want to go to college. College students want to get into graduate school, and so it goes. All this cost money. Couple this with a middle-class snobbish attitude toward good-paying skilled trades whose jobs will not be exported and the self-imposed misery is complete.

    There are people choosing different paths. There is a refreshing personal website at about a family who march to a different drum.

    Whenever you make a decision to take one path or the other, there is always a cost. You always lose the opportunity cost of not taking the other path. What would you get for you time and money if you didn’t go to college? I think you can invest more wisely than prop up institutions whose first loyalty is to themselves. We can buy skills on the open market. There are alternatives. And for a wonderful and funny view of all this, check out Ken Robinson’s talk on on how schools kill creativity.

  • Thank you for your message. I’m glad that Unconventional Ideas is getting the exposure it deserves. Well done for getting your letter to Stanford Magazine published.

    My wife and I are reading The Element, by Ken Robinson.

    I say my wife and I, because I ordered the book but when it arrived, the next thing I knew was she was half way through it. I’m up next. I guess it’s a one more case of ladies first.

    Acccording to the book, standardized testing brings in $100,000,000 to testing companies. This doesn’t seem exactly like educational funding well spent. The good news is that Robinson sees the huge benefit of drama in schools. In at least one school ( I’ll know the details when I get to read the book) the children learn lessons like history and geography in the morning. In the afternoon, they act out what they’ve learned. How about that for bringing learning to life!

    I did some theatrical improvisation here in the Bay Area years ago. It was such a great way to connect with other people. And it helps you think on your feet.

    Keep up the good work on the blog.


  • I’ve thought about this a lot, as someone whose BA seems largely useless ( I graduated in 2006). I learned a lot in college, and for that reason it was worthwhile, but at my particular school, readiness for careers was totally ignored unless your career was to be a college professor.

    Advanced degrees are becoming oversaturated, especially in this bad economy. I applied for a job with a high school diploma requirement, and was told I didn’t have a chance because people with Masters were applying for the same job. This was a part-time job paying $14/hr.

    In high school, I was told “Go to college, get a job”. I wish I had been told that jobs don’t merely flow from college educations. Disappointment is an understatement for how I felt when I learned this wasn’t the case.

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