The Case Against College
By: Jim Olsztynski
Welcome to my imaginary career counseling office, young man/lady. I understand you want to know which college is right for you.
My first advice is to ask: “Should you go to
My answer is … “It depends.” If your ambition is to be a neurosurgeon, petroleum engineer or any other elite, highly-paid professional, then of course you need to go to college.
Maybe you feel a passion for social work, literature, history or some other liberal art. My advice then is, “Yes, go to college.” I do caution you not to expect to earn a great deal of money when it comes time to convert that degree into a job.
From all you tell me, though, you fit into an altogether different category. You say you’re more comfortable with tools than textbooks. You enjoy tinkering in a workshop but hate sitting through boring classroom lectures. You struggle to read books about subjects you care nothing about.
I hear you. Your family, friends and other career counselors have drummed it into your head that a college education is the ticket to success. You constantly see stories in the media about how much more college graduates earn in their lifetime when compared with people who don’t go to college.
Since you want to earn a good living, I understand why you think you have to follow that logic.
You need fair and balanced counseling. Let’s start by addressing some of the perils of higher education.
You heard me right. Attending college can have downsides as well as advantages. One peril is the risk of feeling miserable. College will be an excruciating experience if you find academic subjects boring or hard to grasp. If you’re not happy, you probably won’t stick it out. Some 40% of persons who enter college never finish their degree.
Worst of all, it will cost a lot of money to endure that misery. If your folks aren’t rich and you can’t swing a full-expenses scholarship (very few people do), then you will have to take out a student loan.
And, eventually you have to pay back that loan. The average college graduate in 2016 was left with more than $37,000 in student loan debt. An expensive private school is likely to be a lot more. That’s manageable if you make a lot of money. But if you’re not in the upper income tier you may end up owing money for the rest of your working life.
Oh, and don’t assume you’ll be working in your field of study. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that some 37% of college graduates are working in jobs that don’t even require a college degree, such as retail sales, waiting tables or tending bar. Try paying off your student debt working at Starbucks. The BLS says about a third of recent college graduates make less than $25,000 a year. Most of them are living with their parents.
Yes, you’re right that statistics show college graduates earn a lot more than non-grads. But the statistics are misleading.
The college graduate category includes highly skilled professionals who earn enormous amounts of money. Non-graduates include a lot of high school dropouts with no marketable skills. A single business CEO can earn more than hundreds of burger flippers. That skews the data.
A better comparison is between the average college graduate and someone working in a skilled trade like plumbing, HVAC or electrical. BLS data shows these trade workers earn average annual incomes of around $50,000. The best earn twice as much and more.
And, they don’t have huge student debt to pay off. Many acquire their skills in apprenticeship programs, earning a living wage while learning the trade. Others go to vocational schools at a small fraction of what it costs to go to college. Often, that tuition is reimbursed by their employers.
Did I mention that skilled trade workers are in short supply?
Jobs are plentiful and wages, benefits and working conditions are on the rise.
What’s more, plumbers, electricians and HVAC technicians are not threatened by automation or overseas outsourcing. Some end up as wealthy owners of their own trade businesses.
My advice is pursue a career that makes you happy and provides a good living. Just don’t think that means you have to go to college.