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Is College Worth It?

Does the thought of starting college make your stomach drop? Or, if you’re already there, or already graduated, are you convinced college is a social experiment designed to shake you out of your money while smug professors watch you suffer?

Why do people go to college? It must be built into our DNA. Some of our parents went, and now they expect us to go. Worse, some of our parents did not go, and now they want us to be the first to live the American dream. It’s bad enough high schools teach to the test. Parents, teachers, and guidance counselors propel students to meet the qualifications to get into the right school, whatever that means. The last time I checked, when the economy struggles, a Georgetown graduate is just as likely to have as hard of a time finding a job as the guy with a degree from the junior college down the street.

The pressure to go to college is everywhere. All modern-day occupants of the White House went to some university or another. The young casts from Boy Meets World, Dawson’s Creek, and The Secret Life of the American Teenager all felt compelled to pursue college. What are the lead roles on Teen Mom always doing as part of their plan to straighten out their lives? Even fifth years at the great school of Hogwarts are encouraged to begin contemplating their version of post-secondary study. (Did you like my outdated examples there?)

Yet the current statistics paint a dismal picture of the return of investment from the college experience. Jordan Weissmann, reporting for The Atlantic, says America’s dropout factory no longer applies just to the country’s high schools. Now it applies to our entire higher education system. Only 46% of Americans finish college, which puts the United States behind Slovakia. (Can high school grads even find Slovakia on a map?) Two-thirds of the rest say they dropped out to support families. 48% say they cannot afford it. We always knew college was only going to get more expensive, but then, it doesn’t help that it is taking six years for 56% of Americans to complete a bachelor’s degree and three years for 29% to get an associate’s degree.

That’s okay. Who needs college anyway? Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft and is still the richest entrepreneur. Mark Zuckerberg left Harvard to start Facebook and is one of the youngest self-made billionaires of our generation. Ted Turner was expelled from Brown and later founded CNN. Ralph Lauren left Baruch College and began a successful fashion design line. Similar success stories can be told of Michael Dell, John D. Rockefeller, Steve Jobs and many others.

But, wait, you can’t just assume that prosperity comes easy to those who pass on a college diploma. I’m sure a success survey of these and many other men and women without a college degree will tell you the learning did not stop after they left campus. They left school to fully concentrate on their passion, and chances are good that their will to succeed was far more rigorous than the discipline of the prestigious schools they departed. Even with all the discipline in the world, these budding entrepreneurs faced the dismal reality that more than 90% of businesses are doomed to fail within the first five years.

Okay, so the value of college is questionable. Striking out on your own does not guarantee success. Where does that leave things?

The problem may not be college. The problem could be our lack of preparation for life after high school.

I had the privilege of attending a better than average high school. We ranked high on the state’s standardized exams. We even followed an accelerated schedule that mimicked the college semester system, but despite the high expectations, there was one thing high school did not prepare me for. Well, two things. I did not graduate high school with a great plan for managing my money. I also graduated high school without a solid grip on how to manage my time.

I finished my first semester as a college freshman with a pathetic grade point average, only did slightly better in my second semester, and spent the rest of my undergraduate career attempting to dig out of the academic hole I’d created for myself.

The lack of structure for incoming freshmen is a blessing and a curse. It’s great in terms of preparing adolescents for self-discipline and self-accountability, but too much freedom too quick never ends on a positive note.

Despite my own self-induced setbacks, I believe that, with the right preparation, college can be totally worth it. College will introduce you to a broad spectrum of personalities and ideas. I met some great people and experienced some great memories during my five-year plan. It can be a great opportunity to build a professional network and lay the groundwork for a promising career. It is the only time you can afford to fully explore your potential without being held directly responsible for any failures in the projects you lead.

Yet, you have to be honest with yourself as to whether you are mature enough to maximize the college experience. Consider the following questions:

  • Do you still need someone to wake you up in the mornings?
  • Are you good about tracking upcoming deadlines?
  • Is someone still doing your own laundry?
  • Are you the type of person who crams for exams as a matter of habit?
  • If you do, do you use the tired excuse that you think better under pressure?
  • If given a choice between spending a night drinking and spending the night reading, which would you choose?
  • Do you know why you would sign up for one class over another?
  • Have you already given thought to what your major will be?
  • How much credit card debt have you racked up?
  • How much will tuition cost?

Preparation is key. Some of the responsibility we can dump at the feet of our parents, teachers, and guidance counselors, but the moment you set foot on that college campus, the responsibility transfers to you alone.

Contrary to traditional wisdom, I am not convinced that college is for everyone. Some people will never benefit from sitting in a classroom and taking tests that do nothing to measure their full potential, and that’s okay. There are trade schools and vocational training programs that can help people with diverse skills build successful careers. I am a huge proponent of community service and have always encouraged people to look into programs like AmeriCorps to explore their passions and give back to the world in the process. Something like AmeriCorps could be a viable option to filling a gap year before going to college.

If you fall into the camp that believes college is essential, go out there and tackle it. But, no one says you have to go right after you graduate from high school. If you need to use a gap interval to go on a church mission, join AmeriCorps, get some self-development training or any number of character-building experiences, then do that. Then think about college.

What say you? What advice about the worth of college would you offer? If you’re currently there, what have your experiences looked like, and if you’ve graduated and moved on, what would you add to the discussion? I’ve presented a fairly one dimensional discussion, but hopefully it gives us a good starting point.

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My blog is a collection of advice I wish someone had shared with me when I was young and targets subjects like personal finance, careers, and relationships. It publishes Mondays with the occasional bonus article. Sign up to have fresh content delivered straight to your inbox, no SPAM!


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