Is a college degree worth it?

Many of the posts I write are inspired by reader questions and requests. Smaranda Calin, one of my awesome fans, asked: what’s the role of a university education in this day and age since so much is changing?

Every generation believes they’re exceptional for the same stupid reason: they know nothing about any other generation. They might be right but if they are its by accident. We all suffer from chronocentricism, the assumption the present is special or the most important time in history. This is charmingly narcissistic when you realize every generation in history thought the same thing.

Certainly many things change quickly today, but we confuse speed with scale. The first generation to have electricity in their homes, or to switch from horses to cars dealt with a scale of change much greater than anything in the last 20 years. We still type on QWERTY keyboards and mail things to each other using mostly text, which has been true for 100 years. Upgrading from a Blackberry to an iPhone 5 certainly represents tremendous technological progress, but it’s not much of a cultural leap for most people to follow. Speed and scale are not the same thing.

The value then of a college degree comes down to two questions:

  1. What important things change slowly that are worth learning?
  2. Can a college degree give them to you?

Things you always need in life

There is a long list of things people hope to get from college. Most of them are things you need no matter what era you are born into.

  • To learn how to ask good questions
  • To learn how to find or develop good answers
  • An understanding of what happened before you were born
  • To develop a skill, craft or discipline
  • Learning to manage your time and work vs. life
  • Chances to build nurturing relationships with people who know more than you
  • Chances to build good relationships with friends for now and later
  • A path towards a profession
  • Opportunities to figure out who the hell you are

Good college experiences provide many of these. But of course there are other ways to get them.

Most attempts to measure the worth of college focus on the financials. 86% of U.S. college graduates say its worth it, but they’re biased of course since they’ve just invested more in college than anything else in their lives.

A better answer depends on how many of the things listed above you can get without college. Maybe you see clear ways to get these things through other means. Or perhaps you recognize you have no idea how to get these things. Or that you’ve lived a sheltered, protected life so far and very much need to immerse yourself in an intensely new environment  perhaps geographically distant from your hometown. If that is important to you and you can’t get it any other way, college might be worth it no matter how much it costs.

Most high school students make blind choices about college because they’re too young to understand what they really want from it. They’re told “you should go” so they follow along like the good robots they’ve been in going from elementary school to high school. Or they decide, at 19, “I want to be a doctor” as if they have any clue what that means beyond TV shows and that it makes their Mom happy when they say it. A gap year is a fantastic idea and I’d bet it improves the odds people who choose to go to college get what they need. They have a clearer picture of who they are, what the world might be like when they graduate and what they want from life, all of which makes choices about college easier to make.

It depends

Like all investments, college is a bet. Depending on who you are, what you want, where you choose to go, and what choices you make while there (this never gets enough emphasis as college is four years worth of daily decisions), it may pay off and it may not. Some people go to a great school and have an awesome experience, but find it doesn’t help much seeking employment. But if they’d chosen a more practical major, they might not have had that awesome experience they did. Who knows. There are many variables beyond going to college or not going. Other people are miserable in college but stick it out anyway, and then spend their lives regretting their ‘wasted years’. College is an investment, not a guarantee.

I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. It was a fantastic place to be if you knew exactly what career you wanted to have. If you weren’t sure, it was a miserable place. It wasn’t designed to support exploration in the way a school like Evergreen University is. Before Carnegie Mellon University I had a very rough ride. I stumbled my way through two other colleges, Drew University and Queens College spending most of my first two years making big mistakes. Those mistakes helped me sort out what I wanted and why and I was lucky to turn it around. But even so I made even more mistakes before I finished. If I were to do it again I’d interact with my professors very differently: I was paying them and I should never have feared them the way I did.

In the broadest strokes big decisions like these depend on many factors. If forced I’d say it’s worth it to go for everyone. A student can always drop out if they realize it’s not for them and that realization will help them understand what it is they should do instead. But if you never go you deny yourself the chance of discovering something clearly valued by the vast majority who have done it. I firmly believe in erring on the side of doing, rather than not doing.

27 Responses to “Is a college degree worth it?”

  1. Jeff

    The bit about chronocentrism is largely true, but I think you may be glossing over the difference between a technology and the changes in process and ultimately cultural milieu that the technology facilitates.

    One might just as easily argue that electricity was, by itself, a fairly incremental change, because it initially wasn’t used for much besides replacing lighting on public streets. Once it became a crucial part of the workflow for mass production in factories, electricity became indispensable, but in our retrospective we tend to interchange electricity with the effects of electricity.

    Part of chronocentrism is that, due to our temporal locality to change, we tend to recall things as a series of discrete events. This is, in a sense, rather central to your own philosophy on innovation. We approach our own progress this way because we’re smack dab in the middle of it and unable to look from the outside in.

    While we are close enough to the development of technologies like the Internet to view developments individually, it’s largely possible that the future will look back on us and not differentiate between the Internet and the widespread availability of information by smartphone, in much the same way that we no longer really differentiate between the development of the steam engine and the development of transit by steamboat or locomotive. This perspective might modify one’s outlook.

    1. Scott

      Hi Jeff: you’re right. I glossed over many things there. Those bits were just the prelude to attacking the question of college so I didn’t have much room for nuance. Thanks for stepping up to clarify.

  2. Shantnu Tiwari

    “If I were to do it again I’d interact with my professors very differently: I was paying them and I should never have feared them the way I did.”

    I think this is the problem. Universities charge people through the nose, and then act like they are a sort of noble “Temples of Learning.” Maybe my experience has been atypical, but I found that if you try to act like a customer in Universities, you don’t get very far.

    There is one problem with trying out Universities, as you imply in your conculsion: Fees. With fees so high, it would be better (& cheaper) playing roulette at the casino.

    Certainly you would get as much “culture” by sitting in a casino gambling as you would get sitting like a zombie in a class while a professor drools on and on. (I know you don’t make the “culture” point, but many proponents of Universities do).

    More and more I have started to think that Universities are just giant scam machines, sucking money from gullible young people and stuffing it into their own pockets.

    1. Scott

      Mostly I meant I should have been in office hours. I should have been using my access to the professors and smart people who were being paid to help and teach me. Instead I often studied alone and felt I was failing if I met with or tried to connect with, TAs, professors and the like. I gave up a huge part of the access to smarter people I was paying for.

      Every university I have seen provides plenty of opportunities for people willing to seek them out. Maybe not in every department at every school. There are plenty of empty departments where the soul left the building long ago. But sorting that out is part of the burden every adult has to take on for themselves: where can I go that I will get what I want and need? And how much effort do *I* need to put in while there to get it?

      1. Phil Simon

        It’s hard for many 19-year-olds to think of professors in this way. I suspect that this sense of fear isn’t uncommon. At grad school, I interacted in a less intimidated fashion because I was older.

    2. Charles Lasner

      I agree. It’s largely turned into that great comedy bit from SNL a few years back by Billy Crystal. Winston University, remember kids, our motto is “We will find you and we will kill you”.

      In many fields of endeavor, the old adage still applies: Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.

      1. LYoung

        Not necessarily, many people that teach at universities are in fact experts in their chosen fields with a large body of work behind them and experience in the field, both nationally and internationally. These people are resources to be used and to not draw on their experience and listen to their theories (and the theories of other great minds), is kind of pointless.

        These people also have contacts and have the ability to assist you in furthering your career post-study, but you have to show the initiative. They aren’t going to seek you out, if you want it you have to go for it and show them that you’re worth investing time in.

        I never once had a professor turn me down when I asked for some time to have a chat about study, career advice and direction, and even had one chase me up to see if I was pursuing honors because she would make sure I got in.

        In my experience (granted I am from Australia so it may be different), university was all about what you wanted to get out of it. The resources are there if you want to utilise them. If you don’t, you’ll get a pretty stock standard education and experience, which of course if fine, if that’s what you want.

  3. Sean Crawford

    I liked university partly because I came from a family that was poor but redneck. I grew a lot.
    About seeing profs:
    Call me an academic, but I always had a nice time seeing my professors. A math prof told our class that if you line up to see the Teaching Assistant for help during easier times, then he will know you and you might get a few seconds of critical help near finals when the lineups are really long.

    I didn’t see my young Latin professor until I needed extra help because I was needing to miss a few classes for work. He helped and gave me grammar shortcuts, saying he would not help just any student that way. I think he meant he already knew me and knew I was a keen student.

    We connected from me speaking to him on the floor of the lecture theatre after class, and me helping him out during class by participating, to help the lecture flow. I think most student are insensitive as to whether a professor needs help, such a pity.

    Regarding culture:
    I think the reason US soldiers huddle in NATO barracks while students backpack around the continent is that the students are already accustomed to culture shock.

    In my eyes a good education is a good long culture shock, from a man saying things like “she’s not a girl: if she’s over 18 she’s a woman” or a prof giving you a dirty look, or peers proving you can be both passionate and polite about something. On a healthy campus a troll feels like an idiot.
    Psychology professor Zimbardo (I think) in an Intro to Psyc text, said that half your learning is from profs and other students: not just textbooks.

    University, at least in the liberal arts, means practise in being able to tolerate ambiguity. And therefor being able to discuss, and not being confined to arguing. A domestic expert on jihadists (suicide bombers) said they never major in the liberal arts, never see shades of grey.

    1. Scott

      Many interesting points there.

      The culture shock value is amplified by going away to college. This is more expensive and harder logistically, but there is something special about freshman year, away from home, mixing with all of the other 19 year olds who are also going through culture shock at the same time. You don’t get that same intensity by going to night school, or community college, or living at home.

    2. Tom

      Your example of NATO troops huddling in barracks is flawed on the account that I don’t think you have much experience with the military. You also did not take into account that in boot camp you are subjected to living in tight quarters with eighty plus other people that you have never met and you are required to work as a team. This is just as big of a culture shock as someone going to college. The biggest difference is that in boot camp you are all in it together rather than alone. Perhaps I am wrong. Back on the topic of NATO troops, I spent 3 years in Europe while serving in the Navy. and the biggest reason that troops hung out in the barracks was because they blew all of their money going out pay day weekend. Some troops choose to stay on base because they are comfortable but the vast majority enjoy the night life of their host country. Some bases also limit the amount of time soldiers can spend off base with curfews. I feel that in my experience I am more culturally aware than 95% of college graduates. This is directly related to the fact that I have visited close to 20 countries from Japan to UAE and Iceland. I have had a great time at each of these and learned that while the U.S. is great, it is not as good as it could be.

      1. Sean Crawford

        (Reply to Tom) Secondly: A tight team of recruits, shocked into learning? You have just described a college team with separate dorms and separate cafeteria, ostensibly for teamwork and nutrition, but, as explained in the expose “Meat on the Hoof,” actually to shelter them from more open minded students who cared less about football. The writer was shocked when he later mingled with liberal arts students.

        Firstly: As it happens, I was stationed in Baden Baden, West Germany. The only G.I. I remember seeing on base was a man I brought back to crash after public transit had closed down. Amusingly, my guess is no G.I.s would have braved the shock of visiting an air base, and neither-ahem!-would any sailors.

        I was on a Yankee base when I found a book called (I think) “Sex and the Single Serviceman” by a G.I. who had a German wife. He documented how his fellow soldiers would “huddle on NATO bases,” quite unlike the other NATO armies, and he wrote his book in the hope of encouraging G.I.s to mingle with Europeans.

  4. Joachim Kristensen

    Eventhough I’m not part of the american education system (I’m from Denmark, Europe) I enjoy reading about the debate at moment about the value of an education. I, in large part, agrees with the 9 point given in the blog post.
    I can only speak from my perspective but I believe a big problem is the transition from high school to college. As I see it it’s a matter of changing from being taught and studying. Studying is a different skill than sitting in a class room receiving the words given by the teacher. A lot of young people don’t understand than sometimes you need to sit down, keep quite and start reading from page 9 (a qoute from one of my favorite teachers).
    At least that’s a big problem here and our education system is free.

    I think that one of the most important skills to learn (on top of the 9 points) are to be able to transcend things learned in one field to another. I’ve studied industrial engineering, dropped out, got a degree in physiotherapi and is now doing a masters in clinical science. Being able to see the blood circuit as a giant plumbing system or to be able to see that the nervous system is a very clever feedback loop is making further knowledge in either field easier.
    I think that there will always be a place for knowledgeable people so maybe the future of education should be knowing where you and everything are from (history, latin), how the world works (physics, math, chemistry, social/political science) and how to engage with others (language, psychology) along with what ever you fancy (med school, fine arts, business, other).

  5. tammyruger

    A student in a post-grad. scriptwriting class told a professor, “I’ve got my degree in scriptwriting, so where’s my studio job?” Professor said, “Degrees mean nothing. You’ve got to have a body of work behind you to have any credibility.” Suddenly this student realized he could have hunkered down and written scripts for spec. without the $75,000 of loan debt. In this job market college is a money-making sham unless it’s for a degree in high demand; and that tune changes by the day. Want experience? Then hit the streets.

    1. Sean Crawford

      I am reminded of the wire service reporter who scooped all the other reporters by having his version printed when for his lead he announced the Iran hostages “had been delivered from bondage.” Given the US heritage of the Holy Bible and racial slavery it should have been a no-brainer for all the other writers too. But they lacked education.

      The same reporter, in a book teaching basic journalism, said that since a reporter’s business is all of humanity he should be majoring in the humanities.

      It seems to me a student could practise the craft of writing leads on the bus and get a body of work between classes by writing for the student newspaper. I say this NOT to offer specific advice but to illustrate the principle of Scott’s recent 3-point post about taking responsibility.

      I think if Scott had gone to tech school for computers he would have been guaranteed a job, but then he would still have had to drop out of the work force for a few years to get an education if he expected to offer us such enriching essays as he does.

      I remember novelist John Gardener saying there was no substitute for having been led by the hand by a professor through Shakespeare, adding the self taught were unlikely to have done so much as read Shakespeare.

      In my own case, I was able to work my way through university, in my chosen field, and yes, I feel humbly lucky that I could do so. I tell people with amusement that I got a degree in what I already do, but I don’t regret the years spent, not for a minute.

      1. LYoung

        Here, here Sean, a wonderful post and I totally agree. University changed my life and I can see in the work place (and life in general), where my education gives me the advantage over so many others.

        It was damn hard work but well worth it, and what an achievement when you finally stand up on that podium with your cap and gown holding that scroll in your hand!

  6. Leisha Young

    I went back to school (university) at the age of 26 when I had finally figured out what I could handle spending 3.5 years having pounded into me. It turned out it was political science and feminism. I didn’t expect that this would get me into some amazing high paying job when I left but I didn’t do it for that reason.

    University gave me a new lease on life, when I came out I was not the person I was when I went in. It taught me some amazing life skills, some of which include:

    – how to read for a purpose
    – how to identify an argument
    – how to write properly
    – how to build a strong argument and argue effectively
    – how to write in a sophisticated manner
    – how to listen and digest information
    – how to take criticism
    – how to analyse information

    As well as these life skills I also gained a HUGE amount of knowledge about things I never thought I would be able to get my head around.

    When I came out of university I had a confidence that I had never had before in my life. For the first time in my life I could be the smartest person in the room confident that I was not just regurgitating what someone else had argued but that I had my own ideas about issues and my own theories about life and how the world works. Suddenly I could debate people with strong arguments and had an ability to analyse other people’s arguments and find weaknesses in them (which can be really fun sometimes). It quite simply changed my life and gave me a new perspective.

    University is hard work and it pushed me beyond any boundary I ever thought possible to achieve my degree, and the day I graduated was one of the most proud moments of my life because of how hard I had worked for it. Having moments of self-pride in your life is really important.

    In addition to all of these positive outcomes I also came out cherishing that time in my life and realising how fortunate I was to have spent a few years in an environment where ideas and knowledge sharing were promoted (indeed expected) and praised. Where you could comment on the works of famous scientists and philosophers and people would listen to you and encourage you to have an opinion.

    The only down side? When I came out of university suddenly I could not longer turn a blind eye to the horrible things going on in the world. It depressed me to think about how messed up the human race is and what we do to each other. Once that thought process was switched on, I have never been able to switch it off…which can be hard. I wouldn’t change it though.

    If you are inspired by ideas and the evolution of the human race I highly recommend thinking hard about what you are interested in and pursuing a degree that satisfies that interest (the only way you can be truly successful at university is if you enjoy what you’re studying). It will change you in ways you could never have imagined. You do have to go into it with the right attitude though.

    Hope this helps someone.

    1. Scott

      This is an excellent and thoughtful post. Thanks.

      1. Leisha

        No probs! Thanks Scott!

        I guess you can tell I’m pretty passionate about education yeah?

        Cheers mate! :-)

      2. Leisha

        No probs! Thanks Scott!

        I guess you can tell I’m pretty passionate about education yeah?

        Cheers mate! :-)

    2. Smaranda

      This is very interesting indeed. I find that most people who have some work experience or life experience before going to university look at it in a very different way and come out with much more at the other end. I will ask one question though. Do you think all teachers are ready to receive students that can challenge them and bring in their work experience in the classroom? Sadly, I don’t think so.

  7. Smaranda

    It’s interesting to see the reactions on this post. I must confess, Scott, it’s one of the reasons I wanted you to write about university education – knowing that the debate will probably fire in 100 different directions. (Yes, I’m blushing. I have used you shamelessly :) )

    Having graduated from my latest university endeavor – a Masters in IT Product Design – about 2 years ago, having taken my higher education in 2 different European countries (Romania and Denmark) and having friends all over the world who did the same, I find myself sure of only one universal attribute of university degrees there days: there’s something wrong with most of them. And students are getting massively frustrated in some way pretty much everywhere. Reading the reactions from this post is very interesting and only adds to this feeling. Let me explain. I don’t think universities should be burned to the ground. But what I believe is that the system that we have right now is just not working for us anymore. There are too many recurring issues that people have, and some of them have been touched on here.

    Here’s a few from a student’s stand point.
    1. The “too much (outdated) theory, no practical applications” issue aka “why am I learning this?”
    2. The “I can’t get a job after graduation” issue aka “now what?” aka “what can I really use this education for?”, usually tied with the
    3. “you only have a university degree that tells us nothing and no work experience, so what can you really do?” issue (more obvious in Europe where university tuition is far less expensive and there’s an influx of graduates every year).
    4. The “this university is a great place to be if you know what you want to do with your life, but a miserable place otherwise” issue (I’d say it makes too easy to be miserable in your 20s)
    5. The “kids are scared of their teachers” issue, usually coupled with the
    6. “It’s up to you to get the most out of your education” aka “don’t expect to be told what to do, you’re at university now” issue.

    I could go on. Things are not merrier on the teachers’ side either. I have friends and family who teach in universities around the world and here’s 2 issues that ALWAYS come up:
    1. low pay and/or major problems with financing
    2. universities are scored on research and publications and not on teaching quality. Technically, a high ranked university is a university where the teachers have published the most in the most renowned journals. It says nothing about the quality of teaching and some will argue that it actually goes against it, as this encourages a hiring process based on research contributions and not teaching abilities and leaves teachers little time to be student focused.

    Companies are not happier either. Otherwise they wouldn’t be asking for internships, voluntary work, part time jobs and all kinds of things to complete a resume. A simple degree tells them nothing anymore, there’s no way to differentiate student A from student B but by grades, which are not the most trustworthy reference. They complain about lack of skills and talent, about having to train graduates themselves, they develop training programs and graduate programs etc to fill in the gaps. And now that the crisis is in bloom, they run away from hiring fresh graduates as if they were all skunks leading to the highest youth unemployment rate in history according to The Economist.

    Taken individually, all these are solvable issues, but all together they paint a very different picture. Does this sound like a sound deal for the parties involved? And I’m not even touching on the money issue which in the US is a Pandora’s box of its own. I mean really. Does this seem to be working?

    And, Scott, while I always admire your ability to simplify, I will challenge you on the list you made. It’s a good, solid list. But I don’t think that 19 year old Scott wrote it :). Or that much of that was going through his head when sending college applications 15-20 years ago.

    Does anybody else feel that this is turning into a wicked problem or is it just me?

    1. Leisha

      Sorry, me again. I’ll make this one a bit quicker. I think the biggest issue is people’s expectations of what universities are for. They are institutions of higher thinking, that is, universities were never designed to skill people for employment (that’s what technical education is for). University was always about human evolution and expanding our understanding of the world around us. They are ‘academic’ institutions designed to provide you with the resources to expand your mind, not institutions to skill you for employment. The issue has come about since, for want of better words, every man/woman and his/her dog can now attend university. Universities were once reserved for the elite (especially the mentally elite), they were not designed for mass entry by average people (not being judgemental…I’m average too).

      Universities have actually lowered their standards to allow for this influx (that they are not particularly well equipped to deal with), and to provide a more ‘practical’ education. So you get this convergence between traditional university education (academia), and the need to provide practical (ready for work) education to cater to the changing dynamics of their consumers.

      The two do not mesh well in my opinion.

      The answer would probably be to separate universities into two different sectors; the ‘practical – ready for work’ sector and the ‘traditional – academic’ education, because we need lawyers and doctors but we also need philosophers to expand the human mind socially and culturally.

      Cheers and all the best!

  8. Leisha

    Interesting question; I am from Australia so I suppose you have to take into consideration the cultural differences of individual countries and their education systems. However, I agree that some lecturers have an ego thing going on (the academic world has its own social rules and cultural mores). You learn pretty quickly which academics are open to counter argument and which expect you to shut up and listen (and agree with them in public). I did find under these circumstances that you had to be careful about what you argued and how you argued it.

    However, I also found that these same academics were far more amenable towards my arguments when they were written down in an essay and public confrontation was not part of the equation. I found that often I agreed with the lecturers views though (of course not always).

    I always took the attitude that I am here to learn and I am paying a lot of money for that privilege, so I’m going to get out of it what I want, not what the academics think I should get out of it. If I felt I was hard done by in the markings I would pursue it with the particular lecturer (often taking them on is the best way to get your grade improved as they appreciate your guts and determination to get your point across). There is also the option of pursuing a formal approach if you feel the academic in question is being biased or unfair towards you.

    At the end of the day what the academics are tying to teach you is that the only thing that matters is your argument and how you back it up. I found that where the advantage came through with age was that I was there for a purpose. I wasn’t interested in a social scene, partying and getting lucky. I was there to learn and that was it. My personal experiences helped me more in relating to the academics. It’s amazing how a little bit more maturity will help you to grasp the concepts and theories being proposed and to apply them to your own life experiences.

    Also when you’re a little older you have more confidence in challenging the academics, the teacher worship is not as intense (because a bit of life experience teaches you that all people are fallible), and you can relate to them on a different level. I found the mature age students utilised the lecturers more as well (showing interest is the best way to get them to like you and want to help you out).

    At the end of the day you have to keep your eye on the prize. If a lecturer is difficult that is never going to change, but don’t let that make you shy away from challenging them (just do it in a practical and respectful way), and if you feel you have been hard done by, voice up. Ultimately that’s what they’re trying to teach you, as they consider you to be the thinkers of tomorrow…and thinkers need the guts and determination to stand up and scream it from the rooftops, not passively accept what is dictated.

    Cheers and all the best with any study you pursue!

  9. Sean

    I graduated from Penn State in English, and although I then took that degree and became an editor for nearly three years, I have worked in IT ever since then as a web developer, web team manager and IT project manager. I have often looked back and thought: What the hell did I do that college degree in ENGLISH for? It was charming, but a total waste, and at 40, I am still paying back the majority of my student loan. And now that loan and supplemented by the additional loan I incurred to get my MBA — another degree I am convinced was a total waste of time and money. I have four kids and now work for my alma mater and think: Wouldn’t it be awesome if my kids want to go to college here; they could get a college education for 25% of what it would cost if I didn’t have the 75% off employee discount? And my wife — who never went to college and has often felt like she lost out on something important by not having gone to college — wants our kids to go to college. But I am really beginning to have second thoughts about this. Do I really want them to incur the same debt and waste of time for a degree that may end up serving them little to no value in life?

    1. Scott

      There are many variables, thus my “it depends” answer. Depending on what your children hope to do with their lives, and what colleges they’re considering, the value of it will vary widely.

      I also think there’s something to be said for playing the system to your advantage. Nothing stops a high school graduate from going to an inexpensive local college for a year or two, and then transfering into a major university, taking advantage of how much more valuable universities are for their higher level courses, and the brand name value on their resume when looking for a job.

      I’m also a fan of gap years, where high school graduates take a year between high school and college to get some perspective before deciding to go to college.



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