The College Degree is Dead
A critical look at whether or not attending university was the right decision.
College was once seen as the great divider between the have’s and the have-nots. Those with a degree went on to thrive in their careers. Those without, well, maybe they’d get lucky.
For decades, this has been the narrative.
But, now, more than ever, things are shaking. The leg-up you used to get in an interview doesn’t mean as much. Everyone and their moms are earning a college degree. There’s less exclusivity.
A college degree’s value seems to be faltering. As I said before, I believe a college degree was my worst financial decision ever. I think many of you can agree-ish.
Let’s rewind to when I was 18, nearly a decade ago (jeez). I had just graduated high school. Amidst one of the best summers of my life, a million things were racing through my mind.
I was in a steady relationship, but one that would face long-distance come August. We were headed to different universities. That was the biggest worry in my world.
There were a hundred-and-one decisions to make as my new life on a college campus crept closer.
Should we keep dating? What is my Major going to be? What classes should I take? Should I take out a student loan? Should I join a fraternity? Which gaming console should I bring for my dorm room?
But I couldn’t complain. In my mind, my decisions were simpler than some of my friends. Some still hadn’t chosen what university to go to. I was ahead of them, at least.
Or, that’s what I thought. The point is, the last thing on my mind was whether or not my decision to go to college was the right one for me.
Four years later, I graduated with a degree in Communication. It wasn’t my first choice, but after a while, it made the most sense. I had already switched Majors twice and, by my sophomore year, I had to land on something. Communication — public relations, specifically — was it.
I didn’t mind. Even though I didn’t know what I wanted to do in my career, the world of communication seemed open and ever-growing. I wouldn’t have a problem finding a pursuit I enjoyed.
I was just happy to have graduated without student debt. I worked throughout college, unlike some of my friends, and escaped with a degree for only $40 thousand dollars.
I was one of the lucky ones. Some of my other friends at the university across the state were up to their necks in debt. But no one ever talked about it. Everyone was brimming with optimism. After all, with a college degree, our options were limitless.
The diploma would show us all the answers we didn’t have, we thought.
Years passed since graduation. College almost seems like a distant memory now. I’ve been a working professional for five years.
I found work I don’t mind. I don’t love it or anything. And I’ve been steadily moving up the ranks in the industry. Fortunately, I’m self-employed and have been since graduating. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The first few months after graduation was spent looking for a traditional 9-to-5, but everyone wanted ‘experience’. Not internship experience; actual experience. Of which, I didn’t have.
I was unsuccessful and ‘unqualified’ for most jobs I applied for.
It turns out, my degree wasn’t answering the call as I had thought it would.
I landed my first client as a freelancer and never looked back on the corporate world.
Despite making a quarter of the income most of my friends bring home, I can’t complain. I enjoy myself and work only a fourth of the time my 9–5 friends do.
I moved to Bali, Indonesia where I can afford life a little easier. I’ve managed to stash away a healthy amount into investments. By all accounts, I’m doing alright for myself.
Still, I wonder. . .
As I look at my career path and trajectory, I wonder if the four years and $40k were worth it. Only now, 10 years later, can I look at it in full perspective.
When I was 18, I made an unconscious decision to attend university because it was what I was supposed to do. But now, I want to reconsider that decision.
What if I had never gone to school? It wasn’t like what I learned in class got me here today. No way.
In fact, after a few months of unsuccessful interviews at traditional jobs, nobody has asked about my education. Clients don’t care where you’ve been — they care about what you can do for them.
I’m a proud student of YouTube University as I’m sure most of my freelancing friends are. Traditional college didn’t give me my entrepreneurial spirit. It didn’t teach me how to pitch clients or write blog posts. It didn’t teach me the fundamentals of starting my own business. Or about making smart financial decisions.
Hell, as I said, I‘ve argued college was my worst financial decision.
Now, I want to take a look at my life in rewind. Where would I be had I not elected to spend $40k on a piece of paper? Financially-speaking, I’ve already done the math. You can check it out here. Here’s a sneak peek: I’d be much more well-off. Exponentially more well-off.
To tell you the truth, I’d like to reverse engineer my life.
If I could tell my 18-year-old self what to do to get to where I am now, I would.
I know, I know. You can’t blame yourself for every misstep you take in life. No one knows what the future holds and that’s part of what makes life beautiful.
But, for shits and giggles, let’s reverse engineer the career path of a present-day 18-year-old if he were in my shoes.
I want this to be a lesson for the younger generation. A lesson in self-reflection and following your own path. When you’re 18, both of those things are hard to do. But let’s take a look anyway.
Let’s try to normalize the idea of success without college.
Party like it’s 2012.
Rewind. It’s May of 2012 again. I just graduated high school. I can see my future — I’ll be self-employed living in Bali by the year 2021. How do I get there?
First, I am going to take my time in figuring out my passions. I’m not going to figure out my interests in a classroom.
That narrative is bullshit. School will always be school, rarely enjoyable. I knew that in high school. A classroom setting isn’t for me.
Instead, I need to figure out my pursuits in the real world.
I’m going to give myself a gap year.
A gap year is not a popular concept in America. In other parts of the globe — Europe, Australia, Canada, South America — basically everywhere else, more people accept the idea.
For those who don’t even know what a gap year is, imagine it as a year in-between life’s chapters. A year of self-discovery.
For many, this chapter means exploring new places and ideas. Finding what it is that lights a fire under your ass! If you’re fortunate enough, this might mean exploring the various corners of the world.
I worked hard in high school to accumulate about $10k by the time I was ready to ship off for college.
In reality, this all went toward my freshman year in university. But in this reverse-engineered life, I think I’m going to spend a chunk of it on my gap year.
I’m going to Europe.
After a stint backpacking, I’m introduced to new cultures, open minds, and a bucket-full of inspirations.
I return with a new head on my shoulders. I’m a changed person — like most people are after long travel periods.
“I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted.” ― Jack Kerouac
A new vision.
Great. The gap year worked! I’ve got some fresh legs under me but not a lot of cash to my name. Let’s hit up my old high school employer and mow some more baseball fields until I have a few more dollars saved. After all, it was my favorite high school job and, possibly, my favorite job to-date.
I’m not ashamed to go against the norm and live at my parents’ house a few years after high school. After all, I’m fortunate enough to be in a position to do so, why not take advantage of it?
I’m making $13/ hour, working 40-hours a week. As a 19-year old living in mom’s basement, this is beyond enough to start racking up some cash.
Although according to societal standards, I shouldn’t be satisfied, I quite am. I always liked the job and it’s a relaxed lifestyle.
Not only that, but I found my calling while I was in Europe. I just need to figure out how to make money from it. I will be a writer.
It’s not the highest-paying job, I know. But I have to find a way to make it work. I come home from my day job every night and learn the trappings of making a career from writing. My teacher is the most knowledgeable teacher I know. His name is the Internet.
I spend hours intentionally consuming online content and I love it. I’m learning the industry. I don’t feel like I’m wasting time because I’m growing as a professional with everything I learn.
Besides, my friends are spending hours with their noses in out-dated textbooks. Is their one professor really smarter than the whole internet? I’m not falling behind.
Slowly, I put together a website and can finally consider it a side hustle. Meanwhile, I continue to rack up dollars cutting grass on baseball fields.
Taking the leap.
After three years, some of my friends from high school are graduating college. They look down on me because I’ve been in my mom’s basement since they left for college.
But they’re the ones up to their necks in student debt. Meanwhile, I’ve begun to make enough money to consider my side hustle a real career.
After 3 years of working what some consider a high school job, plus the income from my midnight grind which I still love, I’ve accumulated $100,000.
I spend some in the day-to-day trappings. Meanwhile, I’ve taken a few more trips abroad.
Let’s say I’m left with $70,000 at age 22. More than fair to assume, I would say. Not a bad cushion if I don’t say so myself.
Around that time, a friend who graduated in economics turns me onto the idea of investing. He says my money can grow exponentially.
I put $60,000 into the stock market, invested in various mutual funds and the S&P 500. I take $10,000 with me and move to Southeast Asia.
I’m starting my new life as a full-time freelancer.
Sure, my friends might earn more than me with their college degrees (maybe). But I’ve got a safe cushion and a retirement nest egg practically built-in. Plus, again, my friends will be staving off debt for decades to come. I’m free!
At a high-but-not-outrageous expected return of 8%, that initial $60k investment will net me a retirement fund of $1.5–2 million by age 67. Even by a financial advisor’s high standards, this will be alright.
Otherwise, I might later start living off dividends. Once that investment has compounded a substantial amount. Who knows — the possibilities are endless.
OK — we’re back in reality now.
Taking a look back at my career path and that of my reverse-engineered life, there’s only one glaring difference.
In real life, I have a degree — a piece of paper that says I learned something. My reverse-engineered self does not have that piece of paper.
Instead, my reverse-engineered self has a few hundred thousand dollars more in the bank than I do by the age of 27. And a career journey of no regrets.
Which would I rather have now?
Yeah, I guess you’ll assume the right answer.
. . .
My point is not to say college is bad. In fact, I don’t agree with that. It can be very good for the right people in the right professions. But it’s not right for all people.
I know this ‘simulation’ has a lot of what-if’s and it’s not a perfect version of someone’s ideal life. After all, living across the world from family has its hardships. But it’s my life. Regardless, I ended up here anyway and I love it.
If I could do it over, I wouldn’t go to college. Hindsight is 20/20, though, and it always will be.
What career decisions do you wish you had/hadn’t made?
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** This article was originally published at www.adamcheshier.com **