Saturday, August 15, 2015

Strongly consider not going to college

Everyone these days knows that every kid needs to go to college.  When I was in junior high school back in the dark ages, people knew every kid needed to go to high school.  This post is long, but it's all important.  I'll try to weed it for length as time goes on and I have the inclination.

It's always beneficial to question what everyone "knows" from a "what if" perspective.  Clearly, you don't do the opposite of what actually works - e.g. don't walk down the street with your eyes closed.  But do figure out if what everyone "knows" actually produces the benefits they say it does.

People will tell you that a college graduate earns X dollars more than a non-college graduate over the course of his working life.  They won't tell you that the study that produced that statistic was chock full of selection bias and conducted back in a time where it might have been more true than it is now.

For example, it might have worked out to be true for me.  But I'm an engineer, and you're not allowed to be one of those without a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering.  On the other hand, who's to say that I wouldn't have done something different and made lots more money and been happier?

Economics 101 discusses supply and demand.  The more you have of something, the less valuable it is.  Think how much you value packing peanuts and plastic grocery bags.  In my 20's, everyone had a high school degree.  The only people who ever wanted proof were the people in the admissions offices of the colleges I applied to.  It had almost no value to anyone else.  The same thing has now happened to college degrees.

High school teachers began to value the ability to make a living over education.  Colleges had a vested interest in increasing attendance.  Government got into the lucrative student loan game.  And education became a product instead of a path.  "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" sounds inspirational, but "be cool, stay in school" is more honest.  What it means now is "we won't let you work, and we have to store you somewhere."

College isn't what it used to be.  It began as a difficult training ground for minds that could benefit from that training.  As more educational demand was created, they had to come up with more product that people who would not benefit from being there could pass.  My generation joked about "underwater basket weaving."  Yours can look at any class or degree that ends in "Studies."

So, what do they tell you college will get you, how can you get that elsewhere, and what does time in college really get you?

What they tell you you'll get:
  • Better jobs
  • A broader mind
  • More money

Better jobs: This depends on what you want to do.  Do you really, really want to do something that actually requires a degree?  If so, that's OK, but what are those really?  Some examples include being a:
  • Doctor
  • Engineer
  • Accountant
  • Attorney
Basically, if you want to do something that still actually requires that you have a degree, for example because you have to be licensed to practice that profession, it may be worth it.  May.

I was told I should be an engineer because I was good in math and science.  I couldn't have done that without a degree.  But make sure that you really want to do something before you go get a degree in it.  Get a job in an office that does what you think you want to do so you can see how it works in real life.  You won't get a job doing it - you'll probably be filing or answering phones or going to the office supply store.  But you'll be around it, and you can ask the people who do it about the realities of the job.  And if they'd do it again, knowing what they know now.  Ask them what they like about it.  Ask them what they don't like about it.  Ask them how it's different doing it for a living from how they thought it would be when they were in school.  People love to talk about what they do. Ask them about it.  Make up any question you can think of.  But don't get a job in that office first thing.  Ask your friends what their parents do, then when something strike your fancy, ask their parents about it.  Again, people love to talk about what they do. Ask them about it.

A broader mind:  Not so much any more. Your electives or gen eds or whatever they call them will show you some additional aspects of the life of the mind, but you can just as easily look at the curricula of a number of colleges, find one you like, download the reading list and notes, then do it yourself.  When you're in class with everyone else (most of them slower than you) and a bored professor, you'll get a live Youtube video.  Just watch Youtube in a disciplined manner, and you'll get just as much for free.  Just skip the cute cat videos.  MIT has all of their course material and notes online for free.  There may be others.

More money:  Not.  Unless you're doing something that absolutely requires a degree.  Otherwise, you'll have spent (more like frittered) 5-6 years to graduate (if you graduate at all) with a degree that lets you work at a coffee shop or sell phones from a strip center store.  Do some googling for stories of college graduates not working in their fields and not being able to pay their student loans.

And if you do get a job in the field related to your degree, you'll probably end up in an office earning very little.  Econ 101 also says, "buy low, sell high."  The people who run the company understand that deeply.  They will buy your time low from you and sell it high to someone else.  If the work is your goal and not the money, you'll be okay.  You have to understand that and be okay with it from the start.

If money is your goal, there are much better ways to achieve that.  I, personally, don't think money is a satisfying goal, but that's the topic for another place.

How you can get what they promise elsewhere:

Better jobs:  A good job comprises a number of elements, including but not limited to:
  •  Fulfillment - Some people seek fulfillment from their work.  Some people seek their fulfillment outside their jobs with the job's being the means to live while they get that fulfillment.  Either way is okay.  But if you get your fulfillment outside the work, the work must not interfere with that.
  • Adequate pay - You have to be able to live within your means.  If material things are not important to you (and I hope they're not), you have a wider range of work available to you.  If material things are important to you, you need to be able to afford them.  Without debt.
  • Low stress - Your job should not add so much stress to your life that you cannot enjoy the rest of your life.  It should not drain you.  Life is too short.
  • A decent work environment - Your job should be pleasant enough that you can bear it.  Ideally, you work with decent, friendly people and decent, friendly customers or clients.  Your own attitude can make all the difference in that, but you should know that you become the product of the people who surround you.  Don't stay where the bosses, co-workers, or customers erode you.
All that said, where do you find a good job?  That totally depends on you.  The key is to remember that you control a lot more than you think you do, and certainly more than other people will try to tell you.  This, too, is really a topic for another article, but here goes.

Most good jobs are found by talking to people, not by sending in endless resumes or posting on job boards.  Go talk to people.  Find out who makes the hiring decisions.  Then ask them if you can talk to them about what they are looking for in candidates.  Tell them you're not asking for a job.  Tell them you're asking about what they do, how they do it, where they look, and what they're looking for.  Remember?  People love to talk about what they do.  But you have to be truthful with them and with yourself.  Actually be interested in what they look for.  Tell them when you get into the conversation that if you are what they are looking for, you may pitch yourself, but that you really want to know what they're looking for.

Here is what I look for when I'm hiring someone:
  • Attitude - I want a positive person who will be an asset to the atmosphere.  I'll spend most of my weekly life with that person.  I don't want someone who will erode me or the people they work with.  A good attitude makes a better environment, and it makes me more money.
  • Work ethic - I want a person who will get the work done in the most efficient way possible.  To start, the most efficient way possible is my way.  After they have been there long enough, they may find a more efficient way.  I don't need someone who always needs to be busy.  Those people can sometimes distract themselves from the important work.  I want someone who will do the important stuff right away.
  • Aptitude - I want someone who can learn to do stuff.  I'll need them to do more than they already know how to do, so they need to be able to learn.
  • Skills - This is the last thing I look for.  I want to hire a great person.  If I find that person, I can teach them to do what I need them to do.  That said, I'd prefer someone who has done a bit of research into what I'm likely to need and has prepared themselves for that.  See attitude and work ethic above.
I'm the kind of guy you want to work for.  There are other kinds.  Some people and some companies will view you as a commodity because they need warm bodies.  Review the good job elements above and decide whether you want to work for that person.  Maybe you do.  That's okay.

A broader mind:  You have, in the palm of your hand or via your keyboard, all of human knowledge to date.  But you have to be disciplined in using it.  Don't use it to look at cat pictures and argue with people.

Read books.  Lots of books.  Google reading plans.  Google lists of the 100 best books.  Read those books and the study guides that go with them.  Don't just believe the books or the study guides.  Read them critically and question them.  Compare viewpoints.  Read the books in paper via or electronically via Project Gutenberg.

Read blogs.  Lots of people with big brains research and write about topics with more depth than you may have the time or inclination to research yourself.  But heed the caveats in the paragraph above.  You'll have to dig through a lot of chaff to find the good grain.  It takes time.  When you find some you like, look at the links on their blogrolls.  Comment on the good blogs.

Learn to ask good questions.  Avoid asking questions that you could find the answers to yourself with a little looking.  That's lazy.  Ask questions that get to the heart of a matter.  Ask questions about the nature of a topic.  Look for patterns and ask questions about those.  Ask people about what they do.  People love to talk about what they do.  (Have I said that already?)  Ask them about their hobbies.  Ask them what they daydream about when they have 5 spare minutes.  Ask about ideas.  Especially ask about ideas.  They're the source of all action.

More money:  Work for yourself.  Start a business.  Don't assume that you need a lot of money to start a business.  I once started a business with a free tool kit that I received for subscribing to a magazine.

Don't assume that the business has to be the only thing you do.  It could be a side endeavor that grows to meet all your needs or that just earns extra spending money or the money to buy a luxury that you really want but don't need.

Look for unfilled needs.  I once started a business based on an underfilled need I saw at the place I was working at the time.  I supported my family for four years on that one.

If you don't have every skill, aptitude, or discipline you need to make a business work, find a partner.  But (and this is very important), spell out all the terms and agreements first, including but not limited to:
  • How will you end the partnership?  
  • Who can end it and under what circumstances?
  • Who gets what if it's ended?
  • How do the partners get paid?  Based on percentage of ownership?  On value contributed?  On hours worked?  On billings generated?  On billings collected?  Something else?  Have a clear formula or there will be trouble.  You're in it for the money, so the money has to be clearly and unequivocally defined.
  • How much work is each partner expected to do?
 Partnerships can be difficult, but they can be lucrative or rewarding.  They must be clearly defined.

What does college actually get you on average?

You'll be 5-6 year behind people who did not go.  You'll probably be starting behind everyone else financially both in career position and in debt.  You'll be behind them in work experience.  Why do I say 5-6 years?  Many colleges actually arrange their schedules so you cannot get out in four years.  The longer you are there the more money they make off of you.

Debt.  Most college graduates struggle with massive debt.  I had minor debt and my wife had large debt.  Her degree did not allow her to make enough to pay her loans.  That was almost 30 years ago.  It's worse now.  We managed to pay her 10-year loans off 15 years after she graduated only because our house burned down and we had some insurance money left over.  Not a good plan.  And did I mention that it's worse now?  Student loan debt is an anchor around your neck.  DO NOT TAKE STUDENT LOANS.

You'll have worse morals and a worse character.  You are the average of the people you are around.  The vast majority of people in college are there to party, to avoid commitment and progress, to have immoral sexual encounters, and to drink too much.  Do you really want to be that?

You'll be brainwashed.  Much of college curricula and most professors want to convert you to ideas and assumptions that are actively harmful to you and to society.  They see your college years as a laboratory with you as the test specimen where they can make you into their own image.  Most of them are not there for your benefit but for their opportunity to make you into something less than you are for their own benefit.  Don't let them cripple you.

OK, so you've decided you still absolutely need to go to college.  How do you do it and not end up like everyone else?

Some professions still favor a degree, even if they don't always require it.  My daughter is a classical musician.  She wants to perform in symphonies, even though she knows that she can't earn her entire living doing that.  A music degree actually helps get a job in that field.  The college courses she is taking actually make her a better musician - but only because she is approaching them as a path to becoming a better musician.  She's not merely doing what it takes to get a passing grade.  She is learning and applying the material to her music.

She worked hard in high school and actually learned her material.  She got a good enough score on the ACT to be eligible for a scholarship at a school with a good music program.  I told her she could attend only if she never took on student loan debt.  So, she works hard to learn the material.  She teaches students and plays gigs to earn money to make up the difference between the scholarship and her total costs.  Oh, yeah - and she plays in the symphony to earn money to help pay for school.  She also lives at home to save money.  If you must go to college to do what you want to do in life, this is the way to do it.  Clearly, I'm proud of her.

What do you need to do?
  • Learn your academic subjects in high school.  Really learn them.  Don't just pass them for grades then forget them.
  • Study for, prepare for, and do well on the ACT or SAT.  Start in junior high school, but also take practice tests and learn how to take a test.
  • Make sure you qualify for scholarships and that you can get them.
  • Go to a good state school with reasonable tuition rates.  Don't go to an Ivy League school (see worse morals, worse character, and brainwashing above).
  • Make sure you absolutely know why you're going.  Concretely.  Not "I need to go to college."  Not "to find out what I want to do."  If you don't know what you want to do with your life and that you absolutely need a college degree for it, don't go.
  • Do not live on campus.  Many colleges require that you spend the first year on campus.  They say it's to acclimatize you to campus live.  You don't want to be acclimatized to campus life (see worse morals and worse character above).
  • Learn the material that applies to your field.  Don't just pass those classes for grades then forget them.  
  • Do only what you have to do to pass the propaganda and brainwashing agenda classes.  Do not internalize those lessons.  See brainwashing above.
  • Research the college's drop out rate and how long it takes an average student to earn a degree.  Do not go to one that has bad numbers.  They are producing revenue rather than educated students.
  • Get out in four years or less, no matter how hard you have to work to do it.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern.
  • Ride a bike.  Colleges make an inordinate amount of money from parking and parking tickets.  They do it on purpose.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern.
  • Buy your books used.  The words inside are the same.  Colleges make an inordinate amount of money from books.  They do it on purpose.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern. 
  • DO NOT TAKE STUDENT LOANS.  Did I already say that?  It bears repeating: DO NOT TAKE STUDENT LOANS.  Colleges make an inordinate amount of money from students.  They do it on purpose.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern.  Are you getting the hint yet?


  1. +1 on buying your books used.

    Better yet, don't buy them from the college bookstore at all.

    Think about it: a new one is $100, a used copy is $70. The bookstore got the used one in an end-of-term buyback where the guy who bought it new for $100 sold it back for $30-50, which then got marked up to $70, creating even more revenue for the college.

    Check Amazon or eBay first. You might find a used copy for the buy-back price of $30-50.

  2. Also, check out

    I've rented books from them for much, much less then buying new or used would have cost.