Should You Stay In College, or Go To College?

Over the past of the last year, I have read about a lot of people pulling out of college or not going to do a startup.  Peter Thiel has his experiment with “Thiel Scholars”.  He gives talented kids money, puts them in a situation for them to create the next great thing.

I interact a lot with college kids.  I speak at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and hear a lot of pitches from students at all kinds of Midwestern universities.  First off, the millennial generation gets a bum rap in my opinion.  I like hanging out with them.  I think the “special snowflakes” are rare.

Sometimes in pitches with older people, we ask where they went to school.  It’s a conversation starter, not a checklist.  I don’t care if someone went to Harvard or Podunk U.  Failure hits them at the same rate.  What’s interesting to me is often when I meet engineering majors, there is an incredible pull from the private sector to get them out and working.  This is not the case with any other major.

Companies are so starved for tech talent, the money making opportunities for good engineers often outweighs the cost/benefit of staying in school.  If you are a kid on a student loan, that money is awfully enticing.

The cost of college has skyrocketed.  The reason is all the subsidies given by government’s to go.  Government also has increased educational spending because it’s politically popular and that has caused colleges to expand their fixed costs. Instead of hiring professors, they are hiring administrators.

The pace of change in technology is so fast, a lot of what these kids study will be obsolete by graduation.  Many of the jobs they want are going to be replaced by robots, AI or some other technical piece of software.  Should they still go to school?

Answer, that all depends.

Stats show just graduating from a 4 year institution will give you more income than someone who didn’t graduate.  If you graduate, you are more likely to be in a stable marriage-divorce rates are less among college grads than they are non-college grads.  Graduates have a higher standard of living.  They tend to make better long term decisions.

A slew of kids just graduated from high school.  A lot of them are going to go to school.  Generally, this is a great development.  It’s not a magic bullet, but matriculating gives you better probabilities.

Going to college will help you mature.  It should expose you to new ideas and new ways of thinking.  It might make you lifelong friends.  It might give you your first real network in order to leverage into something else.

However, the critical choice comes in choosing a major.  That’s where I see a lot of kids make huge mistakes.

They’ll get into a top school that costs $60k per year.  Then, they will major in a bullshit major.  Instead of learning, it becomes a four year party or introspection.  I think we can tick off the majors, Art, Poli Sci, Cinema, Sociology.  When I was going to school those were gut classes you knew you could do well in to improve your GPA.  They don’t prepare you for life, but you will be a good and often controversial dinner guest.

Despite what you have heard, most college students in the 1960s didn’t protest or go to Woodstock.

Instead, choose something that you can use to be productive.  Engineering is a perfect example.  You’d be better off going to Podunk U and majoring in Engineering than going to Harvard and getting a degree in political science.  Math, Accounting, Finance, Statistics, Marketing, and the hard sciences are all great majors.  Journalism is not-it’s dying.  History is decent for people that really can’t do anything else, but make sure you are doing lots of research.  Often history is taught as a gut course at some colleges.

When you get out, you will always land on your feet.  You can always find some employment somewhere if you can balance books or sell product.  The fact is, our economy is still in the dumper.  We have had 8 years of low/no growth.  The job market is tough-and it’s not what it seems in the headline numbers.  This isn’t 1986 where we are coming strongly out of a horrible recession and things are moving.  You don’t read headlines about how a big corporate is going to hire 2000 people but you might read one where they are cutting that many.

I know, I know.  College is a time to have fun.  No doubt.  But, it’s also getting to be a 240k investment at a lot of places.  When you invest that kind of money, it’s stupid to take the easy path.

 

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  • John Richards

    I do think college is a place to acquire real skills, though softer skills can be valuable too. I’ve never seen the value of coasting. In college I took engineering math in place of the more sedate business-level version. I did the same thing in rhetoric, compressing two semesters into one. I paid for it in time and sweat, not to mention grades, but I’d do the same way if I were doing it now. Statistics was incredibly valuable, not just for real world skills it gave me, but for the underlying understanding of what constitutes knowledge and evidence. I’m going to be working 5-10 years longer to send my kids to school than I would otherwise; I still see significant value in it.

    • I do too. I just think if you are going to go and do a soft major, you are wasting your time.