A Down-to-Earth Approach

I’m sure you’ve heard the oft-spoken statistic favoring college education. It usually states that the lifetime earnings of a typical college graduate are $2 million as opposed to $1.2 million for a high school diploma. This is validated as well by how the unemployment rate is so much lower than non-college education. However, for the practical application of this data, I firmly believe there is something else at play worth considering.

It’s no secret of mine that Mike Rowe is one of my favorite people on this planet. His cause is about advocating work as a valuable contribution to society more than about “finding yourself”. Along with his values, I strongly admire and wish to emulate his ability to say the stuff everyone is thinking and wants to say in a way that nobody can get reasonably offended at and often refuse to believe.

Hard work is a greater indicator to success than background. If you look at every successful person, they’ve attained above and beyond their peers through determination and adaptability. I propose to you that the results of a college degree are tied to the efforts of the person and not the opportunities a college degree creates.

There is much to be said about working hard and working purposefully, but most of that discussion is discovered by young men an women long after the first student loan payments are due. This graph shows that some people have heavily reconsidered between 2011-2015, but it needs more discussion.

Here’s a paraphrased excerpt from what thousands of college recruiters say every year:

Going to college is a bold experience that every nubile mind should be exposed to! Life skills are taught throughout our curriculum along with the interdisciplinary training of the arts and sciences, and it’s vitally necessary to attain a pristine education, make more money, start with more opportunities and develop lifelong friendships.

I have a few issues with all of this:

1: Practice > Theory

As much as understanding philosophy is important, appreciating art expands the mind, etcetera, etcetera, most of the “life skills” learned in college fall down face-first in light of reality. For one, the ability to persevere or know when to give up can only be burned into a psyche by the fires of hardship and failure. The ability to modify prevailing concepts to a new scenario or think critically and rationally comes from hands-on experience much more than reading about the subject matter.

Many academics will disagree with me on this idea, but college is a form of career training. Unfortunately, most college training is built to train students to become teachers themselves. If you look at the data, teachers are not high-demand right now. Philosophy, history and art are important to learn, but they should be assessed in light of training for a purposeful and needed discipline.

2: Opportunities < Claimed

At one point a century ago, acquiring a college education was a credible distinction and demonstrated a unique education that most people didn’t possess. At this point however, according to this college paper, about 2/3 of jobs presently require a college degree. Many jobs only use college as an arbitrary barrier to entry and working knowledge of the job is usually far more valuable, but even if only 1/3 of the available jobs were asking for a college degree it would still make that credential a common occurrence. Therefore, the only true measure of a college degree is from success in one of the following:

  1. Opportunities that are actually seized in college, which is highly connected to a person’s inner drive to succeed mixed with the surrounding environment they’ve decided to climb to the top of
  2. The speed and reduced cost of getting through college, which is also connected to inner drive but often with a separate non-college purpose

Assuming the first, an ambitious student should try to gain as many scholarships as possible to cut down on their post-graduation debt, then go to a university that provides many opportunities for networking like fraternities and clubs. However, assuming the second, it’s better to opt for community colleges, online work-at-your-own-pace universities like WGU or start asking whether it’s really worth going to college at all for the desired career path.

3: $$$ = $$ = $

Often, the most affordable and meaningful way to achieve a great education is through self-learning. This works against the best interests of college recruiters, though, so this is rarely publicized. Since unions don’t often recruit at high schools, most people don’t even hear about the value of self-learning.

Here are a few ideas to gain experience, work around or completely invalidate the need for a credential program:

  1. Take the money that would have gone to a college education and visit a foreign country for a determined number of weeks or months
  2. Take Khan Academy, Codecademy or one of hundreds of other online e-courses for free or at a very affordable price
  3. Find lists about certain subjects on Wikipedia, then read everything you can about them
  4. Examine my 100,000 Tips and discover whatever self-help issues are missing, then fill them in with online research from other sources
  5. Look for a certificate program to start working before needing a college degree (e.g. CNA/MA for nursing, accounting certification, massage therapy certification)
  6. Make your own website to educate others on what you’re passionate about, then monetize it
  7. Find a line of work that pays well for doing something nobody loves, then save up to go to any college you want

The life lessons that can be learned from a non-college experience far outweigh the risks, and come with the added advantage of avoiding tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. On top of that, it’s a much more rewarding experience to discover a “calling” in life while already making a contribution to society and earning a living than in discovering it through the expensive degrees of separation a university will develop.

A college degree is hard to measure, but there are many other hard-to-measure experiences as well. It is also hard to measure the feeling of failure in attaining a degree that doesn’t lead to gainful employment, the frustration of working in an industry unrelated to your training, the belief that you wasted 4 years and $40,000 on something you don’t see any value in, and the despair in believing it’s impossible to pay off the debt.

There is hope, however. If this sounds like you, I highly recommend the trades. The job titles of plumber, electrician, mechanic and sewage inspector aren’t going away anytime soon. Plus, there are several benefits to them:

1: Tech keeps the jobs

The advancement of technology only adds to the convenience of many of the trades. Developing self-sufficient robots will not detract for the need for human beings to do the odd and esoteric portions of any skilled labor.

2: The jobs go anywhere

Work with computers, legal systems and corporate software is constrained to the developed world, nation and corporation it’s directly tied to. Even when skills need to be modified, construction skills work in any country and good plumbing skills are in demand everywhere. If you want to visit foreign countries more easily, get a trade.

3: They start you faster

Currently, truck driving is so high-demand that they will pay to get you through school, which lasts for about a month. If the job somehow dried up in 6 months, the training was worth it. The same goes for many other trades. By contrast, becoming an engineer requires at least 4 years of school, and if you don’t want to be an engineer anymore at least 1-2 years need to be taken for something else.

If you don’t know what to do, just try something. Try anything! The unpaved roads are the most exciting, and the world of the trades is the best place to learn exactly what you hate while getting paid far more in the beginning than college could have indicated.

4: There is no glass floor

Everyone in the collegiate world talks about the “glass ceiling”, the invisible barrier to getting promoted or developing further in a career. However, nobody talks about the “glass floor”. If you have a 4-year degree, don’t bother trying to find a low-wage job to survive a long bout of unemployment, since hiring managers don’t often like to hire someone more formally educated than they are.


College isn’t for everyone, though it is an opportunity to demonstrate expertise in a subject. However, before going to college it’s worth making sure that subject is hiring and verifying that it’s what you’re willing to do for at least a decade or two.