Are you wondering, “Is college worth it?”
Let me tell you a story.
I’m sitting at the lunch counter in Toronto at the end of the midday rush, downing a greasy burger, and trying not to get it on my suit. I’m killing a bit of time before a meeting in a nearby glass tower.
I work for one of Canada’s top think tanks, a luxury that means that my afternoon meeting will be on the very top floor of the tower—in a gilded and oaken, penthouse boardroom belonging to one of Canada’s biggest banks.
It’s a privilege I have because I landed a job with my relatively useless college degree.
Lunch is on the company. So was the taxi and the plane to Toronto. I was living in a new universe of company expenses, and I liked it.
The bartender had tattoos up and down his arms and around his neck—a young guy, about my age. There were just two customers left from lunch, and the other was deep into her laptop.
“What do you do?” the bartender asked.
I smiled, “I work for a think tank.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” he said. “What’d you have to do to get that job?”
I laughed, “Actually, I did a PhD in religious studies. Not totally related, but it worked out.”
“Woah,” he said. “I have a degree in political science.”
“How long have you been working here?”
“A few years. I was hoping to get something better, but eventually I started being okay with it. The tips are good, so it’s not bad. I think I’d need to go back to school to get something better.”
I wish I could say that my conversation with the bartender was unusual. It’s not. My taxi driver that morning had a master’s in chemistry from Israel. And from the way she spoke, my barista at Starbucks that morning had a college degree too.
It seems that every young person I meet in the service industry has an undergraduate degree. They’re underemployed, totally clueless to any pathway they could take to lead to a well-paying and fulfilling career.
This is the absurdity of our higher-education system. But for some reason, underemployed undergrads are more of a running joke than a social concern.
“Oh you have a BA in philosophy? You’ll make a good barista. Hahaha.”
We live in a world built on the premise that education means a better life, avoiding pain and underemployment, fending off starvation, and gaining the American (or in my case Canadian) dream.
But it doesn’t deliver.
This is a failing. Because if education is about becoming the purest and highest expression of yourself (to borrow Oprah’s great definition of human purpose), it’s not working.
Is college worth it anymore?
Every year, kids stream into these degree programs. Parents send them, certain that a degree means a better life. Educators encourage and recruit them, confident education is the answer to every social ill and personal fulfillment.
Did you know that 70% of grads in some fields will end up doing a job they could have got with a high-school diploma?
So here are 5 questions to ask yourself to figure out if college is worth it for you.
What’s your vision and does college fit it?
Do you have a vision for what you want to create in this world? Do you have something that drives you forward that’s bigger than just making money?
I’m sorry to tell you but chasing money will leave you empty every time. The religious gurus are right about that one.
So my first question is, what’s your vision?
If you are looking at me with Bambi eyes and shrugging your shoulders. I’m guessing you don’t have one.
College shouldn’t be an end in itself and going to college without a vision will waste your future.
You will stumble through life like one of a million lost grads that I meet, without any idea of where you were going or what you were trying to accomplish.
The first step is not college. It’s adopting a goal mindset.
If you can do this, you’ll be ahead of 90% of the adults out there, whether they went to college or not.
In the famous words of Zig Ziglar:
So, before you decide to go to college, I want you to sit and think through a vision for your life. I have some instructions on how to do that here, hopefully it helps. Once you decide the impact you want to have in the world, then you can decide if college is worth it for you.
Note that I’m not saying don’t go to college! I’m saying to develop your vision.
Is college the right way to get wealthy?
I love money, I really do. I’m not just some hippie telling you that money doesn’t matter and that it will all work itself out.
But there are a lot of ways to get money, some of which require a college degree. Now, I do have to tell you that college graduates make more money. It’s 100%, unequivocally true. They do.
Yet the richest people I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot, were mostly trades people. They’re plumbers and electricians who run their own businesses.
So college is certainly a way to get wealthy, but it’s not the only way. If you’re chasing money and you’re at the start of your career, a better question to ask is, “What do I actually love to do?”
Then figure out how to get paid as much as you can by doing some version of that thing.
Did you know that you could take courses online to be a software engineer, create something on GitHub, then get hired at a tech company and make 6 figures a year? All without a college degree. Did you ever wonder why so many successful founders quit college?
Just because college degrees make more on average doesn’t mean that college is the only or the best way for you to get rich. So don’t make the decision based on that.
If you’re driven, you’ll find a way.
Is college a waste of time for you?
There’s a story that I hear all the time, especially since I hear about entrepreneurs. College actually seems to slow some people down.
I think it comes back to question one. If you have a vision, and you’re driving towards it, you might realize that college isn’t the right path for you. Because it’s not for everyone.
As you get older, you realize that the most valuable resource we have as humans is time (okay there grandpa). You won’t get your time back, so if you’re going to devote four years to something, you better make sure that it’s the best use of your precious time.
Can I afford it?
I’m sorry to say, but with the cost of college skyrocketing, the cost/benefit equation is changing too. If you get your degree with no debt, you’re going to have a very different experience than if you take out $100,000.
Believe me, although that student loan feels like a problem for future you, future you might hate you for it. There will come a day when you want to buy a house or take a trip and your college debt might loom over you like a dark cloud.
So you better make sure, before you start, that college is a good financial decision.
I’m not saying never to take out student debt, but I am saying to have a clear sense of whether that debt is justified. Taking out $50,000 to do an engineering degree is a very different story from taking out $50,000 to do a social work degree, because the earning possibilities for engineers and social workers are vastly different.
According to Ziprecruiter, the average engineer makes $73,000/yr, while the average social worker makes $54,000/yr.
Think very carefully about whether your chosen degree will pay dividends… in short, is it worth it?
Is there a better possibility? Are there online courses that could take you where you need to be for half the price? Could you do realtor or sales training for less money and make more?
Do your research.
Do I know my career path?
So, assuming you have a vision, do you know the path you need to take to get from college to that place?
If the answer is no, it’s time to actually plot it. If you want college to be worth it, you need to know if it’s the best place to get to where you want to go.
Do you know the best way to do it?
Talk to people who’ve already taken that journey! Find people in your chosen field and tell them you’re considering it. Ask to interview them about what it’s like and how to get in. (You can find my guide for informational interviews here)
Then, if you’ve figured out that college will get you to where you need to be, go to college!
Is college worth it?
It depends on where you want to go. College is never “worth it” in some abstract sense, especially if you stumble out into underemployment. It’s worth it if it helps you reach your career goals and pays you to get there.
And if you know where you’re going, and college is the right way to get there, college can be a great stop on the way!