“Should I go to college?”

It used to be a simple choice in the past (“Yes, college is worth it.”), but over the last few decades the cost of college has increased so much people might wonder if it’s worthwhile decision, from a financial and professional perspective.

On one hand, college can provide you with the necessary education and qualifications to pursue selective careers such as law and medicine. It also simplifies entry into more technical fields such as computer science and engineering.

On the other hand, going through the full educational college circuit can easily cost you much more than $50,000 in student debt. For more selective schools and those that are out of state, this cost can balloon into the hundreds of thousands of dollars from the first day of college until the day of graduation.

One thing to take into account is that for a relatively black-and-white topic, the question “should I go to college” has surprisingly many shades of grey that can impact the decision.

7 reasons to go to college

Your desired career path requires formal education and certifications

If you wish to become a lawyer or a doctor, then you will have no choice except to go to college and pursue a formal education. There is no other way to enter such fields.

If these are the career paths you have in mind when thinking about college, then perhaps the real question you’re asking yourself is “is it worth becoming a doctor or a lawyer?”. That’s a whole separate discussion, and has its own list pros and cons.

Of course, there are other occupations that require a degree, including architecture, teaching etc. So if those are the jobs you want to work, then college is the way to go.

College is fast becoming the new high school

50 to 60 years ago, having a college degree was basically a near-guaranteed ticket to an upper-middle class life. Back then, most people only had their high school diploma, so someone with a degree instantly stood out among the crowd.

Nowadays, almost everybody seems to have a college degree. This raises the bar and makes it difficult for people without to compete with graduates.

This is true even for jobs that don’t require formal education such as business analysis or marketing.

In fact, many hiring departments and HR companies will set up their filters in such a way that they automatically dismiss candidates without a degree even if they have highly relevant work experience. Is it fair? No. But it is the reality of today’s job market.

Not having a degree can set a ceiling for how far you can advance

Simply entering a desired field on a good position doesn’t always mean that “you’ve made it”.

Having solid work experience under your belt will absolutely make it easier to find similar jobs in your field in the future.

However, problems might arise when you want to go higher up the chain into management or specialist positions.

For instance, you happen to work at a bigger company and are targeting a higher-up position. Unfortunately for you, 2-3 other colleagues also want the job.

All of you have the experience. But they have a college degree and you don’t. This immediately puts you at a fairly big disadvantage and makes it hard (if not impossible) to reach the highest paying stages of your career.

College teaches you more than raw information

Besides pure information, college also teaches valuable life skills that are useful in many aspects of life: dealing with monotony of studying, sticking to deadlines, structuring study (work) schedules, taking care of yourself, managing a personal budget etc.

Of course, there are other ways to learn these besides college. What you can’t have outside of college however are the personal experiences and connections you form there.

College offers the opportunity to meet like-minded people with which you can form lifelong friendships or romances. Other times, college is simply a great place to form connections with future business people, doctors, lawyers, managers etc. Simply having an “in” to call someone and ask a favor can go a long way to further your career.

Next are the extra-curricular activities that can hone other important skills of yours and help find your passion such as debate teams, acting groups, student government, art clubs etc.

You’re interested in majors that teach hard skills

Some fields, such as accounting, computer science, programming, design, finance, will always be in demand and always have an open job market looking for talent.

Sure, the job market for such specializations can vary in health from one year to the next. But if you’re willing to deal with the competition, there will be always be someone out there looking for a programmer or accountant.

Even if you discover you don’t quite like working your major, you can always pivot into a similar, but different role. For instance, as an accountant you can pivot into a business analyst role. As a programmer you can pivot into a project manager and so on.

Your working life is likely going to last at least 30 to 40 years. During that time the economy will do what it has always done: create new kinds of jobs and increase worker specialization.

By not getting a college degree, you’re essentially cutting yourself off the possibility to branch out into different jobs and fields, depending on what are your interests and requirements at the time.

There are ways to do college in a cheaper fashion

Perhaps you’re not interested in the college experience and just want the piece of paper that proves you’re a college graduate.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It might not be as flashy as showing off a Harvard or Oxford diploma, but it gets the job done and proves you are educated in a certain field. This alone can open you doors to fields that are great to work in.

If this is the case, there are some possibilities to save money in the long run, while still getting an education.

While not being a comprehensive list, some things you should look at are:

  • In-state colleges (even ones that are within commuting distance from you).
  • Would you be eligible for financial aid? Private colleges such as Stanford and Harvard receive huge monetary donations from wealthy individuals, on the strict condition the money be used to fund the education of certain categories of students.
  • Doing Community College for two years, then transferring to University. This saves you money by doing GenEd credits at the fraction of the price as those in University.
  • Cheap accredited online degrees. The important word here is accredited, since you actually want your diploma to be worth something.
  • If you have work experience, some colleges may even give away some free credits in the respective field.

Again, these may not be flashy options. But if you’re price sensitive, these alternatives allow you to at least get the diploma while cutting back on the costs significantly.

It’s true that your diploma may not have the “wow factor” of a well known institution, but after 3-5 years of work experience, people will start looking more at professional accomplishments rather than where you graduated college.

Your family is willing to pay your education

If your family has enough resources to pay for your education (either in full, or in large part) then not going to college would be a huge missed opportunity, both in terms of life experience but mostly in financial terms.

Even in the current climate a college degree is usually a good investment that can pay itself off. Getting free (or nearly free) college education means you’ll basically get a 10,000%+ return on investment over the course of your life.

To put into perspective, it’s like buying Amazon stock when it was a simple online bookstore.

6 reasons not to go to college

You want to become a tradesman

Meaning plumbers, electricians and other similar jobs. To be clear, working in the trades can help build a great career at barely any cost. Depending on your chosen path, you’ll likely start by doing (paid) work as an apprentice to a qualified sponsor, and completing the required schooling in parallel.

This allows you to earn money right away and build up an education. Not only that, but many tradesmen do end up making a good living and having a fairly comfortable financial life, comparable to college graduates.

Tradesmen jobs also offer the chance for some upward mobility, where you can become superintendent or foreman for a job site.

That being said, working as a tradesmen does come with some major drawbacks. Perhaps the biggest one, that will affect you for the rest of your life, is that being a tradesman is hard on your body.

You’ll often have to work in unusual spaces that force you into unnatural positions that wear down your joints. For instance, you may have to kneel long stretches of time on concrete floors which damages your knees. You may have to hold your arms above your head often and for extended periods, which harms the shoulders.

Accidents also happen. Even if they happen infrequently, such as one every 5-6 years, the damage will eventually accumulate until it leaves a noticeable strain on your body. You may develop a limp, hearing loss, carpal tunnel, back pain, exposure to chemicals, burns, arthritis etc.

There’s a reason the phrase “back-breaking work” exists, because this is very often the type of work tradesmen have to do.

Choosing an associate degree instead

An associate degree is a middle-of-the-road choice between getting into the workforce early, while still getting some sort of college-level education.

The big benefit of associate degrees is that they are mostly laser focused and teach you how to do certain jobs such as: physical therapist, medical technicians, paralegals etc.

In other words, you’re now qualified to work higher skilled jobs, that often provide good pay, without building a huge debt load.

Which brings us to cost. Getting an associate’s degree from an in-state community college can cost you as little as $10,000 to $15,000. If you qualify for financial aid and other circumstances, it could go even lower than that.

For this price, you obtain a solid education, can work higher skilled jobs, and have a strong foundation to follow-up on credits obtained with the associate’s degree and potentially get a bachelor’s down the road.

That being said, an associate’s degree does have the downside of being very “narrow”, in the sense that there’s little you can do with it outside of your chosen field.

Avoid a humanities degree

There’s nothing wrong with humanities degrees such as psychology, social studies, history or English.

There absolutely is a demand for such people. There always has been, and always will be.

The only major problem with these, is the over-abundance of graduates in these field. Simply put, there are many, many more graduates than there are job openings available.

This in turn leads to the famous stereotype of the English literature major working as a waitress after graduation.

Even for people that do make it, they rarely work for a job they trained for. Most of the times they’ll luck out and work a career that has barely any connection to their chosen educational field. Think a Russian literature major that somehow winds up at a major consulting firm.

Once they break through, the person can build a career on the back of work experience and on-the-job training. However, their success will be in spite of their degree, and not because of it.

Of course, there are some exceptions. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones that already has some connections to get you started in the field once you graduate. Or maybe you get accepted to a prestigious college that has a reputation of schmoozing their graduates in nice jobs.

Most people however should think at least four or five times before choosing a humanities degree in such a crowded market.

You have in-demand skills that don’t require college

These can include coding and programming, sales abilities, graphic and website design, photography and video editing, voice acting and so on.

In many cases, simply mastering these and knowing how to showcase them to potential employers can be enough to get your foot in the door and work in a certain field.

Not having any sort of college education could still hamper your career though, but there comes a point where experience beats college education in terms of how attractive it is to employers.  You will get job offers and interviews (maybe not as much as college grads, but still), so you can build a long and satisfying career. It will just take you longer, and constantly brushing off the stigma of being “uneducated”.  

The big upside however is that you don’t have to worry about student debt.  Not having a financial anchor around your neck that’s worth tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of dollars, can really accelerate your path to building your assets such as a home(s), stocks and other similars.

Also, there’s nothing stopping you from doing the whole career thing backwards. Namely, you start working in your desired field first, and then get the education along the way.

You own a healthy business

To be clear, a business in this case doesn’t mean some lemon stall that makes $100 a week of the mercy of strangers or friends.

A business means the real deal, one that pays taxes, has one or more employees, a solid business plan and predictable business model, accountants looking after the books etc.

Far too many people consider a multi-level marketing gig or Uber driving to be a business and imagine themselves as entrepreneurs. Many gig jobs do make a decent amount of money, but whether that is sustainable in the long run (because of automation or legal issues) is up for debate.

Not only that, but large parts of the gig economy work by basically skirting taxes and contributions, such as the ones that finance a retirement plan. In other words, if you Uber all your life you’ll likely not have a pension, or have only a meagre one. Fun times at old age.

With that out of the way, being a business owner is a solid reason to not go to college. Going to college means losing out on the momentum generated into building a company. Giving your fledgling business four more years of hard work could be worth more in dollar terms than getting an education, even if you spread it out over a few decades.

Next, a business (especially a viable one) is a college education in and of itself. Even if it makes little profit, the simple fact that you’ve found a market niche, hired people, built process, created a sales funnel, is such an outrageously impressive task that many employers will put aside their misgivings and offer you a good paying position.

The only question you may have to answer is “are you with us for the long haul, or until your next business takes off?”

Taking a gap year

Just because you finish high school doesn’t mean you immediately have to go to college. Perhaps your family is open to the idea of you taking a year off (and maybe even fund it) while you travel, or pursue other activities you believe are worthwhile and can enrich you as a person.

Sure, there’s a chance it might “set your life back” by a year, but it could just as well clear up your mind and help you figure out what exactly it is you want from your life and education.

Many people get hung up on majoring in a certain field, only to discover after graduation that they don’t enjoy the field at all. It basically amounts to wasted money and time until they find a proper career they can settle into.

A gap year can help figure yourself out and avoid such a waste of time and money, and instead focus on a career path you think would resonate with you the most.

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