The university decision, and why it’s not that simple

Lately, quite a few people have really begun to debate what this whole university thing actually provides us. Sure, it will open some doors, potentially increase your salary, and probably introduce you to some great friends along the way.

We tend to really focus on the pros when it comes to getting a degree, and for good reason. These are serious advantages, if we can realize them. Education enables us to catalyze our inherent capabilities, condition ourselves to provide crucial services, expand our scope and build a network of like-minded thinkers. This is critical stuff, and not to be dismissed lightly. It’s commendable, and most of us can say from experience that the intent of most educators is truly good and honestly utilitarian.

But before you drop six figures on some knowledge and connections, it’s probably worth weighing in on the drawbacks too. The challenges to this system are not to be taken lightly, and they are not necessarily what you’d expect them to be:

The problem with systems

Inertia. Changing systems is hard. The best educators know that they aren’t there teaching you facts. They’re teaching you methods of learning, and providing building blocks for rapid acceleration in various complex fields.

This is a good thing, but really hard to do effectively in our current academic environment. Making matters worse, the scale of the higher education industry protects the blockers in the environment by sheer force and scale. We do things the way we always have because there is momentum to these outdated processes. To name a few:

Book Lists

Class starts with a syllabus, topped by a book list packed full of overpriced texts in an industry clinging desperately to a sinking ship. The internet exists, and the best ideas nowadays are derived by people with a desire to share them. This is the greatest thing we can do to enable humanity to move forward, and a clean thousand bucks a year for a stack of static paper just doesn’t make any damn sense.

Bell Curves

Teachers are expected to craft bell curves, and constantly assess everyone in regards to the concept of ‘failure’. It’s like a filtration device, which on the surface seems fairly sensible. Well, it was when the purpose of education revolved around facts. You know it, or you don’t. For some professions, this maintains it’s importance (lawyers and doctors come to mind). But for most other professions, failure is a prized capability.

Now that we take into account creativity, comfort with uncertainty, teamwork, leadership, and tons more ‘EQ’ related skills, the quantification of individual quality seems woefully lacking. Most teachers are aware of that, but stuck assigning ‘grades’ as opposed to advice and professional growth assistance.

A professor isn’t there to force you into proving what you know. They are there to teach you a way to solve problems through critical thinking, objectivity, and (hopefully) a playful sense of creative curiosity. They are there to empower you to explore, to grapple with failure, to take smart risks and identify ways to optimize time and capital investments. You can’t objectively measure that on a relative scale. Period. Unsurprisingly, the rubric is partial to giving everyone an A anyway. Failing students may lead to losing customers, after all.

So the professors sort of have their hands tied, and the university administration is just trying to pay out their bloated budgets by pulling in enough cash flow to cover an inefficient process. Of course — due to the very reasonable fact that university reputations are built off of consistency and adherence to agreed upon guidelines — systematic change is unlikely in the short term. Especially if we keep funding it anyway.

Debt is crippling

Speaking of funding it, sometimes it’s a bit predatory and borderline unethical. For example, let’s assume you pay full price for a degree from a private institution. This degree would take four years. It would cost around $30,000 each year, not to mention room and board. Let’s say you managed to scrounge up $5,000 extra each year (after paying your bills) to contribute to this investment. This will mean you owe somebody, somewhere, $100,000. With interest, though fortunately somewhat favorable rates (let’s assume 5%).

You’ll soon find yourself throwing down a solid $1,000 and then some each month for ten years to offset this investment. For ten years. The job market isn’t that good, machines are getting pretty damn good at minimizing the need for human labor, real estate bubbles seems to grow back seconds after they pop, and energy costs don’t seem to be going down anytime soon. You face a supply and demand ratio in the labor market that crushes your bargaining power, with millions of highly qualified workers and an increasingly shrinking job pool.

A thousand bucks a month, in this situation, is real money. You’ll find a job probably, doing something. Maybe what you like, maybe kind of what you like, maybe what you love, but a degree doesn’t grant you certainty in this regard. It just tips some scales with valuable coins from your own pocket. That job will almost surely pay you less than the expectations of the degree, it’s pretty much the norm these days.

So you’ll be cutting corners until you’re almost 40, assuming you jumped into the university game after high school. In all likelihood, you’ll spend a fair bit of that decade afraid of losing your job and getting crushed under a debt you incurred before you were educated enough to understand the time value of money. This feels a bit cold to me, not the way we want to welcome people to the professional world.

Oh, by the way, stress and financial insecurity significantly impact your physical and mental health. Think that’ll improve your hireability?

All the freaking booze

Seriously. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing at all wrong with a good brew. But modern party schools are insane. It’s not that uncommon to drink day and night, it never stops. For a reasonably high percentage of people, university isn’t even hard. With just 15 hours or so of class, it’s mostly just free time (after all, the answers to fact-based learning questions are just a Google search away).

Sure, you could get a part-time job. But most people just drink a lot. Great for EQ, terrible for your liver, and not at all something you need to be paying $100,000 for.

This isn’t such a small thing. Addiction is just repetition of a behavior, and four years is plenty of time to build one up. Not to mention the price of a pack a cigarettes and a six pack a day. That’ll run you thousands a year (go ahead and add that to the tuition price).

But through it all, skills still matter

So university still matters too. You have to consider it, you have to. But make sure you weigh everything out. That massive pile of cash would be enough to fund pretty much any Kickstarter I’ve ever seen, and starting up a business will teach you an incredible amount.

So the question you have is this

Could you invest $100,000 in yourself, while learning a whole bunch of useful stuff and creating a job out of it? Yes. You could accomplish great things with that money, and you don’t need any textbooks to get out there and learn something about the world.

At the very least, draft up a business plan a few friends and yourself come up with in your gap year (which you should absolutely take while you consider these massive investments). You never know — you could be doing what you love for the next four years instead of perusing random facts on google, getting drunk, and borrowing money you aren’t sure you can pay back.

If you enjoyed this random bit of musing, color in the green heart or check out Art of Notion.