College is Still Worthwhile

Is college a scam? All the “self-taught” internet gurus are saying it is. They say it’s a better ROI for you to buy their course and start a business or get a certification and start freelancing. The problem is that these gurus take a complicated situation like education and oversimplify it. Certifications and courses CAN be great, provided they’re reputable and not just selling repackaged information that you can get for free.

But are they right? Is college a scam?

Let’s break it down by first examining the following assertion:

“College is a scam.”

Firstly, “college” isn’t a monolithic organization. So are we talking about all colleges? Or just some of them?

There are several types of colleges. Most if not all of you probably already know this. But I feel this is a nuance that doesn’t get considered.

There are six tiers of colleges that I’m going to talk about. But keep in mind that these tiers are somewhat loosely defined, and some people’s rankings will be slightly different depending on the factors being considered.

Tier 1: Top tier. These schools have admission rates below 10%. The kids that get accepted are 4.0 GPA academic superstars. Consider the valedictorian at your high school. They still might not make it into a lot of these schools. Think of Ivy League schools and other top-tier private institutions like Stanford and Vanderbilt. These schools are costly. Yale’s average undergraduate tuition in 2019 was 57K, and that number is only going up with inflation. But the prestige of these institutions follows people into the job market.

Tier 2: Highly competitive schools but not as competitive as the Ivy leagues. Some tier 2, 3, and 4 schools have been called “public ivies.” Colleges like UCLA, Notre Dame, and UNC Chapel Hill fall into this category. For reference, the in-state tuition at UNC Chapel Hill was 24K per year, which is half of what you’d pay at a top-tier college. And that’s before getting student aid and scholarships.

Tier 3: These are still quality schools but not nearly as competitive. They do have a bit of prestige, though. Virginia Tech and Haverford would fit into this category. I’d still expect it to be about as expensive as tier 2, And generally, the private colleges will be more than the public schools. There’s somewhat of a blurry line between tier 2 and 3 schools. And some of these schools will be ranked higher or lower depending on the specific degree program.

Tier 4: These schools are not nearly as prestigious and usually include the flagship state schools in any state like Texas A&M or the University of Florida. Also, smaller private institutions would count in this category, but those are usually way overpriced considering their level of prestige. In my opinion, this is the ripoff tier because you’re paying about the same that you’d pay in a more prestigious tier 2 or 3 institution but with less of the prestige. People who come to these schools to party often feel like they got ripped off by the end. But there are ways to take advantage of these schools. If you’ve earned scholarships and student aid and you’re highly motivated, it would be worth it.

Tier 5: This is where you start to see some affordability. Smaller state colleges would fall into this category. These will probably cost you a few thousand a semester which is manageable. Almost anybody can get into these schools and maintain a B average because the classes are easier. I bring this up because most states have a scholarship where if you keep a 3.0 GPA, they pay for most of your tuition and maybe some of your books. So you may be able to get a free ride if you add pell grant on top of that. And these colleges still have some weight to their name, especially locally.

There’s also a Tier 6, which isn’t an actual tier in most lists, but I count the small 2-year community colleges and small technical colleges as part of this tier. Most of these are fully public universities, and they are either trade-focused or centered around raising your GPA so you can get into a Tier 3, 4, or 5 school. The trade-focused route is not a bad one. Many go to small technical colleges for trades such as:

  • electrician
  • plumber
  • Technician
  • welder

These people can earn the same or more than most college graduates. They also finish their education in literally half the time it would take to get a full degree.

College is only a scam if you make it one. Sure, you can go to a tier 3 school without any scholarships, get a degree in art history, and end up with 70k in student debt. Or you could go to a lower-tier school and come out with little to no debt, a degree, and some decent skills. It depends on how much you take advantage of the education and connections provided to you.

As a general rule of thumb: go with a public in-state college unless they’re giving you money to go somewhere else. With public in-state tuition, even if you get little to no academic help, the finances will still be manageable. But most people can qualify for some kind of assistance.

Most people stressing about financing a degree can qualify for the Pell Grant, which can pay for most of their tuition. Also, most states have scholarships for students who maintained at least a 3.0 GPA or higher in high school. If you hold that GPA for a certain amount of time in college, you’ll also qualify. If you’re serious about education, this is actually quite doable, assuming you’re not majoring in theoretical physics. These scholarships, combined with Pell Grant, can effectively get you a full ride in many cases, and you don’t even have to be a super genius to maintain it.

If your GPA was super low in high school, you might want to consider going to a 2-year community college and getting your grades up for a couple of semesters, and then transferring to somewhere better with your high GPA. Many people do this, and it’s one of the smartest moves if your goal is to go to a prestigious school because most colleges have lower admission requirements for transfer students.

The next thing I want to talk about is the idea that a degree won’t get you a job. It’s an entirely accurate idea actually. BUT a degree will allow you to be considered for positions you wouldn’t otherwise. All the self-taught programmers are going to be mad that I say this, but most of them don’t even get to the interview phase. As soon as some employers see you don’t have a degree, they throw your resume in the trash without even looking at all the cool Javascript projects you did.

So there’s one last factor that I’d like you to consider. What would you do in college?

If you plan to do something like graphic design, music, or writing. You’re much better off finding online tutorials, books, and courses for cheap or free and learning the skill on your own and then marketing to people through the internet and in person. This is, of course, unless you got a scholarship or were already independently wealthy. If money is no issue, then it’s worth it. You’ll hone your skills and make some great connections.

On the other hand, If you want to go into a STEM field like engineering or computer science, or medical, you should go to school and do it as affordably as possible. If you want to go into one of the lucrative business fields like sales, accounting, or logistics, it’s worth it. Finance and management are only worth it if you’re connected and/or you can get into a top-tier school.

So really, If you consider all this stuff, it’s not a ripoff to go to college for most people. This is especially true if you play your cards right and make connections while you’re there and gain some skills. The people who party through college and make few valuable connections are getting ripped off. But only because they ripped themselves off.

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