10 Bad Common Arguments for College
Parents, teachers, and guidance counselors happily push bright young people under them off to four years of college with the belief that it will help them grow into successful, fulfilled adults. “It’s the best four years of your life!” “It’s so much better than high school!” “It will help you discover yourself and set you on the path to success!” “Going to college is the best thing that will happen to my students!”
The praises flow. Parents look forward to the day that they can wear “PROUD MOM OF AN [INSERT UNIVERSITY HERE] STUDENT” t-shirt. Teachers rest on the laurels of knowing how many of their students go to college. Guidance counselors measure their school’s success by the rate at which it places students at universities.
Most of the time, these young people don’t question the advice and go right ahead and apply to colleges and universities without giving much second thought to it. Why should they? The people whom they have spent years either trying to formally please (teachers and administrators) or informally please (parents) have made it clear that this is the right option to please them. But sometimes one of these young people may raise their voice and question the convention. In this case, the adults in their lives are pushed to give substantive reasons for why a bright, high-achieving young person should go to college.
These are ten of the most common arguments I’ve heard adults (many of whom went to college 20–35 years ago) give young people before entering college and why they are bad arguments.
1. College is the ideal place to learn.
This argument works with a romanticized idea of the college experience.
Young people, with a hunger for truth and knowledge, will tackle the big questions of different fields with each other, sitting in socratic-style seminars and lectures hearing from luminaries in their respective fields! Professors treat their students as explorers for truth and knowledge! Students treat their professors as revered experts in highly specialized knowledge!
Except that’s rarely how people treat college. Even at small liberal arts colleges, most students treat their classes as perfunctory, and many professors treat their students as obstacles, not customers (because they aren’t — their parents or the federal government providing loans are, and they are several steps removed). Students who are looking for an ideal learning culture may find niches where they can engage in real learning. I was fortunate to land a research fellowship at Penn and work closely with a philosopher on several projects, but that kind of intimacy in learning was not the norm, especially at a large university like Penn.
How does this culture arise? If the romanticized culture is a consequence of people actually going and wanting to learn, engage deeply in ideas, and get a full-rounded education, then a culture that doesn’t support this environment is likely the consequence of people going to college for reasons other than learning.
If you asked the average college-bound young person why they are going to college, the vast majority will tell you “so I can get a job.” Very few will tell you it is so they can go learn in the ideal learning environment. And those who will tell you that will likely renege on that answer if you posed the following question, “Would you still go and pay the costs associated with it to learn even if you don’t land a job afterwards?”
College doesn’t meet the romanticized ideal because it is exactly that: a romanticized ideal. The reality is that it is primarily used as a mechanism for young people to go and increase their chances of landing a high-paying job at age 23 (I tackle this reason below).
Even further, more and more evidence indicates that the traditional college lecture isn’t a good way of teaching people things they want to learn. While people learn in different ways, all people learn best when they are engaged in meaningful behavior that they derive value from. Just as a child is likely to ask “why?” to every assignment, college students give less attention and glean less information to and from assignments and activities that they can’t engage meaningfully in. Most theory is only really engrained in people once it has been applied in practice, and only then when that practice is something they derive value from. Even if college were good at meeting its romanticized ideal, the romanticized ideal is only good for teaching certain things (see: great books programs). The classroom-based model for education is itself antithetical to meaningful learning.
(Some colleges are definitely better at providing an ideal learning environment than others. Great books programs are particularly good at this and actually do stay pretty close to the romanticized ideal, but they also tend to be smaller, less-popular programs. Programs at elite research universities like Penn, Michigan, Cornell, Stanford, and others are furthest from the ideal. Professors are primarily hired to research, not to teach. It’s no surprise then that students leave happier with their education from great books schools than schools like Penn — my own opted-out mater).
2. College is the best place to network.
Even Sam Altman, one of the founders of the successful Y Combinator in Silicon Valley, says that college is probably the best place to network (though also noting that if you have the opportunity to join a startup with the potential to blow up in coming years, to take it and not go to college). Most of the members of the PayPal Mafia went to 2 or 3 select schools. Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber, founded his first company with classmates who dropped out of UCLA with him.
College is definitely a potential networking place for ambitious young people. Being surrounded by other people looking to achieve something in the world creates an air of importance to each friendship, and a lack of major commitments outside of school (i.e., family, job, wife, etc.) makes committing to a high-risk project easier.
But this doesn’t make college the best place to network.
A successful network has to have several things to it. It has to be horizontally varied (i.e., containing people in different sectors and industries) and vertically varied (i.e., containing people at different stages of life and careers). This allows you to pull on people in both a large number of areas as well as a large number of stages, producing a large number of opportunities from your network.
College networks can be pretty horizontally varied, with some classmates studying philosophy, others in engineering, and yet others in economics, but they tend not to be very vertically varied. Save a handful of connections made through alumni events, most people in your college network are going to be in essentially the same stage of life as you. They are not going to be the CEOs of successful companies, or published authors with several books under their belts, or somebody even 5 or 6 years removed from you in the startup process.
If you are an entrepreneurial young person who already has an extensive network through extracurricular activities, clubs founded, or just personal connections, you can pour your resources into these to expand them even further (especially since they are likely to atrophy if you go to college). You probably already do have some vertical and horizontal variance in these networks — don’t let them die out for a mediocre college network!
Even further, if you have an opportunity to do in lieu of college, like a program, fellowship, or a startup project of your own with some outside interest, you already have a framework and the infrastructure necessary to blow your network size up. Using myself as an example, my network now is infinitely more valuable than the network of some of my peers getting ready to graduate. It contains people at every stage of life in nearly every field of work, and it replenishes itself over time.
College can be a good place to network, but it definitely isn’t the best.
3. College is the best way to guarantee yourself some kind of job.
“Well, sure, college seems to be a huge waste of time and resources, but I need it to get some kind of job.”
There’s some logic to this, at least on the face value. Employers use college degrees as a way of weeding out certain candidates for jobs. Job candidates use it as a signaling mechanism. If only a handful of people have college degrees, and these degrees indicate that this person is more capable than somebody without it, then it makes sense for employers to look at these.
Except that’s increasingly-less-so the case.
In an ideal situation, having a college degree signals to employers that you are a top-notch candidate — somebody who knows how to grind things out, do high-level research, and has a drive that cannot be challenged. In the real world, this isn’t really the case. As more and more people get college degrees and more jobs require them, the strength of the signal gets weaker and weaker for students. Ideally, it signals that you are the bright, enthusiastic young person grasping a diploma after writing a complex thesis and getting 4 years of the best educational experience possible.
In reality, employers treat it as a “minimally viable candidate” signal. To them, the degree from the above-average-intelligence young person who strove to success through four years of college means just as much (or as little) as the degree from the guy who showed up hungover to class (when he showed up) and partied 4 nights a week.
The people who have the most to lose by going to college are the people of above-average intelligence/work ethic. Their degree signals the same thing as the person of below-average intelligence/work ethic who goes.
Even if you don’t buy all this about the decreasing strength of the signaling power of the degree, just look around at the number of people with college degrees working jobs that don’t require degrees. There are more janitors with chemistry degrees in the US today than there are chemists.
Meanwhile, jobs that don’t require college degrees see gains in demand and (therefore) salary. Crane operators can make upwards of $50,000 a year for small operations, and operators in major cities have been reported to make up to $500,000 a year. Marketing agencies are happy to hire candidates without college degrees if they have experience and know how to write good copy. Even major airlines, pushed to ameliorate a coming pilot shortage, are happy to hire candidates without college degrees.
Entrepreneurial young people shouldn’t even have to worry about this argument for college, though. They know that whatever comes their way, they’ll find a way to pay the bills. Who cares about landing a corporate job that requires a BA to apply when you have 15 ideas for companies you want to launch?
If you do want to pursue this entrepreneurial path, sometimes dropping out or foregoing college altogether can be a more powerful signal than sticking it out.
(And honestly, who would want to work for a company that’s so stodgy that it wouldn’t budge on the BA requirement for an otherwise-well-qualified candidate?)
4. College gives you confidence for the real world.
Some people — especially Baby Boomer parents — will attribute their success (and oddly enough, rarely their failure) to the fact that they got a degree from an elite university.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for my time at college!” they may proclaim. Or they say that the challenges and opportunities they had to cope with through college prepared them to go confidently into the real world.
It’s entirely possible that working through 8 semesters of grueling classes, building camaraderie through greek life, and just generally putting up with the strife of college may prepare you for the real world and to approach it confidently.
But actually dealing with the real world is even more likely to give you the confidence to tackle it. The great thing about being young is that people expect you to screw up, regardless of student status. If you do screw up, no big deal, but you will feel more incentive to do better than if you were isolated in the college campus.
Some of the video games I played growing up had “practice” or “arena” levels or features where you could go around with infinite lives and try different things. Sometimes you would screw up and face a minimal penalty for it. The point was so you could try things out here, get a feel for them, and then go play the game having gotten that feel. This sometimes worked when I was stuck in the Story Mode. What was much more likely to help me get my shit together and get through a rough patch of the Story Mode was actually failing at the Story Mode.
You spend the first 12 years of your schooling career on practice mode. The sooner you can get into Story Mode and try, try, and try again, the better. It’s going to be hard regardless, so why put it off?
5. College is fun and a great social experience!
You can hear it now: some dad, beer or cocktail in hand, chortling and saying, “College was the best four years of my life!”
Imagine the crowds of students at a college football game, playing in the marching band, partying it up at a frat house or with a few friends in the dorm. The sexiness of the college social scene is the subject of hundreds of American comedies. It’s got an aura around it.
Here’s the thing though: this isn’t an argument for college at all. It’s an argument for the social scene around it. Most of this can be had without paying 4 years of your life and tens of thousands of dollars to universities and colleges. You can go to college football games. You can attend college parties. Make friends with a few college students and save yourself $25k that they aren’t if you are really looking for the college experience.
If you are looking for team spirit and the joys that come with that, just look around yourself at March Madness. The teams people cheer for are rarely their alma maters, but rather teams they choose to like.
If it is just a sense of closeness with other people while working towards a common goal that you are looking for, join a program or fellowship for college opt-outs, start your own startup, or go join a growing one.
What is also oftentimes left unsaid when somebody says, “College was the best four years of my life!” is that that’s because the subsequent years haven’t been in their control. College-age is the first time many young people have the freedom to build their own lives. Sometimes they choose to go to college and exert that freedom (and much of the time older people push them towards it). They play with this freedom for 3, 4, maybe 5 years, and then set themselves back on a path where they put that freedom on autopilot. They fall into a job that they don’t hate but that they also don’t exert their primary control over. They can’t feel camaraderie with their coworkers because they don’t really choose their coworkers. The people they hang out with and work around just happen to be people who are physically close to them.
By choosing to take control of your education and your life, and maintaining that control, you can also control who you socialize with much more easily. You don’t have to worry about 18–22 being the best social years of your life, because if a year isn’t your best, it’s considerably easier for you make it so.
6. College gives you access to invaluable educational resources like professors and laboratories.
Colleges like to show off the shiny new laboratory they built last year and named after some trustee, or the new floor of the renovated library, or how many professors they have listed with fancy endowed chairs. They like to list these things in their marketing materials because it works on prospects.
Thankfully, many of the resources that were once concentrated in places like universities are now dispersed across the globe thanks to the Internet. Entire libraries are now available online. Lecture slides from Ivy League universities can be found with a simple search of Google. Yale Open Courses, Coursera, and Khan Academy all bring lectures and resources to anybody who has a modem. Much of the knowledge concentrated in universities has been dispersed.
Even still, the idea that college is the only place to access human resources like professors and their colleagues is one that may be true if professors just hid in caves all day, came out to teach, write a little, and went back to their university-owned caves. The reality is that they actually interact with people in the real world like others do. They attend summer and weekend seminars, write books, have email addresses (and sometimes respond to emails sent to that address!), and can be contacted. Sometimes they contract with independent programs to do guest lectures or exams. They may even appear on the radio or on television to talk about a topic and then give out contact info.
The point is that college isn’t the only place to access the human knowledge in professors. Many professors are flattered to receive emails from enthusiastic young people inquiring about work they are doing. There are ways to gain access to them if somebody really wanted to build this close partnership with a professor.
Capital resources provide another kind of challenge. While knowledge can go anywhere that somebody has a browser on a smartphone or laptop, laboratories are much harder to turn into bits and bytes.
Thankfully, university-level laboratories are mostly only useful to those with niche interests in high-level research. As globalization drives the cost of equipment production down, and as more and more universities look to update their equipment, smaller companies find themselves coming into laboratory equipment once thought unimaginably unaffordable. Even further, with the growth of biotech, startups build partnerships with these capital-laden universities to gain access to their resources. So it isn’t entirely off-limits to those outside universities.
This capital restriction raises a good point about the ease of innovation for somebody lacking heavy resources (like money or political power), though. While anybody with a keyboard an an API can design the next million-or-billion dollar app and launch it on to the Internet, it is much harder to invent a new form of steel, or a line of nanobots, or a new drug. The barriers to entry are kept within select institutions like venture-backed startups, universities, and government agencies. If you are looking to innovate in a hard-science field or like an Ayn Rand character out of Atlas Shrugged, you may be best served looking at ways into some of these institutions.
7. College is a prerequisite for many fields
It’s no secret that it is impossible (or very, very, very hard) to practice medicine, law, or accounting without an MD, JD, or CPA, respectively. It’s hard to tell somebody to completely forego higher schooling if they have a dream of being one of these things.
Similarly, while being an intellectual doesn’t require any degree at all, being an academic professor is best served with a PhD (though, increasingly, as is being a Starbucks barista).
The thing is, though, this is a very short list of very specific careers.
If you are very sure that your life-plan for success must include being in one of these fields, then you will likely have to pursue college first (my advice then is to do it as cheaply and quickly as possible with AP credits, dual-enrollments, and merit scholarships).
But if your life-plan doesn’t include one of these things or working for a massive corporation like Morgan Stanley, then you may be better served by going and getting experience doing something first. Marketing agencies would happily hire somebody who dropped out of college and spent two years learning marketing copy and digital marketing strategy before they would hire somebody with a marketing degree. Sales can only be learned by joining a sales team, putting together a deck, and building a Rolodex. The startup process that every founder has to go through can be written about and taught in classes, but it is different for each person.
If you want to do any of those things or the myriad other options that don’t require a degree, taking the time, money, and resources to pursue the degree when you could be doing something else will actually harm you in the long run. The degree requirement is a barrier-to-entry for some fields, but getting one can also be a barrier-to-entry in others.
8. College is the best environment to try different things and “find yourself”
If you ask most young people why they are going to college, they will tell you that they need it in order to land a job. If you then push them on what job they are looking to land after college, many — even college seniors — won’t be able to give you a straight answer. They went to school because 1) they “had to” to get a job (because this is what they’d been told growing up), and 2) to figure out what kind of job they wanted to do.
Turns out that the best way to “find yourself,” just like the best way to get confidence in #4 above, is to actually go out into the world and try different things. Even the colleges that offer study abroad programs, consortiums with other universities, and 657 majors and concentrations from 19th Century Analytic Philosophy to Micro Bioengineering to Underwater Basketweaving can only offer you so much. A college admissions packet may make it seem like the university offers a varied and interesting experience, but those experiences are still just a very small selection of the experiences available to an 18 year old American today.
I used to laugh at people who would tell me that they wanted to backpack through Europe or Asia. I still don’t think it’s necessarily something I would do for myself, but if it is taken correctly as an opportunity to engage meaningfully with the world around you, it can be an infinitely more interesting and enlightening experience than the average 4 year college trip.
Here are 10 things you can do in 4 years that are more likely to help you find yourself than dabbling through courses at college and are probably all cumulatively cheaper than college:
- Start a blog and commit to contributing to it on a regular schedule that you set for yourself.
- Commit to reading a certain number of books every month.
- Learn a new language.
- Travel abroad by yourself for an extended period of time.
- Learn boating/flying/motorcycle riding and the basic maintenance required for each of these.
- Learn three new digital skills through local courses, MOOCs, or programs like Codecademy.
- Learn three new soft skills like public speaking through local groups like Toastmasters.
- Become certified in a profession, like real estate.
- Move to a new city.
- Join a startup team.
All of these things are considerably more likely to lead you do “find yourself,” figure out what you like, what you don’t like, and how you can achieve a balance in life doing mostly the things you like than drifting through college for 4 years like many students do ever would.
9. College is the thing you’ve been working towards all these years!
If you’ve been brought up knowing that others think you are smart, you probably have either crafted much of your schooled life towards building that ideal college application, or have had others structure it in this way for you.
For me, all of high school was a testing ground to see whether or not I could get into an elite university. I even told my parents, after being admitted to one of my first-choice schools, “this is what I have been working for all these years!” And I hear teachers and parents repeat the same line to young adults considering foregoing college.
The problem is that this is fallacious thinking.
The idea that you should do something because you have already devoted so many resources to doing so is called the sunk cost fallacy, and it permeates our thinking about college.
Maybe you did devote 4 or more years of your adolescence to the pursuit of an elite college admission letter. Maybe you gave up nights to study for the ACTs and the SATs. You threw money at extracurricular activities, classes, and programs that you knew would give you that edge you needed to get in. And what? You’re going to walk way from all of those resources being used?
Those resources are gone. They aren’t coming back. Those nights you spent, those weeks at camp, those dollars on exam prep won’t come back if you go to college or if you don’t. Don’t let yourself fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy.
Just like a person who is in a relationship that is going downhill wrongly thinks to themselves, “Well, I spent all that time building this relationship, and all that money on dates, and flowers, and gifts…maybe I should stick with it,” the person who applies the same logic to a career and life path is likely to be seriously mistaken.
Get out now, lest you fall into an abusive relationship with college.
10. Going to college can only help you, not harm you.
Admission day comes and you find out that you have been admitted to the elite university that your parents and you (or have you really?) have been striving towards. “The world is your oyster! It is my pleasure to have reviewed your application and to admit you to our class!” reads the standard admission letter.
In addition to that, you get a hefty financial aid package that makes it that you won’t have to go into debt to complete a degree from this school. You’ve done it!
But you decide you’d rather not go. You feel that you could rather spend your time learning the things you want to learn with the resources available, launching a few projects, and taking control of your education and your life in a way that you have never been able to before now.
You explain every reason why you don’t want to go and your parents and teachers and counselors shoot back, “Why not? It can only help you at this point! It won’t even cost you a dime!”
This is the key point here. While you are explaining to them all the opportunities you would have if you don’t go to school, they forget that included in the cost of attendance isn’t just the monetary cost, but also the opportunity cost (the value of the next-best options). Not only could you earn money over these four years, but you could also set yourself on the path to experience, skills, and launching your own venture while your peers are scurrying to finish midterms.
A second danger in the schooled mind…
There is also a very real sense in which continuing schooling immediately after 12 years of schooling can harm somebody. People who spend many years and hours being trained to succeed in a very specific system (like a school) that rewards very specific actions find themselves having a hard time adapting to the world outside of school. They’ve come, largely through no fault of their own, to view the world as a series of assignments, tests, due dates, and clear expectations outlined in the student handbook.
This way of viewing the world — what I call “the schooled mind” — only gets worse in college. There is some liberty allowed in choosing classes and in attendance of these classes. Generally speaking, however, students are still held to assignments, due dates, and clear expectations. They fall into at trap of expecting the world to be like this.
Succeeding in an ever-changing world that demands more than ever that people view themselves as that more people view themselves as entrepreneurs than ever before requires a thorough period of “deschooling.” Some of the best students at universities can be the worst employees for small organizations. They are too “schooled.” The person who can deschool themselves early, develop an organic view of the world as a place where value-adds have to be identified and created by the individual, not assigned by a manager, will be leaps and bounds ahead of the well-schooled student with a degree from an elite university.
These are just a handful of the bad arguments for going to school, and just a small sample of potential rebuttals to them, that I’ve encountered in my time of talking to high school students, college students, teachers, counselors, parents, and mentors. At the end of the day, the important thing is for young people to be able to take control of their own lives and to be in the driver’s seat of their education. Parents can be useful inputs and may have serious say if they are financing the experience — but young people need to embrace the radical freedom they can seize for themselves at age 18 or 19 and make the most out of it.
Turn off the autopilot, take control, and go build something great.
Zachary Slayback is the Business Development Director for Praxis, a ten-month program for entrepreneurial learners. Zachary dropped out of the University of Pennsylvania after seeing firsthand how college fails the most ambitious students. He writes regularly on education, schooling, and philosophy at zakslayback.com.
Originally published at zakslayback.com on April 1, 2015.