Do You Really Need A College Degree? Really?
Today’s letter involves a pretty polarized subject, so it’s a good opportunity to try something new.
That something is the concept of steel manning an argument (which I first heard about in Sam Harris’ fantastic podcast).
“What is steel manning?”
You’ve probably heard about straw manning an argument. This is where you’re giving the weakest version of that argument. You’re caricaturing it.
For example, if I write a post on “saving money for the future” (using several different reasons to prove my point), someone will reply “Really? Stop enjoying life so you can retire early? No thanks.”
That is a fantastic example of straw manning my argument (you see this a lot in politics).
Steel manning an argument is the opposite. Instead of weakening your opponent’s argument, you’re trying to make it as strong as possible before debating it.
This automatically turns you into a much deeper thinker (and makes you very hard to debate).
Sidenote: This probably reminds some of you of Anatol Rapoport’s rules for criticizing an argument. The goal is to re-express your opponent’s opinions so clearly, vividly, and fairly that they say, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way!”
Anyways, back to the letter.
Since I dropped out of college, I’m aware of my bias against degrees.
However, that doesn’t mean I think everyone should drop out. I don’t.
Let me explain.
The Case For A College Degree
Whenever there’s a debate about college degrees, all roads lead to Steve Jobs.
The argument boils down to “you don’t need a college degree, Steve Jobs dropped out and he did ok.”
This is true. Steve Jobs, Bills Gates, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell, and Mark Zuckerberg are perfect examples of “success without a degree.”
However, this is a weak argument. These are anecdotal individual life stories.
Whenever you hear someone use this argument, know that you have a more powerful weapon: statistics.
Yes, some dropouts make it big.
Statistically however, the numbers are far in favor of college.
According to the Pew Research Centre, college graduates earn about $17,500 more per year than people who only have a high school diploma.
This is more than $800,000 over a lifetime!
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2.5% of college graduates are unemployed. This is compared to 5.3% of people without a college degree who are unemployed.
Statistically, a college degree increases your odds of getting a job AND making more money.
The Case Against A College Degree
Now let’s talk about the bad side of college.
Firstly, I would never say no one should go to college. That would be silly.
However, saying everyone should go to college is just as bad.
College is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
Here are a few problems to look out for before jumping in.
After all, this is a financial blog.
The main reason I’m writing about college is because the biggest argument against it is (you guessed it) financial.
Specifically, this argument: Student debt is at $1.45 Trillion! The average 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt (up 6% from 2015).
Since the 1980s, college costs have gone up more than anything else in our society (more than healthcare, more than housing, etc…).
What’s worse, you cannot declare bankruptcy on student loans.
Corporations can go bankrupt, individuals can go bankrupt, but the one time you cannot be deemed incapable of paying your debt is with colleges.
That is a huge problem.
I’m sure you’ve seen some of the college controversies on the news.
If not, Google “Berkeley free speech week” or “Evergreen state college controversy” or “Yale halloween costume controversy.”
Jonathan Haidt wrote about this phenomenon in The Atlantic.
“Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” — Jonathan Haidt
It seems like campuses are becoming hotbeds for political indoctrination. The proof is that these types of controversies tend to happen over and over again in the same places.
If I was applying to any college today, I’d avoid the epicenters of these controversies (Ivy League or not).
Another issue (for most subjects) is the 4-year obligation.
Why? Because the pace of change is accelerating year after year.
Think about it. Vox, Uptake, Honest Company, Blue Apron, Instacart, Lyft, Zenefits and Snapchat are just some of the companies that didn’t exist 7 years ago.
If you go to College today, keep in mind you’ll graduate in a very different world. Pick your degree very very carefully.
Take a moment to read this excerpt from Steve Wozniak’s autobiography, “iWoz: Computer geek to cult icon.”
Here, he explains how his father taught him engineering:
“He never started out by trying to explain from the top down what a resistor is. He started from the beginning, going all the way back to atoms and electrons, neutrons, and protons. He explained what they were and how everything was made from those. I remember we actually spent weeks and weeks talking about different types of atoms and then I learned how electrons can actually flow through things — like wires. Then, finally, he explained to me how the resistors work — not by calculations, because who can do calculations when you’re a second grader, but by real commonsense pictures and explanations. You see, he gave me classical electronics training from the beginning. For engineers, there’s a point in life when you understand things like how a resistor works. Usually it comes much later for people than it did for me. By the fourth grade, I really did understand things like that.”
Today, Woz is one of the best-known engineers alive. Is this a coincidence? I doubt it.
I found this fascinating! What if everyone was taught engineering in this way??
There are no boring subjects, only boring teachers.
A bad teacher can completely kill your interest in a subject. Keep this in mind before attending any class.
“Humanities majors may well learn a great deal about the world. But they don’t really learn career skills through their studies. Engineering majors, conversely, learn in great technical detail. But they might not learn why, how, or where they should apply their skills in the workforce.” — Peter Thiel
Whether you go to college or not, you will always need skills.
Last week, I talked about which skills you should learn.
Below, you’ll find two practical tips for acquiring job-ready skills without a college degree.
1. Fill Skills Gap
I’m sure you hear a lot about the unemployment rate.
However, what you might not know is that the US currently has a record 6 million job openings!
“How is that even possible?”
Well, like everything there are many reasons. But the main one to focus on is the skills gap.
Many of these openings involve plumbing, heating, welding, etc… What’s more, employers are willing to pay higher wages because they don’t get enough applicants!
As someone who enjoys finding opportunities where no one else is looking, if I was a college grad who couldn’t find a job I’d look into mikeroweWORKS foundation and SkillsUSA.
“I get hundreds of letters a week from parents whose beautifully educated snowflakes are back home sleeping on their sofa. Beautifully educated but completely unqualified for any of the work that’s available.” — Mike Rowe
2. Find Direct Paths
You already know college simply is a system to prepare you for the workforce (albeit, not perfect).
What you probably didn’t know is you can get the same exact value for a fraction of the time/ price!
Look for better/ faster paths. They’re everywhere.
If you know exactly what you want to do, there is a high likelihood you can find a shorter/ cheaper direct path (unless it involves medicine, I think).
And that’s it for today!
Today, we learned:
- Statistically, a college degree increases your odds of getting a job and making more money.
- However, going to college increases your risk of incurring debt, becoming indoctrinated, wasting too much time, and encountering bad teachers.
- Two of the best alternatives to going to college are filling the skills gap and finding a more direct path.
I wanted to end with a great quote from Ben Shapiro.
“Number 1: You need to finish high-school.
Number 2: You need to get married before you have babies.
Number 3: You need to get a job.
That’s it. You do those things and you will not be permanently poor in the United States of America.
According to the Brooking’s Institute, 2% of Americans who followed these rules are in poverty, 75% have joined the middle class.” — Ben Shapiro
See you next week (follow the series here to be notified).
Thanks for reading! 😊 If you enjoyed it, test how many times can you hit 👏 in 5 seconds. It’s great cardio for your fingers AND will help other people see the story.
Since I write about finance, legal jargon is obligatory (because the guys in suits made me). Before following any of my advice, read this disclaimer.