Is “Stay in School” Still Good Advice?
I’m a semester away from my college graduation and I can’t name one thing I’ve learned that I can’t Google.
At the end of this year, I’ll graduate from Ohio State with a B.S in Applied Physics and a minor in Computer Science. I’ve taken classes on nuclear engineering, quantum mechanics, data structures, machine learning, differential equations, and more. Despite this, I don’t feel prepared at all for a “real job.”
Since I was young, my school and family held an unspoken expectation that I would study hard in school, take my SAT exams, and go on to a 4-year college. The question from my high school wasn’t if I was going to college, it was where I was going.
In suburban school districts, parents often obsess over their child’s test scores. They force them into extracurriculars to craft the perfect college application. I don’t blame them at all. When they were in school 30 years ago, a college degree told employers that they had the skills needed for the job. It was nearly guaranteed that a company would hire them and they’d settle down for a career.
Now though, less than 40% of graduates claim they feel ready for the workforce. Only 11% of business leaders think institutions are properly preparing them for it.
Along with that decline in value, the cost of universities has skyrocketed. In the past 15 years, total US student loan debt has increased 6-fold — up to $1.5 Trillion.
This is one of the biggest problems facing our country today.
We’re perpetuating this myth that everyone needs a degree to be successful. In most fields though, nobody cares about your degree anymore — they care about the skills you’ve built. The world rewards those who can connect the dots, not memorize them. Universities haven’t yet caught up to this reality.
What Have I Learned in Class?
So, after 3 full years at Ohio State, I must have learned a ton, right? Let’s take a look at what I‘ve been taught:
- The definition of “sprezzatura” — This was required knowledge on our Art History final exam.
- The history of nuclear reactor meltdowns — Pretty cool actually, but not relevant to my degree in the slightest.
- How to write a research paper — I’ve written 8 in my 3 years here, but have done barely any writing beyond that.
- How to analyze a children’s book — I read over 50 books last year, but somehow ended up in a dreadful semester of “The Cat in the Hat” and “Where the Wild Things Are”
- C89 and x86–64 — Programming languages from the ’80s that are relevant to a very small subset of developers.
- How to write code on paper — Computer science students are mainly tested on their ability to write code on paper, not computers. When’s the last time you swam without a pool or drove without a car?
Much of what I’ve learned in class is scarily irrelevant when considering the demands of the modern job market. However, a few classes stood out as very relevant, even if they weren’t taught in the most engaging ways.
- Math — Calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations are base knowledge for most physical sciences. Although we didn’t apply it to real-world problems in class, this stuff is clearly important.
- Software Design — The sophomore-level software classes led us through many smaller projects. We didn’t use very relevant tools, but it was hands-on and taught us the best practices.
- Physics Labs — It’s impossible to remember all the concepts and math taught in lecture. Experimentation reinforced the concepts in a much more interesting way.
- Political Science — We talked about the current state of Democracy in the US. We were graded on our engagement in discussions and how we connected themes, not our ability to regurgitate information.
These classes were relevant, but not at all worth the tens of thousands of dollars I paid for them. A lot of this information can be learned in a few weeks with an $11 Udemy course.
What Haven’t I Learned In Class?
- How to manage money — If you’re going to put us all in tens of thousands of dollars in debt, at least teach us how to get out of it!
- How to work with databases or APIs— I’ve never been taught how to build or use a database or API — required knowledge for every. single. computer science job.
- Any modern website development tools —In 9 computer science classes, I’ve never built more than a simple HTML landing page with text.
- The scientific method — R&D practices are not really taught in a physics curriculum. Undergraduate physics classes are mostly theory, with a small amount of structured lab work. Most research is left to grad school.
- How to build and launch products — Most students complete 1 or 2 larger projects over their 4 years. They involve almost no creativity, the materials are well defined beforehand, and they end up with the same final result as the rest of the class: a product nobody wants to use.
- Anything that I can’t Google — If I can find it on the first page of Google, I shouldn’t be paying $1000s every semester to learn it. The real skill is connecting and applying that knowledge. This is far more challenging for educators to teach and measure, so it’s mostly avoided.
After 3 years here, I’ve been left to fill all of these gaps myself.
I was lucky to find a team outside of class last semester to build an app with. I struggled for weeks to learn just the basics of app development. The person who did the majority of the coding was a freshman who had built a couple of apps in high school. He learned to code by himself, and a formal education here won’t teach him much he doesn’t already know.
Now this year, I’m working with a startup company and am in charge of developing the schema for our database. My knowledge is at absolute zero. By doing this project, though, I guarantee that I’ll have a solid grasp of how databases are actually used — much more than I would ever get from the class.
So, no. I don’t think “stay in school” is relevant advice for everybody. If you want to be a doctor, lawyer, or academic, you’re going to need a degree. If not, I think there are other options to consider!
An aspiring entrepreneur could study on her own and start a business when she’s young. A coding wiz or designer could freelance for a while until he builds up a solid portfolio of work. Talking about impressive projects is an easy way to stand out in a sea of similar college degrees.
An aspiring engineer could start with an internship and work her way up while making sure to have a mentor along the way. An artist or musician should focus on perfecting their craft, not being bogged down by university class requirements and structure.
The sad reality is, however, that these options aren’t always given to the 17-year olds preparing for the real world. Their parents and counselors have them “sign on the dotted line” and agree to tens of thousands of dollars in debt, with a promise of superior education.
What Can We Do?
It’s 100% possible for you to get through four years of school without ever building something significant. Don’t let that happen to you. Employers are looking for skills, not degrees — make sure you build them.
Show them you’re ready for the job by launching an app, company, or successful blog while you’re in school. Make a name for yourself in your industry and meet as many people as you can.
Don’t use a college degree as a proxy for skill. You will be sorely disappointed when a 3.8 GPA comes in and doesn’t know how to write anything but a research paper.
If your company is in a position to help, hire interns with the expectation that they’ll need development. A passionate young mind will be able to overcome these realities with the right guidance and time.
Realize that your child’s goal shouldn’t be a university degree, it should be to build skills. Unless she wants to be a doctor or a lawyer, the least you could do is consider other education options.
Many students are taking gap years after high school to volunteer, travel, and take internships. Students who have done this are more deliberate in their schooling since they better understand their passions.
Please, please, please take an honest look at your department. Are you making meaningful connections with students? Is the focus on education or optimizing metrics? Are your students graduating with tangible experience or loads of theory and mini-projects? Are you (yes, you personally) in touch with employers to find out what they’re looking for in graduates?
If you believe in this like I do, hit the👏️ so other people will see it!