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Why You Should Think Twice Before Going to College

Argument

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1: We’re Transferring From Being a Certificate-Based to a Skill-Based Society

One of the main reasons people go to college is to get a degree that will help them land a good job. But what if that degree is not as valuable as it used to be?
Some decades ago, when college degrees weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, they were considered an edge. Back then it was as simple as 1-2-3:
1. Get good grades in high school,
2. Go to a good college and
3. Land a good job (guaranteed!)
And that’s why this generation’s parents preach the same thing to their children. Because it worked for them.
But the market has changed and it’s no longer an insurance. Society is becoming increasingly technologically advanced, and work is becoming increasingly knowledge-based. Simple jobs are being automated away every day and being replaced by more intellectually demanding ones. These new jobs differ in one crucial way from the jobs the last generation grew up with: they’re dynamic.
Much of what you know now will have become obsolete in three years. How to think is becoming more important than what you know. Meta-learning – learning how to learn – is the way to future-proofness – Not a piece of paper.
Lastly, some might object with something along the lines of:

Okay, but even if meta learning is more important on the job, you still have to get a job to begin with. And a college degree helps getting your foot in the door. Especially in companies where the culture still values degrees. Which still is most employers today. Surely a degree can’t hurt -right?
It’s a solid objection. Nonetheless an ill-founded one. First of all: not most employers today are discriminating on the basis of a degree. Sure, they’re out there, and some industries are certainly worse than others. And in those industries, you’ll have to work harder to land a job without a degree. But here’s the thing: most companies value competence. Why? Because it’s in their best interest to be meritocratic and hire the most competent people – regardless of what degrees they might have.
That’s why actual accomplishments, such as a portfolio or work experience, for most employers, are more valuable than straight A’s from an Ivy League school. It’s because then they know for sure that you’ll be able to execute. Whereas straight A’s is an indication of potential but far from a guarantee. As an employer, it’s simply safer to hire the guy with actual experience under his belt.
And regarding the “a degree can’t hurt”-part; it’s simply not true. Going to college definitely can hurt. Financially, mentally and creatively. More on that down below (see for example argument #3).

Argument #2: College Is Not a Good Strategy for “Figuring Out What You Wanna Do”

Most people don’t know what they wanna do when they graduate high school. And that’s fine. It’s completely normal. But you still gotta take the problem seriously. Because it is nonetheless a problem.
Having a mission in life is absolutely crucial to feeling fulfilled and excited to attack the day when waking up in the morning. But going to college is not addressing the problem at its roots. It’s procrastinating and shying away from the issue for 3+ years.

Because here’s the thing: if you want to figure out what you wanna do in life – what you like – what your passion is – then you gotta TRY A LOT OF DIFFERENT THINGS.
Passion is not something you find or stumble upon like an old friend at the supermarket – no, you develop it and that takes serious work.
The education system does not reward failure and learning from failures…If you fail you are stupid, and so on.
Well, the real world doesn’t work that way. Anyone who’s gonna do something audacious and do great stuff is gonna fail.
– Ray Dalio
First, you have to try many different things. And each one for a sufficiently long time period to give it a fair chance. After you’ve done that you can start evaluating what you like and what you don’t. This is hard and for most people since it doesn’t mean attending lectures and reading textbooks. It might mean trying out different jobs, travelling the world whilst doing so, volunteering, or trying to launch a business.
The problem is: when trying out new things you will inevitably fail at some point but in school you’re punished for failure. College rewards being right and smart and therefore teaches students to “play it safe”. This is a terrible strategy for figuring out life (especially if you have entrepreneurial ambitions).
You can go to college for other reasons but please, don’t go for the reason of “figuring things out” because most people never do. Waiting for your purpose is like waiting to win the lottery.

Argument #3: College Creates Workers, Not Learners

You graduate, get a job and tell yourself: Phew! I’m never opening up a textbook ever again!
Does it ring a bell? A learned disdain for learning is the case for many college (and even high school) graduates. Because it is learned; we all know how curious humans are as children. But then it’s sucked out of us before we reach adulthood.
Creativity and a lust for learning is not public school’s highest priority. And as any successful person will tell you, this is very unfortunate because no matter what aspect of life you want to improve; you’ll have to make books and learning your best friends. But instead, for many students, they become looked upon as work. It’s just sad.
Sure there are some avid learners who remain that way all the way through academia. But is it really fair to attribute that to college?

Let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think.” If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think.
– David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

Argument #4: College Might Crush Your Dreams and Make You Conformist

What’s arguably even worse than a learned disdain for learning are all the crushed dreams. Here’s an excellent quote by Peter Thiel in Zero to One, who’ve gone to Stanford and should know what he’s talking about:

Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them. Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking. For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students (or their families) pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation.
Why are we doing this to ourselves?
Obviously, not all dreams are crushed. Every now and again, some individuals manage to plow through the academic world with their dreams intact. But how many have we lost along the way before a Peter Thiel or Elon Musk show up? How would the world look like if more people acted on their dreams?
I’d like to end this argument with a beautiful quote on education’s meaning by John Taylor Gatto who’s been a teacher for over 30 years and awarded as New York City Teacher of the Year for three years in a row. Here it is:
Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your roadmap through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.

Argument #5: It’s Not Financially Worth It

As a student, you’re bleeding money. Even if you live in a country where higher education is free, you’ll have to pay for food, housing, etc.
When most people graduate from college, they’re so deep in student loan debt that the potential higher pay grade they might get from the degree isn’t enough to make up for the loans that’ll follow them all the way to the grave in some cases. It doesn’t make any economical sense.
This is the most common argument against college, at least in the US, so there’s no need to elaborate on it here.

Argument #6: It’s Mostly Ineffective Learning

Public schools in general, not just colleges, have a bandwidth issue. Their primary form of teaching is lectures. But lectures are frankly not that effective. Definitely not for everybody.
It can be helpful to understand how lectures came about. A long time ago, textbooks were incredibly rare and expensive (yes, even more expensive than nowadays). The best way for ordinary people to cheaply get access to the information in these rare books was thus to listen to someone read them out loud in a room full of people. Lectures, therefore, were developed because they were cheap – not because of their effectiveness.
Matter of fact; lectures are among the worst ways of learning there is. For example, in The Learning Pyramid that ranks learning methods by average retention rate – lectures are considered worst. The pyramid has been criticized (as all research is and should be) but it is generally considered
as a good rough model, considered we’re all different types of learners.
A good rule of thumb is, the more active the learning method – the better. But lectures are as passive as it gets. Even if you’re taking notes, the ideas are still presenting themselves for you as supposed to you having to actively seek them out.
So you may argue that all the smart people graduating college aren’t sharp because of college – they were smart before they even got accepted. It’s correlation, not causation. I’d even argue that they’re smart in spite of college but author Josh Kaufman has a less extreme way of stating it:

Business schools don’t create successful people. They simply accept them, then take credit for their success.
Also, lectures unfortunately aren’t very good for critical thinking either. Long periods of uninterrupted speaking can, if used inappropriately, be dangerous to the malleable mind. Or as author Edwin E. Slosson put it:
College is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight to the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.
Lastly, standardized learning doesn’t prepare you well for learning in the “real world”. Learning on your own is messy. You have to screen multiple sources, ask your own questions and try to find the answers. In the “real world” there won’t be a personal teacher by your side, telling you which books to read and presenting information in convenient time chunks.

Endnote

With advancing technology, and global crises increasing the uncertainty in the world, I think we’re starting to redefine what it means to be truly educated. And as discussed we’re already seeing some of it on the job market.
Let’s keep reminding ourselves to separate formal education from learning. They’re not remotely the same thing. You can have a degree but be uneducated and vice versa. Let’s wrap up with a wise tip from a wise old fella:

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.
– Mark Twain

References & Further Reading

  • This Is Water speech by David Foster Wallace (https://youtu.be/8CrOL-ydFMI)
  • Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto (Dumbing Us Down -25th Anniversary Edition: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling [ https://amzn.to/35olxbw ])
  • Zero to One by Peter Thiel
  • Public Schools, the Fixation of Belief, and Social Control by Academy of Ideas (https://youtu.be/kyWFpsAnVuI)
  • We are in a Higher Education Bubble with Peter Thiel (https://youtu.be/H5NUv0nOQCU)
  • The Learning Pyramid developed by National Laboratories (ResearchGate | Find and share research [ http://researchgate.net ])
  • Quote by Ray Dalio on James Altutcher’s Podcast (Ep. 290)
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