The Worst and Most Expensive Idea on the Planet

I’ve got a deal for you. First, give me 90 thousand dollars. Don’t worry, if you don’t have it just borrow the cash from the bank. You’ll be guaranteeing yourself many years of debt but it will all be worth it in the end. In exchange, I’ll give you a piece of paper. I can’t explain what the paper is exactly, or why you need it, but I can tell you that over time it will increase in value. Ten or fifteen years from now it might be so valuable that you can pay off the loan with interest and still come out hundreds of thousands of dollars ahead. Or the other possibility is that the paper will end up being worthless and you’ll receive absolutely no return on your investment. In that case, you’ll still have to pay off your debt and I will offer you no refund. Right now most studies indicate that there’s about a fifty percent chance of this deal working out in your favor. Which of course leaves a fifty percent chance that it will utterly ruin you. Sound good?

What? This sounds like the worst idea you’ve ever heard, you say? It sounds like I’m guilty of business practices that would land most people in jail? How dare you!

Ok, yes, this WOULD be a horrible proposal and it WOULD be a potentially illegal scam BUT I’m a college recruiter, you see, so it’s different.

Now, lest you think my analogy is a bit hyperbolic, understand that a recent study shows a record number of college graduates in jobs that don’t require degrees. And that says nothing of the 8 to 9 percent that have no job at all. I don’t think playing X-Box at your parents house all day requires a degree either, but I could be wrong. This reality, however, does not matter. We will continue to funnel every possible warm body through the university system. We will continue to absurdly claim that it’s a good idea for the majority of young people to START THEIR ADULT LIFE UNDER THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS OF DEBT.

Really, why aren’t we questioning this strategy? It’s just doesn’t seem like the best blueprint for success to have a nation with millions of 20 somethings who will get their first credit statement before they get their first full time job. I talked to a 25 year old graduate a couple of days ago who has literally never been employed. Ever. Ok, listen society, that is something that shouldn’t exist. That person shouldn’t exist. Period. I’m not saying the man himself shouldn’t exist, I’m saying the concept of a grown man who has made it to his 25th year, accrued 50 thousand dollars of debt, yet never worked a day in his life shouldn’t exist. This is not a model for sustainability. Look at me, I can use a phrase like “model for sustainability” and I don’t even have a business degree.

Obviously a college degree is necessary for some people. The folks who know they want to get into engineering, or architecture, or medicine, or teaching. But most of them are on that trajectory before they enroll. It’s simply reckless and unethical to encourage EVERYONE to sign on the dotted line even if they have no clue what the want to do with their life. Develop a skill, find your passion, have a few goals, THEN we can talk about whether you “need” to go to college. There are many fields where all you NEED is talent and ambition and creativity. I’m in one of them. Sometimes people ask me what “credentials” you need to get into broadcasting. My answer: be good at it. If you aren’t, you’ll fail. If you are, you might succeed. But you might still fail. Either way, your four year stint at Syracuse doesn’t tell me that you’re necessarily good at anything other than flip cup.

I know some will say you need to go to college regardless because it’s important to be “educated”. I agree. Just tell me when and why we decided that it ought to cost 100 thousand dollars to learn information. We live in the freaking Information Age. You can literally learn ANYTHING and you can do it FOR FREE. This morning I learned all about the history of the Oregon Trail. Then I learned about the collapse of the Roman Empire. Why? Because I was curious. Because I wanted to expand my base of knowledge. Because I’m somewhat insane and if a question pops into my head I have to find the answer and I won’t be able to sleep or eat until I do. I’m not saying everyone should be an OCD maniac, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but we should all have a hunger to learn. I’m not at all convinced that “formal education” encourages or enhances that hunger. Evidence would suggest otherwise. In fact, evidence would suggest the exact opposite.

Though I will grant you that I may be able to learn about anything and increase my knowledge every single day of my life without ever stepping foot on a college campus, but I am still sorely lacking in the ability to toss a small white ball into an eight ounce cup of stale beer. So college has that going for it.

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8 Responses to The Worst and Most Expensive Idea on the Planet

  1. Ve says:

    ” Just tell me when and why we decided that it ought to cost 100 thousand dollars to learn information. We live in the freaking Information Age. You can literally learn ANYTHING and you can do it FOR FREE.”

    Amen, brother. I feel similarly about my undergraduate degree, I could have that information myself. I graduated a year early to save money too. Really, it’s all about having a credential for many of us and the rest are wasting their time.

    Worst of all, as Americans, many of us are more-or-less bound to America to get a degree. I thought about getting a Master’s abroad, but was told by a higher-up in my field at MGH in Boston that unless I was *positive* that I’m going to work abroad forever, that I need to get that degree in the U.S. I am contemplating getting a year-long Master’s degree for about $1700 at UNED so I can be more competitive and get more funding for my American MPH programs.

    • Ve says:

      Also, for those of us who’ve considered getting a Ph.D…
      “Brilliant student: I went into my PhD with every advantage you could think of, financial and emotional support from my parents, about as mentally stable as anyone I know, very high self-confidence, healthy and able-bodied, strong support network, the works. And yes, I’m female but I have been socialized in ways that feminists regard as male: I pretty much expect to be taken seriously in all situations and I’ve always been encouraged in my ambitions and had plenty of role-models and have never had to use up my energy fighting sexist microaggressions, much less overt sexism or sexual harassment. And with all those advantages, my PhD was a soul-killing ordeal; I think only now, 7 years after graduating, I’m starting to get back to functioning as well as I did when I was a brilliant student ready to start a PhD. And honestly, my PhD experience was better than about 95% of my peers; I only had to deal with incompetence and never malice, for example. And my university and ultimate boss were willing to step in and help me fix things when my relationship with my immediate supervisor ran into difficulties. ”

      100 reasons not to go to graduate school:
      “This blog is an attempt to offer those considering graduate school some good reasons to do something else. Its focus is on the humanities and social sciences. The full list of 100 reasons will be posted in time. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.”

  2. Kevin says:

    What’s this passion for learning of which you speak? You were home schooled, weren’t you!

  3. Brianna says:

    I literally taught myself Hebrew through books and the internet. I probably spent less than $100 to learn. I know that sounds crazy, but I actually use it a lot because I have Israeli friends. I’m not fluent, but after 2 years of working on it I can read and write and have a conversation if they’re willing to repeat themselves a lot. And I keep working on it with books and my friends. All without college.

  4. Jacob says:

    “I’m not at all convinced that “formal education” encourages or enhances that hunger. Evidence would suggest otherwise. In fact, evidence would suggest the exact opposite.”

    Formal education: teaching people to love knowledge like a drowning man wants water.

  5. Sally says:

    I dropped out of college two years in because I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, my adviser was actively trying to sabotage me, and a nice guy was offering the white picket fence and 2.5 children. While staying in college for another 2-3 years and getting a degree in something would have been easier, dropping out was probably the most educational thing I’ve ever done. Curiosity, a library card, and an internet connection have taught me more than I’d have access to in a formal schooling environment.
    Sadly, so many people have bought into the “you must go to college” mindset that I’ve had people tell me I’m not capable of understanding subjects because a teacher didn’t read the book to me or that I haven’t actually read a book when I’m giving them the page and line number of the quote from it.

  6. littlehouseofpenguins says:

    I have a college degree. My parents were well-off enough to pay for it outright, so that I didn’t need to take on debt. I was lucky.

    I had a library job out of college, which I held for about 5 years (started working before graduating) that required a college degree. I can tell you, having actually worked that job, that no college degree was necessary. Mostly they were trying to make sure that the person they hired could do basic arithmetic, use a computer, read and write well, etc. All of these are skills that somebody *should* have when they graduated high school, but they didn’t. So more and more career fields need to specify a college degree just to get applicants who have a *real* high school education.

    I started out working at a library desk, and we were hiring at one point. My boss told me that they were having trouble finding somebody, because nobody could pass the test of putting a set of cards with author’s names or call numbers in alphabetic or numeric order! (The library specified exactly how the order worked, so not knowing how to sort the numbers/names was no excuse.) She finally had to rehire an employee who used to work there, who had a reputation for hiding behind the shelves and sleeping, because she was the only one who could alphabetize well enough to pass the *very* basic test.

  7. Emily says:


    In reading some of your past posts, I stumbled on this one. I have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, both of which I value very highly. My husband has a bachelor’s degree and a law degree. We both work for the state and (not surprisingly) don’t earn phenomenal salaries, but we managed to finish our graduate programs debt-free — even the pricey law school experience. We didn’t take out a single loan – it was all paid for with cash. As such, I get irritated by all the news stories floating around about how people are so overburdened by their student loans ($60k or $80k or even $100k+ for a bachelor’s degree).

    First, they signed on that dotted line. They took out those loans. Maybe they didn’t realize what they were getting into, and maybe they were sold a bag of lies by college recruiters about the value of their education, but that doesn’t negate the fact that they were of age, they signed a contract, and at some point we have to tell people, “you should have known.”

    Second, WHY did they pay so much for a college education? Who said they had to go to such expensive schools? Many people whine about the astronomical tuition rates, the cost of room and board, etc. Well, if you couldn’t afford such a lifestyle, why did you live that way? Many students have the option of living at home and attending a less-expensive state school. Certainly everyone could get an associates degree from a community college first. These complaints about the high cost of a college education are not without merit, but I stop listening as soon as they give examples of students making pricey decisions that ultimately weren’t necessary.

    “But this is the ‘college experience’,” they say. In order to get the full experience, you have to live in the dorms, be a full-time student, not work, and potentially join a sorority or fraternity. I won’t deny that’s one way to get a “college experience,” but if you can’t afford it, maybe you can settle for just getting educated. Maybe you can work AND go to school so you can augment your costs with a little bit of income. And heaven forbid you work hard enough in high school to apply for scholarships.

    Getting a college degree can indeed be very, very pricey. On the other hand, it can be much more economical than the media would lead us to believe.

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