Getting a higher education can be a smart move. But when we pursue education like it is the golden pill that is going to change us into a magical unicorn, we will be sorely disappointed.
Before we dive in, I want to clarify a few things:
- Some job fields require a college degree. You can’t be a doctor or a lawyer without a degree unless you go into the black market (whatever that means).
- I’m not “anti-college.” But I am anti-wasting-time-and-money-for-a-sheet-of-paper.
With that out of the way, let’s dive in.
To start things off, let’s take a look at my education and a summary of my career path.
Through High School
I never really fit into school. We moved a lot, and being an introvert, I found it difficult to make close friends. I also was bullied through school, and this caused me to go deeper into my shell.
I did fairly well academically through High School. Mostly A’s and B’s and I took advanced classes when I could. But I never liked being forced to learn things that didn’t have much practical value. I’m sure some of it would be useful with certain fields of study, but just doing grunt work for the sake of “getting an education” never appealed to me. It felt like I was wasting time.
I started dabbling in website development in the mid/late
Post-High School – Before College
I graduated from High School in 2002. I ended up quitting my internship that summer to work for my local church as a technical assistant.
Now at this stage, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. Like many people at this age, I had no sense about what I wanted. The long-term distant future was not at the top of my mind. I was living in the moment and focused on what was happening at that point.
After about one year, I quit that job. I took a few temporary jobs doing construction work. This period was valuable as it taught me I didn’t like doing manual labor as a full-time job. This experience led me to enroll in a local university for a liberal arts degree in theater, as I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my time. But I thought that college would provide opportunities.
My biggest mistake was using college as a way to figure out what I wanted to do. Instead, I learned what I didn’t want to do.
After a semester, I started asking myself some questions:
- How would I make money with this liberal arts degree?
- Do I like the “idea” of working in a theater more than actually doing it?
- If I didn’t get a job relating to theater, how valuable would this degree be in other fields?
It is interesting to think about why I thought I would be interested in theater. I think it came from all of the positive attention I received while going to youth group doing things in front of the group. Thinking about it now, I think I enjoyed how I felt making people laugh more than anything. I struggle with low self-esteem, so this makes sense.
I determined that it would waste time and money if I continued going to college. That pushed me to quit. I decided to go back to what I already knew and enjoyed, and that was web development.
My First Full-Time Job as a Web Developer
During the next 5 years, I worked at a local web development shop on small/medium sized websites. I strived to be the best employee I could be, and my hard work paid off.
This position taught me some valuable lessons:
- Communication is vitally important. The amount of time wasted not fully understanding the problems you are trying to solve wastes valuable time and resources.
- Most complex problems can be broken down into smaller issues that are easier to solve.
- Especially in the web development field, nothing is more valuable than experience.
- Developing a strong work ethic is one of the most valuable things you can learn.
From there, I switched companies a few times and got promoted to upper management. I worked on larger projects as time went on, and I’ve learned a ton over the last 15+ years.
Asking the Right Questions
I’m not trying to say that going to college is always wasteful, even if you end up getting a job in another field. But taking a close look at what you are aiming to accomplish with your college degree, and how it relates to the real world, may help guide you to make smart decisions.
- How useful will the knowledge I gain from getting this college degree?
- By the time I graduate, how much will it cost? Or how much student loan debt will I have?
- Will this college degree give me a significant advantage over other candidates?
And these questions can be useful even outside of college. How we decide to spend our time during working hours, can set the stage for our options in the future.
The most significant cost of going to college might be the time required to get your degree. You really want to think about this question, especially if the degree is not a hard requirement for the type of job you want to get.
Think about all of the experience you could gain in the field if you didn’t go to college. You might have to take an entry-level position, but you might discover that 4-years of real-world experience might be worth more than a 4-year degree.
At least with the case of web development, there is no comparison. The 4-years of experience “usually” always beats out the college degree. There are some exceptions to this rule and don’t take this as gospel, but it is something I found to be true in my web development career.
With that said, even if you think work experience might be more valuable than getting a college degree, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other reasons to go. The key is taking an in-depth look at what is worth it for your case.
Talk to People Who Have That Degree
One of the best things we can do to see if a degree will be beneficial is to hear from others who have that degree, what they think.
This experience can be eye-opening. Often it is so easy to assume that going to college is a “no-brainer.” Talking to people in the field will give you a sense if that is true or not. Find someone with lots of experience who has been in the field you are interested, and they will most likely love to talk about their story.
Go to College AND Get Experience
One way to avoid depending on your college degree too much would be to get an internship or entry-level job in your desired field while you go to college. This option gives you the best of both worlds: pursuing a degree and getting valuable experience at the same time.
This also has the added benefit to narrow down exactly what position you would enjoy in your field.
It is also worth mentioning that the more experience and information you can gather about what you are interested in, may steer you away from pursuing that career altogether (or re-affirm your desire). The best scenario is to try to decide this before going to college, but sometimes that is hard to do.
Regardless of what you decide to do, you want to work as hard as possible to get the most out of your education and experience.
Regardless of whether you go to college or not, creating a mindset that is willing to learn new things is important.
But this is hard, because what we don’t know often scares the crap out of us. Deadlines, unknown situations, and uncertainties can make us feel vulnerable and exposed. However, it is in these types of experiences that we often learn the most.
Getting out of your comfort zone to learn new things can open up your career options, which includes before, during and after college.
I’ve interviewed developers who are very intelligent but feel like their academic experience makes them the creme-de-creme of programmers.
They might understand a lot of high-level concepts and ideas, and most of them are highly intelligent. But a lot of their knowledge doesn’t translate very well against real-world problems, timelines, and budgets. And the fact they often expect to start at a high wage makes it difficult to justify bringing these type of people onto the team.
It might be different in other fields, but in web development, “knowledge” only gets you so far. It is the experience through trial and error that teaches you the most valuable lessons.
In job fields where experience is king, having a college degree doesn’t always mean starting out with higher pay.
This can be depressing, especially if you have student loans or credit card debt accumulated from going to college.
“What do you mean my college degree isn’t going to give me more money?” is a question I often hear from people who are taken back by the amount employers want to pay them.
That doesn’t mean starting at a low wage means your college degree was a waste. But it’s healthy to educate yourself on what you can expect to make in specific job fields with your degree, so you aren’t surprised after spending all of that time and money getting the degree.
Value of an Internship
I want to stress a point that was brought up earlier. And that involves getting an internship or an entry-level job as soon as possible in your desired work field.
The value of an internship should not be undervalued. Here are some benefits in getting an internship:
- You get valuable experience directly in your field. Even if you don’t start with the exact job you want, it still is probably worth the time and effort.
- The contacts you make can be indispensable in opening up future opportunities.
- This experience can either confirm or challenge your desire to work in this sector.
- There is a chance your employer might like you so much, they come banging on your door with a job offer right after college.
- You increase your chances to make more money when you start a full-time job.
Even when considering an unpaid internship, the reasons above might make it an excellent opportunity. The value you receive working as an intern is worth way more than the money you earn.
So is college worth it?
I can’t answer that question for you. The best I can do is ask questions. 🙂
But seriously, it depends on several things. A degree in itself is not going to make you successful. But it can be useful if you educate yourself on your desired career, and determine that it brings value to your job and is more than just a sheet of paper.
In some cases, you might learn that 4-years of real-world experience is far more valuable than getting a college degree. It allows you to take a lower paying job sooner, so you can get relevant experience, without having to worry about student loans.
If anything, I hoped you found this article insightful. If you have a college degree, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty about getting it. A part of my thought process is thinking about how I am going to approach this with my two daughters. I don’t want to guilt them into thinking they have to go to college, but I’m going to recommend they go if it makes sense for them. We plan on setting aside some money to help them with some college expenses.
For a slightly different perspective on this topic, checkout out this article written by The Fioneers called Why You Don’t Need an MBA.
What do you think about college? Do you think I’m full of crap?
Chris Roane is a financial blogger who loves to be transparent about money-related issues. He’s paid off massive amounts of credit card debt and is the blog author of Money Stir. His main focus on Money Stir is talking about how money relates to our relationships, personal development, and how to plan for the future we want. He’s been quoted on Market Watch, The Ladders, and other publications.