Is college worth it? Given the fast pace at which information and technology are advancing, the ever-increasing cost of tuition, and the alternatives available on the market today, the choice of whether to attend college may not be as cut and dried as it once was. A Washington Post article reports:
Knowledge may be priceless, but a higher education is clearly not. University administrators keep hiking tuition, the wages of graduates keep falling, and a whole generation of Americans is struggling under the crushing burden of debt as they postpone their dreams for a tomorrow that may never come.1
The sharp increases in tuition prices show no signs of stopping.2 The average cost of a bachelor’s degree ranges from $25,290 to $50,900.3 Student loan debt is at an all-time high. In 2017, upon graduating, the average student held about $29,800 in debt.4 About 69 percent of 2018 grads took out student loans. The total student loan debt in the United States is currently above $1.5 trillion. According to investor and author Zach Friedman, “Student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt category—behind only mortgage debt—and higher than both credit cards and auto loans.”5
That’s scary. Starting your career with debt can be a huge strain, regardless of your ambitions. But let’s set aside the purely monetary considerations regarding college. After all, the real question for any individual is: Will my investment provide a sufficient return?
That is, do colleges prepare young people to launch great careers? A recent study by PayScale shows a stark contrast between how students rate their readiness for work and how their managers do. Journalist Karsten Strauss provides a nice summary:
According to PayScale’s survey, 25% of recent grads felt they were “extremely prepared” for their new jobs while only 8% of managers agreed. 62% of recent grads felt they were “mostly prepared,” while only 42% of managers concurred. When asked whether they were “well prepared,” 87% of recent grads said they were, but only 50% of managers seemed to feel that way.6
This discrepancy has led human resources departments to list thousands of entry-level jobs as requiring three to five years of work experience. Companies increasingly are recognizing that a degree isn’t a reliable indicator of preparedness. The job market is oversaturated with college graduates. A degree no longer distinguishes an applicant from his peers. What does? Work experience. Companies see that those with two to five years of experience are much better employees than those who are fresh out of college. So they add experience as a requirement in their job listings, hoping to attract candidates who really are prepared.
What about the other “educational merits” of college? Many say that young people should attend college “to learn how to learn.” True, colleges sometimes can provide a unique and valuable intellectual environment. In a world where we can Google any question that pops into our heads, some teachers still can motivate us to ask new questions that otherwise would never have occurred to us. Excellent educators can present even the most dry information in inspiring ways, or present ideas in a sensible order that we don’t get when following breadcrumbs all over the internet. Thus, college may be worthwhile for some people, and for many professions it’s required.
Yet, even here, technology has made similar experiences accessible without having to sign up for a degree program and a pile of debt. Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and many other colleges now offer online courses in subjects ranging from culinary arts to contract law—for free—not to mention Khan Academy or more specialized tools such as Duolingo, a free language-learning app.7 And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Fascinating experts offer tons of free educational content on YouTube. Inspiring, intelligent, entertaining people offer podcasts on virtually every topic—for free. And some of the world’s greatest professors produce courses available through The Great Courses Plus for about $20 per month.
So what is it that college students are paying for? It’s simple: In many cases, they’re paying for no more than a signal. For years, the degrees that many college graduates received were pretty good for signaling value to potential employers. They demonstrated a base level of persistence and time management. However, the more we’ve relied on the degree as an indicator, the more it has lost its signaling power. Like every other product, the value of each individual unit decreases as the total volume increases. Hence, a degree that once set you apart doesn’t have much impact today.
So, is the degree really necessary as a signal? Perhaps in the absence of a better alternative. But with the advent of the internet, we have loads of better alternatives. It’s far cheaper and faster to leverage Web-based tools to show employers what you’re capable of and thus signal your value. For far less time and money than you’d spend on a degree, you can build a website to showcase your coding expertise or photography portfolio. Or you can start gaining experience using ubiquitous online tools, such as GitHub, WordPress, and Hootsuite. Today a degree is often the slowest, most expensive way to demonstrate value to employers—if it does so at all.
If you’re considering college or know someone who is, it’s helpful to ask: What opportunities must one say “no” to when saying “yes” to college? Economists call this “opportunity cost.” Would another opportunity help you build a better signal than attending college? Could you be gaining experience instead of relying on a degree as a signal?
Thanks to innovators in the fields of education and career development, many viable alternatives to college provide far more bang for the buck. In addition to trade school or starting your own business, consider these opportunities:
Praxis is a year-long apprenticeship program that specializes in placing people in nontech roles at tech startups. It’s a six-month intensive professional boot camp followed by a six-month apprenticeship. Tuition is $12,000, but participants make back at least $14,400 during their apprenticeships. Eighty-six percent of Praxis participants graduate with an offer for a full-time job, and their average starting salary is $50,000.
Lambda School is a nine-month online program specializing in software engineering opportunities. Instead of paying tuition up front, students agree to pay 17 percent of their post-Lambda school income in twenty-four monthly payments, but only when they are making more than $4,166 per month ($50,000 annually).
AltMBA is a four-week intensive program started by advertising expert Seth Godin. It features a learning experience that relies on feedback, teamwork, and personalized coaching. During AltMBA, participants complete thirteen projects in four weeks. The program costs $3,850.
Make School is changing tech education through the use of “project-based education.” Students learn much like a junior developer would at a startup. The work is highly self-led, with instructors on call to support each student individually. The program is two years long and happens at the Make School campus in Silicon Valley. Tuition totals $70,000. However, the average starting salary of a Make School grad is $95,000, and students graduate two years before their peers who go the traditional college route.
These are just some of the many great alternatives to college available today. Before taking on loads of debt and a multiyear commitment, consider whether you could get more value elsewhere. And if you know someone in the midst of deciding on his next step, be sure to share this article. It may save him lots of time and money while better preparing him for a rewarding career and a fulfilling life.
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1. Wonkborg, “Peter Thiel’s Graph of the Year,” Washington Post, December 20, 2013,
2. Emmie Martin, “Here’s How Much More Expensive It Is for You to Go to College Than It Was for Your Parents,” CNBC, November 29, 2017, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/29/how-much-college-tuition-has-increased-from-1988-to-2018.html.
3. Dave Rathmanner, “Average Cost of College Statistics for 2019,” LendEDU blog, March 7, 2018, https://lendedu.com/blog/average-cost-of-college-statistics/.
4. Anonymous, “A Look at the Shocking U.S. Student Loan Debt Statistics for 2019,” Student Loan Hero Blog, https://studentloanhero.com/student-loan-debt-statistics/ (accessed July 29, 2019).
5. Zach Friedman, “Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2018: A $1.5 Trillion Crisis,” Forbes, June 13, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackfriedman/2018/06/13/student-loan-debt-statistics-2018/#754752397310.
6. Karsten Strauss, “These Are the Skills Bosses Say New College Grads Do Not Have,” Forbes, May 17, 2016, https://www.forbes.com/sites/karstenstrauss/2016/05/17/these-are-the-skills-bosses-say-new-college-grads-do-not-have/#3489f1f45491.
7. Connie Chen, “107 Free Online Courses from the Best Colleges in the US— Including Princeton, Harvard, and Yale,” Business Insider, March 14, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/free-online-courses-from-the-best-colleges-2018-4.