Most of my posts about higher ed. are directed toward people who are planning to go to college. What about those on the fence? Should you go to college at all?

The quick answer is, if you can do it debt free, do it. Do it and pursue your love. And I would say this on all levels, from two year degrees to Ph.D.s. If what you love isn’t practical or doesn’t provide a clear job path for you, or if it’s creative and if, in this field, being successful is like a small lottery win — still do what you love. If you can go to college debt free, or with very minimal debt, you have more to lose by not pursuing your love than by chasing it.

Now of course you need to worry about employability. One problem with higher ed. right now is perhaps best illustrated by the embedded table.

GRE Scores by Major
From the report “Educating School Leaders” by Arthur Levine, 2005. Click the image to go to the report.

This table lists the top scores on the GRE (Graduate Records Examination) by major. The GRE is typically taken by college students near graduation to qualify them for graduate study at different institutions. You can think of it like an SAT or ACT for graduate school. It measures students (or used to) in three areas: Verbal, Quantitative (math), and Analytical (logic). The table to the left is arranged in the order of who gets the highest analytical scores. Can you guess? No, not science or philosophy majors. English majors score the highest on both the analytical and the verbal sections of the GRE, followed by, in order, Religion, Physics, and American History.

Now of the top four highest scoring majors, only one of them seems to hold the promise of any kind of certain employment. So the situation seems to be that the majors that are the least practical offer the highest potential for cognitive and creative self development, but somewhat lower potential for income and employment. Which is unfortunate, because of all of the people who might walk into any office to be interviewed for a job, the most intellectually capable will usually be liberal arts majors. They can think the clearest and the fastest and can learn the quickest.

The reasons for this are simple: liberal arts majors, and especially English and history majors, read the most and write the most. So do religion majors (religion is just the study of a different set of literatures). At my institution, typical English majors will read perhaps 20,000 pages or more and write about 2,000 pages or more over the course of their study.

But the problem is, employers don’t know this, and they don’t know what to do with them. What we have is a massive disconnect, then: employers don’t know how college educations work and what they produce, and neither do they seem to know how to match employees with jobs if their education isn’t specifically vocational. Colleges and universities, on the other hand, don’t know how to sell their majors to employers. So it seems that the safe thing to do is to pursue a major that clearly matches a job, and then to get the job that your degree has prepared you for.

But no, that’s not the safe thing. A highly vocational education prepares you for a very limited range of jobs, and if you hate that one job that you’re educated to do, you’ll find yourself either working a job that you hate, or going and doing something else and feeling that your college education was a massive waste of time and money. And if the industry changes, or rather when the industry changes, every time the industry changes (and it will), you will have to educate yourself again. Education never is a waste of time or money, of course: it always develops you. That is an investment that never goes away. Even if you don’t use your specific skill sets, you have developed cognitively in ways you may not even know. But you still don’t want to be found in this situation.

But that brings me back to my first point: if you go to college, pursue the things that you love. If you devote your time studying what you love, you will never regret that time spent, and it will develop you in ways you never before considered possible. But as you major in what you love, minor in something that employers recognize: marketing, PR, management, finance, coding (.html, .xml, .php, flash, java). . . there’s a wide range. I would advise all English majors to learn a programming language and web technologies. I would extend that advice to all liberal arts majors.

I have not yet made it to the central question, though: should you go to college at all? I have known many capable, intelligent, and yes educated people who have never gone to college and have done well for themselves. These people are, however, in every sense of the word, exceptional. You also probably don’t need to go to college to play pro football, basketball, baseball, or if you’re very good at making money and selling, or if you have a marketable skill and a good head for business, or if you win the lottery, but most people can’t count on any of these things.

The numbers are out there. As poorly as the job market is performing for college grads, it’s performing even worse for those without a college education. Except in very rare cases, employers won’t consider your application unless you have at least a bachelor’s degree, and if you get a job, you will only go so far unless you have a Master’s degree.

So if you can go to college, go to college. It’s still the smartest choice. But as I’ve been saying, study what you love, get a vocationally oriented minor, and go to school as close to debt free as possible.

How can you go to school debt free? Attend a state school. They’re cheaper. Start at a community college and transfer in state — that’s even cheaper. I had a student today describe in class students who take out student loans so they can party during Spring break: okay, don’t do that. I had friends in high school who worked Alaskan fishing boats over the summer, made a lot of money, and then used it to pay for college during the year. And most importantly, go before you get married, and especially before you have children.

Do you need to go to college to be educated? No, of course not. I didn’t start college until I was 23, and by that time I had done more reading on my own than I was required to do for my college classes. I only went to college because, I thought, if I’m going to do all of this reading and writing I may as well earn a degree with it. So I know what it’s like to be self educated, and I also know what it’s like to go through an educational system (I have a Ph.D. in English). The only thing you need to get educated is enough of an education to get you started, a willingness to work hard, and a library. The advantages of a college education, however, are that your knowledge is structured, that you have some guidance and confidence in your knowledge, that you have credentials, and that you’re learning with other people, which makes the educational experience that much more intense, rewarding, and meaningful. And perhaps most importantly of all: you have a sense of what other people know. You know what knowledge to take for granted. That’s part of being socialized into the knowledge that you gain, and you learn not just a bunch of information, but how to arrange that information — you learn what’s more important and what is less important.

Ultimately, what will matter is what you can do. There are plenty of useless people out there with degrees, and the people I know working at the highest levels care about what you really know and what you can really do, not so much about your credentials. Credentials are just a way to weed out people less likely to perform — they are a way for the people holding the keys to the doors to hedge their bets. But credentials are no guarantee, and too many people waste their time in college, squeak by in their classes doing minimal work, and graduate almost as useless as when they went in, usually after taking some kind of vocationally-oriented major.

How do you avoid being one of these useless, credentialed people? Study what you love.

Addenda: I have to add this after reading an early comment (below). There are many two year degrees offered through community colleges that are vocationally oriented and lead to good paying jobs. Again, your training will be very narrow, as will be your skill set, but some of these jobs pay better than most four year grads make right out of college. This may be an option if you don’t know what you love, or if you know that what you really love will never be something you can do for money. But you will find if you choose this path that you will peak early in your career unless you finish a B.A. and Master’s degree, so the upper end of your earning potential — at least as far as your degree will take you — will be limited compared to those with more education.

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8 thoughts on “Should you go to college at all?

  1. Jim
    Nice article.
    1.- If you have good SAT score, that means you can handle the college work
    2.- If you have enough Money or you are smart enough to get enoıugh scholarship
    3.- Select only the first 500 universities or colleges in the USA if you want to find a job and make college graduate salary
    Only good college graduates can make good salary, that is a college graduate salary .
    If not go to a vocational school. A plummer can make more Money than an engineer .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for responding, Mgozaydin.

      I’m not sure about no. 3, but I do agree that anyone who can get into a top school should do so. However, plenty of people who attend small, regional, and relatively unknown colleges or universities do just fine. I think the key is staying out of debt if you don’t attend a nationally or internationally recognized school.

      Vocational school is a smart option too, and there are two year degrees (AS) in specific fields that lead to well-paying jobs.

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  2. You could go to a university in a country where its free? That would keep the debt down. Here in France, Universities are (relatively)cheap and very good.I think a degree is the minimum now, with a masters increasingly being asked for and in ten years time, a doctorate will be required. You CAN make it without going to college, and there are some examples like Sir Richard Branson and the CEO of LVMH Bernard Arnaud who didn’t even do A levels, but theses are few and far between. Study what you love is good advice, as is look at what the market needs. I did Ecology as I loved biology, and then went into teaching, which I love. The market needs teachers, and science teachers too. So I got both parts right.I had a job in a supermarket cleaning the floor as an undergraduate, working the evenings to pay the flat.I suppose its what you have to do, study and work and learn.But its an introduction to the real world, where you’ll have a job and have to learn that too.
    Yes, we’ve all met people who are doctorate/graduate/masters level who “seem” stupid because they coasted a vocational level, but its a minority.hell on Monday mornings we all seem stupid!

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    1. Great suggestions, idreamofthought. I can’t make any suggestions here because I’m unaware of how international students are managed at European universities, especially those outside the EU.

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  3. Jim, thanks a lot.
    I hear so many times
    there are
    small
    regional, relatively unknown
    colleges and universities.
    Please let me know
    WHO are those 100 or 200 or 500 or only 10 or so .

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    1. Ha… I’d have to see the top 500 list and then see who is left off, and then — seriously — all of the ones I can think of are probably already on the top 500 list. So I don’t know that I can provide a list of good colleges that are relatively unknown.

      However, I can provide some criteria by which prospective students and parents can judge the quality of a small regional college or university:

      1. Size of endowment. Are the alumni backing the college or not? Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH closed some years ago and then was purchased from the Antioch University system and reopened by its alumni. That should tell you something — first that is has enough successful alumni to do this, and next that the alumni are willing to do this.

      2. Percentage of sections taught by full time faculty.

      3. Percentage of sections taught by faculty with terminal degrees in their fields.

      4. Teacher/student ratio and class size.

      5. Faculty research and publications. Yes, these matter.

      6. College/university infrastructure. Grounds, dorm rooms,etc. You may be living there for four years: do you want to live there?

      7. Any data you can get on graduates’ employment and income.

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  4. Jim
    As you said , probably your good small colleges are within the first 500 good colleges as well .
    So no problem .

    Coming to your criteries, they are excellent. I doubt that 501 st college can meet all your criteries at all .

    Plus many parents and students cannot evaluate all these criteries .

    So unfortunately we and I also have to rely on US News list of first 500 colleges .
    It is not perfect. . Is there anything better . Please let me know .

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    1. Each college and university should have an office of institutional research that keeps track of this data. All that students and parents have to do is ask for it. If the school doesn’t provide it, that’s your answer.

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