I’ve been rethinking this whole “college” thing

Published December 21, 2014   Posted in Having some fun

It was not long ago when I thought that spending four years in college and getting a degree was the only “real” way to make a living in this country, and that anyone who found work another way somehow isn’t doing it right, or at the very least, was not as qualified.

College DegreeBut, that was before I realized that my own degree is complete bullshit.

I have a degree in Information Technology and work (worked!) in software development. But honestly, almost anyone could write software without a formal degree.  I mean, a trained monkey can write a bunch of code that compiles nicely into a neat little executable program.

One could make an argument that trained monkeys may not be able to write GOOD software, but even that, in my humble opinion as a pretty experienced software developer, is debatable.  Software developers are a dime-a-dozen, and you certainly don’t need an Information Technology degree, Computer Science degree or, quite frankly, any degree, to do this job.

Even so, it is tough for many to entertain the idea of pushing aside the degree and instead opting for immediate work options.  Virtually every desk or highly scientific job that pays a “decent” salary requires a degree.  And then there are reports like this one that claim non-college graduates might miss out on nearly $800,000 in salary over the course of their lifetime.

Are degrees necessary for desk jobs?

Software development is just one example of the jobs that can be done, by the right person, without setting foot in a college classroom.  Project managers, system administrators, payroll admins, human resources specialists…hell, give some dude off the street a weekend training course and he or she could quickly turn into a basic accountant.

My intent is not to diminish the skill or intelligence necessary to do those jobs, nor do I intend to criticize those who do them.  Rather, this is an indictment of how useful a degree is in performing these jobs, and performing them well.

The prevailing wisdom when organizations require degrees is to find people who are simply willing and able to pursue higher education, sit through classes and score well enough on tests and possess the critical thinking skills necessary to do some of the more complicated or stressful parts of jobs in today’s organizations.

And to some “degree” (convenient pun very much intended), this is legitimate.

Think of what you do for a living.  How much do you use the things that you learned in pursuit of your degree in your daily work?  How much of your job could be learned simply by DOING and through on-the-job training, something that a lot of us automatically go through each time we take a new job anyway?

Of course, I do realize that education in some specialized cases is important. Anyone who’s working on the next space shuttle should probably have a pretty damn good understanding of chemistry and physics from school.  Or the lawyer who is defending you in a court of law, or that doctor who’s supposed to remove that cancerous spot in your lungs.  Yes, this is where book smarts, coupled with many, many years of academic and practical training, actually comes in handy.

But let’s be honest – the majority of us, me included, spend 10s of thousands of dollars to get a degree simply because we are supposed to have one.  Jobs require them.  One of the most basic requirements of almost any semi-mental job is, unfortunately, a college degree.

Much of the time, it doesn’t matter what degree you have…as long as you have one that sorta semi relates to the job.  But even this isn’t necessarily a hard and fast requirement.

According to a 2013 CNN report, the average student loan debt was over $29,000, and it is rising.  Essentially, student loans are bets on future earnings, and if earnings do not pan out as expected, serious consequences are soon to follow.  If student loans are not paid back, instead of repossessing your car or home, wages could be garnished, tax refunds taken or, in some cases, social security checks withheld (source).

If you ask me, the half-assed way our society looks at college degrees only de-values the whole concept of higher education, and it is saddling so many Americans with debt from a very early age as students graduate from academia and enter the working world with thousands of dollars in student loans to pay back.

And why?  Because that degree in business or systems administration supposedly makes you “smarter” or a better fit for a particular job?  Most of the time, it’s just to satisfy a job requirement.

At one point in my life I believed that sitting in front of a desk and doing a job that requires a college degree was the way to make a living.

But honestly, who is to say that the job that I do is any more important or “worthy” than someone who fixes people’s toilets for a living?  The truth of the matter is HOW you earn your living is much less important than how much of those earnings that you save.  If you’re able to retire by 40 after spending 15 years fixing toilets (which is certainly possible), I say more power to you.

In fact, you’re a badass if you manage to break through the ignorant and nonsensical stereotype that you need to spend thousands on a degree and get a desk job before you can claim to be “living right”, or putting forth your full potential, or whatever other nonsense that college counselors and recruiters feed young people these days.

The college vs. no college debate puts so many young people between a rock and a hard place.  Do you give in to the system and chug forward by dropping thousands of dollars on a college degree just to get your foot in the door at your next employer, or do you refuse to participate in the whole “education charade” and risk lower wages and delayed retirement?

I chose the former, but there are many lines of work that can make the latter choice a more attractive option.

For example, did you know that a dental hygienist earns an average of $68,000 per year?  With a reasonable savings plan, early retirement on $68,000 is very achievable.

Web developers can pull down $60 to $70k easily due to the very low barrier to entry and the sheer number of organizations and companies who are looking for help on their web-based projects.

Typically, real estate agents do not need a college degree and, depending on the area and market, can earn an incredible income with the right people and networking skills.

Sticking with real estate, how about a home inspector or appraiser?  Most of the time, these jobs require the completion of a simple training course and nothing else.  And if you are good at dealing with people’s bullshit, becoming a building manager might be right up your alley.

Further, virtually any manual labor type job will typically not require college degrees.  Luckily, “manual labor” doesn’t mean spending sweltering summer days smoothing rock piles in backyards.  There are any number of opportunities with better working conditions that can pay at least $50k a year, like carpenters or plumbers, welders or electricians.

There are a slew of online resources that provide ideas on jobs that do not require expensive college degrees, like this one, this one and this one.

The bottom line?

Do not feel obligated to simply go through the motions of getting a college degree to do a desk job for the rest of your life if that’s not where your heart is at.  There is no right way to retire early, and nearly anyone with a solid savings plan, regardless of what they do, can achieve financial independence and retire at an early age.

What say you?  How important are college degrees in your line of work?

We track our net worth using Personal Capital


15 responses to “I’ve been rethinking this whole “college” thing”

  1. I think you make some great points in this day and age there are some jobs where getting a college degree is a fancy piece of paper. However for some jobs it is a necessity I for instance am working on becoming an elementary school teacher. This does require a college degree otherwise we would be teaching children nonesense

  2. My job does require a college degree, but, I agree that college is no longer the default, always-a-good-idea path. Like you said, I think you have to weigh what you hope to actually do with your life vs. the sticker price of a degree. I went to an inexpensive state school for undergrad and emerged debt-free, which was definitely the right decision for me.

  3. Jason says:

    Well, I fully admit i am biased on this one because I am a college professor. So I think getting a degree is important. However, I think you raise some important points. Historically, universities have not been a place to receive job training and not a place for customer service. I am still one of those old-time professors who believe that a college degree is more than getting requisite skills for a job because most people will change careers at least six times within their lives. Not jobs, careers! I think of my job as creating citizen-orators, which comes from the Greek philosopher Isocrates who was dedicated to creating people who would learn and then use knowledge and skills to go back and influence their communities and serve the public. Perhaps that is an outmoded force for a university, but as long as I keep teaching that is what I try to do in my classes.

    My new passion, however, is getting students to become aware of finances, graduate with little to know debt and teach them how to go to graduate school, if they choose to do so, for FREE! Sorry for the rant and I fully admit I am biased.

    • I wish I had a college professor like you when I was going through my degree program. It seemed like after graduation, all I really did was spend 4 years to get a piece of paper that my next employer wanted, that’s it. We need more professors like you.

  4. Steve,

    My job requires me to have a certain level of certification to operate the facility I work at. To achieve that certification you can either go to school full time or complete it through distance learning options. I decided to take a lower paying job in a remote place, which required you to stay in camp for half the year. The main benefit was that they would pay for my schooling to achieve my certification. I quickly got my certification and then choose a new job which was much more desirable. I think it would be great if students graduating high school were shown that there is countless options to achieve what they want to be.

    Mr. Captain Cash

    • Agreed, the options out there truly are limitless. I’ve found that success is far more a function of motivation than it is of education. There’s no question that college degrees opens more doors, but that certainly doesn’t mean one needs a degree or certification to become truly successful.

      Happy 2015!

  5. Allan says:

    Hi Steve,
    a lot of people are talking about the value of earning a degree this week. 🙂
    I have a degree in human sciences and mechanic… yet I make close to a 100k as a manager in finance and many of “my”, I should say “the” employees under me have MBAs and masters in finance and CFAs… They don’t understand why I can be their managers since they had more degrees or experience than me in the field… They just don’t understand real life. They have been taught to think that a higher degree means a higher level job and a bigger paycheck. This assumption is completely false in many cases but schools, like businesses, want to attract “customers” to make money themselves. People just get trapped into wrong thinking and schools are in big part responsible of that.

    The employees don’t understand that I’m am managing them not because of my degrees… but because of other skills I had that you won’t learn in school. I’m a problem solver. I have many of the qualities of a leader. I’m very polyvalent. I’m able to make a team reach and surpass an objective. I’m able to set measurable goals and to help people reach them. I’m able to identify and use the forces and weaknesses of every member of my team. I’m able to influence them. I stick with the right people and even if I think something is stupid, I won’t say it during a meeting. If it’s worth it, I’ll think about a solution, about the reasons why I think it’s stupid and I’ll go see my boss alone with a new project to resolve the issue and make him look better… It’s simple politic. I also know where are my strenghts and where are my weaknesses.

    I’ve always been a self-taught person. I read a lot, I have an appetite for learning and I can tell you that I learned the equivalent of at least ten bachelor degrees just by going to the library picking books on any and every subjects.

    In most office jobs related to your degree, you won’t use more than 5% of what you’ve learned in school and you could have learned it while doing the job. It’s sad, but it’s reality.

    I’ve been an insurance underwriter in my life. They were asking for at least a bachelor in finance. I don’t have such a diploma. Yet, after 3 months I was a resource in my team and I got promoted a couple of months later as the senior underwriter. A smart 10 years old kid could have learned and done this job without a degree. It was just plain good old logic. People were shocked… They have been there for years and yet I was the one getting the promotion.

    Warren Buffett has discussed that subject once. He was comparing a degree with a business. You would invest in a business that sells at a discount from what the future earnings of that business will be after discounting them in the present (Discounted cash flow). But you wouldn’t invest in a business selling at a loss from it’s future earnings…

    Before “buying” themselves a degree (because that’s exactly what it is), people should make sure the return on invested capital is really worth it.

    School, medias, parents and society in general has filled us with stupid assumptions. I’ve spent the last 2 years trying to deprogram myself and let those stupid assumptions on the side. It’s crazy all the crap they have put in our heads. I have made a lot of mistakes in my life because of them.

    Fortunately, I’m finally evolving… slowly… and realizing how stupid I was… and am!

    Best regards

    • Allan,

      Excellent! Very well put, and I think that you have hit on an important element in this discussion. Too many people view degrees as an automatic promotion, or at least that trump card that makes them next in line for the promotion, or salary increase, or whatever. I think the problem is education in this country *is a business*. Schools (even public schools) need to make money. The more kids they have, the more they bring in…really, no different than any other business.

      Being a manager is about much, much more than degrees. Successful managers are ones that get the most out of their team. They are decision-makers and team builders. They recognize strengths and weaknesses among team members and use those elements the best that they can. Education doesn’t teach that.

      Truthfully, education CAN’T teach that. The best that a college degree can do is teach students what makes great leaders, but experience is ultimately what molds a low-level worker into a high-level executive.

  6. Hey Steve,
    I actually just completed my college degree. I decided that since my employer fully reimbursed my costs, that it would be foolish to ignore. That being said, it was definitely an eye-opening experience having gone back after actually BEING in the business world for a decade.

    I was disappointed. Disappointed that I could come up with a majority of essay answers just by using critical thinking skills. Disappointed that the service provided by my school was well below service provided at a local department store. Disappointed that for some reason, society still views degrees as “needed” even though the simple law of supply and demand say that shouldn’t be the case.

    I wrote about it, and actually took a fair amount of heat for my view from those close to me. So, naturally, I completely agree with your post. Sure there are some degrees that are needed or good to have, but a very large majority of degrees shouldn’t matter as much as they do.

    • The point about being disappointed with your college degree after working in this business is an interesting one, and I definitely agree with it. I started a company-paid masters degree a couple years ago in one of the best Management Information Systems schools in the entire country (Top 5 according to U.S. News and World Report). But honestly, after working in IT for nearly 10 years, what I was learning was just…basic.

      It didn’t exactly rise to my expectations of higher education. Even in a supposed “good school”, I didn’t feel like my time was being used wisely pursuing this degree. Company-paid or otherwise, post-graduate degrees are a lot of work, and it just wasn’t worth it to me.

      Thanks for stopping by, and happy 2015.

  7. […] necessarily smarter, wiser or more prepared to intelligently confront problems than those without higher education.  They tend to be more confident in their ability to think, and I admire confidence.  But many […]

  8. […] cracked up to be – I have already written at some length about how nutty this whole college thing really is, and especially how different schools automatically conjure up ill-conceived assumptions of […]

  9. […] are interesting things.  Many of us try to get into the best schools, rack up such and such degrees, get involved in x-number of extra curricular activities, score […]

Leave a Reply