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For the vast majority of kids, college isn't worth it

  1. Jul 2, 2013 #1

    The people on this forum and elsewhere who will defend college as "worth it" fall into 2 categories.

    (1) Older people who got a degree 2 decades ago or more, and found it easy to get a job. They will usually say they majored in Mathematics, Physics, even something like Philosophy or Forestry, and were able to easily be hired in software, finance, or whatever.

    (2) Recent STEM grads who went all-out to make college a glorified vocational school. They majored in something like Electrical Engineering and were able to put together a great resume through their group projects in the EE lab, their internship experience at the companies that fund the EE program at that university, their leadership in some science club, etcetera.

    Well, the accounts of (1) are irrelevant since their experience is from decades past. (2) represent something less than 1/4 of college graduates, I'd say. If you have the idea that a lot of people fall into the category of (2), it's probably a sampling bias because you hang around these forums or because you associated with those types of people in college.

    I'm sure the argument will be made that the college system isn't at fault, but the 3/4 of students who didn't make it worth it for themselves are. This supposes that it is theoretically possible for everyone to get a good return on their college degree. I highly doubt it is. There are usually more Psychology majors than Computer Science majors at a given school. Yet the economy just doesn't need people with a base knowledge of psychology. I know some Psych majors end up going into law enforcement, but still, there's only a limited number of law enforcement personell needed, and that's why these Psych or Criminology majors will end up spending their post-college time competing to get into a career like that. So, at the very minimum, the fact that colleges aren't churning out degrees in proportion to their demand in the economy, means that the college system, as is, cannot be worth it for every student.

    It also true, from my experience, that the 3/4 who find college was a waste of time were not necessarily lazy or unmotivated people who partied throughout college. A lot of them were clean-cut, motivated fellows who were just mislead. After all, a lot of high school kids going into college are encouraged to take their time, focus on finding their passion and graduating. And they think that, even if they're not in a traditionally marketable major, their good grades and problem-solving skills will make employers eager to hire them and train on-the-job the specific role. A pipe dream, mostly.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 2, 2013 #2
    well ,if you are an average clever person and you have the passion for college ,then go for it.
    if you want to go to college just because every 1 does ,then that's a serious problem.

    1-get your self together.
    2-put a plan for your life.
    3-know what do you want to do with your life.
    4-get your degree and move on.

    otherwise DON'T WASTE YOUR MONEY.

    I am waiting to hear others opinions ...

  4. Jul 2, 2013 #3


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    How can you look at graphs like this attachment, from an article in the NY Times, and say college isn't worth it?

    Note that this not for people long out of college, it is for 20-29 year-olds, and the unemployment rate for college grads is 5.7%, vs 16.2% for those with just a high-school diploma. Surely the 94% with jobs are not all STEM majors.

    At least the people with college degrees are finding jobs.

    Attached Files:

  5. Jul 2, 2013 #4


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    Lol you sure love to make sweeping generalizing statements based on your own personal opinions and convictions. I don't fall into either of those two categories and I defend a college education. There's your counter example.
  6. Jul 2, 2013 #5
    This is just because, with 1/3 of people going on to get a degree, the B.A./B.S. is a standard filtering mechanism. Pretty soon it'll be the M.S. or Ph.D. that's required. So what if it costs students $150,000 for a base knowledge in database administration or machine learning? Employers don't care. And in fact they'd probably rather hire a kid who didn't go to college but spent 1 yr working a job and, in his free time, building a nice portfolio of projects on Stack Overflow.
  7. Jul 2, 2013 #6


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    I have a funny feeling that this thread is more of an attempt to validate your struggles in school and perhaps your struggles finding a job. If you think college is a sham and you can be successful or happier without it, then go for it. I personally loved being in the Infantry 10000 times more than ever being a math major or working my current job. Find out what you really want to do, instead of forcing yourself through a path that is obviously hard on you.
  8. Jul 2, 2013 #7
    Well, was it worth it?
  9. Jul 2, 2013 #8


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    I'm still in college; that's why I said I don't fall into either of his two categories. College is what one makes of it. I see no reason why the college should spoon feed one success. No one said it isn't a temporal and monetary risk, to relative extents, but if one is interested in fields that require college degrees then what other choice does one have realistically? The OP seems to be using his own personal angers to make generalizing statements as he has done in another thread.
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2013
  10. Jul 2, 2013 #9
    Here's my personal story, for what it's worth. The only criterion I looked for when choosing a college was, 1) are there hot girls there, and 2) was it close to a good surf break. Choosing UCSB was therefore my choice because 1) It was rated in the top 5 USA schools by Playboy magazine for cute girls (it might have actually been #1 that year :smile:), and there's actually a surf break called "campus point" right on the campus. Imagine that. Looking back, it was the best decision I ever made, even though there was not a lot of "academia" going around. I went to UCSB for 2.5 years and never declared a major. I had no idea what I wanted to do. All I wanted to do was stay there and surf and party. I just figured I'd take all my GE requirements until something came up. It never did, though, and it was about that time that I had to declare a major. I don't know if I ever did or not, but anyway I dropped out and moved to Hawaii and entered the tourist industry and made a ton of money in the late 80's early 90's in tours and timesharing. Much more than I could have ever made with any degree.

    After a while I burned out and went back to a small non-party college so I could focus on getting a degree. This time I was serious and wanted to study biology/neuroscience. I got that degree a few years later and had absolutely no idea what to do with it. I was a concept guy, a theoretician, I had already developed a brain model, published it, spoke at conferences on it, etc. all as an undergrad. Now that I had graduated and had a degree, what was I going to do? Work in some lab cleaning petri dishes or doing electrophoresis gels for some private firm? Testing water samples for the dept. of parks and recreation? None of that sounded appealing. I could go back for my PhD. But where was that going to get me? The same job I didn't want to do with more pay?

    So, again I decided start my own marketing company and do what I had always done in the past to make money. Sure enough, I again was making a ton of money where my degree was useless and continued to do so until the crash of 2008. Now I find myself again looking again at going back to school for a more advanced degree so I can do something I actually like to do, get paid for it, and most of all at my age, have some stability.

    Why am I groaning on with this story? As perhaps a cautionary tale to those entering college that things don't always just "work themselves out." I thought they would. I thought that by just going to college I was setting a course in motion that was just going to take care of itself. I didn't have to pre-plan anything it was just going to happen because of my optimism and iron will. Well, that didn't happen. I never made one nickel, officially off my degree, but I wouldn't trade the experience and what I learned from college for anything. So, it's kind of a two-edged sword. You can take from that what you will. I still don't know what to take from it. I know guys at UCSB that never partied, never went to beach, never went on road trips, never did anything. All through those 4 years and probably beyond. I thought, these are the best years of your life and what are you doing? Well, they are probably making 200K+ and doing what they love now. But was it worth it? Idk?
  11. Jul 2, 2013 #10


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    Students would probably make smarter decisions with regard to college (and colleges would certainly not get away with charging the tuition they do) if they had to pay cash up front instead of taking out loans which don't need to be paid back until after the party is over. Only then does the reality sink in that a six-figure debt is no laughing matter.
  12. Jul 2, 2013 #11
    That's absolutely correct. My solution was just to try to keep the party going as long as I could in order to postpone those "unpleasantries."


    When it was time to tab out I tell you man, one hell of a hangover :frown:
  13. Jul 2, 2013 #12
    Exactly, but the liberal politicians will never have it. They'll say that your plan is unfair to underprivileged people. A post-high school education is basically a right.
  14. Jul 2, 2013 #13


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    Do you have any sources for any of that or did you just pull it all out of your head? It looks like a mess of jumbled nonsense to me.
  15. Jul 2, 2013 #14

    Simon Bridge

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    USA-centric nonsense in an international forum to boot.
    I don't really mind people discussing the situation in a restricted jurisdiction, just so long as they realize their sweeping comments only apply in the narrow situation they are talking about.

    For comparison:
    In NZ, a college education is treated almost as a right and tuition (with living costs) is subsidized from the public purse.
    The subsidy is just enough that students can, in principle, survive without holiday work or a loan to get their first degree - but it's pretty subsistence living and if you want to go to a good institution you will need some other funding.

    This difference means that I have to curb my enthusiasm when advising non-Kiwis about college choices.
    It is a valid choice in NZ to "follow your passion" in tertiary education ... but where you must ultimately pay for your education, probably a few times over after interest, then people should at least keep an eye out for courses that have a chance of producing marketable skills.

    On purely financial considerations, college is, at best, a marginal-return proposition for the vast number of attendees.
    I'd bet that underprivileged entrants have a greater chance of improving their prospects through tertiary education though - which would be an argument for keeping the rich out of college eh?

    OTOH: the value of tertiary education is not just about getting rich, something of a preoccupation in the USA, and the value of a public-subsidized tertiary education to the nation is more about what kind of nation you want to have: making the nation wealthier is the cherry on top and happens, if it happens, when other social policies compliment.

    Whichever way you cut it, a college education is an investment, where best and most rewarding returns are not financial.

    Out of interest though - and considering what I'm hearing about the state of US secondary education, what proportion of Americans actually go to college?
    I can probably look it up....
  16. Jul 2, 2013 #15
    Consider almost half of all college students in the US fail to even get a degree, I think I agree with you. College is very often a complete waste of time and money.
  17. Jul 2, 2013 #16


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    Isn't that a personal student problem? They don't prepare while in High School. Many kids enter college and have no idea what they want to do, they just go because their friends are going and are too immature to be out from under their parent's supervision, (many times the parent's fault, the parents won't let them do anything while living at home, then suddenly they're out on their own and have no clue how to handle the "real world". They party too much, get into drugs and alcohol, and you wonder why they don't succeed?

    Then there are the students that started planning for college while they were in High School, spoke to counselors, took the right subjects to prepare for college, knew what they wanted to do, at least to start. They have a goal. These succeed.
  18. Jul 2, 2013 #17
    That's me.
  19. Jul 3, 2013 #18

    Simon Bridge

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    That means that, for those students, attending college turned out to be something that did not gain them a degree. Many could probably have known that before they enrolled - but would everybody?

    The observation is not so important as what you do with the information, after all: most people fail at almost everything they try, does that mean most people should not try anything?

    Is a degree the only thing of value you can get out of college?

    At Cambridge they used to have a qualification "BA(failed)" - because they had just one exam at the end of three years ... the student failed to get a degree but still completed 3 years study - which was recognized as worth something.

    Of course, lots pf people seem to think that colleges are educational institutions in the sense that they are supposed to take paying students with little or no knowledge and produce graduates out the other end. This is not correct (it's closer to what public secondary education is about). The colleges primary reason for existing is to sort the next generation of academics from everyone else. They do this by a process of education and filtering - mostly filtering. The onus is on the students to get educated, college provides an opportunity and an exam (filter). That this process can be exploited to get an education for other purposes is a side effect

    In the gripping hand: we are supposed to be scientists right?
    Scientifically, you need to define your metric before launching conclusions like that ... in this case, the metric has to be purely personal: it will depend on your personal value system.

    I think that a metric based purely on financials is grossly undervaluing higher education - but that's me. I got a massively useful change in perspective well before I ever graduated anything. I don't think my degrees have made me much money directly - but having had the experience of getting them has sure made a difference to the way I live my life and the way I make decisions.

    Sure there are a lot of people in college who would be, arguably, better off not - but the same can be said of pretty much any human activity.
  20. Jul 3, 2013 #19
    Thats a metric that only the financially well off are able to afford to have. Many people look to college as a means out of relative poverty. The US and state governments heavily subsidize college education for this reason. If you are rich enough to just treat college as a fun time and learning experience to be a well rounded person, then good for you Im glad you can afford that. Thats not why I signed up for college. I signed up to try to be part of the middle class, try to afford a house and health insurance. When I started college I was house-less, sleeping in my car and doing my homework at the public library. By the time I finished college I did have some financial stability and an apartment. But my college education did not provide me with a means to reach the middle class, own a home or have health insurance. So in my case, college was certainly a poor decision. If anything, it has kept me out of the middle class. Sure, I had a fun time studying physics and learned a lot but it wasn't worth the cost in time or money.
  21. Jul 3, 2013 #20
    Nice, I feel the urge to use that all the time.
  22. Jul 3, 2013 #21


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    I think there are a few issues at hand.

    A college degree does not give you the right to a well paying. It can give you the chance to study something professionally at a higher level or give you the chance to obtain a high paying job, but it is not your right. If your only goal is to get out of relative poverty and join the middle class, the cheapest way is join the military. If I was allowed to say in, my current annual pay would be about 67,000 a year with about 20,000 non-taxable, not including deployment time in which case all my pay would be non-taxable. Afraid of military service? Construction, sewage, garbage, cable repair, automotive repair can all get you about the same amount of money, with less investment in education. So yes, if you expect to go to college and start banking while at the same time putting no real work and investment to get everything out of the opportunity you have, then yes it won't be worth it to you.

    You go to college to learn a particular subject and become reasonably proficient at some level on that subject. The skills you learn should help you find some meaningful employment, but your attendance nor your degree automatically make you something special. If you wanted to party all night, get by with C's and then find a really awesome job without networking, without learning important skills, without learning your subject well, then you only fooled yourself and set your own self up for failure.

    Lastly, yes it does happen that awesome students struggle to find work, or don't make it in academics or have a hard time immediately after college. However, in my limited experience, over time these awesome students (who were probably dedicated and hard working students thus good employees) find their niche and end up doing decently.

    The real question shouldn't be, "Is college worth it?" It should be, what would you do if you didn't go to college? If you feel that you can find more happiness in life without a degree, without debt, then that's fine. I wish I could go back into the Infantry, I was so much more happier in uniform than in a suit. However, if you look at your life and know the only way to have a chance at success is by going to college, then yes it is definitely worth it.
  23. Jul 3, 2013 #22

    Simon Bridge

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    I think you may have got what I was saying backwards - you are agreeing with me :)

    The financial returns over the cost of a college education may be marginal, but, for someone brought up in poverty (say), that marginal return represents a net positive change in circumstances. People from an underprivileged background are more likely to do well proportionate to their outlook uneducated that someone from a privileged background... if only they could afford the entry cost. Cue state subsidies.

    I got my education in NZ - see my previous post about that. This is a country with huge subsidies for tertiary education... if you have to pay for the education yourself, you cannot afford to not think of the financial returns (unless you are ultra-wealthy of course). But if you are not, then you can afford the more general metrics like I could. i.e. the financials-only metric is suitable for the wealthy entering private/unsubsidized education. On that metric, the marginal returns would counter-indicate a college education for the wealthy :)

    The benefit to the state is a different question - but the state is not a business so it does not have to show a positive financial return at the end of the year.

    This is probably what I was reaching for in my talk about metrics - thank you - the proper way to talk about economic value is in terms of the opportunity cost of different options.
  24. Jul 5, 2013 #23
    For a relatively small amount of debt, I was able to attend a good private university for four years which allowed me to get a world-class education in engineering (and humanities) while creating lasting friendships and memories with like-minded (and similarly motivated) people. I didn't land a job with Oracle or IBM or Google, but I now work in an industry which allows me to travel quite often to places and countries I'd never have gone to otherwise and, at 24, I'm already making more money than a large portion of the adult work force (though I'm by no means making a killing).

    Financially, in the short run at least, maybe I would have been better off getting a union construction job (have you seen what crane operators make?); but the debt I acrued wasn't just to land me a job, it was to get myself a degree which would allow me to work in a field that I enjoy and requires critical thinking and creativity on a daily basis.

    One's career decisions shouldn't be solely based in economics. If you have the choice, choose to do something that you enjoy, especially if the financial difference is marginal.

    Now...someone who goes to school and graduates with a bachelor's degree and $120,000 in student loan debt, well, maybe they made a big mistake. But with reasonable, manageable debt?

    Using economics as the sole metric for whether or not higher education was "worth it" seems silly to me. Bungee jumping provides no economic benefit to you whatever, yet we pay to do it because of the experience. So too with higher education, there is the economic benefit of allowing you to more easily poke your way into the jobs that pay higher, but there are also the social and personal benefits that go along with university which cannot be captured by an economic comparison; benefits which not only help you on a personal level, but also potentially on a professional level (networking, etc.)
  25. Jul 5, 2013 #24


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    I'd rephrase your claim. A lot of kids leave high school with no real idea of who they are, let alone who they want to be for the rest of their life.

    Many select their major because it will result in a good paying job, but that doesn't mean they'll actually enjoy doing that job for the rest of their life.

    Many select their major because it sounds interesting and they always wanted to learn more about that subject, but the disadvantage of that is winding up with a job that's boring/aggravating/etc and low paying. Or they never find out whether the job would be boring or interesting because they selected a major that has few job opportunities.

    It's not the going to college part that's a waste of time. It's setting out on some path knowing neither where you are nor where you're going.

    I think quite a few could stand to get at least a little life experience before they start college. Get a job for a year or two or join the military (where you can knock out some of your basic classes with some pretty good tuition assistance, plus build up a decent amount of money to attend classes after you get out). Or hitch hike to California (or don't people do that nowadays).

    For the students that know what they want out of college, it's worth it. It doesn't do you any good if you have no idea why you're attending (or if your reason for attending is a vague "My parents want me to" or "My friends say it's the smart thing to do").
  26. Jul 5, 2013 #25


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    Both of my girls switched majors a few times, with breaks where they worked in the real world and did more extensive research into the fields they were interested in. It payed off. They both were hired into great jobs that normally required a degree before they had their degrees. Word of mouth of how good they were opened the doors for them and employers didn't want to wait and risk losing them. The oldest is a CS and working for a graphics company where her art is an added bonus. The younger working in an incredible job for the most high profile internet company in the world, while getting an unrelated degree. Based on what they are doing for her, it seems they want to convince her to stay after she gets her degree.

    If you are motivated, have your head on straight, are an overachiever, did your research, have a positive attitude, you will be noticed and you will succeed.
    Last edited: Jul 5, 2013
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