College has become a bad investment, and not for the reasons you may have in mind.
Hating on universities and the uselessness of their degrees is trendy. A quick Google search will offer you hundreds of rants detailing the pointlessness of secondary education. Yet while college has become a bad investment, it’s likely not for the reasons you have in mind.
Not so long ago, young adults were sent to college for the purpose of becoming educated, socially aware members of society. The goal of a college education was the learning process itself and the acquisition of beneficial knowledge.
But something changed. Along the way, colleges realized that their graduates were given priority in the job market. College diplomas transitioned from simple indications of education to bargaining chips holding measurable monetary value. People started noticing the increase in net value associated with a college degree.
And just like any other private business, colleges across the country responded to rising demand with significantly higher prices. At this point—at this price—college was no longer simply an educational experience; it became an investment.
Today, young adults pay thousands of dollars to colleges for one reason: to get jobs. And yet every year, too many kids are walking off their campuses with expensive degrees and no jobs.
It’s no secret that our economy is in a tough spot. It would make sense that much of the flak directed at universities is simply the result of frustration with our high unemployment rate. But few are looking past the temporary issues and discerning that a complete overhaul is needed.
Here are the real reasons why college is a bad investment:
1. It’s debatable whether colleges even offer valuable information anymore
The course hours a student invests in a degree can typically be divided into thirds: major-specific courses, mandatory courses and electives. For the major-specific third, courses are based on information required to prepare you for a career in that field. Outside of a job context, the information has little value.
The electives third is impossible to categorize. If an academic can publish a paper on a topic, he or she can teach a course on it. You can find offerings on everything from insect anatomy to dinosaur history. And while taking that Web design class is probably the most productive thing you’ll do in school, it’s going to be difficult demonstrating how your History of Rock and Roll elective has transformed you into a more valuable member of society.
The final, mandatory third is comprised of the courses your institution requires all graduates to complete. For most colleges, this section of your degree is the closest you’ll actually come to the traditional idea of a liberal arts education. This is where the bulk of your educational value is supposed to be derived.
Unfortunately, quality tends to follow the money, and these courses are no longer the breadwinners for their universities. The vast majority are taught by graduate students, and even if you’re lucky enough to get an actual professor, he or she is likely using the university as a research grant and completely uninterested in being an effective instructor. You’ll probably end up reading bullet points from a textbook or PowerPoint written 10 years ago.
2. The educational value you do receive can easily be acquired elsewhere
The legitimate value of a university lies in its professors. You’re paying people to teach you because, theoretically, they have experience you don’t, information you need and the ability to impart all of this to you. If every course was taught by a quality professor, I wouldn’t be writing this article; I’d be re-enrolling for an additional degree.
But the opposite tends to be true in today’s secondary education system. I graduated from a major program that was ranked third in the country, at a school that is considered one of the country’s finest public universities. Yet most of my instructors were incompetent grad students, uninterested professors or ineffective communicators. That may seem harsh, but consider that for three-quarters of the courses I took, not a single piece of beneficial information was provided by the instructor that couldn’t be found in the textbooks.
If the professors aren’t providing the educational value, there is none, because everything else can be acquired via the textbooks or with a simple online search.
3. For 90 percent of careers, all required skills are learned on the job
“That’s all well and good,” you say, “but we’re attending college to get a job, so aren’t the major-specific courses worth the expense?”
For a handful of careers, yes. If you plan on going into engineering, public accounting or psychology, the major-specific undergraduate courses you’ll take are essentially required training. You can’t start down these career paths without acquiring an undergraduate degree.
For most careers, however, job-related skills are learned through an entry-level position. This is why music majors make up the highest percentage of medical school applicants. It’s why biology majors end up in law firms and why anyone still dares to get a philosophy degree. You learn what you need to learn on the job, rendering your degree useless on a practical level.
Is there any reason to get a degree?
If you aren’t going to be an engineer, you aren’t going to learn anything and you aren’t going to receive any actual job skills, is there any reason to go to college? Here’s where we discover the truth about our secondary education system.
For the last few decades, college degrees served as a guarantee for mediocre employees to make middle-class money. But the middle class is on the decline. Those who have acquired and perfected a skill set are rising to the top of the economic ladder, while those who put their trust in the pay-to-be-hired system are finding themselves with nowhere to climb.
If you must go to college, there’s still a chance at stability with a college degree. As the economy picks back up and more mid-level jobs open up, many will fool themselves into thinking the system works—until the next downturn, when the value providers will further separate themselves. Degree holders across the country will watch their savings deteriorate as they wait for the next upswing of mediocre jobs.
If you don’t want that to be you, use your time and money to learn a marketable skill and then spend the rest of your life perfecting it rather than throwing a ton of money into a degree.
Jacob McMillen is the proudly regretful owner of an accounting degree. He writes blogs on everything from awesome manly topics to Chicago injury law firms and enjoys thinking in his spare time.