Written By: Charlie Lockwood – Should I go to college?
One of the big questions for young people is, “Should I go to college?” And if so, what college should I attend and what degree and career will I pursue? Most people think it’s a “rule” that you should go to a good college, get a solid degree, and then land a high-paying, sometimes high-profile job.
But is college really all it is cracked up to be? If you don’t go to college, are you a failure? I’ll share my thoughts on these questions based on my experience completing three degrees, the experiences of my family and friends, and things I’ve learned related to this topic. Finally, I’ll share tips on gauging whether college is the right fit for you.
First, a brief background of my college experience: I graduated high school many moons ago in 2007. I, of course, asked myself, “Should I go to college?” I was unsure about my career path, so I started at the local community college. Six years later, I completed my undergrad with a degree in education. Since then, I’ve gone on to complete two master’s degrees. Full transparency: both were done solely to move up the teacher pay scale and give me the option to become an administrator if I so choose.
I say that only to shine some light on the fact that, for some people, getting a degree is a means to an end.I firmly believe learning is essential and is the best investment a young person can make in their life. Learning can be costly in many ways, whether that is the price of a degree or the cost of a poor financial decision. Life is a journey, so make a plan and take a calculated risk.
Was my college experience all it was cracked up to be? Yes and no. In my first job as a teacher, I made about two hundred dollars more per month than my warehousing job that I had in college. Thankfully, I had not taken out any student loans, so I had no loans to worry about when I graduated. I’ll get into the topic of cost in a little bit.
Did I enjoy college? College was one of the most memorable times of my life. This was primarily due to things that took place outside of the university: living outside of my parent’s home for the first time, learning how to support myself financially, making meaningful friendships, and the ups and downs of becoming an “adult.” To me, college was worth it because it was a formative time in my life. Would I have had the same experience if I hadn’t attended college? Hard to say. The time I spent in class, learning about different topics, hearing multiple perspectives, and collaborating with my peers profoundly impacted me. Even though the events outside of university were the most impactful, I do think my time at school was important.
THE CORRELATION BETWEEN EDUCATION AND INCOME
Let’s get into this first by looking at some data. If you google “education and income” or something close to that, you’ll find tons of information about the correlation between these two. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule, but, generally, the more education you take, the more money you make. This is how the system has been set up in this country for many years, right or wrong.
Another interesting correlation you will find when digging into education and earnings is something close to this point: approximately eighty percent of incarcerated individuals are high school dropouts. Take this as you may, and I know there are many factors, but it is safe to say that staying in school and going on to higher education has other benefits besides more income. I could write an entire book about this topic, but I’ll leave it up to you to look at the correlation between education and income and decide for yourself what the data implicates.
Let’s look at a few examples. As an engineer, you are required to get a degree. Engineers make good money, and the field is in high demand. If you got a degree in engineering, you’d surely land a job and get paid well. If you chose not to go to school and got an entry-level position, you would make considerably less and usually work in career fields with worse benefits and long hours.
Does this mean you have to go to college? What about the cost of college? Here are my tips on answering the magic question: Should I go to college?
THE COST OF EDUCATION
Universities are for-profit. Tons of articles and resources show that higher education costs have been rising for many years. So, choose wisely. Do not just pick a school with no action plan regarding your degree. The longer you are in school, the more it costs. Trust me, it took me six years to complete my undergrad, and I paid the price for dragging my feet. Student loans can significantly impact your finances for the rest of your life. There is nothing wrong with going to a local state school that is a fraction of the cost of an Ivy League or prestigious school.
Think of the degree you want and how much that career field will pay you. Find a solid balance between choosing a school and degree program that are very spendy and a career that pays well versus not going to college and working entry-level positions. For example, as a teacher, it would not have made much sense to me to take out a bunch of student loans to get an education degree that would ultimately lead me to graduate and earn 40k-50k. Making this much and having a hefty monthly student loan payment would be crippling and have a lasting effect.
Case in point, because I didn’t have student loan debt, I could buy my first house in my mid-twenties even though I was only making about 40k a year. On the other end of the spectrum, a lawyer who racks up some student loan debt but will start out making close to six figures is a different story. If they manage their money well, the lawyer can have their student loans paid off quickly; thus, their degree choice can be considered an investment. Spend some time looking at options for different universities and schools, and weigh the cost of the degree program and how much you’ll start making once you finish that degree. If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
CONSIDER A NONTRADITIONAL PATH
When asking yourself, “Should I go to college?”, there is nothing wrong with starting at a low-cost community college, earning an Associate’s Degree, and then transferring to a university to finish your four-year degree. When you graduate with that degree, no one will know or care that you started at a low-cost community college.
Another hack that worked for me was working full-time most of my college career. This was not easy but enabled me to pay for part of my tuition and finish my undergrad with no debt. It was annoying missing some fun events because I had to work on weekends, but the sacrifice was well worth it.
WHAT ABOUT A GAP YEAR?
This idea is widespread and popular in Europe. Young people finish high school, take a year off to work or travel, and then start their higher education or careers. This plan can be a fantastic idea and allow young people to decompress after years of concerted effort in high school. Traveling can positively impact your life and expose you to incredible, unique cultures and experiences that open your mind.
WHAT IF I KNOW COLLEGE ISN’T RIGHT FOR ME?
College is not for everyone. If you don’t attend college, you are not a failure. You don’t have to look very hard to find thousands of examples of successful people who never attended college. With that said, do not interpret this to mean that learning is not important. Learning and success go hand in hand. Learning does not have to come from a class or program. It can come from many sources, such as finding a mentor, joining a mastermind group, connecting, and networking with others. Just make sure to continue learning and growing to find a career path that is fulfilling and pays well enough to give you the life you want to live.
For example, many vocational programs can land you a solid career. Consider being a skilled tradesman. Careers in construction, plumbing, HVAC, electricians, and much more are in high demand and pay very well. Do a quick internet search for “careers in high demand without a degree.” This will give you an idea of what the job entails, the training you will need, and what you can expect to earn. Whatever route you choose, make sure you plan backward. Think with the end in mind.
WHAT IF I WANT TO BE AN ENTREPRENEUR?
Same thing, plan backward. Find someone who is in the position you want to be in. Learn from them, find out how they reached the level of success you want, learn about their actions, what failures or issues they had, and their overall experience. Ask them for advice. I know this seems intimidating, but most successful entrepreneurs will gladly offer younger people advice.
The caveat to this is how you approach them. Entrepreneurs are generally very busy. Reach out genuinely, and offer to help or add value to them. Not everyone will respond, and that’s okay. There are many books, videos, and articles on how to approach someone to ask for advice. The critical takeaway is to be a lifelong learner regardless of whether you attend college.
To sum it up, there is no right or wrong answer to the question, “Should I go to college?” The only incorrect choice is no choice at all. Consider your end goals, weigh costs and options, plan backward accordingly, and be a lifelong learner. Consider a nontraditional route. It is okay, and very typical, to pivot later in life. Above all, make a plan based on the life you want, and TAKE ACTION.