For years, I told friends and family that I wouldn’t go to college if it wasn’t required in order to practice law. When I decided that law wasn’t for me, I seriously considered giving up on college altogether.
My reasoning was fairly simple, though the reaction I get from most people is something along the lines of: “What? You can’t be serious! A college education is the only way to make money! People without degrees fail!” Heeding this fear-mongering myth, many students my age are spending $50,000+ each on their degrees; some will spend more with graduate and post-graduate studies. But is it worth it?
College has become a kind of a rat-race; the value of a degree is often based on social perception rather than concrete education. The nicer the college one is accepted to, the better one looks, the more likely one is to get a job — at least, thus goes the general belief. This is actually not entirely true, as we’ll be discussing in a bit.
College Isn’t Necessary for Most
Of course, a degree is sometimes necessary. Doctors, lawyers, engineers; many occupations require a degree. But you don’t need a business degree to get into business. You don’t need a degree in web design to get into web design. You don’t need a degree in philosophy to flip burgers. Just kidding!
Degrees can certainly be helpful, but for most it’s simply not needed. Jobs that require degrees are a minority, not a majority of jobs.
Bottom line: chances are, you don’t need a degree. But, in some industries, most individuals have one. The only question is: did the workers in the industry really need the degrees or did the workers just end up with one? This of course, begs another question…
…What Are Employers Actually Looking For?
My father is a businessman, working years in sales and management. He worked his way from the bottom to the top, mastering every step of the journey until finally owning his own business, an oldies radio station in a resort community nestled in the Ozark Mountains.
While I worked in his office I had the opportunity to talk with several millionaires and a great many other successful businessmen. Small talk, when involving at least one teen, almost always gravitates toward the topic of college plans so it was no surprise when the topic came up with these individuals as well.
Surprisingly, nearly all of the successful people smirked at the idea that a college education is necessary to succeed in business. “Nobody,” they said, “cares if you went to Harvard. Your boss just wants to know: do you know how to do your job? If so, you’ll do fine. Period.” It’s no wonder that they had their position, as some had degrees in business, and couldn’t point to a single place where the degree was helpful.
As the old adage goes, “Good help is hard to find.” It’s true. In some regions, over-employment is wrecking havoc on businesses; there aren’t enough workers to go around. Any young individual who knows how to get the job will not be looking for a job.
This isn’t to say that unemployment isn’t also a problem. Any business owner or manager can tell you that it’s easy to have plenty of applications but few individuals with what it takes to get the job done up to standard. We may or may not have an unemployment problem, but there’s always going to be a shortage of great workers who desire excellence and apply themselves in everything they do.
Of course, having a degree can certainly help you even get the interview when applying for a job. More on that below.
Why Degrees Help Your Salary
There’s an incredibly strong correlation between having a degree and having a high paying job. Note: that’s a correlation. This doesn’t mean that the only reason those with a degree are getting paid more is actually the degree.
After all, who’s more likely to go to college and graduate with the degree, a self-starter or someone with little work ethic? The correlation is largely caused because self-starters are already more likely to attend college in the first place and would have been likely to succeed anyway.
Along those same lines, in order to understand exactly how a college education will help you earn more, we need to see when and how that happens. We know the degree probably isn’t going to magically give you a higher wage. We know the degree isn’t going to mean that you will master your profession; a degree won’t do the work for you.
The degree can increase your lifetime earnings by:
- Giving You an Interview – By opening up jobs that you wouldn’t have had the resume to otherwise even send in an application. Basically, a 4-year, $50,000-150,000 resume stuffer.
- Giving You “Experience” – By giving you knowledge of the field, you’re more likely to start with higher wages than someone without a degree. Basically, it gives you a head start. But is it a four-year head-start? That’s a gamble.
- Giving you the Access to the Field – Of course, there are some fields that one simply needs the degree to enter, period. Law and medicine are two classic examples.
It can’t be denied that college can be helpful and is often vital to getting a job in a highly competitive field. But looking at the actual root of this helpfulness can bring us to much cheaper and less risky alternative.
Several months ago I read the story of a budding businessman who wanted a job with a high-class firm that was simply out of his reach. But he got in. How did he do it? The same way you can: Offer to “intern”, free of charge, for a month. That’s an almost guaranteed way to land any job. It’s a way of getting past the “must pay employees” law that exists: offer to work for free.
Once your employer sees that you mean business (no pun intended), there’s no way they’ll let you leave. Think this sounds expensive? College is much worse. A month without pay might mean a $4,000 cost to you. College would take four years and at least $50,000, without scholarships.
Sometimes “oddball” alternatives get the same results with $40,000 and four years to spare.
Let’s Be Smart About This
A friend of mine recently told me the story from when she worked at McDonald’s back when she was still in high school. Someone came along and applied for a job. Under “educational experience”, the individual listed a 6 year degree in Calligraphy.
They hung the application on the wall and had quite a few chuckles.
They laughed because the degree was absurd and stereotypical. There are precious few things one can do with a degree in Calligraphy. Spending $50,000 was probably a bad choice. The individual could have simply learned the trade without the degree, and saved thousands.
Don’t go to a degree it isn’t necessary. If it is necessary, and you can make your money back with a typical job in the field you’ll be getting your education in, then go for the degree. Just rationally analyze your situation, your goals and the necessity of the degree, and you’ll be fine.