Ok I get it…

…as time goes on there is less of a correlation between higher education and success. On one end of the normal distribution you have dropouts like Bill and Mark (both also GOT IN to Harvard) and then you have PhD’s that make close to minimum wage. But, where is the happy medium between the two? And more importantly, is college worth the investment?

I’m going to attempt to answer this, as best as I can. Let’s start with a single simple truth. College is fucking expensive. Many cost as much as houses, except colleges expect to be paid in 4 years or less as compared to a 30 year mortgage, by people who usually don’t have a penny to their name. In a day and age when you can learn anything you want on your own via the internet, paying for an education seems silly. But is college JUST about the education? Short answer: no.

There is a lot more to college than just what you learn in classes. Yes, learning is the backbone, and if you suck at learning, you will flunk out. But college is also a place you grow as a person. It is a place where you are surrounded by like minded people usually from different walks of life. College is a place where you can meet a significant other. College is usually the first time you learn how to support yourself. When you get into Harvard, you make friends that also got into Harvard. Most importantly you meet friends that you wouldn’t have met otherwise. All these things are very important and impact one’s destiny, but not easily quantified.

This being said, a common misconception is that college will get you a good job. This is not at all the case. At most, college will get you in the interview room (and for most smart people, that’s the hardest part). If you are an unmotivated idiot, college is just going to leave you with a pile of debt and some great memories. Memories don’t exactly put food on the table and don’t mean much if your current life sucks. If you are the type of person that doesn’t have the go-getter personality. You will have a tough time finding a decent job. If you are, college will help you.

Also, it’s important to note that all colleges are not created equal. In an ideal situation, one would get a scholarship either merit based or from the government. But for the majority of the population, the best idea is to go to a bang for your buck school. If you are someone that automatically associates college with taking a loan, you are already starting behind the 8-ball. There are exceptions to this rule, because there are a handful of schools where you can sell your spleen to major in History and still be a CEO someday. These are the Harvard’s, the Yale’s, the Princeton’s, the Stanford’s, etc. where you are pretty much guaranteed success with it on your resume regardless of what you major in. (Generally speaking, the kids that are accepted to these schools would be successful even without a college degree) In the vast majority of cases however, one should look to pay less than than 60k total for a 4 year undergrad degree. (Yes there are good schools out there that cost this much)

To get the full value of college, one must also major in something in demand. That is, Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM). These fields allow you to create value for someone else, right out of the gate.  Let’s touch briefly on what NOT to major in: It’s clear that although History, Psychology, and Sociology are important, they are a complete waste of time and money to major in. Let me talk about one that’s not so clear. Business. 95% of business majors are complete idiots (I was one of them), mostly inadvertently. Society has made them believe that business is something that can be learned, just because schools are looking for new ways to take peoples money. Business can’t be learned (shocker), which means paying money to get a degree in it is a terrible financial decision!!! Do you think Tim Cook needs to know about financial derivatives to run the most successful company in the world? No… If you take a scientist and put him to work at Goldman Sachs, it would take him 15 min to learn how to discount a cash flow. Most banks throw business major’s resumes in the garbage. Look it up. There’s only one way to learn “business”. Go run a god damn business.

After undergrad though, top business school programs (MBA) do have some value. MBA programs (at top schools only) are where professionals flock for the network and the recruiting that happens afterwards more so than the actual classes. MBA’s are also catered to people with work experience who can actually relate to what they learn. This is the reason why business schools like people with STEM backgrounds who need some practical applications to their education and some polish which the school can provide. The thing that MBA’s have in common with undergrad business degrees though, is that they are only valuable from top 25 schools. (Just like law degrees)

So we talked about growing as a person, meeting people, and learning stuff that will help you get a job. But you can do all these things without paying tuition. So back to the question, is college worth it? The most important thing that college is good for is: credibility. You pay the institution primarily for one thing. To put their reputation on the line to confer a stamp of approval. This becomes part of your personal brand. This is very important for a number of reasons. First, and probably the most important, is for the same reason coca-cola advertises. To quote Don Draper here “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.” When a firm is looking to hire a person, there is a large level of risk involved. Hiring is expensive and a bad hire sometimes doesn’t become apparent until years later. You can’t just undo a hiring mistake. In order to not interview a million candidates and to mitigate risk after meeting someone for a 30-minute interview, organizations use a university degree as a risk mitigation tool and some sort of a validation of skills and competence. Say you had to buy a 2 liter cola for a party, and there were 10 choices of XYZ colas, no tasting and no refunds. 99% chance you would choose Coke even if it was a few cents more. For the same reason if you have a proven track record, you don’t need a degree, but again… how do you start building a track record… catch 22. It becomes a cycle. How did coca-cola get to being where they are? Branding and advertising. Gotta pay to play.

So next to personal brand there is another very important reason why college is valuable. Context. Human beings need to contextualize things to be able to understand them. Our brains actually do it instinctively. Human beings make impressions about a person within 10 seconds of meeting them. (Again instinctively, because it was necessary for survival) In a perfect world people would value us for who we are, but that’s not reality. In 2007 a famous violinist Stromae did a test. While in New York before his sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, he decided to play in a subway station to see if the world could really “recognize genius.” Apparently the world couldn’t because none but a single person, a small child, stopped to listen to him. Even though you can be educated without going to college, people will have trouble contextualizing it. When some one says I got a computer science degree from Stanford they automatically get more credibility than someone who says “I’m the best Java developer in the world but I never went to college.” This is why Google does work sample tests instead of asking for degrees, because there is only one real way to identify who is the best Java programmer. Give them a test.

Lastly, an education is one of the few things you can take with you to the grave. Nobody can take it away from you. (Which is why interest rates are lower for homes than for college) If you become an entrepreneur and your business fails, you can always fall back upon your education. God forbid you come up on hard times and have to flip burgers at burger king, you are reassured deep down that you are capable of creating more value for the economy then you are creating today. We will always hear stores about the Gates’ and the Zuckerburg’s but those are the people that prove their value in non conventional ways. (Outliers) Perceptions are very important to humans, including your perception of yourself, and a formal education (or lack thereof) is an important part of the mosaic you are.

Moral of the story: Go to college, try to pay as little as possible, major in something that’s in demand, and don’t take loans- unless it’s at one of the top 25 schools in the country. And if you’re in college and have an idea like Microsoft, Facebook, or Apple, drop out!

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