You are Wrong About College

All large expenses should be measured against a cost–value comparison as part of the decision making process. I agree with that.

The FIRE niche is a tough crowd when it comes to convincing people to spend money on intangible outcomes. However this post argues that those who would disparage spending money on college education are just plain wrong.

And no, this is not an article about the cost of college compared to the salary you will make. Nor is it the one that compares the income of college graduates to high school graduates.

This piece is about the hard to define value of college that is worth its weight in gold.

Most of us grow up in our little fishbowls. We never really experience anything outside of our wheelhouse.

We are pretty much acclimated to our world as we know it by the time we are done with high school. This is not a bad thing. It is how we develop a sense of community with those people who share our values and our zip codes. It makes for decent folk and for nice places to raise a family. But our evolution as human beings and certainly our education should not stop there.

College is there to challenge your notions of what is normal. What is moral? What is acceptable, sufficient, orthodox, and expected? It is for many people the first time they really encounterthe other whether that be in the form of race, class, ideology, or lifestyle.

College is meant to push buttons and boundaries.

If you are looking at college as simply a means to an end, i.e. trading money for a future job/career, then you really mean Vocational Training. Many professions do not require a formal college education and the pursuit of those jobs does not need to include college and the debt it often requires. If you are clear on a career path that early in life then don’t look at college as necessary.

My point is that it is simply too myopic to view college as a means to an end in terms of a certain degree equals a certain job.

College is not only for expanding your knowledge, but also the freedom and breadth to explore your interests. To expose you to things to which you are not accustom.

Had you ever really met a Dominican before? A communist? Or a Pagan? Or a gay person?

I am bothered by this modern movement regarding; trigger words, safe spaces, and micro aggressions. If you care about any of those things, YOU ARE MISSING THE POINT. If you want to feel safe and that everything you currently know is already correct, go home to the place you grew up in and be that way.

This is why we send people off to college at age 18 or thereabouts. That is when they have some life experience but they are terribly green about the big wide world around them.

College is meant to be a swirling mass of sometimes confusing, sometimes intimidating LIFE. From which you can absorb what you will.

Just think, everything I have mentioned so far is mostly just in relation to the other people who are also going to college at the same time as you. We have not even touched on the fact that there is no other source of knowledge as in depth and thorough as a college campus. Even if you are smart and well read, some professor will come at you from a different point of view and rock your world. Wisdom will make its first appearance in your life if you realize maybe you don’t know everything or GASP, a belief you have long held was wrong.

College is a time and a place in your life.

Never again will your life be so open ended, so filled with possibilities. Never again will you be able to eat so poorly and not totally ruin your body.

I am glad I am done with my college years. I would never want to go back and expose myself to those same tired discussions. Nor subject myself to those people who desperately need to be punched in the face, but I loved it at age 20. So go on, bathe in it. Bask in its chaos. Lap up those 500 level courses. Know you will become a slightly better citizen when it is all said and done.  Albeit probably saddled down with Student Loans.

All things have a price. Odin had to give up his left eye for a swig of Mimir’s well water in order to gain wisdom. You shouldn’t complain about a fixed interest rate under 5%. It is not about the size of the debt, it is about debt management.

Now if after college, we could just get you young people to do a few more things. Go to boot camp and work as a server in a restaurant for 6 months. Then you would really be ready for life.

22 thoughts on “You are Wrong About College

  1. Great post!!! I would love to see people serve both in a restaurant and in the military. I think people would completely change their outlooks on how the treat people and would really make a difference. College is definitely an area that helped stretch me and open me to ideas that I hadn’t been exposed to. It helped redefine and solidify my values and think that it really added some finishing touches to me.

    • More like college is what you make it, to some people it is just debt and a path to an income. For others, it opens doorways to a whole new level of existence and is well worth the money.

  2. I agree 100%. I’ve somewhat written about this before, but there’s another element to getting a college degree: classism.

    I didn’t have any parental support for college because one of my parents didn’t attend at all, and they both didn’t know much about it. If I had done community college first + big public school next, I probably wouldn’t have graduated – I needed to small private school atmosphere because it made sure I didn’t fall through the cracks.

    Not saying every low or middle income person should go to a private college, or that they won’t be successful at a community college or big public school, but we shouldn’t blanket tell EVERYONE that those are the only frugal options.

    And before anyone tries to argue, I didn’t graduate with much student loan debt from my undergrad. I got a boat load of scholarships and worked 2 jobs throughout college. My debt came from my (stupid) graduate degree.

  3. Good post! Taking a philosophy course at LSU completely changed my worldview. I realized some of my beliefs were dogmatic and I needed to become more open-minded.

  4. Couldn’t agree more! It is sad that the pre-college ‘cocoon’ effect is even more true in the US vs other developed countries / parts of the world.

    Apart from the ‘real world’ aspect and what it exposes us to (behavior, cultures and what not), college also helps widen our networks and create bonds with others that last a lifetime (well, some of them anyway). So yeah, much much more than just a income/debt story

  5. Agree with the sentiment, but although my uni was much bigger / wider than school, it wasn’t that different. I’m now wishing I went further away!

  6. This is interesting perspective. I think the factors you laid out here are good, but they should be paired with a purposeful plan for what to do after school. If not, you run the risk of paying a lot of money and potentially ending up with no prospects with degree in hand. I’m not saying you need to focus purely on the end. Rather I’m saying that like all things, a good balance seems to be the best recipe to get the most out of college and be prepared for what the future holds.

    • I secretly hope my kids will take up engineering in some form, four years later they have a career!

  7. Love the way you think. I’d add that not only is college a great opportunity to interact with people with vastly different viewpoints, but it’s also a great time to do so with a taste – albeit a false one – of financial independence. I worked in college and I took out student loans, but the combination meant that, at the time, I was free of concern for money (since I knew where my next lunch was coming from) and free from the supervision of others (parents) for the very first time in my life. Thinking back to that level of freedom is a fantastic motivator for me today in seeking financial independence!

    • Has anyone ever used that new found lack of supervision and power to make your own decisions to EAT HEALTHY? When I think back to the truckfuls of garbage I ate when left to my own devices, it staggers the mind. Just a random thought.

  8. I couldn’t agree more. The personal and societal benefits of college far out weigh the cost. That said you really need to pick your degree well to get financial benefit. As far a I am concerned there is no better way in America to move up the socioeconomic ladder than a college degree.

  9. The learned Warrior Poets, seated next to Odin in the Halls of Valhalla…their pyres burst with treasure and story, lived FIRE’d and free.

    • If you were a wandering traveler, I would be make sure to be hospitable to you, I suspect I know you’re real identity. wink.

      • My real identity? (real name used in email or something more sinister?). Time to dust off the Ninja outfit, go stealth, change the door locks and train the guard dog to growl at everything Nordic. Then open my doors with a welcoming smile and crafts of mead.

        – Efficiencies of a rotor craft exceeding 220knots is lost in the creation of a sonic boom and its’ destructive effects. But it would sure be cool to fly…..

  10. A lot to unpack here.

    College, “is worth its weight in gold” So what you really saying is that college is so valuable because of the, “je ne sais quoi”. Really? So the college experience is and end in itself, not means to a greater end? This sounds like the messaging I received from my professors and university guidance councilors. I couldn’t disagree more.

    Traditionally college, or more specifically the University, was a “finishing school for adulthood”, primarily for those who could afford it.The University acted in loco parentis. It was a safe space for young people to mature a few more years, before heading off into the real world. Somewhere along the line we decided it was good for everyone. This is a recipe for failure and as currently structured, grossly inefficient.

    I progressed through BA and MA programs. I absorbed next to nothing. It was an exercise in getting through to the end, so real life could begin. I needed the paper to move on and the degree was irrelevant. If I had actually paid for the experience, it would have been an absolute waste. How many of today’s students are just getting through it, to meet expectations?

    There are other ways to experience different peoples and belief systems. You do not need college to do it. College is bubble itself. You will probably meet more diverse people in a values based institution such as the military, than you would on a university campus. You would also get paid.

    Don’t get me wrong, I would argue that everyone needs some post secondary education. Most people would be better served with two years of vocational education that qualifies them to do something, than four years in a university, earning a qualification in nothing. Universities, especially the Ivies, were fond of saying we don’t do vocations. Odd that a vocational focus is where most colleges seem to be heading…

    We need to seriously re-evaluate the value of the University. Four years are unnecessary, in Europe it’s only three for a BS/BA and the degree programs are more applicable to a future profession. The vast majority of our degrees are not in Engineering or other immediately applicable fields. In our grand parents age, teachers colleges and business schools were only two years. Something to think about.

    I believe most in the FIRE community would agree that the ROI needs to be considered. Considering the expense of the experience, you cannot get it wrong. Student loans cannot be expunged in bankruptcy. I personally know a 55 year old who still has 100K in student loan debt. FIRE is not in his future…

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