Devil's Advocate 

5 Reasons to Skip College

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This is a Devil's Advocate post.

USAF Academy Graduation Hat Hurray Toss, Thunderbird Fly OverWhen I was younger, the plan for my future was pretty straightforward. You go to high school to learn, get good grades, and get into a good college. You go to college to get good grades and then get a good job. After that, just circle the mouse wheel until retirement. OK, that last part about the wheel was my own addition but that basically was my “job” as a kid. That plan worked for me and it’s the path many people have walked with great success, but it’s not the only path.

With the government looking at additional regulation on the for-profit colleges, I started to wonder again whether college is “worth it.” In general, it is. However, recently with all these for-profit schools, a lot of people are going to college unnecessarily. They’re being promised things that the schools can’t deliver. They’re being sold something they don’t need, depending on what they want to do, and they’re only buying it because we’ve put “college” on a pedestal. In this Devil’s Advocate post, I explain why you might want to skip college.

Most Colleges Don’t Teach Skill Trades

Colleges are good at teaching things best learned in a classroom or a laboratory. Philosophy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, psychology, and such. They are not as good at teaching skill trades like being a mechanic or a welder or a fisherman. For skill trades, you are better off going the route of an apprenticeship or a vocational school that specializes in that skill trade.

If you go to college and get a degree in business only to graduate and become a fisherman, you’re wasting your money. That’s not to say a degree in business is bad for someone who is a car mechanic, but you don’t need to spend all that money and four years in a classroom when all the skills you need to learn are best learned hands on in a shop. A fisherman should, if he or she chooses to, go back to school for a business degree if it makes sense. But he or she should not go simply because everyone says he or she should go.

Not Everyone Finishes College

This entire post was inspired by this article in the New York Times that is advocating that some people skip college. One of the scariest bits of information they shared was a projection from the Department of Education. “Perhaps no more than half of those who began a four-year bachelor’s degree program in the fall of 2006 will get that degree within six years…”

Let’s say 50% of people complete the program within 6 years, that means 50% of people don’t finish and are paying for something that they won’t ever receive. That also means that a percentage of the people who do finish will be overpaying, since it will take them longer than the stated four years. What’s amazing about that statistic is that it screams one pivotal idea – not everyone is suited for college.

The problem is you can’t expect kids to know this because they haven’t been to college. They haven’t charted out their futures. That’s why you really need to rely on an honest and capable high school guidance counselor to help you decide what you should actually do.

Opportunity Cost of 4 Years

The average cost of college in 2009-2010 is $26,273 a year for a private college, $7,020 for a public college according to College Board. That means over four years you’ll have spent over $100,000 at a private school and $28,000 at a public school. When you consider the opportunity cost of not working for four years, coupled with the $100k/$28k actual cost, a college graduate is very much deep in the financial hole.

According to data from U.S. Census Bureau, the average high school graduate makes $30,400 a year. The average bachelor’s degree makes $52,200. How long does it take for the college graduate to catch up considering they’ve paid $100,000+ and haven’t been pulling a salary for four years (totaling $121,200). It takes a long time.

You Can’t Afford It

Student loan debt figures are at all time highs. Why is it socially acceptable to tell people “you can’t afford that Maserati” or “you can’t buy a 10 bedroom home” when they can’t, but not OK to say the same about college? Why is credit card debt so bad when student loan debt is good? People are graduating with a hundred thousand dollar student loan debts, which can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, and saddling themselves with multi-hundred dollar loan payments.

You should not go to college if you cannot afford it. This would be different if we weren’t surrounded by horror stories of student loan debt. These are stories of graduates who can’t find jobs and must meet a small mortgage payment each month. You hear about a philosophy major with $50,000 in debt and no job prospects. The reality is that they shouldn’t have gone to that school to pursue that major… it wasn’t worth it and they couldn’t afford it.

You Don’t Want To

Remember when you were a kid and your parents told you to eat your vegetables? You probably fought them but you eventually ate them. You did it because your parents knew what was good for you and you, as a kid, didn’t. Perhaps they’re doing the same thing with college, telling you to go because it’s the right thing to do. They want you to go to college because it does, in many cases, give you an advantage in the workforce. They want you to go because they can tell their friends that you are going to college. But you should only go if you feel like that’s the best option for you.

You shouldn’t go to college because your parents want you to, or because your guidance counselor wants you to, or because your best friend is going and you want to be with him or her. You should go, and put yourself on the hook for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, if it’s the right decision for you.

(Photo: walkadog)

{ 47 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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47 Responses to “5 Reasons to Skip College”

  1. Jeff says:

    You forgot an important point in the “You can’t afford it” category: if you’re choosing a major that has a low starting and low career pay, you will spend the next 30 years paying off loans. The only way how people I know pay off loans for education or social work degrees is through government assistance programs that forgive a certain portion for every year of “service.” It sucks, but it’s true.

  2. DIY Investor says:

    Interesting post. It brought to mind a book I recently read “Shop Class as Soulcraft” by Matthew Crawford.Crawford is a PhD in philosophy and a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Virginia. He also operates a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond and so knows the academic world as well as the trades world. His argument is that many tradesman lead more intellectually challenging lives than those who are highly educated. He goes through the intricate thought and problem solving process involved in analyzing a mechanical problem with a motorcycle, For those interested, the gist of his argument can be found at

    • Jim says:

      A friend of mine recommended that book to me, I haven’t had a chance to look at it but this is the second time someone has recommended it. 🙂

    • I don’t doubt this. I’m a team coordinator in the IT department of a large company. When it comes time to bring a new person on board, problem solving skills are the first thing I look for. We can teach someone J2EE. We can’t teach someone to have natural curiosity.

      Probably half the folks on my team (including myself) don’t have a degree in an IT-related field. Yet, this is a very cohesive and productive team.

      • Anon says:

        Sounds about right. I work in the IT field, but my degree is definitely not IT related. Ended up in IT because I always played around with computers etc

      • I agree with this as well. The only thing I would say that some people do need is some training in coding. It’s easy to learn web development and J2EE, but if you do not have a background in software development, it will be difficult to just pick it up. I will say that a full 4 years is not necessary, but some training is required.

        • Oh, right. I’m not suggesting that we take a motorcycle mechanic and train him in IT because of the troubleshooting skills. But if we have 2 people with backgrounds in IT, and one lacks J2EE skills and the other lacks troubleshooting skills, I’ll take the first guy and get him trained in J2EE.

      • Wilma says:

        You also can’t teach common sense. I don’t have a college education but I do have common sense and problem solving qualities. Working with those in charge who don’t use common sense is extremely difficult for me. I hate doing things twice when with a little bit of common sense and preventative maintenance you can get the job done right the first time. I work in a totally reactionary environment and am seen as the “Debbie Downer of doom and gloom”. But I’m usually always right and a lot of time and money is wasted because those in charge can’t stand that I don’t have that piece of paper while they do. I should’ve gone to Vo-tech for a trade.

    • cubiclegeoff says:

      This is a great point. Unfortunately, for many white collar jobs that require the ability to problem solve don’t look for that or ask for it in an interview or hiring process, instead they base their first push on “qualified” individuals, those that have certain aspects on paper. Unfortunately, this blocks out a lot of individuals that would be better at the job. Although I’m not sure how to fix this.

  3. As a devil’s advocate, these are good reasons or not going.

    One difficulty is that many are too young at 17 or 18 to know what they plan to do with their lives. College does open the mind to alternatives

    • Working, especially at multiple jobs, also opens the mind to alternatives. So does travel, volunteering, the military, etc.

      If you decide to go to school later, you’ll be much more focused, mature and able to get more from your education.

      • Jim says:

        I agree, that’s why I think the relentless push to “go to college” without consideration for alternatives or other viewpoints is a little too much sometimes. I think going to college helped me but to think it’s right for everyone right out of high school is a mistake.

      • Shirley says:

        My chosen career right out of high school (50 years ago) was to marry and raise a family. After 17 years of doing just that while volunteering in their schools, I went to college for a teaching certification.

        While I would never recommend waiting that long, those years definitely showed me what I would be capable of and what I really would enjoy doing. I would have never even considered that career choice right out of high school.

  4. Ron says:

    Great post. As someone who didn’t finish college, but went back 15 years later to get my bachelors and then my masters, I can tell you I wasn’t ready for college at 18 years old.

    I don’t think it’s always an either/or decision, but could be a “not right now” decision. I barely maintained a 2.0 GPA when I was younger, but graduated with a 3.72 in my bachelors and then a 3.84 with my masters. Motivation can be a lot stronger when you’re a little bit older.

    My income increased drastically as well. Drastically.

  5. MikeZ says:

    I’ll second the Job idea. At the very least you get that you definitely don’t want to be a grocery store clerk and can’t afford to live on $3.75/hr, or even the $10/hr that the store manager makes (in the 1990 dollars when I was doing that). Putting a little scare into you and forcing you to select a better major is probably a huge cost saver.

  6. Safeway_Sage says:

    This is a good post…

    I have many friends who have only a HS diploma or a GED who are VERY successful in their chosen fields. I have an MS and have busted my ass to get it and spent much money to pay for it.

    Here is the kicker. We all pretty much make the same amount of money per year.

    Go figure. 🙂


    • Shirley says:

      One of my sons was fascinated by cars and their workings from the time he was small. He even went to work after school at 16 (got his drivers’ license on his birthday) for a car parts dealer.

      College was clearly not on his mind and the auto field definitely was. I have to admit that he was one of the very few I have ever seen who knew exactly what he wanted to do.

      Twelve years later he is the Parts Dept Manager over three locations for a large dealership, brings home a six figure salary, and is completely happy with his choice.

  7. Scott says:

    Personally, I think it would be nice to see more Americans take a “gap” year (or two) like many do in England, Australia, and other Commonwealth countries so that you take some real time to find your own path forward in life before committing large amounts of money to it.

    Another point to add to this post is: How many college students switch majors their sophomore/junior year and add another year or two onto their college education by doing it? Wouldn’t it have been far more efficient to not pay for lots of classes up front that have no meaning in the end other than to let you know you actually don’t like X major but would rather be doing Y major?

    • Shirley says:

      My daughter is a fast learner but all she wanted by the end of high school was a break from school. She worked for a year and then enrolled in a Jr. College where she found the career of her choice.

      Four years later she was recruited right out of college by a computer program building company and is now a system design analysis engineer and team manager. Without that break from school, I doubt that she would have reached that goal.

  8. zapeta says:

    If you’re looking for a career in a skilled trade, then college is definitely not right. At 18 years old its tough to know what you want to do so maybe working a couple years isn’t a bad plan. However, I think its harder to go back to school once you’re out for a while.

  9. moljacks says:

    This is a very interesting perspective. I have to admit, I never understood those degrees with little or no earning potential. However, depending how you do it, college can pay off in life lessons.

  10. “According to data from U.S. Census Bureau, the average high school graduate makes $30,400 a year. The average bachelor’s degree makes $52,200. How long does it take for the college graduate to catch up considering they’ve paid $100,000+ and haven’t been pulling a salary for four years (totaling $121,200).”

    One thing to note is that you’re not giving up 4 “average” years of wages (the $121,400 number you cite). The wages you’re earning between 18 and 22 are likely very far from the career average.

    Also, it’s not as if this is an all or none situation. A lot of college students have a job or three during college. I was always working at least 20 hours per week.

    • MikeZ says:

      Hmm I’m not sure that this is really a true statement. Certainly the first 4 years are starter years which have less pay, however the college grad has those same starter years as well. In fact it would be more true to say the college grad loses out on the final four years of his salary not that the HS grad has an extra 4 starter years.

      If both of them retire at age 65, the HS grad’s last years wages will assume 47 yrs experience, while the college student will only have 43.

      • Look more closely at the statement I’m refuting. I’m refuting the fact that the first 4 year of the HS grad’s career are worth $121,400. Those are the year being skipped, so those would be the wages that are missed.

        Sure, it’s true that the college grad is giving up the final 4 year of his salary – but this simply means that the disparity isn’t as large as it might otherwise be.

        Let’s say the HS grad started at a salary of $18,900 and rose by increments of $500/year to $41,900 in year 47. That’s an average of $30,400 per year.

        Does the college student lose 120K of earnings by skipping those first 4 year? No. He loses (assuming no job at all)

        Year 1: $18,900
        Year 2: $19,400
        Year 3: $19,900
        Year 4: $20,400

        For a total of $78,600.

        • Upon closer examination, I think the answer is somewhere in the middle.

          The student is still giving up $78,600 in those four year, but the disparity in year 5 – year 47 is less than the $21,800 difference in average salaries.

          The HS graduate will earn $1,428,800 over the course of his 47 year career. Subtracting the $78,600 and four years leaves $1,350,200 for those final 43 year – an average of $31,400 per year. This mean he’s “paying back” the $78,600 with an average of $20,800 extra per year ($52,200 – $31,400) rather than the $21,800 difference in the career averages. Still, that’s much better than what is stated – sacrificing 120K + tuition for those four years.

          And, of course, that’s assuming that a student who is footing the bill for college isn’t making any sort of money during those four years. In my experience, most of the folks paying their own way had at least one job during those years.

      • cubiclegeoff says:

        However, in many cases, 47 years of experience in a career that only requires a HS degree can have a significantly lower pay than 43 years of experience in a degree that requires a college degree.

  11. Jin6655321 says:

    The best thing I got out of college was the the luxury of living in the “real” world while still having lots of resources to guide me along. Most colleges have legal advocates to help you with landlord/work issues, career counselors to help you get a job/network/put together a decent resume/etc., professors to give you insight into your field of choice, free clinic for minor illnesses, instant roommates, etc.

    College isn’t always needed and it’s not for everyone but I think every high school grad need something to help them transition into adulthood. Ideally, their parents will fill that role but most parents seem to do a poor job. It’s either, “Start paying rent now or GTFO!” or “I’ll still treat you like a fifteen year old and do your laundry, cook your food, let you play video games for 12 hours, etc.”

  12. James says:

    Why no mention of an associate’s degree? I’ve got 2, and they’ve worked out well for me. In my area (NE Indiana) the classes are much cheaper and the credits will transfer to the 4 year school across the street if you want to continue your education. Technical schools also tend to be very flexible with financing and class scheduling, which allowed me to keep a job with 100% tuition reimbursement!

  13. daenyll says:

    My sister was definitely not suited to college immediately after HS, she did a semester off and worked. Tried a semester at the local community college, decided to go to Cosmotology school, finished the program and has worked for a year or two and is now considering part time courses at the university and working thru her education. She’s definitely grown up a bit and realized that she has to make the choices and live with them.

  14. freeby50 says:

    I think the 50% drop out rate is obvious evidence that speaks for itself that there are far too many people going to college that really shouldn’t be. A lot of people would be better off going into a skilled trade. Many people would do better delaying college for a while.

    Worse is that the more people who go to college the more it becomes a requirement. Its like a snowball effect. You “have” to go to college to be competitive cause everyone goes to college. But there just aren’t enough jobs that really require college to justify everyone going so the end result is that jobs that don’t currently require college will start demanding it on resumes. Thats already happening a lot.

    • I do wonder how they generate the stats, though.

      About a decade ago, I was pursuing a computer science BS because it would allow me to move into the programmer pay scale. I was already doing programmer work, but didn’t have a degree in that field.

      Shortly after I began, the company changed the policy and I got a pay bump without the need for the degree. I “dropped out” to focus on other life priorities.

      So am I counted in the 50% dropout rate? I really shouldn’t be, since I have two other degrees.

      Granted, that’s not the most common reason for dropping out, but it’s not exactly unheard, of either.

    • cubiclegeoff says:

      There are a lot of jobs that require a college degree. The problem is that most of those degrees are not pursued by Americans, leaving the jobs to others (such as engineering).

  15. cubiclegeoff says:

    Not going to college may be a harder choice now than before since there are fewer jobs available for individuals right out of high school. College then becomes a place just to go to be doing something. It’s not the best situation, but sitting around jobless isn’t any better.

  16. syzito says:

    College is different for everyone.Some need to go right after HS in order to stay focused while others need a few years away from studying.People that do graduate from college earn more money and they do have an easier time finding a job in the long run.

  17. “You go to high school to learn, get good grades, and get into a good college.”

    Right on target, which is probably why we have so many kids in university waste their money and never end up getting a degree. Also there’s the problem of ambivalence about future career prospects. Sure, there are the students who go in knowing exactly what they want to do, but how many people do you know have a full-time career in their original major? A lot of the time, your BA in philosophy will go to waste.

    A Bachelor’s has become the new high school diploma. If you want to get those high-paying jobs, you have to pay for it as a kid (unless you are the exception). If you know what you want to do, go to your vocational school or college and get that degree. If you don’t know what you want to do and can afford it, I will actually recommend going to college anyway; though it takes a long time to pay back, college, in the long run, is eventually worth the cost (on average, monetarily speaking). However, if you found that high school was not your thing and you cannot afford higher education, college probably is not for you. Try working in the real world for a while and then see if college, which is essentially a full-time job that you are paying for, is for you.

  18. ian says:

    I understand that this is a Devil’s Advocate post but in the Opportunity Cost of 4 Years section saying “It takes a long time” to pay back is not accurate in the least.

    To pay off (college + opportunity cost) of $49k-$121k using the average 22k per year difference from HS to college degree puts the ROI at 2.3 – 5.5 years. If you are ‘average’, you could have paid back the college by 30yrs old (quite young) and the next 30yrs will be at a higher standard of living, building wealth faster and with the lifelong achievement of a college degree in your pocket.

    Most people simply choose not to pay off the loan as quickly as they could because the interest rate for these loans is also very low.

    I agree with your post in general and with the posts above and I know the ‘average’ numbers are considering all ages not just the younger 18-24 wages but the analysis holds. ROI on college is LOW considering it is a lifetime result. Payback time of under 6 years in a 40+ year career is very worth while.

    • That is to say if you can find a job after college in this horrendous economy.

      • cubiclegeoff says:

        Although the unemployment rate for individuals with college degrees is significantly less that for individuals with just a HS degree.

        • Suzie Savings says:

          Hmm good point! Though it leads me to question if areas with high drop-out rates synonymously have less job opportunities, which would make it difficult for anyone to get a job. Regardless, the article that you sent me was spot on: we should probably readjust the education system in high schools anyway.

  19. Darren says:

    Another reason to skip college is because you think a degree will automatically guarantee your success.

    Some people think they’re entitled to high pay just because they earned a degree. While it is an accomplishment in itself, employers still don’t care much about what you did in the past. They want to know what skills you’ve acquired, and how you can make them money.

    That’s why they call graduation a commencement. It’s the beginning of a new journey.

  20. JamesV says:

    My comment is that I still do not understand how a 4 year college graduate is going to pay off a $25,000-$75,000 school loan rather quickly without it burdeoning them for the next 10-30 years. I would hope individuals would really think about it as I suspect most college enrollee’s do not.

    I also do not agree that most white collar jobs ‘should require’ a 4-year degree to even be in the running for most positions. My experience in the Graphic Communications field for past 15 years far out weighs the newbie 4-year college graduate’s school experiences.

    • cubiclegeoff says:

      In some places, experiences can outweigh a college degree. However, in many fields, like my own, a person with a degree (in this case a masters) may not have the experience and everyone knows they don’t really know anything, but they’ll be paid more than an individual with a lower degree and more experience.

  21. cdiver says:

    While most 18 year olds are not ready by any means to start and run their own business, imagine what opportunities they would have if they had a $100k in seed money vs. going to school for 4 years.

  22. eric says:

    This is a really good advocate post because I can see both sides to the argument. I have changed my viewpoint and feel like there shouldn’t be a huge automatic push for college degrees. I agree that students need to figure out what they want in life before taking on more schooling (and likely debt!)

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