Earning a College Degree – Is it Really that Important?

Wednesday, Mar. 11th 2009 1:09 PM

Over the past year we have seen a number of posts that have taken issue with the importance of earning a college degree.

The Great College Hoax

In early February, Kathy Kristof, writing for Forbes.com, penned a piece called “The Great College Hoax.” It is an article that calls into question the linear relationship between a college degree and future prosperity.

To prove her point, Kristof highlights the story of Joel Kellum and Jennifer Coultas. Kellum, now 40, “did everything he was supposed to do to get ahead in life ” according to Kristof.

“He worked hard as a high schooler, got into the University of Virginia and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history” before being “accepted into the California Western School of Law.”

 H4NUM4N“Kellum couldn’t swing the $36,000 in annual tuition with financial aid and part-time work. So he did what friends and professors said was the smart move and took out $60,000 in student loans. Kellum’s law school sweetheart, Jennifer Coultas, did much the same.

“By the time they graduated in 1995, the couple was $194,000 in debt. They eventually married and each landed a six-figure job. Yet even with Kellum moonlighting, they had to scrounge to come up with $145,000 in loan payments. With interest accruing at up to 12% a year, that whittled away only $21,000 in principal. Their remaining bill: $173,000 and counting.”

America’s Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor’s Degree

It was last May that career counselor Marty Nemko penned his powerful critique, “America’s Most Overrated Product: the Bachelor’s Degree,” for The Chronicle. He too calls into question the unrelenting push to earn a college diploma.

“Among my saddest moments as a career counselor is when I hear a story like this: ‘I wasn’t a good student in high school, but I wanted to prove that I can get a college diploma. I’d be the first one in my family to do it. But it’s been five years and $80,000, and I still have 45 credits to go.'”

Though he too is focused on the potential to pile up debt in the process, Nemko is more forceful about the entire process of pursuing a degree. He goes on to add, “Perhaps worst of all, even those who do manage to graduate too rarely end up in careers that require a college education. So it’s not surprising that when you hop into a cab or walk into a restaurant, you’re likely to meet workers who spent years and their family’s life savings on college, only to end up with a job they could have done as a high-school dropout.”

One Thing You Don’t Need To Be An Entrepreneur: A College Degree

Our Lady of DisgraceAnd most recently, venture capitalist Fred Wilson authored his “One Thing You Don’t Need To Be An Entrepreneur: A College Degree.” Wilson has much to say including:

“I have learned that where someone went to college (or even if they didn’t go to college) has absolutely no correlation to whether they will be a good entrepreneur or not. I don’t pay attention to that part of a resume. I focus on what they’ve done in the work world, what they’ve shown they can do, and most importantly what they’ve done to date on that specific startup.”

Wilson points out a couple of real key facts about entrepreneurial life and that of other professions.

“Entrepreneurs don’t need degrees like lawyers and doctors do. They are credentialed by virtue of their track record. The first startup is hard but if they make that one work, they end up with something much better than a college degree. They have a notch in their belt. They’ve got a track record of success. Even if the first one is a failure, I’d say that they’ve got something more than a degree. They’ve shown they can start something from nothing, build a team, a product, and maybe even a business.”

A Change of Heart?

Perhaps you read these articles when they first appeared. If you did, then you likely had to be wondering, is the pursuit of a college diploma all it is cracked up to be.

If you did not read any of them when they first appeared but did read the highlights back to back to back as we just presented them, then you must now really be wondering. Is the dream of a college education really nothing more than a “Great Hoax?”

As life would have it, the answer is not quite so simple. The question is very complex and the answer varies from individual to individual and from situation to situation.

Not For Everyone

First it must be noted that a four-year college is not for everyone, not by a long shot. Even our sister education site has articulated that the idea that everyone should attend a four-year college “is a silly, misguided notion.”

If you are not truly interested in academics then it is hard to argue that you should spend the next four years of your life pursuing a bachelor’s degree. If reading and writing are not the ways you learn best, then four years of college are going to be a massive struggle.

The work demands associated with college study will be enormous and the intellectual challenges significant. And for the most part, the learning methodology will center on reading and writing, irrespective of the area of study. In a nutshell, you must have a strong academic background, an equally strong desire to succeed and the ability to learn from books and discussions.

McFlossyIf instead, you learn best by doing, or by working with your hands, then you should consider something other than a four-year college and a bachelor’s degree. Look at one of the many two-year vocational schools that focus on a trade or a specific skill. These programs also have academic components, because the ability to read and write well are very important. But they will not be the core of the program – the trade or skill will form the major portion of your time.

Not at all Costs

In addition to learning styles and goals, prospective students must understand the costs associated with higher education. Both Nemko and Kristof point to terrible stories of students racking up enormous debt in their pursuit of the coveted degree.

The friends and professors that advised Mr. Kellum and his wife to take out $60,000 in loans should not be called friends or advisers. Starting your careers with a combined debt approaching $200,000, as was the case with the Kellums, is indeed a recipe for disaster.

While earning that coveted diploma, students must be mindful of the debt they are incurring. The amount that is appropriate is dependent on future earnings. A prospective teacher will need to keep their debt much lower than say a person who is going to become a certified public accountant.

Ultimately, students must be careful not to mortgage their entire future by borrowing exorbitant sums of money while they are young.

Pursuing the Degree

When it comes to a summation of the responsible pursuit of a degree we turn to Daniel Tenner. He too has read “The Great College Hoax” and “One Thing You Don’t Need To Be An Entrepreneur” and the blogger has some great advice for prospective students:

“My opinion on the subject is simple: if you have a thirst for learning, and you don’t have to enter the workforce immediately (i.e. you can afford, somehow, a degree, without being financially irresponsible), then you absolutely should go to university, even if you have a start-up that you could work on right away. This is not because you need the degree for your future career, but because it’s a great thing to spend your next 4 years on.”

laffy-4kWith great wisdom, Tenner goes on to note several key points. First, “business ideas are a dime a dozen. Don’t worry about ideas. You’ll have just as many, if not more, ideas when you come out of college as when you went in.”

Second, you can leave if you find that college is really not for you. If the learning approaches are simply not working for you or you do not have the academic preparation or the desire, then you can always decide to do something else.

However, for most students, including Tenner, college is an enjoyable way to spend four years. It is a place where many students first learn to be on their own yet do so while still having a significant support net around them. As the former student notes, college is essentially a “shelter where you can develop yourself.”

And most importantly, you will meet extremely interesting people (students and professors) even as you “learn things you would never have learned by yourself.” Tenner goes on to emphasize that college was the last place where he encountered people with the willingness and desire to teach him. Now the lessons come from the business world, and they, of course, now come in much harsher form.

The Importance of Higher Education

Earlier this week we noted the statistics related to the economic downturn and that the percentage of workers with a college degree who had been laid off was half of the national average. Many other articles point to the fact that those who earn a degree will earn substantially more over their lifetime.

A college degree does pay, provided one recognizes that the debt they accrue must be limited. But by a college degree, we mean the broadest set of options possible.

A technical, vocational, or associate’s degree also pays off. And in many instances, that form of degree is far more appropriate for specific individuals dependent upon their interests and life circumstances.

But even more than the financial piece, college can be a great place for students to learn about themselves and society as a whole. It is hard to argue against a place that helps students mature even as it serves to further develop their intellect.

When it comes to pursuing higher education, the key is not to get hung up on the four-year bachelor’s degree option as the only viable college experience or career preparation.

As for the question, “earning a college degree – is it really that important?” we finish with the words of Tenner who says it as well as anyone.

“If you can go to university without being financially irresponsible, then it is personally irresponsible not to.”

Flickr photos courtesy of H4NUM4N, Our Lady of Disgrace, McFlossy and laffy-4k.

3 comments on "Earning a College Degree – Is it Really that Important?"

  • Nice article. Higher education is a con game that others are starting to figure out. I got raked over the coals and learned my lesson. Have you seen http://www.thegreatcollegehoax.com yet?

  • This article is very enlightening.I appreciate the non-partisan message that was conveyed. Higher education is very important to achieve.Yet if a person feels pressured to be socially acceptable by getting a degree than he should really consider what He wants to do…instead of trying to be like everybody else or to please people!If somebody really has a fervent goal in mind and the passion,desire and financial resources to accomplish that goal than go for it!

  • I have always felt that if one wanted to pursue a degree then they should, there are a lot of professions that need a degree, like Docotors, Lawyers, etc… However when did it become accpetable to have to spend a lot of money to obtain a pieace of paper to prove to everyone your not stupid. I am remined of a man 22 years old that step on the grounds of Dow Chemical and his job was to shovel gravel, he made less than 2.00 an hour, but with dedication, hard work and proving he could be counted on 30 years or more later when he wanted to retire he was in charge of the entire local plant branch. This man did not even finish the 8th grade. Yes that was a lifetime ago and I do support General Education. My question is what happended to the value of hard work and dedication? I can’t find it.

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