NOT Everyone Should Attend College, BUT Let's not Give up on it Entirely

Recently, a bunch of people (some of them high-profile and well-respected) have been going around trumpeting that "college is a waste of time." I agree with them, but I think that they are missing a lot of the point. I think that saying "college is a waste of time" makes about as much sense as saying that "everyone should go to college." I honestly think that college fills a vital role for some people, but on the flip side, a lot of education is clearly wasted (either unneeded or useless). In order to resolve things, we need to become more educated consumers of higher education, and we need to figure out how to fix the higher education system.

Useless and Unneeded Education
So what is unneeded and useless education? (And I use these as scientific terms) Unneeded education is education that is not required to attain your life goals, but that you may think you need. Some people may need it, but others may be able to get to the same point on their. By contrast, useless education is actually completely worthless, and is just being sold to you by universities who want to make a buck.

If you looked at the earlier engineers at Google, you would see an interesting dichotomy. Most were highly educated, coming from the best schools in the world. Many of the most successful managers had Masters Degrees and PhDs. However, there were a few people (and I mean a FEW) who don't have college degrees. These were actually some of the most impressive people in the place. I remember when I met Aaron Boodman at a party circa 2005 (he has been instrumental in the creation of Google Chrome and several other important initiatives). At some point during our first conversation I asked him what year he graduated from college. For me, college graduation year was just a reference point to determine how old you were (pretty much everyone I knew up to that point had gone to college). His answer was something like "I never bothered to go." He was clearly successful - at that point he was like 27 and had worked for Microsoft and Google. More importantly, he had built a number of successful open-source projects, and was well-known for that stuff. Clearly he had better spent the time that most people spend in college learning how to program (and learning about life on his own dime). However, I believe that Aaron Boodman is an outlier. Most people could not have accomplished what he did with no college education. For him, college was unneeded education.

When I lived in Boston (for grad school), I met a number of people who had gone to college for four years and then had attended two or three years of grad school. They were over $100,000 in debt, and were unlikely to ever get a job that would allow them to pay this debt off. It is even more unfortunate that these people went to school for things like social work and non-profit management. They clearly wanted to do something useful with their lives, but they fell into a trap laid by an educational system that only pretended to be aligned with their interests. This was clearly useless education - they were sold a load of junk. When higher education was cheaper, this wasn't as obvious, but rising costs have made this much clearer.

Confidence and Motivation
So, why would you want to skip college? Clearly this isn't about wasting time. I constantly see people haranguing themselves about how they "wasted this or that year doing this or that thing." But if they hadn't wasted this or that year, they wouldn't be in the position to know that they had missed it. Clearly, that experience gave them valuable experience, either in the form or knowledge or confidence. When I was 18 years old, I was super-immature. I definitely wasn't ready to be out in the world on my own at age 18. College gave me an important buffer of time to grow and mature, and I think it fills that role for many people. I think we just need to figure out what purpose it serves, and make sure that it does that well.

There are two things you need to succeed in life (yup, only two) - confidence and motivation. If you have those two, you can attain all of the other things that matter. Not everyone will "succeed" to the same degree, or in the same ways, but heck, we are all different.

First let's talk about motivation. Motivation is what you need to get things done. In the context of learning, it allows you to sit down and study without being told to. You can get knowledge by reading a book or by attending a class. You could put some people in a room with a stack of books, come back a few years later, and they would have the equivalent of a college degree. Other people just don't have that capability. They would probably have spent those years watching TV. They need the structure of a university to obtain that knowledge. It might be possible to come up with a way to motivate those people, but I think that some of them do just fine in a structured university setting (someone needs to work for the companies founded by the self-motivated dropouts).

Now confidence - confidence is the ability to know that you CAN get things done. Some people have that naturally, but others need a bit more coaching. When I came out of MIT at the age of 22, I realized that I could do whatever I wanted so long as I was sure enough of myself. In truth, I didn't need the fancy degree to succeed at my first few jobs (although it didn't hurt when I was interviewing for them). Most of what I used at work was actually learned on the spot, except possibly the realization that I COULD learn just about anything. But I don't know whether I personally could have come to that realization without a college degree from a top institution. I think I got a lot more from it than just that one realization, but that realization was a big part of it. By comparison, my grad school experience at MIT was much less of an AHA moment (since I already had the aha years earlier). I just needed the confidence to quit my high-paying job and go out and start a company, and going to grad school gave me the excuse of sorts.

Let's Not Throw the Baby out with the Bath Water
I agree that we should encourage students to delay entering college, but I think that we need to focus on fixing our educational system rather than abandoning it. I agree with the unCollege people, but I don't think that they have the whole answer (just a part of it). For some reason, most of the people I knew who delayed college by one year seemed better adjusted than the people who went straight to college. A lot of my sister's classmates at Brown came in a year or two late and seemed better-adjusted, while a lot of my classmates at MIT went to college a year early, and seemed particularly immature and poorly adjusted. 

I think that we should encourage kids to delay college by one year. During that year, they should be able to pursue something they are passionate about, or if they aren't self-motivated enough to come up with something, they should be provided with service opportunities that allow them to have a more structured experience. After one year, a lot of them will run (not walk) to college. Some will realize that they can make due on their own, but I honestly think that will be fewer people than you would expect. Hopefully the kids who do go to college at 19 or 20 will be far better customers of higher education than the naive ones who now come in at 17 or 18.

Let's Actually FIX Higher Education
So let's talk about how to fix higher education. There are obviously lots of theories about how things are broken, but I haven't seen that many ideas for how to fix things. I think that the key to ending the higher education bubble is rationalizing the value equation.

First of all, every university should be required to tell each attendee up front how many years it will take them to pay for his or her degree (think of it like the nutritional info they put on the box). The University should be required to attach a page to each admissions letter that says "this degree will cost you X dollars fully loaded. Based on data from recent graduates of our program, you can expect to make Y when you graduate. It will take you Z years to pay off this degree at a cost of Q dollars per month." Every university has this info for each of their programs - it helps them figure out who to hit up for donations after graduation. Maybe they can put it all together, and tell you how much "nutritional content" each degree has. If a degree doesn't have enough nutritional content, they can either reduce the cost, or they can alter the educational content to improve graduates' skillsets (optimally there would be a combination of the two).

I think that accreditation should be based on nutritional content. Programs that don't meet a certain benchmark shouldn't be allowed to subsist alongside better programs. College Freshmen don't realize that the choice between an English major and an Engineering major can drastically affect the quality of their lives in some cases (although if you look at the prospects of English majors coming out of certain Universities, they do just fine). You would think this might encourage a shift from liberal arts educations to science and and engineering-based ones, but I'm sure that all programs can manage to tune either the content or the pricing model..

For example, there is extremely limited demand for German Professors at our universities. There are only a few positions open for grad students, and most of those don't get jobs when they graduate. And even if you get one of the few jobs as a German professor, the salaries aren't that good. But no one tells you that when you declare a German major. So maybe universities will decide that the tuition is significantly reduced for undergraduate German majors, but they will only accept 3 students per year. If they want to have 50 German majors who pay full price, those students will either need to take a curriculum that also prepares them for other jobs, or the university will put a big red flag on the program that says "THIS ISN'T WORTH IT."

Overall, I think that we can get there. But I think that there are more responsible things we can do than pay people $100,000 to drop out of college. It's sensationalist, and it gets headlines, but it doesn't really address the larger problems that we actually want to solve (although maybe it will start to point us in the right direction).
2 responses
I find it funny that while a lot software devs, mostly those without higher education, complain about usefullness of a degree don't mind undeservingly call themseles software 'engineers.'
I think it is important to to distinguish between college and education. I am a software developer myself and I attended a lot of college courses. However, I'm not convinced that a degree was most productive way of eventually landing a career.

I just made a post about the subject myself here:

In reality, I think that we need to reform the educational system. I would much rather see employers hire bright young individuals out of high school, then send them to college or elsewhere for a la carte classes on subjects that they need to know.

The value I got from college was from courses that are difficult to understand without someone first explaining it (i.e. Combinatorics). However, with the expansion of resources online, and with new computer based training models coming out, we have less need for a formal "sit here and learn for four years straight" education.