The Case for a College Degree

Look, I love Mike Rowe. And while he has never actually argued against the importance of a college education, he is very vocal in his scolding of a society that promotes college ahead of all other forms of education.

And I agree; college is not for everyone. Some of my closest friends are electricians, plumbers, and mechanics. And you know what? They are debt-free.

Having said that, online and off there continues the same set of tired arguments against attaining a college degree. In our society, if an argument is repeated often enough and loud enough, then there is a real danger of it becoming the truth.

So, what are these arguments and is there any truth to their volume?

1. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not need a college degree to be successful.

There are a great number of high-performing entrepreneurs and inventors that either didn’t attend college or dropped out early and still went on to become amazingly wealthy. But using superluminal individuals as the argument against going to school is like spending your rent money on lottery tickets. My own uncle dropped out of high school in 11th grade and is now the CEO of a global furniture business. Despite this, he is a huge college education advocate. He recognizes that his success was a mix of the right idea, at the right time, and at the right place.

The secret to his success, as I suspect it was for Gates and Jobs as well, was a combination of an inspired idea, the drive to work harder than everyone around them, a dash of ruthlessness and a little bit of luck.

For we mere mortals, inspired ideas don’t come around too often and luck, despite my Irish heritage, is always in short supply. What we can control, however, is our resistance to failure and our courage to work harder than all our peers. These traits make college degrees attainable for most of us.

2. College is too expensive. What about student loan debt?

There is some truth to this argument that needs to be addressed. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, outstanding student loan debt in the United States lies between $902 billion and $1 trillion with around $864 billion in federal student loan debt. It has become such an issue that many of the Democratic candidates on the left propose student loan forgiveness plans as part of their platforms.

We’re faced with this staggering issue because for two and a half decades, from 1980 to 2005, we pushed the value of four-year schools on EVERYONE. We told high school students that a college education is so important that the cost is irrelevant.

On this point, Mike Rowe nails it when he says “That’s the most dangerous myth of all, and the unintended consequences are now self-evident — the vanishing of shop class in high schools, $1 trillion dollars of student loans, and 6 million vacant jobs that no one is trained to do. That’s the skills gap. It’s real, and it’s a massive problem for anyone who shares my addiction to smooth roads, cool air, and indoor plumbing.”

But is college too expensive if you truly have a desire to pursue a college degree? No…

Attending college can cost on average about $26,000 for undergraduates at a four-year institution, based on the National Center for Education Statistics data for 2015–2016. According to Christopher Nelson, this year the published average cost of tuition and fees at private four-year institutions is $31,230, while the average net cost, after grants and financial aid, is $12,360. As for those in debt, only 4.3% of all student borrowers owe more than $100,000. 70% owe less than $25,000.

That’s to say nothing of public four-year institutions whose tuition is even cheaper, especially if you are a resident of that state.

If you’re a servicemember, the cost to active duty military or veterans is virtually nonexistent. I used active-duty tuition assistance to earn my bachelor’s degree while serving on active duty and my Montgomery GI Bill to earn my MBA after separation. Because I also have access to the Post 9/11 GI Bill, I will be finishing a terminal degree, Juris Doctor, without having spent a single red cent on college.

For non-military folks, scholarships, grants, and awards are everywhere. Find out what discipline interests you and seek out scholarships in that field.

3. Do college grads really earn more than high school grads? I heard that was just a myth.

Yes, they do. A recent study from Georgetown University found that, on average, college graduates earn $1 million more in earnings over their lifetime. Another recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the median yearly income gap between high school and college graduates is around $17,500. What could you do with an extra $1500 per month?

4. Fewer and fewer jobs require a college degree these days. Modern jobs focus on interpersonal skills and creativity.

While it is true that we are well on our way into the “experience economy” where consumers crave authentic experiences in their transactions, the stats don’t lie: The unemployment rate for those with a high school diploma is two times higher compared to those who graduated college. Consider these statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

In fact, according to this chart, it appears better to have a professional degree like a doctor, lawyer or accountant than a research degree like a Ph.D. Regardless, they are all better than no degree when it comes to high earnings and low unemployment.

A Path Forward

Personally, I think the strongest case for college is actually an intangible quality: When you are in school, you are exposed to diversity, new ideas and new ways of thinking that contribute to you becoming a more knowledgeable and well-rounded citizen.

And we need educated citizens now more than ever.

Rational thought appears to be in decline. Scientists are mocked and politicized. Everyone is retreating deeper into their tribes and we are erecting walls, both literal and figurative.

I am an advocate for a college degree, but not for just any degree. Your degree plan should be a well-thought-out strategy that takes you precisely where you want to be. Forget about the $100,000 degree in Russian Literature unless you can make money from reading Chekhov and Dostoevsky.

A degree unused is a useless degree.

As for Mike Rowe, he is absolutely correct that a college degree is not right for everyone. I know a millionaire plumber who runs his own business and never set foot on a college campus.

As a society, we need to get away from the “one-size-fits-all college for everyone” solution. But if you do choose to put in the hard work to earn a degree, I support you. But more importantly, the country needs you.

Will you answer the call?

Indie filmmaker, writer, TED speaker & veteran of the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. Law student. The Intermittent Fasting Guy. Reach out at wes@warriorlodge.com

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