2016 Debt Avoidance education

10 Reasons You Need a College Degree


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Last month my blogging buddy Mr. Groovy was kind enough to write a post highlighting my thoughts on hacking a college degree.  It appears that Mr. Groovy and I are both “freedomists” with substantial rebellious streaks in us.  While it’s easy to be down on higher education with its ridiculous tuition rates for degrees of limited utility, there are still many reasons to earn a college degree.  Here are ten reasons you should consider pursuing an undergraduate degree:

  1.   Credential * Many jobs require a college degree (any degree!) as a minimum requirement.  Like it or not, a college degree serves as a filter during the interview process.  Once you earn your degree in physics or P.E., the interviewer can “check the box” on your job application and continue on with the interview.  Conversely, the lack of a degree is often used against you during the hiring process.  As soon as you earn your college degree, those days will be over.
  2.   Grit * In my opinion, learning to “suck it up” and get things accomplished was the greatest lesson of my college experience.  On your college degree journey you will take many difficult courses with professors who love their area of expertise.  Many of your professors will have high academic expectations that will seem unreasonable or even impossible.  You can drop the course and change professors, but at some point you’ll have to deal with some truly difficult situations.  Don’t worry,  you will learn how to battle your way through hard courses and challenging professors.  Your increased levels of diligence and persistence will serve you well in life.  In my own life, grit has helped me more than my good looks, incredible smarts and infinite social grace…combined!  

    Living the Dream in El Salvador, 1989
  3.   Graduate School * An undergraduate degree affords you the opportunity to attend graduate school.  I know, I know…once you’re done with college, you’re never going back to school again.  Yeah, I remember saying that about three graduate degrees ago.  At some point, it’s likely that you’ll want to return to school for a specialized degree.  Going to graduate school without an undergraduate degree is virtually impossible, so my advice is to knock out your undergrad degree as soon as possible.  
  4.   Bragging Rights * A college degree gives you bragging rights among your “degree-less” peers.  Okay, this is a really lame reason to go to college, but it’s true that a college degree will increase your social status.  Depending on where you live, earning a college degree can be an infrequent accomplishment or a normal occurrence.  For example, Huntsville, Alabama has a large percentage of residents with college degrees (50%+) while other areas (I don’t want to name them.) have ZERO college graduates.  So, in Huntsville a degree would be a necessity, but a degree in some areas would make you highly credentialed.  (Here is a breakdown of college degrees by zip codes.)
  5.   Growth Experience * When I arrived at college back in 1982, I remember thinking to myself, “Self, you’re not only a basketball superstar, but you’re also smarter than the average bear.”  It took all of one week of classes to shatter that illusion.  I immediately scrambled to learn how to:  study, write at the college level, plan for tests and papers, and basically keep my academic ship afloat while playing D-1 basketball.  Of course, all these skills had to be learned in addition to tons of academic material.  Even my academic disasters were growth experiences.  For example, I was terrible at Spanish; I  struggled to get C’s and barely fulfilled my foreign language requirement.  After graduating from college in 1986, I went to Argentina to play basketball.  Because of my embarrassing performance in my Spanish classes, I was highly motivated to get my Spanish up to snuff.  Eventually, I learned Spanish and became a high school Spanish teacher…oh the irony!  In college everyone grows, or they flunk out.
  6.   Focus *  A college degree requires a lot of time, physical energy, and mental concentration.  At a certain point most individuals grow tired of being students.  Finishing your college degree as soon as possible allows your to focus on other aspects of your life such as your:  career, marriage, health, and hobbies.  Once you have your degree in hand, you won’t feel guilty for reading for pleasure, sleeping in with your sweetie, taking a jog, or road-tripping to the beach.  Not having that nagging oh-crap-I-have-a-paper-due-tomorrow feeling is priceless.
  7.   Money * We always hear that college graduates earn more money than high school graduates, but do you know how much more?  According to the graph below, it’s about $1 million more over a 40 year career ($2.4 million vs. $1.4 million).  Individuals with a master’s degree earn almost double that of high school graduates over the same time frame ($2.8 million vs. $1.4 million).  Earning your college degree is the best way to avoid leaving money on the table.  Earning your college degree helps you maximize your income over your working career.

    Based on 40 Years of Full-time Work (Source / Graph)
  8.   Career Network * Attending college will put you in contact with all sorts of interesting people.  Many of these people grow up to become movers and shakers who are “good to know” for your career growth.  Using your alumni network is an easy, and socially acceptable, way to reach out to people of all walks of life.  For example,  you could use your alumni contacts to explore job opportunities or career changes.  It has been my experience that most individuals are happy and willing to help their fellow alumni.  While you may never need to use an alumni network, it is a useful tool to have.
  9.   Role Model * If you want your own children to obtain their college degree, it’s best that you lead by example and earn your own degree first.  It is my experience that the children of college graduates usually go on to college and earn their degrees regardless of ability and motivation.  Thanks to social media I am able to see what my students do after high school.  I am often surprised at how many “average” students go on to finish their college degrees.  The key component seems to be that these students come from families that expect (and demand) that their children earn college degrees.  If your parents went to college and finished, it’s likely that you’ll do the same.  The converse also seems to be true, so by finishing your degree first, you will set the standard for your lineage.
  10.   Future Spouse *  Some people are fortunate enough to meet their soul mates in college and get married early in life.  Because college is full of single people of similar interests, it stands to reason that college is a good place to find a spouse.  (All jokes aside, an MRS Degree usually benefits both parties.)  Even if you don’t find the love of your life in college, your college degree will signal to potential mates that you are a serious person who plans for the future.  Firm butts and six-pack abs might catch your eye, but a potential spouse with a successful future is irresistible.

In spite of my negative feelings towards the educational-industrial complex, those are my reasons why many people would benefit from a college degree.  That said, I certainly don’t recommend that you take on a boatload of student loan debt to finance your degree.  I suggest that you avoid student loans and find some way to hack your degree.  It can be done!

To me, the best reasons for going to school were reasons #1, #2, and #5.  What were yours?  What are some other reasons that I might have overlooked?

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. When I sign up for a college degree, I was clueless and it was because everyone does it. But now it has been “proven” that I am earning something I probably never would without the paper. I don’t think I am smarter or knows more but that’s definitely the reason I am paid much higher than min wages.

    1. Lynn,
      Most of us went off to college because that was the norm for college prep kids. I’m glad I went and made it through without drowning in student loan debt. Not only are we paid better, but there always seems to be jobs available (at least for us here in GA). Thanks for visiting.

  2. Totally agree Ed! When talking with my students I tell them it’s their million dollar decision! This article will be fun to share with them! Thx!

    1. Chris,
      Keep pounding a little real-life knowledge into their skulls before you set them free. Maybe a few of them will internalize the message. I have one student who consults me as he plans his future educational and financial moves. It’s a great feeling to steer a 17 year old towards a debt-free degree and FIRE. Ed

  3. Agree 100% on all of these. Especially #1 in technical fields like chemistry ( my discipline) where actually more than one degree is optimal to get ahead.

    I would add Opportunity to Travel. Typically, it is a knock on effect of better job, higher salary . Those better job positions may allow you to lead initiatives outside of your home country. And traveling , even on business, is always an enriching experience. Even without airmiles…!

    1. Mr. Pie,
      Yeah, I bet it’s pretty hard to be a chemist without a college degree. The same is true for CPA’s, doctors, or lawyers. Funny, I was think about credentials at the other end of the spectrum–the jobs that require almost any college degree. Either way, a college degree is a very useful credential.

      I cannot believe I forgot to mention travel because it was in my rough draft. I agree with you 100% on this one because solo travel in my 20’s made a huge impact on my life. In 1987, I spent 10 months in Central America and Mexico. While there, I spend 4 months in language school in Guatemala where I learned a lot of Spanish. I also matured and grew as a person. In 1989, I went to Brazil for 3 months with a dictionary, guide book, and a carry-on bag. Oh, the memories…I can hear the cuícas now! I cannot wait to take my son to Brazil..stay tuned.

      Okay, you entered the crazy zone by suggesting that it’s possible travel without air miles. I guess if your company is picking up the tab, it’s okay. (You’ll love this: I just spent $78 total for three one-way tickets from Atlanta to Cancun.) Thanks for the visit Sr. Pastel. Ed

  4. I’m very conflicted. On the one hand, you make a very impressive case for a college degree. In fact, as I was reading your post, I found myself thinking, “Sh*t, Hillary ought to make Ed Mills Secretary of Education.”

    But then there’s the other hand. I think my biggest gripe with the vaunted BA is that it’s the premiere credential out there–largely because accreditation rules have artificially limited any feasible alternative–and big education takes full advantage of this. I mean, c’mon. It knows full well kids need a BA to advance in this world, and every year tuition and fees go up higher than the inflation rate. If it really wanted to, big education could devise an affordable credential. Simply putting together a three-year degree program would immediately reduce the cost of a BA by twenty-five percent. But rather than do something as charitable as that, it would rather maintain the status quo and point the steely finger at indignation at those wretched politicians who are “starving higher education.”

    Sorry for the rant, Ed. Up until a generation or so ago, college did provide the ten benefits you so eloquently outlined. And it did so for a very reasonable cost. But I can’t say that today. Some colleges still do. But do most?

    1. I hear ya Mr. Groovy! Let me start by saying that I will be declining the Secretary of Education offer unless I can telecommute from Cancun. Frankly, I’ve give up on ever reforming Big Education the same way I gave up on 401k-403b reform. There is too much power and money involved in the educational-industrial complex for any real change to take place. I love the 3-year college degree idea, but it won’t come from Big Ed. It will come from educational hackers who streamline their college studies via joint-enrollment, CLEP tests, and summer school. Some of those hackers will shave off 2 or 3 years of their college studies. (For the record, I was an abysmal undergraduate student who finished college in 3.67 years. A college degree in 3 years is more doable than most people imagine.)

      As for your ranting, I love it. We need more ranting about this subject because I hate seeing young people starting their lives in financial quicksand. Could you imagine if 25% of college students started hacking their own degrees AND avoiding student loans all together? These debt-free, 20-year old college grads would put more pressure on Big Ed than any “solutions” from the political class. My advice to high school kids is they get crafty and figure out a way to dramatically pare their college costs because student loans are creating a class of debt slaves in need of more political “solutions.”

      In our lifetimes, a college degree was considered an essential part of the America dream. It was followed by a wonderful marriage, a 30-year working career, and a beautiful home. Well, we all know how that worked out for many people: divorce, unemployment, and bankruptcy. Don’t get me wrong, modern-day living is awesome, but if you’re not careful in your youth, you can seriously put yourself behind the financial eight ball. Young people need to know the financial perils of earning a college degree, so rant on! Thanks for the comment and enjoy your FIRE. Ed

  5. My reason was mercenary: get the credential. After working in my field of study 25 years, lack of a degree was holding me back, and would become increasing handicap onward.

    It appears college has become the latter equivalent of high school to get decent jobs. Funny many employers don’t care about the major, just the credential. So ideal for non-traditional degree hacking.

    As I recall, Bureau of Labor Statistics asserts 25% of jobs justify a degree, based upon skills and knowledge required, whereas half of employers require one, even for mundane jobs. So dispute the notion “everyone” needs more education, or should go to college, as half with degrees working in jobs not requiring one. Perhaps an Associates or Vocational alternative could suffice? Apprenticeships like Germany?

    I suspect degree oversupply started during Vietnam war, thanks to unfair college deferments, that started a credential ratcheting which continues.

    STEM has long suffered oversupply due to shortage propaganda encouraging excessive enrollment. Other professions go thru regular booms and busts. So tricky picking a major. Getting a non-traditional degree easier than ever, perhaps no need to rush? Get AA degree, work awhile, then finish BS/BA after career seems clearer. Or start with a liberal bachelors, than get another career focused one later. Love the new possibilities.

    I remember 1980’s newspaper article about some 40-something dude quitting job and enrolling in residential state school. Thought there had to be a better way. And there was, as John Bear’s (and others) books about non-traditional degrees made clear. I still wonder why this terrific alternative doesn’t get the coverage it deserves, especially among the high-school set. Maybe the big three should market more to high-schoolers?

    But suspect there may still be stigma to online, distance, alternative methods that could fade after critical mass of such learners prove themselves in the workplace and elsewhere.

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