It’s a decision that’s rarely questioned, and alternatives aren’t often presented. But is college really worth it?
As more people wake up to the reality of crushing debt, fewer employers require a degree for hiring, and the internet puts knowledge and business tools at our fingertips, it’s becoming more and more feasible to consider alternatives to college. Depending on what you want to do for work, college may or may not be the path for you. Here are a few things to consider.
1. College Saddles You with Debt
A 2020 report by the College Board stated that education for an in-state student attending a four-year public college in 2020-2021 averaged $26,820. The median household income was $68,703 in 2019. That means college costs amount to nearly 40% of a family’s typical income.
Debt means millions of young women start out their lives in a hole during crucial years when they could be building a nest egg instead. The repercussions of this are huge and multi-pronged. For one, it seriously delays family formation. Many women put off getting married and having children in their twenties because they have to focus on paying down their debt. And many young people are hesitant to marry someone who brings lots of extra debt to the table because they are worried about being responsible for paying it off.
Student debt also makes it way harder to afford a mortgage. This is why so many Millennials end up living with multiple roommates in crowded cities. Cities typically aren’t great places to find marriageable men, buy property, or raise families, so this debt-driven circumstance keeps many young people single and living paycheck-to-paycheck.
The reality of the debt burden often isn’t well understood by teens making this decision. Going into college, I personally thought my monthly student loan bill would be akin to an electric bill – maybe $50 to $100 per month, something reasonable. Not the case. You’ll likely be expected to make monthly payments of $500 or more. It’s simply not the same as a utility bill – it’s a massive burden.
Another thing to remember is that colleges will sell you on "financial aid," but this is not a scholarship. Financial aid isn't about helping you to afford college, or lower the cost of tuition. It's a nice phrase they use to describe what might be a collection of grant money and federal student loans. Grant money doesn't need to be paid back, but loans do. Do not confuse financial aid with scholarships.
You’ll likely be expected to make monthly payments of $500 or more to pay down your student loans.
When you borrow $30,000 for a college degree, you’re not just paying back $30,000. You’re paying back $30,000 plus monthly interest. A standard monthly debt payment typically goes toward fees, accrued interest, and principal, in that order. If you only make a small payment each month, your money will only pay off the accrued interest – it will not hit the principal balance. The interest then capitalizes, which means unpaid interest is added on to your principal, so you end up paying interest on top of interest.
Bottom line: unless you make a monthly payment large enough to hit the principal (typically somewhere in the range of $300-$500), your debt just grows and grows and grows. This makes it harder to start the rest of your life. Before taking on debt, take a good hard look at how student loan interest works, and be prepared to pay more than you initially borrowed. (Click here for five strategies to pay off your student loans faster.)
2. Companies Want To See What You’ve Done, Not What Classes You Took
For some fields, a degree is absolutely required. It’s not possible to become a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher without going to school. But if you want to get into good old-fashioned business – creating and selling a product, building an audience, doing marketing, crafting a brand, etc. – many of these things can be learned simply by doing it, not by sitting in a classroom for four more years. This is especially true in the age of social media.
My field, communications and marketing, is mostly made up of women. Women are drawn to this profession because we’re natural communicators and are empathetic. And it’s not the case that you absolutely need a degree to thrive in this field. We can easily learn the ropes of blogging, social media, and the ins and outs of other digital marketing channels at home – or become an apprentice or volunteer for a business owner who needs help.
The truth is, companies are often way more interested in your portfolio and your work experience – what you have actually done – rather than what classes you took in college. In fact, no employer has ever asked me about my degree or the courses I took in college. Instead, they asked me about what was on my resume (during college, I worked for a student newspaper, interned at a small public relations firm, and volunteered to do social media for a nonprofit). Today, when I am hiring, I almost never look at what courses someone took. I want to see examples of their work: What have they written? Have they designed any marketing emails? Can they make social media graphics or write good website copy?
In fact, no employer has ever asked me about my degree or the courses I took in college.
Consider whether you can get work experience and build a portfolio of work without going to college. If you’re in a field like mine, chances are that you can.
Perhaps you want to build your own business. In this case, college may not be the way, either.
“Entrepreneurship takes execution. You get good at it by ‘doing’,” writes Gary Vaynerchuk. “It’s like tennis. You can read all you want about how to hit the ball, but until you actually start practicing, you’re not going to get any good.”
We live in a time when it’s never been easier to get the information and experience we need to start a business at a fraction of the cost. There’s tons of free information out there.
For people who want to build something, it’s advisable to just start building – instead of going to college just to think about building.
3. University Culture Can Be Toxic to Women
The culture surrounding university life may seem fun when you’re 18 and ready to leave your parents’ house for the first time. You’ll make a lot of new friends and attend lots of fun parties. But university culture also has its downsides.
The pressure on young women to binge drink and engage in hookup culture in college is immense, and it can be hard to say no in such an intensely social environment. Dating in college is almost nonexistent – college guys mostly want to get drunk rather than ask you out for coffee or dinner.
The pressure on young women to binge drink and engage in hookup culture in college is immense.
When you go to university, you may find yourself wondering why it’s so hard to find a steady relationship or why so many people think it’s cool to get blackout drunk on a Thursday night. The culture surrounding college is no joke, and it’s something to take into account when choosing your path. (Read our guide on surviving college for some pointers!)
4. Colleges Are Becoming Indoctrination Centers
The ideas that underpin Western civilization and have led to its flourishing – a belief in objectivity, empiricism, equality under the law, and a system in which ability and achievement matter more than personal background or identity characteristics – are often actively derided at universities.
Colleges don’t exactly open your mind anymore. In fact, college professors overwhelmingly lean left. Many will tell you what to think, not how to think. Much of university education and culture is now underpinned by a toxic identity politics-centered worldview. The basic tenets of socialism, in which people are seen as belonging to groups of oppressed v. oppressor, often based on skin color and sexuality, are more often than not at the center of university “education.” Professors openly push harmful ideas about how the U.S. is inherently racist and oppressive.
Much of university education is now underpinned by a toxic identity politics-centered worldview.
Universities are no longer places where you’ll get a well-rounded education in which you’re honestly given all perspectives and encouraged to think for yourself. North Korean defector Yeonmi Park recently talked about how disappointed she was in Columbia University for its lack of open inquiry, noting that she learned how to censor herself in the classroom. The domination of a single ideology tracks with research conducted in 2014 that found that universities had a six-to-one ratio of liberal to conservative professors. In New England, the ratio was 28 to one!
Some alternatives are cropping up, like New Saint Andrew’s College in Moscow, ID (which only admits 40-50 students per year) and the newly established University of Austin (which is only accepting grad students for the first few years), both of which are dedicated to the pursuit of truth and explicitly stand against the silencing culture common at most modern colleges. But the fact that most universities have essentially become indoctrination centers for leftism is something to keep in mind when considering a college education.
5. Try a Trade School Instead
Trade schools are a great alternative to college. They’re more affordable than university – the entire education typically costs as much as just one year of university. You’ll also spend less time in school, as most programs run two years or shorter, which means you’ll be earning a salary sooner.
The entire trade school education typically costs as much as just one year of university.
Jobs in the trades are also in high demand and will always be needed. Some of the jobs you can do with a degree from a trade school include dental hygienist, paralegal, cosmetologist, chef, massage therapist, medical assistant, phlebotomist, pharmacy technician, plumber, electrician, HVAC technician, and welder.
Trades can also make good salaries. Below are the average salaries of some trades:
Dental hygienist – $77,000
MRI technician – $74,000
Respiratory therapist – $62,000
Graphic designer – $53,000
Massage therapist - $51,000
Pharmacy technician – $37,000
Cosmetologist – $27,000
Take Time to Consider Your Options
And if you’re not sure what route to take, there’s no need to rush the decision.
There’s no shame in finding a job, becoming an apprentice for a local business owner, volunteering, taking a few classes at a local community college, or traveling to help guide you toward what you want to do. Getting more life experience and a better understanding of your own likes, dislikes, and interests can help you to make a better decision about how you want to proceed.
America pushes college on young people very hard, and it can be difficult to look at it through a clear lens. Certain types of degrees will pay off and provide a good return on your investment. But other times, alternatives to college can be just as feasible.
Think long and hard about the type of work you want to do, and whether or not that requires learning in a classroom, or simply executing on your vision.
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