Why College Isn't Always the Answer

August 12, 2015

Higher education has received a significant amount of criticism in the past few years and rightfully so. Whether you’re pursuing a degree program or a trade, it’s important to weigh the costs against the benefits. For many years, probably through the 1980s, a college education promised a middle class lifestyle. Nowadays, due to the expense of higher education, attending college should not be seen as the only option.

When looking to spend a significant amount of your time and money on your college education, there are several metrics that need to be considered. These will help you determine if the trade school, college or university is giving you an education that is worth the cost in both time and money.


A rule of thumb is to not to spend more on a degree than will be earned in the first year of your new career. For example, if you want to spend $50,000 on a degree, whether it be undergraduate or graduate, does the job you plan on seeking afterward start at $50,000 a year? If not, what are your options to decrease the cost? Can you apply for scholarships? Would moving across the country to attend a less expensive program save you money in the long run? Can you live at home while you’re in school?

Lost income       

Unless the majority of your program is offered online, chances are you will be unable to work full time. How much income will you be leaving on the table in order to attend school full time? If you earn $40,000 a year, and you quit your job to go back to school for two years, how long will it take to recoup $80,000? Will this set back any goals you have e.g., retirement, home ownership, or beginning a family?


Unless money is no issue, does it make sense to spend $60,000 on graduate school to earn $3,000 more, or in some cases, the same salary as your previous job? How much will you be guaranteed to earn with the new degree in the first year? Look at job postings for the position you want. What is the salary? If it isn’t listed, resources like glassdoor.com often list the salary for positions in specific companies.

Lost retirement savings

Going back to lost income, how will this impact retirement? If you quit your job, you will be unable to put any more money into an employer-sponsored retirement plan. If you are currently contributing to a pension, the benefit may be lower if you take a few years off to attend school. Lastly, there may be less money to contribute to a 401(k) or other retirement vehicle due to a portion of your salary going toward student loans for what can be many years.

Flexibility to leave profession

The truth of the matter is that people change careers, or at least they want to.

According to a Harris survey conducted for the University of Phoenix in Arizona,

“Nearly 80 percent of workers in their 20s said they wanted to change careers, followed by 64 percent of 30-somethings and 54 percent in their 40s.”

Are you sure you will enjoy what you do for the rest of your working life? If not, will this degree be valuable in another profession? One of the problems with professions that require graduate school is that often earning potential is higher -- but so are student loan amounts.

Take the fictional case of Maria who has $160,000 in student loans from law school. Shortly after graduating, Maria realizes she doesn’t like being an attorney. What other job can she have that will give her a salary sufficient enough to pay her costly student loans every month? Could this be one of the reasons we have many unhappy lawyers in the world? They simply can’t afford to change careers.

Now ask yourself the same question. In the event you don’t end up liking what you went to school for, can you easily transition to another career and will it pay approximately the same?

There are degrees that are absolutely crucial if you are interested in certain career paths. For example, becoming an occupational therapist or social worker require graduate degrees. There are other degrees that do not, however. Earning a degree in computer science, advertising or art may put you into debt -- and for what? Could you have learned these skills on-the-job and avoided additional student loans? Yes. Will you have to work a little harder to show a hiring manager that you can perform the task without a degree? Maybe. Will you have less debt? Yes.

There are many ways to receive an education without going the traditional route. For example:

  • Take classes at the local community college to learn photography or writing
  • Take (sometimes free) online courses: Coursera, Khan Academy, and Lynda to learn Instructional Design
  • Audit marketing classes at your local community college or university
  • Volunteer in a position at a non-profit to learn event planning
  • Join Toastmasters to learn public speaking
  • Attend a conversational foreign language group to brush up on your Spanish
  • Enroll in programs like Dev Bootcamp and Hackbright Academy to learn coding

Getting a traditional education, while important for some careers, is not the necessity that colleges would like us to believe. In this world of online education, entrepreneurs building start-ups in dorm rooms, and hiring managers looking at what you can do instead of where you went for undergrad, people are learning that college isn’t the end-all be-all it once was. Create your own path. Employers want skills, not just a diploma.