Buyer Beware: Does College Align with Your Goals

“An educated man is not, necessarily, one who has an abundance of general or specialized knowledge. An educated man is one who has so developed the faculties of his mind that he may acquire anything he wants…” ~ Napoleon Hill

As we define our personal success and plan our journey, we are confronted with important decisions that must be made along the way. One of those decisions is how we will gather the knowledge we most need. Sometimes formal education is a reasonable option but when we enroll, it should be the culmination of a decision-making process, rather than a default.

Too often the decision to enroll in college is based on influences from outside of ourselves. Our contemporary American culture tends to encourage us to pursue status and prestige. If we fail to act on our motivations and priorities, we will lose significant chunks of time and money and we may distract ourselves from more important matters. 

Whether we are employees or entrepreneurs, like a sound business strategy, our decisions need to be based on deep understanding of ourselves and the market in which we intend to thrive. We must keep ourselves in the forefront of our life decisions and protect our interests. Who is the captain of your ship? Who is in charge of your destiny? To the greatest extent possible, we must ensure that it is us.

Numbers that Lie to You

Institutions of higher learning are famous for using aggregate data to show prospective students that Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees lead to higher incomes for graduates. There are several problems with approaching decisions this way. Here are a couple of the most significant. 

First, let’s note that within the standard, cookie-cutter data often cited by institutions of higher learning, the populations sampled are obviously motivated, as evidenced by their decision to pursue college in the first place. We can also assume that they possess the aptitude and drive to succeed, since they completed their programs. This leads to an important question. What if this population already possesses more of the intangible skills that employers find desirable than those who do not enroll in college? 

We cannot know for sure if earning the degree was the true difference maker, especially when we only look at this correlative data. We should be able to recognize that a blanket median or average salary among graduates is not a good indicator of our individual chances at success. Attributing credit for the higher salaries observed to the acquisition of the degree itself is a statistical correlation at best. And we know from our statistics courses that correlation towards a given hypothesis does not imply causation. In the data that colleges cite, there is no effort to hold themselves accountable for this nuance within the data. 

Second, since colleges generally cite the average or median incomes for graduates in a certain program, the implication is that by completing the program, we can expect to land a similar salary. But in the real-world, an average salary for all graduates of a particular program has almost nothing to do with what a unique individual student will earn. This over-reliance on data disconnects us from ourselves, taking the decision out of our hands, and it can have real consequences.

Maybe these prospective students have had past jobs in which they have been promoted, maybe they have volunteered, landed an internship, or started a company themselves. Maybe they are non-traditional students who have already put in years of experience in a given field. A career changer will have a difficult time marketing themselves, even for entry-level jobs in their field of study. The statistics cannot address these important realities, so consumers must take on this responsibility. 

Whose Interests Matter Most?

Colleges are businesses and we should treat them as such. Just like with any other industry, buyers should beware. They have managed to mobilize politically and culturally, escaping much of the accountability they should have experienced for these tainted sales pitches and at times, less than stellar outcomes experienced by their customers. College admissions and marketing departments typically do not encourage applicants to look beyond the numbers, or to get in the habit of taking a critical look inward. And why would they? After all, on average, people with degrees are better off and quotas must be met.

While their data points are informative and potentially interesting, like much of what we learn in college, it is merely theoretical. Since colleges are businesses it is not necessarily their responsibility to encourage us to think this way because, if they did, prospects might think twice before enrolling. No business should take responsibility for encouraging their customers not to buy. This decision-making process is the job of the consumer. 

Most Universities and Colleges do a poor job explaining the reality that completion of an academic program is a poor substitute for a lack of professional work experience. In the best case, metrics like these are relatively meaningless when applied to an individual. In the worst case, they are intentionally misleading and weaponized in predatory fashion so colleges can drive up their enrollment numbers and grow their businesses.

Informed Consumers Know that Costs Matter

As of 2019, more people than ever before have attained at least a Bachelor’s degree. The US Census Bureau has found that this number is now up to 39.4% of naturalized U.S. citizens1. This means that possessing a Bachelor’s degree is simultaneously more expected by employers and less of a differentiating factor in our quest to land the employment we want. Besides, if we apply to a job where the company requires a Bachelor’s degree, how exactly does holding a Bachelor’s degree differentiate you from the other candidates?

Below is some data that captures the exorbitant and continuously rising costs of higher education. Any business or household considers the costs associated with certain decisions and education should be no exception to this rule.

In addition to the increasing prominence of those who hold post-secondary degrees, the cost has skyrocketed to completely unsustainable levels. According to ValuePenguin, a cost measurement project by LendingTree, the cost of education has been rising at an alarming rate. At this current rate, the average annual cost of college for the 2017-18 school year was $20,770 per year2. This is an immense increase of over 150% in the period of the past 40 years. These numbers show no sign of slowing down. 

The above chart with more recent data shows that these trends are likely to continue and that even in-state costs are nearing $100k in total debt in many cases if you want to earn a Bachelor’s3. This rivals the cost of a home mortgage so it better be a worthwhile investment if so many people are choosing this path. Pursuing degrees at these costs may be worth the time and costs in some circumstances but for too many, the choice to enroll is a foregone conclusion, rather than a decision. 

If we apply the deep dive philosophy to our lives, we will at least know why we chose our given path to knowledge. We can always be wrong when we look back in the future, but at least we will know that we made the best decision we could. If we only take the advice of a self-interested business which tells us what they think is best for us, their interests are naturally prioritized over ours. 

Education of the Self above all else:

The number of elite businessmen who dropped out of college and became massively successful is alarming. What did they have in common? They got captivated by the pursuit of an alternative path, often a business endeavor. This alternative became far more important than their studies and ultimately became a better use of their time. They were obtaining and utilizing practical knowledge, rather than the general, passive knowledge that higher education provides. They found a tangible and imminent return on investment and no longer needed these vague promises.

You may feel that outliers like these are not great examples to model our behavior after, and that would be true because we are all different individuals with unique experiences. But the same people who would point this out might think that broad data is worth considering. The point is that we must look critically at decisions that have such an impact on our destiny. We should not live vicariously through the lenses of others, but we should focus on the closest thing that will take us to the next level of progress that we seek.

Making Knowledge Practical

““I have never let schooling interfere with my education.” Mark Twain

When it comes to making decisions about our present and future, people often take the path of least resistance, or follow the crowd. It is only natural. If we shine the light inward, we may be confronted with deep-dive questions like the following:

  • Where can you work? (Which companies are even near you?)
  • Where do you want to work? (Do you want to work at these companies?)
  • Where does formal education fit into the puzzle? (How much education will be required?)
  • What are some companies near me that will hire me when I complete my degree? (Who will value your unique skill set?)
  • Why would a company choose to hire me over another candidate with equivalent educational credentials? (Remember, fulfilling a degree requirement cannot differentiate you as a candidate when it is required by the job)
  • What priorities mean the most to me in my next job or business enterprise? (What will you enjoy doing – within reason?)

Whether deciding on an educational path or simply deciding on next steps in life, providing ourselves with thoughtful answers to questions like these is paramount if we want to have a fulfilling career. We must recognize that the sooner we develop deep-dive habits and orient ourselves toward action, the sooner we will gather relevant and necessary information. In order to do so sometimes we must try unconventional things and leave our comfort zones. This puts us on a track to practical growth, whereas the accumulation of general knowledge often distracts.

The general knowledge that we gain in college is often forgotten after our next test or paper is due. When we increase our understanding of our preferences, strengths, and the options available to us, growth is inevitable. We may not get it right on the first, second, third, or even fortieth attempt, but if we test our ideas against our real-world experience, reign-in our assumptions, and try new things, we will gather practical knowledge that we can apply in real time.

Sources and Additional Reading:

1 See the following numbers on educational attainment as reported in 2020 by the US Census Bureau.

2 The full article can be found here:

3 Additional and more up to date information on the continuously increasing cost of college can be found here:

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