Why Go to College?

There’s a good post today at Wise Bread making the argument that going to college just for the learning doesn’t make sense. In a nutshell, the post makes the case that, with only some peculiar exceptions, a person can learn Grads Kit stuff just as well and a lot more cost effectively on their own. I couldn’t agree more.

Of course, a person should probably go to college anyway. It’s just that learning things is not, per se, reason enough to spend four years and a modest fortune in tuition. There are good dollars and cents motivations for college and keeping a clear head about them is important.

(I haven’t researched this, but I write this blog under the assumption that my readership amongst high schoolers is zero. So to a certain extent this discussion is, you will pardon the expression, academic. Perhaps there are parents of high schoolers reading.)

The Wise Bread post mentions two non-learning benefits of college, networking and the acquisition of credentials. Speaking from personal experience, the former is vastly overrated and the latter more significant than most people imagine.

I went to Harvard, possibly the epitome of snooty elite schools. There are, undoubtedly, CEOs and successful politicians who were in my graduating class. But I don’t know any of them. There are 1600 people in a Harvard class. The classmates I have kept in touch with over 20+ years are generally successful, but not to the degree that knowing them could possibly have any spillover effect on my own success.

In my experience, a person’s professional network is built on the job.  It’s not the guys you knew in the dorm that really help you out later in life, it’s the guys you were trainees or interns with that are good to know later on. They are in your field and have memories of you that are not centered around beer bongs.

But Frank, didn’t you learn a lot in four years at such an intensely intellectual environment? Yes, but let’s put that into perspective. I probably learned more in high school (I went to an excellent one) and certainly learned more that was practically useful in business school.

It must be remembered that a place like Harvard prepares its undergraduate students to pursue exactly one career path, that of college professor. Any learning that is useful for some other pursuit is an accidental side effect. It may be hard for people who have not spent time there to believe, but Ivy League schools go to lengths to banish, as a conscious and explicit policy, the teaching of anything that is not purely academic. No classes on journalism or accounting. Even preparation for professional graduate school is shunned. There is no pre-med or pre-anything major at Harvard.

So why go? Is college, even an elite one, worth it? Absolutely. It’s all about the credential.

I’m in my mid-forties and the fact that I went to Harvard College is still a highlight of my resume. To a degree that I frankly find embarrassing, something I did as a teenager (getting into Harvard) still impresses potential employers. Not that I am complaining, but I could never have imagined this twenty years ago.

A college degree is a label, a brand name, a sort of USDA grading stamped on your forehead as a young person. I’m not going to defend the system, but society puts a lot of value on your educational category: great college, good college, college, no college. Any reasonable person would want to be (or have their children be) as high on that scale as possible. Just be sure not to pay for "good college" only to get mere "college."

[Photo: Kit]


  • By SJ, October 6, 2009 @ 1:11 pm

    “A college degree is a label, a brand name, a sort of USDA grading stamped on your forehead as a young person.”
    That’s awesome

    Tho I will say I pursued an engr degree and it seems I learned stuff. On the internships I’ve worked it’s been useful; I’ve yet to start full-time so we’ll see heh…

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, October 6, 2009 @ 4:01 pm

    A degree show that you can work toward a goal for 4 (or 6) years (and, thus, some sort of work ethic). An employer instantly has tangible proof of this.

    You might be brilliant and have an excellent work ethic … but without the degree, it’s difficult to verify this quickly.

    On a tangent, I feel that a person’s internal desire to learn has more effect on the quality of their education than the faculty at their school. You can get a lousy education at a great school or a great education at a lesser school.

  • By Jim, October 6, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

    I think that networking contacts from college is very overrated. Actually having the degree itself as a qualification is the most important practical benefit of college. There are undoubtedly exceptions to this where someone gets their awesome job via a guy they know at college’s father in law or whatever, but for every 1 person like that you can find I bet I can find 20 people who show 0 benefit from college networking.

  • By Chris, October 6, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

    Do you feel the same about business school? My understanding is that, unlike undergrad, the network is a primary benefit.

    Right now, I am applying to business schools and one of my main motivating factors is to gain a “top 5″ credential. Even though I am somewhat unsure of where my life is heading, such a stamp will surely unlock several doors along the way. Too bad it costs so much.

  • By Matt, October 7, 2009 @ 12:01 am

    I think that the “networking” benefit is stated as the result of faulty cause and effect.

    It’s also typically seen in articles about how to get a job, complete with the absurd suggestion to get out and meet people socially in order to find a job.

    As if they’ve surveyed an employed population and asked them how they got their job. One of the multiple choices would be “through a friend or family member” and it is selected by a significant percentage of respondents. The advice-givers reverse that and gleefully recommend “networking” to the unemployed.

    Logical problems abound. There are only a few people with the power to hire solo, and even they are externally influenced by a desire to find the best employee with proven job-specific skills via the most competitive and fair process. Even on the long odds that you would meet someone in the wild with any relation to your career field, and with the ability to hire, and at a firm has an open position, odds are they can’t just put you in. Unless it’s a crap job. So unless you want a job that nobody wants, with no skills, in a random field, it won’t work – but logic doesn’t get in the way of career advice brokers, of course.

  • By Phil, October 7, 2009 @ 3:16 am

    This post is complete hogwash with respect to degrees in science and engineering.

  • By Jon @capitalistmaven.com, October 7, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    I disagree with Phil. I am an engineer and feel I got very little in terms of actual learning out of college. I could have learned the same stuff on my own in half the time, for free. For scientists and engineers the learning comes in the form of “socialization.” Learning how to interact with people and work the system. If a scientist or engineer actually feels they learned something useful from classes, blame your crappy high school. Chugging beer with the guys who went on to become “financial advisors” (life insurance and load mutual fund salesmen) and the women working their MRS degree is where the real learning takes place.

  • By Craig, October 7, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    I have always believed that college is mostly like posting a bond for your professional life–only the bond is posted primarily in time and effort, and secondarily in money. It’s a demonstration of seriousness and capability to prospective employers.

    Which is a slightly more sympathetic way of agreeing with your point that the value of college is in the acquisition of credentials.

    Even recognizing that learning styles differ from person to person, can watching a T.A. solve problems on a whiteboard _really_ beat a library card and an Internet connection to the tune of $20,000 a year–or more? I can’t believe it. Whole courses–lectures and all–can be found on many subjects on the Internet today.

    There is the element of feedback–evaluation of one’s progress, maybe even a few precious minutes of coaching–and that shouldn’t be discounted. But one can find other ways to get that. One could hire a tutor for a few hours here and there, if nothing else. Still a bargain.

    And there is the old problem of the autodidact not knowing _what_ to learn, or how to see the landscape of a field: what are the promising avenues of research, what are the blind alleys? But it also seems to me that the academic world is as capable as any individual of running down a fashionable blind alley, so…I don’t know. The autodidact may run a higher risk of being unfashionable than of being wrong.

  • By Matt, October 7, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    I should also note that should you be the bearer of a 2.9 gpa, it’s as if you’re from the wrong side of the tracks in 1950. You don’t “qualify” for internships or career fair job placement interviews at my university. Even if your 2.9 was from Harvard, you’re excluded from government jobs and grad schools outright, and people can think you’re an idiot or underachiever, while a 4.0 from Montana State looks like a fantastic genius and hard-worker.

    If I had a do-over, I’d find a way to learn the material and then go to college. Use it as a proving ground rather than a training camp, because that’s often how it is anyway. Enroll asap and buy used textbooks to read and study before class begins.

    So I think that going to college to learn is a confusion of plan and goal. Like going to Singapore for the warmth in winter: it is warm in Singapore, but if you’re after warmth, just go to Florida. It is probably worth going to Singapore for the cultural experience, but if that’s not what you want then you’re undergoing both cost and hassle. If you want a new cultural experience, there are likely places you haven’t visited much closer too.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, October 8, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    Chris: I think most people with an MBA will tell you that networking with their b-school classmates is more useful, primarily because they are much more likely to be in your field. This is true during school too. One of the great things about a top MBA program is that everybody has worked for a few years before attending, usually in the same sort of areas that the graduates want to go into. So if you want to know what it is like, for example, to be an i-banker in Shanghai, you’ve probably got a classmate who did that and can tell you all about it. Broaden your search to top 10. And don’t worry about the money.

    Phil: That’s just the sort of precise and nuanced judgement I like to hear from scientists and engineers.

    Matt: As it happens, my GPA was something like a 2.9. (Low B- as I remember.) I graduated without honors, meaning I was in the bottom quarter of the class. It seemed like a really big deal at the time and kept me out of grad school and law school, not that I had any interest in either. Big picture, I don’t think it mattered much as I got older. The wife graduated magna cum laude, putting her in the top 10%, and I don’t think it really gave her much of an edge outside academia.

    And speaking of Mrs. Curmudgeon, she wishes me to point out that she once got a job from a classmate-turned-CEO. I never said networking was useless, only overrated.

  • By Craig, October 8, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    I won’t divulge my actual GPA, but it was well south of 2.9–I’d checked out mentally well in advance of my diploma arriving in the mail. Many people wash out of Georgia Tech; very few do worse than I did and still get their sheepskin. For me, it was never a problem–although it almost certainly means my B.S. was a “terminal” degree. I even just got one of those government jobs that is allegedly out of my reach.

    I know it helped a lot that I took a very marketable degree (Computer Science) into a red-hot job market (mid-1990s)…but, then again, there’s a _reason_ I chose to to Computer Science.

    GPA’s not nothing, but it’s most important in academia and maybe for your first job–and even then, it’s a second-order discriminator. A degree with any GPA beats no degree at all.

  • By Eric, October 11, 2009 @ 1:41 pm

    I agree entirely. It’s very much a credential.

    I graduated from Princeton 5 years ago… I rarely keep in touch with anyone from there and they’re certainly not a part of my network.

    I majored in economics, but didn’t take a single accounting or business class. I’m actually going to community college now to study accounting and studying the CFA on my own. I’ve learned more since I graduated than I did during school.

    And yet, the school is the primary reason I get job interviews. I’m grateful, but it is startling how much of a credential effect there is in the name.

  • By Mike G, October 16, 2009 @ 5:51 pm

    As a part time student, I despise a lot of full time students. They have absolutely zero work ethic, concept of money management, or anything outside their little college minds. It’s not a stretch to say, if you don’t know what information is going to be relative to your forthcoming career, you’re not going to retain a lot of the vital information. The problem is that parents, secondary schools, and yes, even tv and movies, sell this idea of college to people everywhere. This dream has the same flakey advice as a get rich quick scheme; your results will vary.
    References were made to internships, and this is a very powerful networking tool, but not exclusive to college. There’s a thing called an “entry-level position,” where you work on job sites and are introduced to others in your profession. You start at the bottom, gain experience, and move up. This is where the real networking happens.

  • By Career Planning, April 13, 2010 @ 6:20 am

    I just finished my secondary studies and it has suddenly set in that I have absolutely no clue of the career route i’m going to choose. I have always been a grade A student, but now that i’ve experienced several months in the reality, I feel that I have been focusing too much on unreachable goals. I may need to seek out some kind of career tips or something of that nature to guide me in the right direction. Has anyone here gone through an ordeal like this?

  • By azul, July 24, 2012 @ 1:25 am

    It is very difficult to learn many of the sciences on your own. You don’t have access to the laboratory equipment like lasers, or an NMR, or centrifuge, or chemicals, or biological reagents. You can read the textbooks on your own, but you have noone to point out which 25% of a 300+ page textbook you should focus on and noone to ask questions when the mathematics stops being obvious. A good college course will make the learning process easier and more efficient than self-learning.

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