To Degree or Not to Degree? That is the $50k Question

MoneyYou’re considering college or graduate school and the question that’s eating you up is whether it will be worth that significant investment of money. One thing that I was told was that “my education will pay for itself” once I land that amazing job after graduation. Well, I graduated from college and went to graduate school and based on my experiences I will give my honest two cents and in the process, hopefully save you thousands of dollars.

I would say that a college degree is worth it, but pay very close attention to what I say next. In order to get the most bang for your buck, you really need to understand the goal or purpose of college. I’m not trying to discourage anyone from pursuing an education. I’m just asking them to think about how doing so is part of a larger plan. It’s true that the job market is very competitive and having that degree is practically required these days for a lot of jobs. Still, having a degree is not a guarantee of a getting a good job. Improving your chances of getting a better job and learning new information is a given, not a goal.

The most important accomplishments that you want to take away from college to get the best value are:

Learn how to learn. Rather than just absorbing random facts, you need to learn the framework of thinking that will allow you find and learn new information on your own. That is the only way to stay current and competitive in the modern job market.

Network. You will learn as much (if not more) from other talented students as you will from instructors. In addition, your friends and associates might also be able to provide references, connect you to potential employers, or provide valuable information or feedback for future projects.

Gain life experience. Be social and enjoy life. Also take your first steps into being independent. Live on campus for a year or two so that you can get to know your classmates. Then get an apartment so that you can get used to managing your expenses and being more independent.

For the record, I really enjoyed college. I don’t regret that decision at all. I don’t think that graduate school was worth it for me though. I’m not saying that the school that I went to was bad. That’s far from the case. I just wasn’t mentally prepared.  I wasn’t happy at all,  and the academic work was tough but I decided to stick it out for the degree. Meanwhile I racked up another $35k in debt while classmates who did not go to graduate school gained valuable work experience.

Three years later I was looking for a job. At that time some of my former classmates were using their experiences to start their own businesses, or had switched career paths after getting real world experience and adapting to the market. Meanwhile, I had already committed $80k to the path that I was starting on. Time is another hidden cost that is not usually discussed. You have to effectively make use of your time because the world doesn’t stop just because you are in school. You are paying with your time and opportunities. When I enrolled everything was great. I graduated into a recession. If I had dropped out when I knew that grad school wasn’t for me then I would have been a year and a half into my career. That year was a very expensive waste of time. This is another reason that having a plan or goal is a good idea. It would have been easier to justify walking away if I had a plan.

If you don’t have good scholarship offers and you don’t really have a solid idea of what you want then go to a cheaper college. Take classes on topics that seem interesting to you and if you love it you can always apply to another school that might provide a better education on that subject later on. You can also take part-time classes or a full year off and work in the real world. That experience might help you figure out what you want to do. These days you can even try courses online fairly inexpensively to see if something is right for you. The college option will still be available down the line. At the end of the day the decision is yours.

Go on, let me have it!