Do I need a college degree?

Do you need a college degree?

Do you need a college degree?

Maybe. Maybe not.

It depends on what your goals are in life and professionally.

Only 60% of people who start college will graduate within 6 years. For many reasons, many of those who start college stop short of obtaining a degree. While those with some college do have better average salaries than those without college, for many it would be better to not start something that is not going to be finished.

Why college?

College is not for everyone, and it is not always the right time to go to college. Even if you know you should go to college and that the time is right, choosing a college and what to study are important additional questions. This article will help you answer these questions.

For over 20 years I have made my living from students who entered a university where I worked, so I do believe that attending classes and potentially earning a degree can be right for many people. I also have five degrees of my own and am working on number six. I believe in higher education.

Having said that, if you do not know why you are in university, you should not be there. It is expensive and time consuming. If you don’t have a purpose for why you are there, it will cost you. Maybe after a semester or several you will discover your passion and purpose, but there is a good chance that by then you will have taken courses that you do not need, and you will have increased your expenses without value.

I cannot in a single article offer guidance that will fit everyone’s life and circumstances. What I can do is ask some questions and give some advice that will hopefully help you make your own decisions. I do not guarantee that this article will make you healthy, wealthy, or wise. College like the rest of life is largely a result of what you put into it. My goal is to help you realize when you might not be able to get much out of college and make other plans.

What is your purpose?

The decision to go to college starts with knowing what your purpose is in going to college. Maybe you know your life purpose and maybe you have not figured that out yet. The question that matters is very specifically do you know why you think you should go to college.

If you do not have a clear answer to why you should go to college, then you should not go to college (at least not at this time.) Keep reading and maybe you will discover a reason you did not know you had.

If you are not sure what purpose college would serve in your life, then read on to see if the examples and advice that follow help you make up your mind.

If you have your purpose, read on to validate that your purpose provides a good reason to go to college. I have known many people who had the best of intentions but when faced by the time and financial costs of college, their purpose faded.

Some people (but not many) have a life purpose that translates into their purpose in going to college. My college roommate knew in high school that he wanted to become a doctor, he did, and he works at a hospital that takes care of sick children. This was always his purpose, and it saw him through college, medical school, internship, residency, and fellowship. He spent a decade in learning what he needed to have the career he wanted.

I have another friend from high school that went to college, law school, passed the bar exam, and realized he did not really like law. He spent almost ten years going down a path that was not his true purpose. He went back to school, earned his doctorate, and now teaches at a university. Sometimes our purpose changes, and that is fine, but it is important that we be clear on our purpose in going to college before we start and every step of the way. Only start if there is a purpose in doing so and leave as soon as that purpose is no longer relevant.

If you want to be a doctor or lawyer or another professional career, college is usually a requirement. I am not saying that you will always learn what you need to know in college, but a college degree is a requirement.

A common purpose is the desire to start your own business. To be successful at starting a business, you probably don’t need a college degree. You might be fine taking a few courses and then leaving. This drives universities crazy because it makes them look less successful, but Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college and most would consider each of them widely successful. In fact, I would argue that college is generally not very helpful if your goal is to start a business. Unlike employers, your customers probably won’t care whether you have a college degree or not. The skills you need to run a business can be learned outside of college (see the chapter on Alternatives to College).

For many young adults, the purpose for going to college is to satisfy family expectations. Parents who graduated from college typically expect their children to do so as well. Parents who did not go to college often want their children to have the experience and perceived opportunities that it brings. My advice is that starting college must be something that you do for yourself. If you are doing it because you are trying to please others, you run the risk of not being successful. College requires time, and unless you are motivated, it will be hard to make the time to be successful.

The psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that when the why is big enough the how will take care of itself. When your purpose in going to college is big enough, then you will find a way to pay tuition and the time to study. At the same time, if your purpose is not big enough, there won’t be enough time and money, and you will almost certainly not finish what you start. You would be in good company, as many college students drop-out each year. My belief, though, is it is better to not start at all rather than fail.

A key consideration is where college would fit in your life. The traditional college model is a student who lives on campus and classes are the first priority. While some students put socializing first, they know that the reason they are in college is to be in college. Students who have the resources to have this type of college experience often have the purpose of college as an experience. They may also be looking to start a career in a professional field or to be positioned to land a first real job after graduation. It is a plus if you like learning, and you may be able to pick up some marketable skills along the way.

My college experience is an example of the traditional college experience. I started at the University of Michigan in September 1986, originally with the intent to go to law school after graduation. Then that fall my girlfriend dumped me, leading to a broken heart, and a desire to do something that I knew I would enjoy as a career…being a professor. I explored a couple of different majors starting with classical studies, then psychology, and finally ending up in sociology. My most significant learning took place outside of the classroom. I learned about customer service and leadership while working in the dorm cafeteria, and eventually I learned computer skills through a succession of campus jobs.

When I started teaching in higher education in 1997, though, I taught a night class primarily for non-traditional students. At the age of 30, I was younger than most of my students. Most of the students had full-time jobs and family responsibilities including spouses and children. For them, college was a pathway to advance in their career or start a new and better career. For traditional college students, college is their primary focus. For non-traditional students, college comes after work and family and often other interests.

Today, non-traditional students out number traditional students by a significant majority. While the traditional student population is decreasing, the non-traditional population is growing. Yet the stereotype remains of a college student as a young adult leaving home to attend college somewhere with a football team.  When you have family and work responsibilities, college will not be the first priority. At best, it will be second priority and often third priority. For students with commitments to church or social organizations outside of college, college is a fourth priority. For these students, college for the experience of college is not usually the purpose, and if it was, they would be disappointed not having the time for the traditional student experience.

For non-traditional students, the purpose of college is work-related first. College can be used to start a new career path or to develop the qualifications to advance in an existing career. I will explore this topic more as it relates to how to choose a major. Even for some traditional aged college students with no other responsibilities, the purpose of college is career-related.

Today, non-traditional students out number traditional students by a significant majority. While the traditional student population is decreasing, the non-traditional population is growing. Yet the stereotype remains of a college student as a young adult leaving home to attend college somewhere with a football team. Unfortunately, many colleges also continue to focus on the needs of these students. This will be important in the next chapter when I discuss how to choose where to go to college.

What is the purpose of college?

College creates value for students in two ways.

First, college is an experience. College offers four primary types of experiences:

Life experience: Traditionally, college has been a life experience for people age 18-22. For those with the resources to afford tuition and living expenses, college provides life changing experience. While the classes are important, what happens outside of class rather than in class is the most impactful aspect of the college experience. I learned leadership and management by working in the cafeteria more than in any classes I took.

Community: College creates an opportunity to be part of a community of people with shared interests. The community might be the college as a whole or it might be a subcommunity within the college. It might be a community around a certain major or it might be around a non-academic topic. Often college is the first time a student finds themselves in a tribe of people who share their passions.

Learning: You may enjoy learning and taking classes. Some people (myself included) like learning new things. This can be accomplished without going to college, but college provides a great environment for learning.

Achievement: College can be a personal milestone or goal. Or someone you care about wants you to be a college graduate. As I noted earlier, you need your own purpose independent of other people, but the expectations of others can be helpful. Every year a number of people in their 60s and older graduate from college solely to achieve a personal goal.

The other value for college centers on career and work-related benefits to attending and graduating from college:

Professional Career. You may want a professional career that requires a college degree such as doctor, nurse, lawyer, engineer, accountant, etc.). There are surprisingly few professions that truly require a specific college degree, and many of those require a specific graduate degree.

Status: You may want an advantage in applying for jobs that do not really require a college degree but require or prefer one as a way of filtering applicants out. Many business and office positions fall into this category. Many management positions also fall into this category. The status of having a college degree can be used by employers to identify candidates for hire or promotion.

Skill Development. You may want to learn specific skills for a job like graphic design or marketing or information technology. You can do these more cheaply outside of a college, but you can go to college for this reason. Sometimes, though, a college may lag what is used in the field.

People frequently focus on the career-related value that college creates. Colleges often focus on the experience and ignore or minimize the career aspects. Neither perspective is right or wrong. The important thing for you is to be aware of what your purposes are in going to college so that you can make the appropriate choices for you.

If at this point you do not see value in any of the purposes of college, then you should probably not be in college. College is expensive and time consuming. If you do not know why you are there, it will be hard to be motivated. You may take courses that don’t help you later when you do know why you are in college.

Also, there are strong expectations for many graduating high school seniors to go to college. However, you do not need to attend college when you are 17 or 18. You can go when you have a good reason whatever your age. It is easier to go when you are younger and have fewer obligations but not required.

The next chapters will provide a more detailed analysis of each of these purposes for college including what alternatives there might be and how to decide what college to attend and what to study to maximize the value of college for you.

Key Questions

These three questions are key to knowing whether you should go to college:

  • What is your purpose in going to college?
  • Is college the best way to achieve your purpose?
  • Is your purpose enough of a motivation to see you through to graduation?

Which of the seven purposes listed above apply to you right now? The great thing about college is that it will be there next month, next year, and ten years from now. If now is not the right time, you can wait until it is the right time. If you do not have a purpose for attending college right now, you should not be in college. Even if it was tuition free, college takes a lot of time. That time can almost certainly be better spent doing something else.

If you know your purpose, you need to evaluate whether college is your best option to achieve your goals. There are many alternatives to college. In my experience, college is not the best option for some purposes. For example, if your purpose is to start a business, college is not a useful activity unless you want to have your own business as a doctor (or other professional field) since that requires a college degree.

Finally, you have to ask yourself if your purpose is enough to see you through to graduation. Going to college full-time is the equivalent of a full-time job. Many people who start college because it is what their parents want struggle because it takes time. Sometimes people skip class or do not spend the required time on classes, which can lead to failing grades. It is much better to not attend college at all versus attending and failing.

Should I Go to College?

This article is adapted from my forthcoming book, Should I go to College? Will be out September 2, 2019 and is available for pre-order at Amazon.

If you have questions, I also have a page where you can submit questions to my weekly newsletter.