How much does your college degree matter?
With unemployment for young people still at elevated levels, and so many career paths basically obsolete, the “college debate” is in full force.
Tom Friedman recently entered the fray. But his article turned into a puff piece for his daughter’s friend’s company, and besides, who really cares what a career journalist thinks about hiring people? When was the last time a newspaper hired anyone?
I’ve personally hired over a hundred people -- most of them in their 20s. And their collegiate backgrounds are highly diverse. I’ve hired Ivy League graduates, and I’ve hired people who didn’t go to college at all.
Here’s what you need to know about college degrees and getting jobs:
1. Does it matter where I go to college?
If you are going to go to college, and take on a bunch of debt, and sit in classes for four years not making money... then for the love of God, go to a good one.
As I’ve written before, we have way too many people who went to college “just because” and got a Spanish or Psychology degree from a random state school.
That’s probably not the best investment of time and money. One can just as easily move to a city and make a decent living working at Nordstrom, where a smart person can earn two promotions in the four years it takes to get that degree.
There is nothing wrong with Spanish or Psychology per se -- but you can probably learn the former by working/teaching in Spain or Mexico for a year. And nobody is stopping you from buying a Psychology textbook and reading it during breakfast before your Nordstrom shift begins at noon.
While a bunch of smug idealists may speak about the merits of an "educated society," I don’t think those same idealists are willing to pay the $300,000 all-in cost (including forgone income) to educate a young person.
College degrees are the most expensive thing that you will ever buy, other than maybe your house -- do not write that check without thinking long and hard about it first... the college will still be there even if you take a year to work and think about it.
2. What if I can’t get into an Ivy League school?
When I was in high school, waiting the two weeks for SAT scores was treated with the same seriousness as biopsy results. And when my mom handed me a "thin envelope" in April of my senior year, it was as though she was delivering my death warrant.
It should not be that big of a deal.
How important is it that you go to Harvard vs. Emory? It’s not important in the slightest. It will have no bearing on your success in life. Could you argue that one thousand graduates of Harvard might outperform one thousand graduates from Emory? I guess. But you aren’t going to live twice, let alone a thousand times, so that is moot.
When I review the resume of a job applicant, I give them a small bonus if they went to a good school. Do I really care if it is Princeton or UC Berkeley? No way. A good school is a good school. Your alma mater is already such a small consideration in the hiring equation, that I am not going to split hairs over a US News ranking.
In fact, I haven’t even looked at the US News rankings since I was in college myself, so if your school jumped nine spots last year, I don’t give a shit.
Oh, and don’t forget that for every year out of college, the value of your degree decreases. The half-life is about three years. Once a decade has passed, your fancy degree better be the exclamation mark at the end of an amazing resume. Otherwise it just makes you look like a burnout. There are few things more awkward than a Yale degree at the end of a crappy resume. Prospective employers will literally walk into the interview wondering, “What the hell went wrong with this guy?”
3. What if I don’t get a degree at all?
I’ve hired people without college degrees -- I still do.
In fact, two of the first three people I hired for my new company made the decision not to get a college degree, and in both cases, it was the correct decision to make. If you talk to either of them, you will quickly realize that they are more intelligent and intellectual than 99 percent of the "degree holding" population. They read more books than most college graduates I know.
Their head shots are prominently displayed on the “Our Team” page of my venture pitch, and I have yet to have a single investor ask, “Where did that guy to go school?” Investors prefer to ask, “What company did you steal them from?”
What’s more, skipping college puts pressure on young people to actually learn real skills and deliver real value -- and that is a good thing. Young people need a little more fire under their ass, so the specter of ending up at Taco Bell is great incentive for them to figure out how to be valuable.
I do concede that skipping college works better for technical fields (engineering, design, product, etc.) and service jobs than it does for financial careers, but how long will that continue?
Are coders and startup founders quitting their jobs to land spots at Goldman Sachs? No, it’s the other way around. And I am seeing a lot of MBA graduates who now make fun of themselves or wonder “Why the hell did I do this?” That’s a trend that may very well continue one rung down the ladder to college students.
In short, skipping college is not really a barrier to the jobs that are hot right now — after all, the only reason those jobs are ‘hot’ is because they are necessary and scarce. I would call this “capitalism at work,” but it’s such a beat-you-over-the-head simple concept, that I don’t want to insult economists by pretending this is even the slightest bit complex.
4. Aside from the degree, is the education itself worth anything?
Yes, but it is overpriced. Way, way, way overpriced.
The reason college costs so much to attend is because the schools do such a horrible job of keeping their budgets under control. That is their mistake, and it ends up being your problem when you get saddled with $150,000 in debt.
Is it nice that a college campus is meticulously groomed, has Disney castle buildings, libraries that speak Klingon, cafeterias from which you steal dishware, nine traveling acappella teams, and large empty theaters for slam poetry jams?
Yeah, those things are great... until you realize how many hours you have to work at Bennigans to pay for it all.
And, even if you are a spoiled brat like me, do you really want your parents to subsidize that crap? Wouldn’t you rather just inherit more money? Once you move to New York and realize how damn expensive it is, you will wish that your parents were just a little bit richer.
Your gilded 19th century dorm castle will seem an ever-distant prospect when you actually live in Prospect Heights.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]