Should You go to college, now? After spending 10 years in college, here are some (hopefully) helpful insights
I started taking college classes as a High school Freshman and my time in college spans over 10 years. Here's what I've noticed in the past decade+ about the default "go to college" advice.
I’ve had a couple of discussions about whether or not college is “worth it” this week, and it’s been an ongoing struggle for me over the last 10+ years. Ultimately, I stuck through it to earn my BFA, but that wasn’t without the typical “Why I’m I here” questioning. With a wife who is a professor and works in higher education, and as someone who works in tech and never looks at the education section of someone’s resume, I continue to have a conflicting, “it depends” mentality. Hopefully, some of my insights in different industries and decisions I’ve made over the last decade can help you with your own decisions on whether or not to go to college, go back, or whether or not your kids should go to college.
Most likely, you don’t need to go to college
Quite simply, in 2020, you don’t need to go to college for many industries and careers. Whether it’s tech, or design, filmmaking, project management, etc., more and more companies aren’t looking at your education section on your resume and instead care about your experience, skill, and potential to learn–as they should. Of course, there’s the caveat, if you want to get into a field that still requires a degree, a medical profession, psychology profession, or something that requires certification like Law, or being a CPA, then yes, you need a school. For everything else, the answer is far less clear, and that’s what I’ll spend the next couple minutes unpacking.
If you’re on the fence about college these days, then you’re likely familiar with all the useless parts of it. All the “required courses” etc. that may seem like an unnecessary extension of Highschool. In some cases, I feel that too. The only argument I can make for those courses is that it helps you gain perspective and learn how to think critically, especially if that’s not something you already have. For many, that broad education is a big plus. For others, you may already have developed that in Highschool. Without making this a pro-college article, that broad perspective and cultural understanding is something we can all benefit from and (as long as you’re willing to accept it) comes pre-packaged with your course load. In a world where getting stuck in bubbles of like-minded people is super easy online, it can be refreshing to force yourself into other perspectives.
When it comes to learning skills for your career, well, then you’re still kind of on your own, even if you go to college. If you’re going to school to work in tech as a developer, for example, a traditional 4-year college will likely not teach you everything you need to know. Going to school to get a degree in photography also won’t inherently make you suited to be a photographer out of college. What matters is the work you put in, the experience you gain as a result, and the portfolio you create–in other words, your proof of skill and experience. This is true for many jobs today, tech and creative fields are the ones I have the most experience with and the ones leading the way in not requiring college degrees. What’s important is that whether you go to college or not, that you hone your skills, gain experience, and have proof. College can be a place for that if you let it, or it could be a waste of time and money if you don’t.
But college is still good for these reasons:
• Building a foundation
• Dedicated time for studying and learning
The most valuable parts
As someone who’s spent time in both camps, I have to say that going to college and being required to study and meet deadlines is an advantage over self-guided education. When you’re on your own without strict accountability, especially when you’re working one or more jobs, making time to study or work on your project is the first thing to get cut when you’re tired. Yes, it’s possible to hold yourself accountable and do this on your own, but will you? I have, and I haven’t. Even in college, while I had due dates and was being held accountable, I also had jobs and got tired, which led to missing those deadlines. It happens in both scenarios (college and non-college), but it’s up to you to figure out which one works best for you and which one will help you level up faster. On that note, frequently, I felt that the pace of a semester was too slow, and I wanted to do more projects quicker to learn more quickly–this is one downside of a class structure.
People often say that the networking you do in college is super essential for your career, etc. etc. That’s kind of true, depending on who/what you do. What that stems from and what is more important is being surrounded by similar people, learning together, with matching interests. That default community you get is very powerful. Finding a community outside of college takes effort on your part to meet people, go to meetups, etc. And don’t take the built-in feedback lightly, this is likely the most beneficial part of college. Of course, a lot depends on the professors and peers you have and their level of care in their feedback, but outside of college, it’s tough to get someone to read/watch/pay attention to something you’ve made AND give you feedback on it. In college, it’s built-in and why you’re paying for it. The information you’re studying is available all over; you don’t need school for the info.
But it’s expensive
The cost of college is the most significant discussion these days, especially all the debate and talk about student loans and debt. My wife and I both managed to get through college without too much debt. Only in the last 2 years of school did we take out small (relative) student loans to buy laptops, gear, and a car. We worked our entire time through college (multiple jobs), commuted (went through 3 cars), and overall kept costs low (we were poor). It may not be everyone’s first choice to commute to college, but it’s a massive investment and years of loan payments if you choose to go to school out of state, live on campus, and live off loans. I spent years at a community college, changing my major and picking away at electives and lower-division courses. If you’re unsure what you’re doing, don’t spend thousands of dollars noodling around at a four year, do that at a community college, go work and try things lots of things.
On the other hand, if you want the experience of going to school full time and being able to dedicate everything to leveling up yourself, then perhaps that investment is worth it. I know that if I wanted to be an animation/illustration major that I would have had to live closer to school (maybe on campus) and not have a job–to keep up with the hours that I would have needed to dedicate to practicing. For me, that investment would have been worth it; it just wasn’t the path I took. The level of education you get is up to you. In most cases, you don’t need to go to a prestigious, expensive school, just think about whether or not that five or six-figure investment is worth it and whether you’re going to enjoy (or be able to) paying $300-$1000+ a month for decades after you graduate.
What about Grad school? Is it cool?
My wife went to grad school, and after getting my BFA, I felt that I could also benefit from a higher degree. Partially because it was a nice-to-have and partly because I knew my education and experimentation wasn’t done (even after like eight years of undergrad). I was fortunate enough to be accepted into a few amazing Masters of Fine Arts programs and had to make this decision for myself. Go into debt for $60,000, while struggling to balance work and school, or start following my career path and not go to grad school. For me, the reason to get my MFA was nice to have in case I wanted to teach at a college later. Being that an MFA didn’t serve an immediate need and that I found a place to work where my curiosity and continued education was encouraged and supported, I didn’t need to go to grad school, especially since that degree didn’t mean much in my industry.
If you find yourself in that position where a higher-level degree or certification (MA, MBA, Ph.D., MFT, BRB, G2G, etc.) is required, or you need the support of a university lab to help you with research, you’re passionate about and want to write scientific papers on it, or even books on it, then yes, by all means, pursue that research and go to grad school. If it’s personal exploration or even uncertainty of what to do after college, then, grad school isn’t the most cost-effective way to explore–go work somewhere or make something, then, if it makes sense for you to go to school, you can always go back.
I hope you’ve found this insightful, and if you’re in the process of deciding what to do, I hope I haven’t confused you any more than you may already be. In the coming weeks, I’ll share my experience with online learning and self-guided education that I did in parallel to college, continue to do, and plan to do forever.
One option that can help defray tuition costs is to find employment at a college or university. Often tuition is waived or reduced.
Great article! Everyone leads a unique life and there’s no repeatable path to get into any career, but it sure would be nice.