Musings on the Paradox of a College Education: Why Today Less May be More

Now that most colleges have sent out their acceptance and rejection letters, and prospective students are busy deciding where to go, I can’t help but wonder how many students these days will see a real return on their investment.

A College Degree Simply Does Not Have the Same Value it Used To

I have nothing personal against the hollowed halls of higher education. I went to college; heck, I even have two degrees. But in my day, before the big Internet Boom that has so defined the last 15 years or so, things were different. Expertise was more predictable and definable. A college degree meant something. It was an investment that offered a very attractive return. It opened doors that otherwise would be closed to the majority of the working population, and it didn’t carry the mind-boggling price tag that it does today.

According to a relatively recent report published by the College Board at the end of last year, the average cost to attend a public four-year university in 2010 rose 8.3% to $8,244. That increase was more than double the inflation rate of 3.6% between July 2010 and July 2011, and this has been happening as family earnings have dropped across all income levels and state funding per student has declined by 23% over the past decade.

Moreover, according to a new report from the Project on Student Debt at the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), those who graduated in 2010 carried an average of $25,250 in student loan debt. Meanwhile, unemployment for recent college graduates climbed from 8.7% in 2009 to 9.1% in 2010 — the highest annual rate ever recorded for college graduates aged 20 to 24

What I find the most amazing is that the advice many uninitiated American workers are receiving as they peer into the chronically stagnant job market is “do more”- more college (i.e. graduate programs), more internships (typically non-paid ones), and more self-promotion (which takes a significant amount of time and creativity to do effectively).

Seen under these circumstances, a college education becomes a rather expensive inflatable life jacket that may or may not inflate when needed. I personally know several people who are using grad school as a “productive” furlough till they dip their toes into the job market. They are either hoping that the economy will turn around in another couple of years or that their extensive qualifications will give them a leg up in their quest for gainful employment.

My acquaintances are smart people with degrees in engineering from great schools, and I’m sure they are not alone, not by far. Today, it seems like higher education is not the a real value-added proposition it once was. Shouldn’t that piece of paper give you some piece of mind? Instead, it’s exactly the opposite, as graduating students feel the pressure to repay their mounting student debt while struggling to find work. Even where loans are not such an issue, there is still a strong desire to at the very least recoup the time and money it took to become more enlightened.

Who’s Looking at Your Degree Anyway?

The biggest punchline to all of the above is that it seems totally disconnected to the reality of how many of your potential employers, business partners, and maybe even your customers are making decisions these days. Many are looking at a different set of criteria when deciding whether to hire you or do business with you- criteria that puts less value on a college education and proportionally more value on your real world experiences, your social networks, and the content that you have added to them, as well as your ability to “package” and “sell” your uniqueness. It reminds me of a post I saw a while back from Seth Godin who asks quite poignantly “Why bother having a resume?

These days, unless you are going for a specific, technical degree with a proven track record of potential earnings or you need to receive training that can only happen at an on-site, accredited university program, then it may just make sense to put aside or at least re-think your college aspirations. This is even more relevant if you have entrepreneurial tendencies and/or you are drawn to more creative or low paying professions.

This has nothing to do with being frugal per se; it has everything to do with reality of the world we are currently living in. Making the best use of your time and money will be the natural outcome of aligning yourself with that reality. What’s more, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to completely give up on college either.

The Many Alternatives to a Traditional College Degree Program

Attending a traditional, four-year college degree program is not the be all and end all of educational opportunities. If you are a motivated and disciplined self-learner, then there are many reputable, accredited online degree programs to choose from. (About Online Degrees has a searchable database that can help you locate a suitable program.) Online degree programs are generally cheaper than regular degrees, especially since you would be saving money on room, board, travel and the like.

You could also consider part-time or night-time degree programs. Many accredited universities and colleges offer them. Though they may take longer to complete, it may allow you to hold a job that can help cover your expenses which will also be spread out more comfortably over a longer period of time. Finally, there are numerous technical training programs, two-year, and community college programs that can be completed alone or used as a cheap stepping stone to a regular full-time degree.  The College Board has an excellent search tool to help you locate some of these programs as well as a site called

Finally, I recently came across an interesting site,, that offers a system for turning your current, real-world knowledge into legitimate college credits so that your degree can be completed quicker.  It’s definitely worth a visit.

In short, when it comes to higher education, you may want to take a step back and do your best to ensure that there really is a return waiting for you after all of your investment.