Before I jump off into this discussion I need to establish that I value education tremendously. Formal education to be specific. Not the school of hard-knocks education or the self-study variety that’s value is verifiable almost exclusively by what the holder can demonstrate through direct deliverables. But the certifiable, accredited, establishment oriented, ivory tower real deal. I am a big believer in the kind it takes years of consistent, sustained dedication to complete and puts letters behind your name when you are done.
BUT (and don’t tell me you didn’t know there was a big but coming) my perspective has been broadened in recent years and I have had cause to rethink my romanticism. Getting a college degree can be a very costly endeavor a fact that I know personally and painfully well. And if you decide to get an advanced degree you can very easily have an education debt that is more than the mortgage on a reasonable home. But an advanced education is quite valuable so it is understandable that it carries a hefty price tag.
But here is the catch: you can have that great big major league education and wind up with little more to show for it than the degree itself. While I am not advocating for a transactional engagement for high-end liberal arts education I am issuing a warning to all of my ambitious and altruistic young people contemplating their future plans. Your degrees will never function like a winning lottery ticket. They will, however, serve as the price of admission into many places you want to go. True, some doors will never be open without a college degree. But take note: the degrees may ensure that you have a CHANCE to get through a door you want to enter but they will not keep you there if you don’t perform once you are there. Please dig that reality before you find yourself in debt-slavery to the federal government and private banks because your brain power could carry you a great deal further than your own financial resources could.
Please do not read this as a discouragement to aim high and bet on yourself. Do that with all you’ve got and do it with gusto. Just do it with your eyes open and keep your mind on your money and your money on your mind while you are doing it. Strategize your financial approach to getting your degrees so that you can leverage them for maximum financial benefit when you get into the work world. If you don’t take that step, you are walking a high-wire tightrope without a net and if you fall it is going to hurt like hell.
Contrary to popular belief, there are as many opportunities as there ever have been to have a fulfilling and rewarding professional life without degrees. The world of information technology in particular has opened up avenues to high-end earning careers that more than make up for losses in old-school blue-collar vocations. And IT is not a degree-centric field. But even beyond IT, sharp and ambitious young people will always find a place in the workforce. Businesses are always willing to bet on the energy and ingenuity of young people who are willing to put themselves out there.
So if you are in any way unsure of your commitment to completion do not even step inside the door of a traditional college or university. If you have any doubt about your ability to compete academically at that level, do not even step inside the door of a traditional college or university. All you are doing is signing up for a headache you will spend years paying for and you will have nothing tangible or leverageable to show for it. While it is true that your paths will be narrower than they would be with the degree, you will be unburdened by debt and unencumbered with the belief that you started something important without finishing it. And then there is the time issue. If you don’t spend years in higher education, you can most certainly spend it in developing your professional / employment profile. Time is a resource that can be invested or wasted and that is entirely in the hands of the individual controlling the game.
It is a reasonable choice to set the entire higher education enterprise aside for a later date when you really feel prepared to do it. In the meantime, you can chart a course, develop a plan, and build a career in many fields that do not require letters behind your name- just be ready to work your ass off and prove yourself once you get in the door. Oftentimes you will not get the same presumption of competence that your degreed colleagues get but you can overcome that by demonstrating elevated preparedness and professionalism. And the objective standards of performance only measure whether you have done the work- not HOW you got there to do it.
One of my favorite people is Chris Gardner whose life was made into the hit film The Pursuit of HappYness starring Will Smith. We’ve all seen the movie by now and we all know that Chris literally worked his way from the very bottom to very near the top of the world of financial services and commodities trading without a college degree- and for a time without even a place to lay his head. But he was truly smarter than most people he encountered every day and he most certainly worked harder than EVERYBODY he met every day. So while his experience is not typical, it is real and demonstrates what is possible if you really have the tools, talent and drive to succeed.
The simple take away is that there is room to make it work in many more ways than I could have imagined when I was a youngblood coming up. For many of us back then it was higher education or bust. I made it work for me- but at a steep price. Frankly I don’t know if I’d do it the same way if I knew then what I know now- but I would rather be out here competing with that in my arsenal than without it. I’m just saying it is some expensive artillery. I am certainly not unique in that experience and I would bet you my check that many of my peers would endorse this piece enthusiastically. There are other ways to self-actualize and we should encourage those who are searching for their path to think broadly and strategically about the entire picture before they commit.
So Good luck, Godspeed and Go Blue! (sorry, folks I couldn’t resist.)