Consider this: We live in an era where search engines have given us the ability to learn virtually anything, look up the answer to any question, and do all of this in a matter of seconds — However, there’s something even more absurd than the fact that the world spends it time using these tools to watch cat videos, porn, and to keep up with the Kardashians.
In theory, the democratization of knowledge should have brought the college system to its knees, forcing schools to lower their costs given the accessibility of information. Free, open-source knowledge should have forced colleges to have to compete with the changing market.
But it’s 2018 and the educational revolution hasn’t happened yet. On the contrary, in the Fall of this past year, roughly 20.4 million students attended American colleges and universities, constituting an increase of nearly 5.1 million since Fall 2000. The number of students enrolling in colleges is going up year after year, the cost of tuition continues to climb, and student debt is only growing — so why do we keep making the same mistakes when all signs indicate that the value no longer outweighs the cost?
Cost Isn’t The Primary Consideration for Most Students
According to a Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey only 7.5 percent of students based their decision on what college to attend based on costs. The primary consideration, at 28 percent, is location. School reputation came in at 20 percent. 19 percent of students chose a particular school because they believed it would lead to a good job upon graduation.
A 5 percent sliver of the student population selected their college where they were offered some form of financial aid. However, as student debt spirals out of control, that number should be much larger.
Short-Term Thinking Leads to Long-Term Consequences
When I was in high school, I knew a girl who made her college decision based on the football team — and no, she was not an NCAA athlete. She was a girl who liked football, and wanted to get drunk at the games. Now I wish I could tell you that she was an anomaly, but that type of short-term thinking is part of the reason the student debt crisis exists.
While very few students are concerned with college costs or their financial aid going into school, many find themselves caring an awful lot after they’ve graduated. A Gallup survey found that only 18 percent of people with an undergraduate degree and an excess of $50,000 in debt maintain that their education was worth the cost.
In 2017, the average salary of a new graduate was just north of $50,000 per year. Of course, this range varies widely depending on the occupation and field of study for each student, but the average student loan debt borrower is $27,975. When you couple that with housing costs, car payments, and other living expenses, many graduates find themselves in a hole they can’t seem to dig their way out of. The total outstanding debt loan exceeds $1.45 trillion in the U.S. and over 45 million Americans have student loan debt.
College Can Be Worth It…For the Right Price
When performing any cost analysis, one of the first questions we ask ourselves is, what are we really paying for? What’s the return on this investment?
However, at eighteen or so years old, applying for college, education is not the only concern and often not even the main concern for many students. They care about the social elements — partying, Greek life, meeting new friends — and have been reinforced by a longstanding pop culture tradition, stretching back to Animal House that college should be “the time of their lives.”
This isn’t at all to say that every student thinks like this, but a good portion of college undergrads have these thoughts, which means that they aren’t necessarily focused on maximizing what ultimately amounts to the first big time / money investment of their lives. If an 18, 19 year-old wants to have fun, there are less expensive ways to do this, while also becoming more cultured. Take a train around Europe, working on a visa along the trip.
College is tremendously valuable. There are a litany of studies that prove empirically that college grads have greater earning potential than non-grads, but again, it boils back down to a value to cost ratio.
Some of the primary value-adds of college are:
- Exposure to a network of competitive, educated peers
- Exposure to a diverse variety of learning frameworks
- Further socialization
And many others, of course. What makes the college system so profitable is how these things are packaged and marketed together. Is the proper value being delivered for the cost in anyone of these areas though? There are cheaper ways to build out a professional network. There are cheaper alternatives to exposing yourself to a variety of learning frameworks, and as mentioned before, there are also cheaper ways to socialize and become more cultured.
But despite our protests and the national dialogue lamenting the cost of education, certain data suggests we still aren’t concerned enough. According to a study from NerdScholar, roughly $2.9 billion of federal grant money was unclaimed by high school seniors eligible for Pell Grants — which don’t ever have to be paid back — in 2015. These students simply neglected to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Our Thinking Needs to Shift, The System Will Follow
We have been complicit in our choices, which has allowed the system to remain broken. It feeds off of the money of private citizens. It’s easier said than done to sit here and say that if we want change, we need to spend our money elsewhere. College has been ingrained in public consciousness as a necessary step towards a career, but the times are changing.
If people become confident that the alternatives to college education can land them those same positions, then the system will be forced to increase the value of its offerings or decrease the costs.
- Build a portfolio
- Start a business; succeed or fail
- Work for someone who has the knowledge you want
- Take free or cheap online courses
- Learn a vocation
Everything I just listed can yield a high-paying job or jump start your life as an entrepreneur, and all of them would allow you to succeed outside of the traditional educational system. Google even offers free certifications like Google Webmaster training to learn how to properly run its analytics.
Employers are more open-minded than ever. They see the direction college is going. The Ivory Tower will collapse. If you are certified in Google’s programs, if you can code, if you run social media accounts with hundreds of thousands of actively engaged followers — you will be able to find a job. You will thrive when the Ivory Tower falls.
The most valuable skill you can learn in college is how to learn more effectively. In other words, how to become a better self-educator. Whether you go to college or not, however, this is a skill you should be working to master. Self-education is the key to thriving in the information age — and, if you so choose, playing your part in disrupting the university system.