Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Unnecessary College: Part 1: The Money Myth

This past weekend Bill Maher had Mike Rowe on his show. (See clip above.) Mike talked about the plethora of blue collar jobs going unfilled in America - where unemployment is high - because these jobs are not sexy. High schools, Mike says, are pushing everyone into going to college, whether or not the kids want to. I would argue, after being both a college student, TA, and a lecturer now, that high schools, "common knowledge", parents, and who knows what else, are also pushing kids to go to college whether or not they are really ready. I realize that this may seem weird coming from a dorky PhD student who has literally devoted her life to academia, but college is not the end-all-be-all (or at least it shouldn't be). College is not for everyone. In general, this is has nothing to do with intelligence, but with personality and differing aptitudes. Unfortunately, this topic is too big for just one post, so after the jump I will begin by discussing financial aspects of college that go beyond what "common knowledge" likes to pretend.

I went to college because I love to read and to write. Guess what? College is very reading and writing intensive. I would in fact advise anyone who hates reading and writing not to go to college. This will in fact benefit you - since you won't spend 4+ years doing something you hate - and all of your otherwise classmates who want to be there. Believe me, its painfully obvious to everyone, teachers and students alike, who wants to be there and who doesn't. The people who don't want to be there often just distract the rest of the class from learning. 

It seems to me (based on wholly unscientific conversations with friends and strangers usually over beers) that people think a college degree automatically translates into making more money later in life. I would like to challenge this by looking at the financial reality of life after college. First and foremost, a lot of articles and studies promoting the financial benefits of college like to ignore the oppressive reality of student loans (like this one, where the word "loan" doesn't appear once).

According to the loan calculator at someone with $40,000 in debt (above the current average, but not unheard of and the average rises every year anyway) will have to make $55,238.40 a year in order to pay back their loans in 10 years. Now consider that nearly 1/2 of grads can't find a full-time job, some work for minimum wage which equates to $15,080 yearly, and half of those with jobs are working jobs that don't require a degree. Those loans are not getting paid off.

Another factor that pro-college prep talks tend to ignore is what technical school and 2 year degrees have to offer. The LA Times article linked above pulls the classic comparison between college graduates and those with a high school diploma, but CNNMoney begs to fill the gap with this article on associate degrees. CNN claims that 30% of 2-year degree holders make more than those with a 4-year degree. And then there's this little slide show showing Forbes' top 20 blue collar jobs. Spoiler alert, all of the listed average salaries are at above the best I can hope for when I graduate with my PhD next year - and none of the people working those jobs should have the student loan debt I have.

I realize that I have been focusing this whole article on money, but in all my years at 2 universities, money is why the vast majority of people say they are here. Money it would seem is more important than happiness with one's profession. This is why I wanted to take so much space on this topic. I find this personally strange seeing as I can't imagine working a full-time job I hate - unless, maybe, if they were offering me great health insurance (including dental and vision) and $2 million/year. Then maybe I'd consider it, but guess what? A college degree isn't going to get me that.

This answer does significantly change if you start talking to L&S grad students like myself where the money isn't "good" but we all do it for love of the topic. In my opinion it is the people that don't say "money" as their reason for going to college who truly belong here. 


  1. Hello Krista-Lee:
    Greetings from Borneo. You have opened a very interesting can of worms: the relationship between money/salary and happiness/job satisfaction. And you have already found the beginning of a good answer: “…as I can't imagine working a full-time job I hate - unless, maybe, if they were offering me great health insurance (including dental and vision) and $2 million/year. Then maybe I'd consider it…” – It’s actually like building a house, where you need both (i) a strong enough foundation (ii) for all these nice living rooms above. It’s not an “either-or question” (e.g. money or job satisfaction), it’s rather an “as-well-as solution”, like yin and yang, money and happiness. Money is the foundation and you clearly need a certain minimum salary/income as a good and solid foundation from where you can start building and inhabiting these wonderful rooms above for your real vocational interests and challenges, e.g. your love of reading and writing or your urge of fixing a diesel engines or your desire of teaching kids etc. But with any shaky or wobbly foundation, without a minimum income, you won’t have too much happiness and fun with all your vocational interests and challenges. You will worry too much about car break downs, heat waves, food prices etc. On the other hand, how many times a day can you get drunk? How much food do you need without becoming obese? How much music can you listen to at the same time? Depending on where you live, c. 50,000 to 70,000 Dollar p.a. seem to be a good enough foundation to focus on your loved job content/challenges and to live a happy professional life – if you can let go, if you can simplify your life and if you can focus on what really matters in life. - Cheers, Matt.

  2. Ah Matt - I always love your thought provoking questions. Of course I agree. The conversation/show that triggered the post was making the argument that there are jobs which don't require college degrees and yet still offer financial stability. This is in conflict with what was preached to me and many others in high school - that college is the only path to stability.

    When I was working full time I was too tired at the end of the day to do much which left only weekends (occasionally weeknights to be honest, but not often)to pursue nonprofessional interests. This means that the vast majority of my time was spent working. This is why I want job satisfaction. I do not want to spend half of my waking hours doing something I absolutely hate.

    The comment about making $2 mill was really tongue-in-cheek. I've already made the decision that money is not enough to buy happiness when I decided to go so deep into debt to go to grad school. I do not expect to ever be rich, but if I can live without daily worry over money (I'm sure I will still worry sometimes - shit happens after all) and do a job I find fulfilling then I believe I will be happy.

  3. Good Morning, from the Borneo of Malaysia to the US of America:
    Most, maybe all, of these high-school teachers are false prophets. They are dependent state employees with a guaranteed salary (like cattle on a farm) and they dare to tell young people how to become masters of their own destiny or independent entrepreneurs (to survive the jungle of life, or as in the US, the forest)! What an incongruent farce and what a catch 22! How boring their lies are! - Financial stability comes only and only from within, from yourself, from your self-belief in your own believes! Success and financial stability doesn't come from any expert knowledge or honed skills, it only comes from taking risks. What risks have you been taking last year? What risks are you taking now? What risks will you be taking next? Make a list and exercise your guts. Jump. - Cheers, Matt.
    PS: You ever heard about re-framing? If so, have you ever tried to re-frame your daily worries over money into daily risk-taking? Isn't dancing or jumping much more fun than walking or marching?