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Why I Left Academia But Still Support University Learning

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Last weekend I caught a podcast with one of those internet marketing gurus. You know, the kinds of marketers that teach you how to effortlessly make millions of dollars from your private beach in Thailand — and all before you're 25-years-old, no less.



One of the talking points for this particular “guru” centered around higher education and its place in society. His point was that schools don’t teach you how to make money which “has to be the biggest oversight in the solar system.” Then he goes on to ask the big question:


“Why do you go to school at the core practical value?”


Setting aside the fact that his question isn’t even a grammatically coherent sentence, he brings up a great point. What is the purpose of higher education for students today? Is it necessary for getting ahead or has it turned into an overpriced, useless institute that's based on tradition more than anything else?

There is a big trend that seems to be pushing the latter. More and more, we are seeing online schools charging no upfront tuition, but they will take a percentage of your salary once your get a job in your field. It’s like a university working on commission. And with student loan debts being alarmingly high (around $1.48 trillion according to Student Loan Hero) this is a very attractive opportunity.


Plus, it's no secret that a college degree does NOT guarentee employment. At school, you tend to learn theory and fall behind in experience. The unfortunate reality is that there are loads of students who graduate college but end up working in cafés or go under/unemployed as their degree collects dust and their debt collects interest.



Now don’t get me wrong, I think these are all valid points. Actually, I know they are because they happened to me. I earned a Master’s degree in Communications and Rhetoric with the intention of going on to a PhD and working as a professor. But the closer I got to achieving that goal, the less I wanted to look at 150 students discretely stare at their phones during lectures for the rest of my life. It became clear most of my students weren't there to learn; they were in class because they felt like they had to be.


So I went off to explore other career opportunities. But, like most graduates, I had tens of thousands of dollars in debt and my degree was hindering me from getting a career in my field of interest. As it turns out, too much education and not enough experience is a poor position to be in.

With a history like that, you'd think I would be somewhat jaded to the idea of college and higher education. But here's the thing: I am still a huge advocate of higher learning so long as students change their expectations as to what they'll actually get out of it.

Here's what I mean.


If you're only looking for a financial ROI from your education, but you don’t want to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, then of course you should think twice about going to an expensive four-year school that you can’t afford. You’ll wrack up useless debt and drink too much beer. That’s not exactly a recipe for success (though the beer part can be fun).


What people forget, though, is that higher education isn’t exclusively designed to train you to be financially secure — it should also teach you how to explore and analyze ideas in different subjects so that you can become an interesting and well-informed individual. In other words, higher education should teach you how to be a critically thinking and discerning member of society.


It should also expose you to ideas that you aren’t comfortable with so that you can grow as a person and learn how to give reasonable arguments for your convictions.


The problem is that somewhere along the lines, people (myself include) started thinking that a college degree should inherently owe them a job after they leave. Spoiler alert: it doesn't.


The idea that we should all graduate, get a piece of paper, and move directly into a $60,000 + salary job (despite what that piece of paper says on it) is the definition of “delusional entitlement.” It's just not a realistic expectation.



The truth is that if you go to college, you will probably accrue student debt, work part-time at a few jobs you hate, graduate, and start a career in your mid-20’s at a modest salary. However, you will also have been exposed to social clubs you would have missed, interacted with professors and possibly found a mentor, had the chance to study abroad, and ended up with more job security then if you had gone straight into the workforce (despite popular belief, Jeffrey Dorfman shows that graduates typically earn more and have lower rates of unemployment).


That plan isn’t for everybody, and that’s fine.


If you’re only looking for a degree that will earn you money, then college probably isn't necessary. Go learn a practical skill, get very good at that skill, and then start to earn more money from it. You can, obviously, still become a well-informed, critically thinking adult, you will just have to put in a lot more self-study when you get off work.


And, again, that’s fine.


In fact, some of the smartest people I know didn’t go to college, they just had an incredibly curious mind. On the flip side, I know a lot of really dumb people who have high degrees and try to rest on their documented laurels.


But here’s my point: There's a new trend that wants to make it sound like universities are impractical, cause too much debt, and give little to no pay off. They certainly have some good points concerning the student debt (it is way too high and most 18-year-olds shouldn’t be offered tens of thousands of dollars in credit) but they also tend to exaggerate the false idea of under/unemployment for college grads without highlighting the experiential benefits.


Plus, you should always be cautious of anyone telling you that a university is pointless and then immediately offering to sell you their expensive online get-rich scheme. Some of these programs may have some substance, but the majority are just profiting off the dream of making you rich with no effort. You don’t need a college degree to know how bad of an investment that is.


At the end of the day, if you approach the system of higher education with the right attitude, realistic expectations as to what you will gain afterwards, and are financially responsible with student loans, they are still a great option for anyone firmly established in or just entering adulthood. College is an opportunity and just like all opportunities, everything boils down to what you make of it. So go out, explore, be curious, and whatever you do, learn responsibly.


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©2019 by Nathan Thompson.