I was one of the many Millennial kids indoctrinated with the idea that I needed to pursue a college degree after high school if I wanted to get anywhere in life. And as someone who excelled in school, I was inclined to believe that, despite not knowing what I wanted to do.
So I decided to pursue a degree at Truman State University, a highly rated university located in The-Middle-of-Nowhere, Missouri. This is a decision I’ve come to regret even after getting my degree a year early and avoiding debt.
After spending a few years in the working world, I feel compelled to communicate this message: I wish I hadn’t gone to college.
I’m talking to you especially, Millennials and Generation Z (but also anyone considering going into a university).
This is my message to anyone who wants to get a good job: experience trumps formal education. In the real world, experience is invaluable. But the value of formal education is never quite worth what you invest into it.
The fallacy of formal higher education
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed The Higher Education Act into effect in 1965. This bill increased educational resources in colleges and universities, and supplied financial assistance for students in higher education.
This legislation really opened up the doors for the Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers to pursue higher education without financial burden.
Back then, financial aid meant federally or state-funded grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. It didn’t mean crippling student loans like financial aid has come to mean today.
Knowing that it’s understandable that there was a push for higher education in the mid-1960s. A college education wasn’t crucial to a middle-class lifestyle then, so why not shoot for more if the government is funding you?
Now a Bachelor’s degree does all but ensures middle-class status.
The value of a college degree has depreciated over the decades, despite an increased cultural value on higher education itself. That can be observed by how many college graduates have a hard time finding good work, with nearly 4 out of 10 minimum-wage workers in the US being college grads (EPI, 2013).
“With the normalization of higher education, a degree doesn’t stand out on a resume now as much as it used to. It’s just another line on your resume.”
Sure, the experience of college itself is great for having fun and learning your alcohol tolerance while living in a very isolated village of people your age, but how does that prepare you for the real world?
Oh, you say you joined a fraternity or sorority and held an important position? Great. Guess how many employers give a crap about your extracurriculars? None.
The truth is that now most employers care about your experience more than your education. A college degree is great and all, but actually doing what you learned about is entirely different.
Case in point: A college degree does not guarantee you a job. It does not entitle you to a job. It hardly even qualifies you for a job.
It sucks, I know. But it’s the reality we live in.
A case study: Higher education vs experience
You already know a little about my story. The adults in my life encouraged me to go to college, so I went to a four-year university and graduated with a Bachelors in Public Communication in three years.
Luckily I graduated just before I would have gone into debt. I started as an employee of my Uncle’s gymnastics business because I wasn’t sure what else to do and needed a job.
I’m an intelligent, hard-working individual that graduated a year early from a well-respected university. I was sure that employers other than my family would see that and I’d be a prime candidate for hiring. I thought those facts alone would sell myself to employers.
Man, was I wrong!
For the next three years, I spent time applying for job after job in digital marketing. I was particularly set on getting a job in London, which added to the challenge due to the difficulties of obtaining a UK work visa as an American.
Nothing kills your spirit like being told you need a college degree to get a good job, getting a college degree faster than everyone else, then applying to 75+ jobs only to be told you’re not qualified enough.
One of the commonalities among many of the job applications was that the employers wanted someone with a minimum of two to five years of work experience. This was so frustrating. How are you supposed to get job experience without a job?
It’s a real catch-22 situation.
This is why when I met my friend Jack, who is my age, I was so mind-blown that he was doing so well in his career. At 24 years old, he has a well-paying software engineering job with benefits. He’s making more than most people our age and he didn’t go to university.
That’s right. He didn’t go to university, and he didn’t even go to college (which is the English equivalent to high school). He finished secondary school at age 16, the maximum age you’re required to attend school in the UK, and entered into an apprenticeship in web development.
After three years in this apprenticeship alongside an internship where he picked up software engineering skills, he had enough experience to be hired as a web developer. Around the same time that he started his new job as a full employee, I was just graduating from college.
Now Jack has had eight years of practical working experience while I’ve only had three years.
His experience is so valuable that companies regularly seek him out rather than clamoring for job opportunities like us Millennials with a college degree. Granted, he’s in a field that’s in high demand and is generally well paying, but even people his same age who went to university for web development are not compensated nearly as well as he is.
All in all, I think it’s safe to say that experience has a much more notable value on a resume than a college degree.
Experience is the most valuable thing you can have
Whether you have had higher education or not, you absolutely need experience to be able to progress in the working world. A degree cannot bypass that need.
If you’re reading this as a college student or a recent college graduate, I’m sorry to break it to you. I understand the frustration. I worked hard for my degree.
Of course, there are some careers that require an education— like doctors and lawyers. I wouldn’t go to a physician who’s had “experience treating people” but hasn’t gone to med school. Similarly, I wouldn’t hire a lawyer who’s had “experience defending people” but hasn’t gone through the grueling experience of law school.
But for most work, experience is more vital to success.
Unpaid internships may seem like a total ripoff but if you’re the low man on the totem pole, you should be snatching work experience right up. It’s an investment in yourself that very well may be worth it to your career overall than going to college.
Seriously. If someone had told me this when I was fresh out of college I would want to strangle them. But it’s true.
Here’s what I mean: Let’s say you’re trying to hire somebody to fly you in an airplane. Do you want someone who’s studied in flight and knows in theory how to fly an airplane? Or do you want someone who’s flown a plane before?
It’s the same concept with writing, graphic design, web development, management, accounting, and just about any modern field out there. You need to have some proof that you actually can do what you say you can do for employers to take a chance on you.
We can all agree that at the end of the day, getting your hands dirty and actually doing the work rather than studying it is more meaningful.
The landscape of learning is changing
Please note that I’m not saying you don’t need an education. I’m a big advocate for education and the landscape of how we learn now has evolved.
We no longer need to spend four misguided years of our lives trying to figure out what we want to do with our lives. We don’t need to go deep into debt just to get an education.
There are so many more resources available to us now. I mean you can Google pretty much any question, no matter how ridiculous, in a matter of seconds. There are so many free and accessible ways to teach ourselves now that college isn’t the “necessity” it was before.
When I left college, I did not feel at all prepared for the real world. It wasn’t until I started getting my hands dirty in the field that I started getting work I liked. I didn’t make much money in the beginning, but nobody does when they’re first starting to get experience.
If you want an education without spending absurd amounts of money, I suggest you use the multitude of resources available online. And then dive into work experience as soon as you can.
“Don’t be afraid to pursue your career unconventionally.”
If you’re driven enough, you can accomplish far more by taking the road less traveled than the road our society has set out for career success.
If I could go back to being 18 and fresh out of high school, I would’ve decided against college. Instead, I think I would have tried out different internships until I found what I wanted to do. The work experience I have now is invaluable, but I sometimes wonder where I’d be today if I hadn’t gone to college. I wonder what would happen if I had just started working right away instead.
You need experience in this world to get anywhere in a career, even if you have a degree.
College degrees are simply a commodity now. I think young people need to swallow that if they’re going to pursue great things in life.
My recommendation to young people: don’t be like me. Don’t go to college unless you know you’re going into a profession that absolutely requires it. Use the resources already available to educate yourself and grab hold of every bit of work opportunity you can. It’s a far better investment in your career and in your future.
So if you truly want career success, you need experience. Plain and simple. Look for opportunities to get your feet wet and develop your skills. Even if they don’t pay well or at all, you’re learning in a way that means something to future employers.
Educate yourself, but don’t be afraid to be untraditional. Forge your own path.