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Does college matter?


Your son wants to play in a band. You think he should be an engineer. You're majoring in bioinformatics because your parents told you it was a good career choice, but you hate it. You love to write code, but now your parents are telling you "it's a bad move, what with outsourcing and all..." You spent your first two years of college maintaining an inhuman blood alcohol level, when it hits you--you've taken out loans to pay for this drinking.

We've all accepted that a college degree == $. (Ignoring Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, of course.) College means higher lifetime earnings, and there's plenty of research to back that up. On the other hand, we've also learned that there's scientific evidence that money doesn't mean happiness (assuming you're over the baseline level of poverty). So if there's almost no correlation between money and happiness, but college means more money... where's real happiness in all that?

I've watched the wildly conflicting comments on the future of IT/programming as a profession between Dori Smith on "don't do it" and Robert Scoble on how "Microsoft can't find enough programmers".
But I'm far less interested in whether majoring in a high-tech field is a good idea today than I am in whether the question even matters. The average education in computer science, engineering, and even medicine is partly obsolete within 18 months. Some weird variant of Moore's law I guess. The conventional wisdom says that the specifics of what you learn are much less important than the fact that you're learning the fundamentals, and you're learning to learn--things you'll need to maintain your skills and knowledge in a quickly changing world.

The problem is, you virtually never hear a student say that. It's always the parents or someone speaking on behalf of the educational system. When was the last time you honestly heard (and believed) an actual current college student claim that the true benefit of their formal college education is in learning to be a lifelong learner? That's just bulls***.
With very few exceptions, college in the US is more about drinking than it is about deep learning.

Others claim that the benefit of a college degree is really more about socialization and independence. I've heard reasonably smart adults say, with all sincerity, that spending $80,000 so little Suzy could learn to live on her own was worth it. I think there are a thousand different, and often better, ways to achieve that. Suzy could join the peace corp, for example, or go on one of those "learning vacations" where you do an archealogical dig. Hell, just a three-month long trip through Europe with a couple friends and a rail pass (or, as a friend of mine did, a bike trip across Turkey) is certainly going to do more for socialization and independence than a traditional college environment, and at a tiny fraction of the cost.

The real curiosity, for me and others, is why we spend so much time railing against the decline in public schools for K-12 in the US, while higher education practically gets a free pass. The only major complaints you hear are about the rising costs, when to me--that may be the least of it.

In Declining by Degrees, a PBS documentary and book, one of the central questions is about why we aren't looking more closely at what really happens between admission and graduation. Or I should say, looking at what doesn't happen. From the intro:

"The decline in the quality of American undergraduate education has not yet become a major public issue. Americans may be cynical about their public institutions and leaders, but their skepticisim does not extend to the nature and content of a college education."

"... the result of this mentality (we are resisting the temptation to label it "mental illness") is graduates who are narrowly educated--and often are "trained" for work in fields that will have changed before the ink on their diplomas is dry. Those graduates have scant understanding of civic responsibilities or of the possibilities of life beyond work. Accumulating a sufficient number of courses and credit hours to earn a college degree is, in the public mind, synomous with being educated. But having a diploma bears little resemblance to being educated. "Higher" education has been lowered."

So here we have a pile of issues:

* Does it still make sense to major in a high-tech field? (and the offshoots I didn't mention about whether gender makes a difference)

* Does it really matter what you major in, or is the benefit of college something beyond the actual field of study?

* If college = money, but money != happiness, what does that mean with respect to a college degree?

* Does it still make sense to go to college... at all?

But I think the biggest question of all is something entirely different:

Where does passion fit into this equation?

Everything I hear about is whether a kid -- male or female -- should pursue this field or that field, what the long-term career prospects are, etc. I almost never hear much discussion about whether it matters if they have a passion for. It's true that sometimes college is the best way for them to discover their passion, but I've seen way too many young people traumatized by the thought of telling their parents that after three years of pre-med, they're switching to something like... ornamental horticulture (a big area of study at my alma mater, Cal Poly SLO).

The reason this matters to me now is because I'm right in the middle of it. I've been watching Dori with some envy... going on visits with her son to check out prospective colleges, talking about application forms, entrance exams, all that stuff I naturally assumed I'd be doing when my daughter Skyler turned 16 or 17. The older she got, the better she did in school, and the brighter her teachers found her to be... the more certain I was that she'd follow "the natural path" of the countdown to college that starts somewhere around 10th grade.

But it didn't work out that way. Skyler, it seems, could not care less for conventional wisdom, what her friends do, what the numbers say, and most especially--what her mom might think. Skyler believes that life's too short to spend that many years on something you don't love.

So she decided to just work for a while until she figures something out. And then a few weeks ago, she announced the discovery that Boulder is home to a world-class vegetarian cooking school that in addition to cooking classes, includes courses in professional development ranging from creating a business plan for a restaurant, to starting a personal chef business.

Vegetarian cooking is her passion. She believes in it, she loves it, she takes great pleasure in it. She evangelizes it to others. What horrifies me is that even though I knew she felt this way, it never occurred to me that this was something she might consider instead of college. But she got me with this one:

"Mom, your degree was exercise physiology. You spent your first five years out of college as a glorified aerobic instructor. Then you taught yourself programming, took a few night classes at UCLA, and made a huge career switch into computers, and found you loved it. You have your own computer book series. Yet you told me you had just a single computer class in college, and you hated it. So... tell me again why college was so great for you?"

And then the kicker:

"I have no idea if I'll ever open a restaurant or develop this into a professional career, but whatever investment I make in this will serve me and make me happy for the rest of my life. I'll be using what I learn here in my personal life, almost every day, regardless of my career. How many people can say that about 90% of what they learned in college?"

The part I still have to get over is that feeling of a missed opportunity. Of unfulfilled potential (too many Microsoft ads?). This was a straight-A kid. One far brighter at 12 than I'll ever be. One of those about whom people say, "She could succeed at anything she wants." yet what we all secretly meant was, "She could succeed at anything we think she should want."

Lucky for her, she learned at a much earlier age that passion matters. That money is far less important than joy (and that money doesn't buy joy). And that whatever decision she makes now, does not determine the rest of her life. She understands that the chances of anyone having a single career for life -- or even a decade -- are asymptotically approaching zero. And that nothing -- not finances (or lack of) or gender or age -- will stand in her way if she decides to learn something. And if what she wants to learn at some point in the future is best studied in a formal higher education environment, there's nothing to stop her from going to college then.

Still, I look longingly at the cute Target dorm furniture and think, "maybe one day..." Then I hear what my friends are paying in college tuition, and snap out of it.

I'm no longer convinced that we should assume a traditional four-year college should be the automatic default for all high school grads, esepcially given the state of these institutions today. And I seriously wish people would stop looking at me with pity and concern, shaking their head when they realize Skyler ("but she always seemed so bright...") isn't going to a "real" college. Wake up and smell the 21st century...

Posted by Kathy on July 14, 2005 | Permalink


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For some, college is an opportunity to connect with a group of people and some of the connections last a lifetime. Not to many for me, but for me college was four years of experimenting and learning about state of the art technology (which would have been inaccessible to me otherwise).

Maybe Skyler will be able to pull the same thing off with her professional school(s), and maybe she'll make lifetime connections with others along this path; but I'm wondering if she's missing out on something (besides the beer).

Posted by: Woolstar | Jul 14, 2005 4:18:16 PM

Very interesting post. I've done a fair amount of school (double majored in english and math, with an MS in engineering), and I feel that I got a lot out of it. But I have been blown away with what an interested, focused person can accomplish in software development with no degree (or even no coursework) in computer science.

At first, I thought the "self-taught" pheonomenon was a quirk of the software world - that the rapid rate of change in programming was somehow differentiated it from more mature fields (like medicine or law). But lately, I've come around to the notion that the presence of experts without degrees in software represents the norm, not the exception, for learning. People can become truly expert in fields without a "formal" education as long as they have access to information, tools for experimentation, and a passion for learning.

Anyway, this is just a longwinded way of saying: "I agree". If you've spent years reading, writing, experimenting, and so forth, you're educated in the field - regardless of degree.

If this were the case in other fields, I suspect you'd fine a lot of self-taught experts over there as well.

Posted by: Geoff B | Jul 14, 2005 5:38:04 PM

Good for Skyler. It's a brave new world, and she sounds like she's jumping into it with courage and the knowledge of what it means.

College is fine if you have a clear and passionate goal that fits into that methodology. But few careers do anymore. Hell, even the word "career" is obsolete.

"But she always seemed so bright"...

Reply: "That's why she stayed away from college".

There's a reason the phrase "college education" is two words - it's a special case of the much broader concept of "education".

Good luck, Skyler.

Posted by: Kyle Bennett | Jul 14, 2005 5:57:20 PM

you make some good points and things that i always wondered about when i was in college. i used to hear our president at school and the school board back in new orleans always talking about what was best for us. amazing how they never asked for our opinions or input. how is the average student expected to connexxt?

i'm 24, so I've just been out almost 2 years. i tried to focus on the internships and the business leaders that would take me under their wing. it was rare that i was pumped for classes. not because it was class, but i knew that the useful knowledge, the knowledge that would help me move ahead was outside the 'box.' i learned much in the box, but i loved to hear the stories of other people who'd been places. the lunches and business meetings and random emails to professionals i admired...those were and are my passions.

i always felt the degree was a formality. i worked hard, did well and graduated, but i never felt as if it would define me. i just knew i needed it to get into that interview. i always thought that once i got some place, i'd make some noise. so far i was right. i can't wait to see who i learn from next and what i can do. i'm just one of many.

Posted by: christien | Jul 14, 2005 7:49:17 PM

I went to college for a couple of years because it was automatically assumed if you were smart and could do well in high school that you would go there next. This was in the late 80s. I didn't finish because there was not enough there that I wanted to learn. Most of what I'm really interested in, I learn on my own.

In some ways, I think a degree is an insult to the passion for actual learning and the love of it, like religion is an insult to the passion for genuine spirituality and a solid sense of ethics.

On the other hand, my pay scale over the past 15 years has been relatively slim and slow. Lots of jobs have been taken outside of my interests to keep me afloat and just barely pay the bills. The student loan had been put off for a long time and I'm just in the past few years beginning to knock the principal down after letting all that extra interest accumulate (stupid, stupid, stupid).

If I hadn't been so passionate about my interests, it would have been much easier to just play the game. In the end, it's a gift and a curse to be so devoted to something. It has a price.

Posted by: Keith Handy | Jul 14, 2005 8:12:48 PM

After doing something similar to Skyler, "working for a while" before doing the college thing, I'm finding there is one very good reason to pay the $40,000 pricetag on a college education: the piece of paper you get at the end. As I move up, I've found this piece of paper becomes more and more important to the PHBs while my self-taught experience becomes worth less (and worthless).

A college grad who can't understand how to do a fraction of my old job now has my old job - and is paid more to boot. If I'm lucky, I'll score a new job paying almost what I used to make in the higher paying economy I now call home. And all for the want of a paper.

Posted by: Cori G | Jul 14, 2005 8:25:20 PM

"I've been watching Dori with some envy... going on visits with her son to check out prospective colleges, talking about application forms, entrance exams, all that stuff I naturally assumed I'd be doing when my daughter Skyler turned 16 or 17."

You want to borrow Sean for a couple of weeks? We'd be happy to send him out to visit you, and you could beat your head against that particular wall.

If Sean announced tomorrow that he didn't want to go to college, and instead wanted to sign up for a training program because he had a passion for [fill in the blank], I'd be the first to break out the champagne. But first I'd have to be revived, because I'd have fallen down into a dead faint.

The impression I get of Skyler (not having met her) is that she's a passionate, creative kid wiith lots of ideas. Sean? Not so much. He doesn't have a strong desire to go to college, but then, he doesn't have a strong desire to not go to college. He doesn't have a strong desire to major in a particular field, but then, he doesn't have a strong desire to not major in a particular field. He has no strong desire to go to a particular school, and no strong desire not to go to a particular school. And so on.

He's well aware of the life-long learning issue -- anyone who lives in our house would have to be. He's seen that what I was doing 8 years ago is vastly different from what I'm doing now, and that what I was doing 8 years before that was even more different. And we've made it clear that whatever he does end up doing, he should expect that he'll have to work to keep current, because the 21st century is only going to move faster and faster.

One of the main reasons we're encouraging bioinformatics for him is because it lets him keep his hand in so many fields -- if it turns out that (for instance) pure mathematics is his love, yay. If it's something else, that's good too. My thought is that he should be exposed to as many different fields and areas as possible, and then he can see which (if any) make him sing. And if none of them do, well, at least he'll have lots of options because he's learned so many things.

We make jokes about him going to UCSC and double-majoring in Bioinformatics and Astrophysics (two of their top-rated departments). He'd end up knowing a great deal about a great deal, but there ain't a job on earth that will use all of it. And that's okay. OTOH, he'll be taking Physics for the first time in the fall, and maybe that'll be The One.

If you're someone reading this who doesn't read our blog and has gotten the idea from the above that he's a general Math/Science geek: you're right.

Another school we're encouraging him to look at closely is Harvey Mudd. One of the things I like best about HMC is that they don't let you declare a major until your Sophomore year. Every Freshman enrolled takes the same "Common Core" courses so they get a broad education.

Side thought 1: as I tell Sean, if you're going to use Gates as an example of someone who didn't finish his degree, you have to compare/contrast Ballmer. What would he be today if he hadn't gone to college when/where he did?

Side thought 2: some of the heaviest drinkers I've ever known were the 18-25 year olds who didn't go to college. I think that it's more the age and not where you happen to be at that age.

Side thought 3: if you've ever considered writing a post on bringing out passion in the dispassionate, I'd love to read it!

Posted by: Dori | Jul 14, 2005 9:38:36 PM

I have to say that going to college and getting a degree in computer science would probably be a complete waste. My degree is Latin American Studies and I went to a solid liberal arts school. While I have never used that knowledge directly in my jobs, learning to write and communicate ideas and organize thoughts have all been critical to every job I have had, and are critical now that I run my own business. I don't regret for a minute getting my degree, although I didn't spend all that much time getting drunk, so maybe my experience was different.

I don't think college is necessary for everybody, but I do think that if you do go to college, you should study broadly instead or narrowly. Skyler sounds like she will be fine because she sounds like she will study broadly outside the confines of a college. Some people can do that, and some cannot, but I am glad she was able to see her way to doing what is right for her. Best of luck to her... and to you.

(Having a daughter in college now myself, I assure you that the joys of picking out dorm furniture are easily outweighed by the horrors of watching the way many college students do squander their opportunities)

Posted by: Ben Langhinrichs | Jul 14, 2005 9:58:36 PM

Hiya Kathy and Skyler...

I dropped out halfway through an engineering degree. And I can say, 20 years later, that I'm realllllly glad I did half an engineering degree.

Here's what I got out of it:

o I became a dj on the campus radio station, allowing me to get my first job at a commercial radio station as a sound engineer, just 4 days after I dropped out.

o I was a journalist and humourist on the student newspaper, which allowed me to flex my skills as a writer. I'm now a professional writer and artist, thanks to the exposure I gave myself back then.

o The problem-solving skills I picked up in engineering are things I use daily. They fit with my mode of analytical thinking, which I wouldn't easily have uncovered due to my being hyper creative as well.

o I learned about sex at varsity too. Hehehehehehe. Very useful.

o I learned about politics too, and was a student left-winger, albeit a misanthropic, cynical one. I'm still a lefty, and I really love the exposure I got to diversity and debate.

o I learned about film and art. I sat in on history of art lectures, and learned that I have the ability to understand art. I went to our film library and watched rare classics that I could never have seen anywhere else. (Well, it's now possible to buy the dvd of the original NOSFERATU THE VAMPIRE. But until three or so years ago, nogo.) I'm now a filmmaker amongst other things.

o I was a member of the War Games Society, and played hundreds of hours of Dungeons & Dragons (and similar). This allowed me to flex my imagination, and work out all sortsa things for myself.

Most of the things I learned at varsity were extra-mural. But those extra mural activities were supported by the structure imposed by being in a learning environment.

I would argue that a classical education is one of the most valuable things a person can get. (When I dropped out, I started another degree, majoring in philosophy, theory of literature, and English. Didn't complete it, but got far enough (8/10ths of the way) to know that I'm pretty darn clever.

Blue skies

Posted by: Roy Blumenthal | Jul 15, 2005 1:17:28 AM

Good for Skyler!

Personally I'd agree with Robert Pirsig's take on things - that education for the sake of having a piece of paper is frankly not worth the paper it's written on, but that the more worthwhile education comes from interest in the subject. He gives an excellent story of a guy who dropped out of high school because frankly the whole thing bored him. He became a car mechanic, as shop was about the only thing he'd been any good at, but as he repairs cars, he comes across all kinds of engineering problems, so he decides he needs to read up on metallurgy, on maths, on chemistry, and so forth, till in the end he puts himself through college, driven by passion for the subjects which he has a real love for.

I kind of did this myself - I went to university as a mature student at age 27, to study French. I'm now working for a French company, though that's as far as my use of the subject goes. That said, I wouldn't have swapped that time for anything. I got to study Japanese there, got my yellow belt in jiu-jitsu there, went and lived in France for a year in a school as part of my studies, came back and cycled the length of the UK for charity, met my wife and fell in love there (we're still together nearly 10 years on, and expecting our second child), and the company that I work for wouldn't have looked twice at me without my degree even though I work in IT and I have an arts degree. I got to study all sorts of interesting things too - like the French resistance, the holocaust in France, the Algerian war, French philosophy, linguistics. It took me till last year to pay off the loans, but it was worth every penny.

So, my message to Skyler is, don't write it off, but do what you love. If you find you need a degree for what you want to do, or if it'd be useful to you, then go study it. Whatever you do, do it with arete. In with both feet.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Jul 15, 2005 1:39:17 AM

I have no doubt that time in higher education can benefit anyone - sometimes it shows them that they are suited to academic study and sometimes it shows them that this is not the path for them right now. I think the problem is the assumption that the "best time" (read "only time for anyone in their right freakin' minds") is at the end of your teens - a hangover imho from a time when careers generally were more formally structured to suit the needs of businesses that were....well, more formally structured.

This is about living today. I believe that we're never finished creating ourselves and we do our best work when we help others to create themselves. Just as soon as your daughter ever finds that she's more passionate about going to college than making great food, she will do so. I say "Go Skyler! You feed the world."

Posted by: Lloyd Davis | Jul 15, 2005 1:41:34 AM

BTW, just to add, I was listening to a dharma talk by the Buddhist Society of Western Australia recently, and the speaker, Ajahn Brahm, quoted a study into happiness by the London School of Economics. Apparently the country that came top in the LSE's league table of happiness was Bangladesh, one of the most desperately poor countries in the world. Apparently poverty is no bar to happiness!


Posted by: Matt Moran | Jul 15, 2005 1:58:19 AM

PS: Kathy... looks like my previous emails to you didn't make it through your spam traps. Darn.

Posted by: Roy Blumenthal | Jul 15, 2005 3:48:12 AM

All the way through elementary & secondary school, I was told I was "bright." And I was, though I didn't know it. The problem was, I hated school -- it was boring, and we never got to study stuff that I was interested in. I almost never did homework, but picked up enough in class to ace the tests. That made for a lot of B's and C's, with a predictable result on my self-image.

I'm a 3-time college dropout, that being the number of times I was convinced, either by parents or friends, that I needed a degree to get anywhere at all. After doing blue-collar work for a few years, I wangled my way into a word-processing job at a mid-sized manufacturing company. I discovered some graphic software on my computer (a Mac -- woohoo!), and started playing around. I started enhancing some of the documents and Powerpoint presentations I was assigned, and within a few weeks, I was asked if I knew enough to work on some print advertising. I lied and said "yes." In truth I knew next to nothing, but I learned, and quickly -- all from reference books and trial&error (this was shortly before the rise of the 'net).

Long story short: I became a professional graphic designer, working freelance, doing (mostly) what I love for the past 10 years. Looking back, it's safe to say most of my formal education served only to discourage me from learning. I learned to read before starting school, and got my love of reading from my parents, not from Lit class, where we were never assigned reading that was interesting to me. I learned from my father that if I don't know something, I can learn -- read a book, ask someone, or just try something and see what happens. That is the foundation of my true education. And at this point in time, I am certain that nothing is beyond my capability.

For some, college may be a necessity -- some fields require the piece of paper just to get in the door, for instance -- but this is true far less often than it used to be. Instead of the presumption, it should be the exception, IMHO.

Posted by: Splashman | Jul 15, 2005 4:15:51 AM

At age 3, my daughter announced, "Art is my life, Mommy!" This fall, she is leaving home for the art department of a small Christian school (Gordon College) where the personal standards are high, the students are pretty much self-policing, and the academics look like a real classical education. Some people's take on this? "What a shame...she always seemed so bright." Answer~ She is. She's a chart topper on every test given, and a straight A+ student. "How is she going to learn about the 'real world' without a college experience full of drinking and dating (a euphemism for casual sex)?" Answer~ She'll see the 'real world' all around her in the surrounding communities, especially Boston, but she'll emerge without as much baggage, heartbreak, and STDs.

Follow your passion, baby! I did, with a "useless" non-traditional college degree in Classical Greek, a further non-traditional masters in Folklore, and plenty of job offers at every stage of my life because I am unique in my background, training, outlook, and my ability to think and learn!

Posted by: Cyndi L | Jul 15, 2005 6:13:48 AM

I think the bachelors degree is good for one thing. It gets you in the door for most companies. While it doesn't mean you know how to work, how to learn, or how to solve problems, it's still the minimum entry level requirement for most jobs.

Posted by: Steve Betts | Jul 15, 2005 8:17:11 AM

Talkiog about passion in what you do and what you do with it:

Passion is where your heart lies. I did physics and it sucked big time. I never liked it. I'd have happily wanted to have followed AstroPhysics but anyways back then(13-14 odd yrs back) it didn't matter. Computers back then were all green screens and it was not really that appealing.

I went sailing and I was in love with the seas. I've loved everybit of it , I met people from all parts of the world. It was an exilirating experience. I can literally feel like a little kid with a baloon in hands if I can just smell the diesel smoke from the funnels when I drive past the harbors.

I found the love of my life when I met my girl friend(now wife) here and I quit saling.

I picked up the trails that I left when I left college. IT Sector was on the downside(1999/2000) still I was in love. So I carried on. I started afresh and got into databases(Oracle) and suddennly I was aroused. Since then I have done consultancy,DBA related jobs. It all was possible because I was hooked not because I was calculated or planned it all out. No way.

Today I'm a Sr.DBA/Architect , I teach english in local school, will be Giving lessons to univ under-grads at my current Univ job, picking up the strands and trying to tie up my own band andv will pick up just about everything that i fall in love with.

The world is changing but it's not the regular joes and janes( they could be even be thunderbird,stanford,yale, harvard grads/masters--there are however exception), it's the drop-outs who're dropping out of the herd.

The world today with so much of text, graphic will change so drastically(actually it will be all replaced)that you'd laugh your a** out looking back at this transitional indulgence of typing(vlogging will change this very soon). HI(human intelligence) is truly the potential that will be exploited and will lead to massive breakthroughs.

Deal is simple.You just have to fall in love :-).

Posted by: Tarry | Jul 15, 2005 9:47:14 AM

Four years at $20k/year for an American (first) degree sounds poor value. Is that a typical state college or Yale/Harvard/UCBerkley standard? Why not look at a cheaper European option, with a better degree at the end of it (and perhaps three years instead of four)?

Of course some really bright kids adopt a strategy early on of pretending to be one of the crowd and dumber than they are. Unfortunately it's hard to shake that off later on.

The real benfits of University are:
1. Living away from home.
2. Learning how to work on problems, and how to absorb new information;
3. Meeting *much* cleverer people than you would meet at home.
4. Stretching your mental faculties.
5. Learning not to give up when things seem hard.
6. Learning to check facts!

Employers value many of these traits, en therefore prefer new hires to have a degree.


Posted by: Wally | Jul 15, 2005 10:29:47 AM

Well, these days I'm in the "get the degree anyway" camp. In fact, at almost 42 years old, I am planning to start a degree this year. My story:

I too am a software developer/architect, trainer, presenter, and the author of a few tech books (listed at my blog) . Readers and colleagues are surprised to find out that I don't have a college degree. Instead, I traveled the world for five years, visiting 60+ countries, and worked in England, Australia, and Portugal. I took certification courses and taught myself software development along the way because I enjoyed it and it paid well enough to continue my travels for extended periods. In between jobs I saw the world and made some great friends. I highly recommend this to any young person, usually much to the consternation of their protective parents. It was a great experience that I would not trade for anything else.

However, I regret not taking time to get a degree since I returned from my travels to Canada (then moved to the USA). In the high-tech business, you work in and with many large companies. These companies have HR departments. They do this by scanning candidate resumes for keywords. If a job requisition has a keyword like "degree" and your resume does not match that keyword, then you are not a match for the job. Simple as that. It doesn't have to be a pertinent degree, I know many colleagues that have music or philosophy degrees. But they do match the keyword, so they are a match. And let's imagine that I did get that degree in computer science back in 1983. In those days the curriculum covered important topics like Fortran, CPM, VAX, punch-card management and top-down programming. What possible use would that knowledge be in today's IT world? Apparently, that doesn't matter. There are thankfully ways around HR for enterprising individuals, which is why I have a job. But the HR hurdle is a tough one to overcome.

So based on my attitude, why do I want to get a degree now? Because I'm getting old and there IS a societal glass ceiling for non-college graduates that cannot be ignored. In small business, it's hard to get a loan without a degree, even with a good track record. In the corporate world, having a degree does not become an issue right away. You don't need a degree for an entry-level job, but you do need one for other jobs with more responsibility and higher pay. The result is that if you don't have a degree, you end up working with and for younger, less experienced people for less money than other people in your age bracket. As you said, money isn't everything, but getting stuck in jobs later in life that you are under-qualified for can affect much more than your bank account. So now I'm getting the degree and looking forward to more keyword matches in the future...

Posted by: Brian Benz | Jul 15, 2005 11:09:01 AM

I know what you mean by that feeling of "unfulfilled potential". I always felt this unspoken obligation to do the hardest thing I was capable of doing, even if I didn't like it. To do something difficult and intellectually demanding. To leave the easier (and sometimes more fun) jobs to those who couldn't handle the harder stuff. I don't know where this feeling came from, but it's hard to shake. Especially when the hard stuff pays so well...

Posted by: Jennifer Grucza | Jul 15, 2005 11:45:04 AM

I'd like to say thank you for this entry. It's really great to know that someone outside my age group understands that college simply isn't for everyone.

You see, two semesters ago, I left school to pursue a basic interest in web development and to work part-time in computer repair until I could figure out something a bit more stable. My mother, professors, friends, and just about everyone else in my life (save two or three people) thought of that decision as being the biggest mistake I've ever made.

For the first time since I started looking at colleges, I'm happy. I'm finally able to do something that I love and am not forced to wake up each day knowing I'm going to waste away in three more classes like Intro to Rock & Roll and African Studies in order to fulfill my General Education requirements and come closer to getting a degree in Marketing.

Yes, I'm making less money than I would be right out of college. Yes, I'm living paycheck to paycheck. And yes, I'm struggling to find clients in this tiny town. But I'm happy and I'm passionate in what I do. I couldn't ask for more.

Posted by: Brian Rose | Jul 15, 2005 11:53:02 AM

Here´s what I do: I am living in Germany where we have, additionally to the classic colleges, a dual system where you apply at a company which will send you study. This is for 3 years in terms of 3 months of studying and 3 months of working. You still almost get the same contents as in a classic german college, just very comprimized. And aside from having a view into actual work life, which regular college kids are miles and miles and miles away from, you get paid for studying, now who can claim that?
This means: you get a college degree, which is a little less, than the regular one but get to start 2 years earlier two work.
I couldn´t allow to be drunk all the time, hell, I can´t even allow myself to get sick more than three days in a row if I want to keep track of my classes. Sounds ugly and it is a bit, but I guess it holds a lot of experiences you sooner or later have to make, which will add to your personal growth more than partying on your parents money.
If anyone is interested any further, feel free to inquiry by emailing me or visiting my home page.

Posted by: Ralph | Jul 15, 2005 12:10:04 PM

One quick note on the financial side of things:

It is far easier for the passionate entrepreneur to turn joy into money then it is for the rich person to turn money into joy.

In other words it is much easier to find money via passion then it is to find passion via money.

Wrote a little more about it at the blog:


Posted by: Jared | Jul 15, 2005 12:19:38 PM

"Four years at $20k/year for an American (first) degree sounds poor value. Is that a typical state college or Yale/Harvard/UCBerkley standard? Why not look at a cheaper European option, with a better degree at the end of it (and perhaps three years instead of four)?"

Four years @ $20K/year is for a typical state college. A private college such as Yale or Harvard is 2-3 x that. UC Berkley is, for us Californians, a state college (and so on the lower end of things), but anyone enrolling from out of state has to pay higher rates.

Got any resources you can recommend to learn more about the European options? When Caltech or MIT has a bill of $160K for a 4-year degree, alternatives sound great.

Posted by: Dori | Jul 15, 2005 1:09:18 PM

My take on the college thing is if you are not going for a hard science or engineering degree, something that requires access to Big, Expensive Equipment, you are better off just staying home and getting an online degree.

For many companies the sheepskin is important, it's a right of passage, a subway token that gets you in, but it doesn't need to be in a related field for them to hire you.

I have noticed a trend in some companies requiring master's degrees for certain positions since a Bachelors isn't worth very much to them.

I have a little girl and I want her to be passionate about something. I am going to try and expose her to as many different learning experiences as I can to help her find her talents and preferences, but I am sure she will end up changing her work several times in her life.

I want her to set up her own business so she can be in control rather then be someone else's drone.

For a take on the New World of Work from the other end look at:
Ripples has two sequel posts on the subject too.

Posted by: Stephan F | Jul 15, 2005 3:09:19 PM

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