Student Loan Debt
I often sit in coffee shops where I overhear conversations about college, finals and financial aid. And we all know the end result: tens, if not over a hundred thousand in student loans. And for what?
Let's take a look at the typical careers for the first 10 years after graduating college: Retail clerks. Baristas. Receptionists. Independent creatives (we'll visit this one later). Or best of all, working back at a university, usually in recruiting new students, at the same school they graduated from. Do we really need tend of thousands of dollars of debt to land us those jobs? Is this what we thought college would do for us? And do we need to spend the best years of our lives doing nothing but stressing about paying off loans that landed us in this mess in the first place? If I were in that position, I would march into the administration's office demanding my money back.
Of course there is merit of a college degree for certain jobs where it is necessary to be licensed, but for the vast majority of us, it is real-world experience, not long-form Scantron tests, that ultimately decide our fate. So why do we all go to college? "You won't get hired without a college degree" is usually the retort that a parent will tell you. But now, in 2015, I think it's time to challenge that argument.
My Personal Experience
I wouldn't have gone to college if it weren't for my parents who mandated it as a life requirement. I basically went kicking and screaming. In high school, I developed a knack for video production and made a good amount of money producing live event DVDs for schools and musicals. I was fortunate enough to have parents who supported my creativity in this, and allowed me to spend a lot of time in high school developing these skills. But when it came to college, I still had to go. Naturally, I ended up pursuing a degree in communication, what I now know to be "the easy degree you get when you have no idea what you're going to do with your life."
From my freshman year, I had no interest in my classes. I cared little about "college life" and decided to find an internship as a freshman. I wanted to do something with my life! (I was required to do a 1-semester internship during college.) I think I ended up doing 4 or 5 internships in total. And for me, this was the best "career move" I could have made. I interned with a record label, a concert promotion company, video production company, and a company that build websites for the mortgage industry. I started out managing a Myspace page, then email campaigns, then a website, then doing work in Photoshop and even handling technical-sided customer support calls.
Before my internships, I had built a personal website (back in 2002 at the age of 15) but aside from that, I didn't do much with the web. But it was during my internships that I began to find a niche for myself.
Back in college, I spent the majority of my college classes sitting in the back row, building $500 websites for clients that I would find on Craigslist. Over the years, I began to build a portfolio. I had real-world skills I was able to add to my resume. These weren't just credentials on paper. I was actually building things for real people, and for a real purpose. As a junior in college, I had enough experience building websites where I was able to jump my freelance rate from $15/hour to $50/hour.
Just Do Good Work
You can compare my tract with the long-lost concept of "apprenticeship". And now we're back to a society where the focus in on production, not titles. If you can show real-world experience in many fields, you're likely to get hired, regardless of the letters behind your name. (I've never been asked for my college transcripts, and in my time of hiring people, I've never really cared either.)
Of course I'm not negating the need for college for those who want to be doctors or lawyers or work in highly regulated industries. I'm simply saying that for most of us, college (in terms of landing a career) is just a big joke now.
Millennials, in the new economy, hold down jobs for much shorter periods of time and tend to work as independent contractors. There is less loyalty to employers because employers are less loyal to employees. But fortunately, because many employers look for experience over degrees, that gives job seekers a lot of opportunity to stack their resume. Independent creatives - artists, musicians, and digital creators don't need college, either. They just need tangible skills that will land them a gig in this new economy.
When we hired people at Preact, we looked for people with real-world skills. We did hire a couple developers who received the equivalent of a trade school certificate but who didn't go to college for a degree in their field, which I think is a great alternative to college. I really wanted to attend The Art Institute because of their focus on resume-building skills and teaching tangible knowledge about software programs, although my parents ultimately nix'd that decision. Today, organizations like General Assembly teach anything from software development to product development to digital marketing. They're not accredited, but not many people care about that anymore. That's right, you don't have to spend 2 years of college re-learning the basics about English or simple math (although these are very important and hopefully were learned by high school). I should point out: most job applications list a college degree as a requirement. However, I've never found this to be the case, instead allowing "relevant experience" as a satisfactory qualifier.
The Changing Landscape
Thanks to the internet, you can now you can teach yourself almost anything you want to learn. Between tutorial sites like Lynda.com, or Youtube, or this great resource called Google, you can learn these skills faster than ever before. No longer is higher learning held within the confines of the great walls of universities. Aside from the social aspects of college, there are few benefits for a future career than there were decades ago.
Summary for High School Grads
The massive inflation in college prices is unlikely to be stopped anytime soon. Whenever the government gets involved and starts throwing their money at things, prices never go down because they're always willing to pay out. And with the false notion that college is a requirement to survival in life, there is no shortage in kids looking to get into college. With limited supply, high demand, and a government that thinks throwing more money at the problem is going to solve things, there is no recipe for a logical solution in sight.
So my recommendation to recent high school graduates is this: Live at home for a couple more years: Save some money. Find an internship or two. Work hard. Learn as much as you can from people who are doing things. (If someone is paying them money for something they're doing, they're clearly doing something right.) Then when you have the right experience and the time is right, start jumping up the corporate ladder.
The reason businesses enjoy hiring interns is because they're cheap. The reason working for cheap is good is because you don't have a ton of expenses yet. It's a symbiotic relationship: They get the work done, you get the experience you need to climb up the ladder in society.
Stop buying into the lie that college is going to land you a great job and a successful life. The more likely scenario is that you'll usually wind up in massive debt and spend a good portion of your life trying to pay it off. Sure, you may have a fun few years meeting some new people. But I'll venture a guess you can find some new friends outside of the college experience while keeping $50,000-$100,000 in your pocket. And to me, that tradeoff is well worth it.