Should You Go To College?

on March 11, 2013 | in Work | by

“Should I really go to college?”

Like the question, “Should I really go out and drink myself silly every weekend?” this wasn’t something I ever asked myself back in the day– college was simply a given. It was just “what you’re supposed to do,” another box to check off on this journey we call life.

Of course I should go to college. Of course I should get so drunk that I fall over my own heels every night. I mean, what in the heck else would I do?!

Regrettably, there was one question I failed to ask myself back in my late teens and early twenties– one question which is arguably THE most important thing one can ever ask in life. That question is simply, “Why?

Why should I go to college?”

Why should I try to impress this D-bag?”

Why should I do anything that I’m doing at all?!”

Enter Dale Stephens, founder of and author of the book Hacking Your Education.

“One of the biggest problems our educational system has,” writes Stephens, “[is that] no one asks why you’re going to school. From elite universities to community colleges, systems tell people that if you check these boxes and do these things, everything will be fine. It turns out that checking off boxes has nothing to do with success in life.”

It turns out that checking off boxes has nothing to do with success in life.

– Dale Stephens, Hacking Your Education

Consider this: In 2011, The New York Times reported that 22.4% of college graduates under 25 were unemployed, and another 22% were working at jobs that didn’t require a degree. Ouch! The startling reality is that almost half of recent college graduates are unemployed or underemployed.

And when you add on the level of high student loan debt that many of us are coming away from college and grad school with, you may very well be asking whether higher education is worthwhile.

In Hacking Your Education, Stephens offers a smarter lens through which to view such questions. An effective education, says Stephens, is less about the degree itself than it is about knowing why you’re there and what you want to get out of it. It’s about your curiosity and willingness to learn, to get involved, and to build connections.

“Going to college is like joining a gym: It’s effective only if you put in the work. If you join a gym and never work out, you’ll stay weak. If you pay for college but never deeply engage, you’ll stay ignorant. People ask me all the time, who should and shouldn’t go to college? There is only one definitive answer of who shouldn’t go to college: those who don’t want to go to college.”

“What is scary is that people go to school because they think it will give them an insurance policy, and then when they graduate, the insurance doesn’t work,” writes Stephens. “Young college graduates expect to get decent jobs but are instead finding their degrees from Ivy League schools useless and resigning themselves to waiting tables or collecting welfare checks.”

Don’t use college as an insurance policy– invest in yourself. Take time to learn, travel, start projects, and do internships.

– Dale Stephens, Hacking Your Education

Stephens pushes the idea that educational success and fulfillment comes not through “checking off boxes,” but through a genuine willingness to learn.

In other words, it’s sometimes unnecessary to spend thousands of dollars getting a degree that guarantees you no level of “job insurance.”

Instead, says Stephens, an effective education can be hacked.

Inside his book, Stephens offers stellar advice on everything from contacting experts and building relationships with mentors, to starting businesses and learning through doing, to achieving the “college experience” without the steep cost of tuition.

He tells the story, for example, of Kirill Zdronyy, who spent nearly half a year living with students in the Stanford community, building relationships with professors and mentors, and sitting in on classes– all without spending a dime on tuition.

He tells the story of Laura Demig, who, at the age of 14, found herself running experiments in a lab and learning from top scientists– not because she had pre-existing connections, but simply because she had the guts  to email experts in a field she was interested in.

He also tells the story of Megan Gebhart, who spent an entire year asking successful and interesting people to coffee and documenting it on her blog, 52 Cups of Coffee.

And of course, he tells his own story of leaving school at twelve to become an unschooler (a self-directed branch of homeschoolers), describing how his lifelong pursuit of “hackademics” has led him to start companies, snag top consulting gigs, and live a passionate, interesting, and fulfilling life– all without ever having graduated from college.

“While other kids my age sat in class,” writes Stephens, “I organized collaborative learning groups, found mentors, took college classes, lived in France, worked at startup companies, helped political campaigns, and started my own businesses.”


So here’s the deal: Unless you want to work in an occupation that absolutely requires formalized training (such as a doctor, lawyer, or therapist), your success and fulfillment in life and in work will depend far less on your formal education than it will on your level of real world application, engagement, and initiative. (This isn’t to say, of course, that you shouldn’t attend college — but it is to say that a formal education is far from the only path to success. It’s to say that you are responsible for your own education.)

After all, who do you think is more likely to find themselves on a promising career path: Someone who has pursued learning for the pure joy of it, built connections, and immersed herself in projects and endeavors she’s genuinely passionate about– or someone who’s spent four+ years memorizing and regurgitating information with little else to show?

The answer is a no-brainer.

The good news is that hacking a five-star education without the five-star price tag is well within your reach– all you need to do is have the drive, determination and self-discipline to become a “hackademic.” Opportunities to learn are everywhere if you know where to look, and they don’t have to come with a high load of student debt.

Dale’s fresh approach to “hacking your education” ought to be required reading for anyone considering college, grad school, or higher education of any kind, and indeed for anyone at all who wants to develop a rewarding and successful career.

Check out Dale Stephens’ book on Amazon right here: Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will

Do you think that getting a college degree is enough? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • You make great points. Especially ‘asking why’ – always a simple, yet important question to ask… we ask that like a million times as kids and at some point we stop or don’t ask why as much.

    Like you said, though, there are exceptions, like being a doctor, etc. And the world needs those professionals, BIG time. I agree with a lot of this post, but I think when you’re in a situation where you need a college educated person – like you’re sick or need a lawyer, an accountant,.. think of all those researchers trying to find cures for diseases, etc….. then you realize how important those college educated people are.

    The uncollege path should be an option we know about early on in life, but I think young kids should understand that both paths are important. It’s just a choice they have to make.

    • Agreed, Denise. Dale states on his Uncollege site that the goal is not necessarily to go against formal education, but to change the notion that it is the *only* path to success. And as I pointed out above in response to Rob, combining the two (formal education and “hackademic” techniques) can be a great combination.

  • Rob Collins

    Really great post, thank you!

    I’m very lucky that I was amongst the last people in the UK to get their University education 50% funded by a grant from the government. Nowadays, it’s 100% loans. So the financial burden makes the decision much tougher for people these days.

    University is a great place to broaden your horizons, meet people from diverse backgrounds and learn to stand on your own two feet away from home for the first time. And usually, it’s a lot of fun too! Personally, I would recommend a University education to everyone. It’s not all fun though – there were time I felt very lonely and depressed, I hated being so poor, and the stress of exams was extreme… in fact I still regularly have vivid panic dreams about my University final year exams, 13 years later! But it’s all good learning experience and I don’t regret Uni for 1 second.

    I’ll admit that I often did a lot of box-ticking myself. I didn’t really care about many of the subjects I was studying and my only goal was to pass the exams with a reasonable grade so I could get that degree certificate at the end. And that degree certificate DID help open some doors for me. What also helped was that my degree course included an extra “Professional Placement Year”. We worked in a real job, gaining real experience for 12 months. That year made me much more employable when I graduated and it helped me decide where to take my career next.

    The “box-ticking” mentality is ingrained into us by the education system, so I don’t blame students for approaching school this way. And when you’re still trying to decide which subjects you enjoy, there often seems to be little incentive to put in extra effort.

    The best advice I could give to students is simply to pursue activities you’re interested in, even if they’re outside the boundaries of the course you’re enrolled in. Of course you can pursue your interests without a University education, but personally I think that it’s a lot easier to explore subjects inside University because you’re surrounded by other students, libraries and professors that can help you…

    • Agreed. “Hackademics” can just as easily be applied within university and need not necessarily be an “alternative.” You’ll see much more success in your learning and education if you become truly engaged with your formal studies.

  • This is a marvy article and I hope it hits a lot of young people. I know a few who could use it. But, I am glad to see the bit about needing a college education for formalized training. As a classical guitarist, I can attest to this.

    • Agreed; formal education has its place– again, it goes back to knowing *why* you’re there and what you’re hoping to achieve.

  • I think it’s currently very hard for 18 year olds to find the resources they need to succeed in adulthood without college and make the choice not to go to school or at least take some time in between high school and college. I was already working for 2 ½ years before I even found tools like the Unlost and Meetup that helped me in ways that the more traditional resources (career planning center, etc.) hadn’t. I hope a lot of the conversations you and Stephens are sharing will reach the policy level, parents and kids so our youth don’t end up in these situations where we’re feeling burned out and stuck by 24.

    • Agreed, Sarah. I had no clue what I was interested in at age 18 and no real life experience. I think it’s often a wise decision to take a gap year or two, explore, get experience and get involved, and then you can make a more informed decision about going to college. If you do decide to go, you’ll have a much better idea of *why* you’re there.

  • hey Therese – I think a lot of people would have no idea what to do when they turn 18 if it wasn’t for college. A lot of use it as a continuation to figure ourselves out. If I had an idea of what I should be doing or how to go about it, I would have probably dropped out and started twitter. haha no I wouldn’t have because I had no idea what twitter was. Actually, still don’t.

    Wait, so yeah, I think college is expensive soul searching and the way our society has told us we can succeed now a days. I think it’s ultimately upto each individual. If someone feels they can do it on their own without a formal education, they should. Or like you point on Rob’s comments, a combination of the 2 is probably best. But for the people who think you can just graduate and apply for and get a job, they’re probably in for a long and rough awakening:)

    • Yep, it’s absolutely up to each individual. I also agree that college is often used as a continuation to figure oneself out. Thing is, there are many other less expensive ways to do this… I think there’s a good argument, as I noted below, for taking a gap year to explore and experiment after college before being thrown into college without an idea of what you really even want to study or do with your life…

  • This Dale Stephens sounds like a pretty smart dude. Thanks for sharing!

  • Reminds me of this article: “College Debt: Necessary Evil or Ponzi Scheme?”

    Except a Ponzi scheme just takes all the money you have, whereas college takes even the money you don’t have YET. And then we wonder why our economy implodes on itself.

    • Great article, Bri… thanks for sharing!

    • Rob Collins

      Nice article! I had no idea US college education cost so much! After a 4 year degree course in the UK, I graduated in the year 2000 with a total of under £10,000 ($15,000) debt. It didn’t take long to pay back. Although I had a great time at University, I don’t use 95% of the skills I learned. University was basically a very long fun holiday, with a bit of learning & new experiences thrown in for good measure. I feel really sorry for graduates these days who are faced with the double whammy of massive debt coupled with poor job prospects. At least in the UK you don’t pay back the debt until you are earning over a certain amount.

      • Really. That is fascinating that you have to make a certain amount first! I was lucky to graduate with minimal debt, but when I look at the amount of kids going $100,000 into debt earning a liberal arts degree that will (likely) never pay for itself…it seems to be the biggest hustle going.

  • Kri

    I regret being in college right now!! :(

  • Ah, as a college student, I absolutely LOVE the topic of education. Truthfully, I’m only in college because my parents are making me. They’re stuck in the mindset of “college is the only way.”

    SO here I am at college! I look around and no one is doing anything with their lives. I don’t see any drive, I just see people relying on the “insurance.”

    However, I am taking advantage of college since I HAVE to be here anyway. I started my website, taught myself valuable skills from it, then landed three internships through my school. BAM! Connections, connections everywhere AND I’m learning more than school is teaching me. It really is what you put into it. I’m not yet convinced I need it because what I do is all about who you know, but I may as well make the best of it.

    • That is great, Vincent! Sounds like you’re doing all the right things.

      I personally really value my college education and am absolutely glad I went. But the point is, as mentioned, it’s not insurance… and relying on your degree alone, without putting in more and really getting involved and engaged with the learning process, won’t do you a lot of good :)

  • College is never enough on its own. And I hate how much it costs. I also hate that most degrees aren’t customizable. But I did go to university, and I double-majored. I hated some parts of it, adored some parts of it but was very lucky to do it on a full scholarship. It gave me a lot of opportunities I’d not have otherwise. It was an absolute love/hate relationship. Would I do things differently if I had unlimited funds? Yeah, I’d have gone to UCLA and studied filming. Not because it is a must for its area, but because I wanted that whole package.

    But college isn’t an insurance- not if you don’t improve yourself and observe the world and people carefully. I studied Business and Advertising. I did internships, got a taste of the corporate life and the agency life. I realized I was always meant to be a freelance writer. But have I used what I learned there? Absolutely. Have I monetized it? You bet. So even though it was not what I dreamed i would be, I still have no regrets.

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