Ask Colin: University or Self-Education?

Hi Colin.

So I just got accepted to a college in a big city in a state that I like, and I’m happy about it, but also a little bit worried that maybe it’s a bad idea.

I’d have to work while going to school to pay my rent and bills and for gas and things like that, and I’d need to get a loan to pay for school, and maybe to cover some of those bills, at least early on.

I think it’s maybe a good idea to go to school, and my parents weren’t able to, so I think they’re kind of excited that I will, but I also don’t want to go into tons of debt. Some friends of mine have gone through that, and even with their good jobs, they’ll be paying off debt till they’re in their 40s or something.

So what I’m wondering is if you think I should go to get my degree, or should I try without it? I’ve got a pretty good job now, and I’ve been thinking about setting up a side-hustle, which probably wouldn’t be possible if I’m taking classes, but I think I could do if I try to go without school, instead.


Hey Dee-

This is a difficult decision, partly because of what it is, concretely—the choice between different educational paths, both with their own pros and cons, and their own social consequences—but also because of that familial pressure, if not expectation, to take a certain path.

That pressure isn’t a bad thing, but it is a thing, and based on the experience of friends who have come from similar situations, I suspect you feel a bit like you’re carrying a torch for the whole clan, standing a chance of maybe being the first in your immediate family to get that formal, higher-education, and all the implied credibility and social standing that comes with it.

Societal pressures, beyond one’s family, can be similar, with the implication often being that those who lack undergraduate degrees, minimum, are a bit like folks without high school diplomas many decades back: people without futures. Or maybe just people with less-fortunate futures.

Statistically, it’s still more ideal to have an undergrad degree of some kind, in the US and many similar, Western nations: some of the research in this area is getting a little dated, but the best unbiased numbers I’ve seen indicate that the difference can add up to tens of thousands of dollars a year, in some industries—though that gap has been closing in some of those same industries, of late.

That pressure can be even higher in many Eastern countries, with higher-education attainment or non-attainment in countries like ChinaJapan, and India establishing borderline caste systems in their respective cultures. Opportunity is not equally distributed, and some of that distribution, in some places, is determined by one’s schooling as much as, or more, than anything else.

There are several main reasons why this seems to be the case, with actual educational attainment among them but perhaps less important than the perception of higher levels of knowledge, and the reality that degrees often serve as a sorting mechanism within certain industries and businesses.

What that means, in practice, is that if you’re a big corporation and you’re looking to hire ten people, and a thousand people submit their resumes, you’ll need to whittle that collection of resumes down to something more manageable. Often, one of the heuristics Human Resources will use is seeing who has a degree and who doesn’t, leaving that latter group out in the cold, regardless of who’s actually the most qualified out of all the applicants.

“Bachelor’s degree or higher” is a job posting filter that allows the hiring company to lean on universities as a credibility sieve, handing out degrees that serve as little badges of legitimacy, even though there’s little evidence, in many industries, that those who were formally educated are any better at their jobs than people who achieved their know-how through other means.

To be clear, some industries have much higher barriers of entry because there are also much higher regulations determining who can do what within those industries.

So while you could probably freelance to establish independent bona fides within the world of Communications or Software Development, it’s a lot less likely that you’ll have that chance (I would hope, anyway) if your ambition is to become a surgeon or a dentist.

To establish my bias here, by the way, I have a degree—I dual-majored in graphic design and illustration at a Midwestern state school you’ve never heard of—and though I’m glad to have had the experience and wouldn’t take it back, I’ve also never had anyone ask me about that degree. I probably learned more, at least in terms of on-the-job, practical knowledge about my craft, working the five part-time jobs I had while in school so I could cover most of my living expenses and take out a smaller undergraduate loan.

Even after all that work, though, and even after the scholarships that covered some of my school-related expenses, I still had tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay off in subsequent years.

So was my school experience worth that lingering monetary consequence?

Possibly? It’s very hard to say. I got a lot out of it, personally, especially in terms of exposure to new people and ideas, and to the philosophy underpinning what I wanted to do for a living.

But in terms of pure dollars and cents, was it worth it? For me it probably was, if not for the reasons I was sold on, going in.

Contextually, I also went to school at a time before social media and smartphones were a thing—the university-only version of Facebook arrived at my school halfway through my tenure there—so it may be that it was more valuable for me than it would be for the average person, today, because there are vastly more opportunities available as a result of our online-enabled connectedness, alongside more cheap and free sources of information.

To get one of my first design-related jobs, I had to buy expensive, CD-ROM based courses that taught me how to use the software I would be using to do the work; it wasn’t knowledge that was available through any of my courses. Today, the same company that made those CD-ROMs (Lynda) has an all-you-can-stream educational subscription service that’s relatively cheap by default, but also free to many people through their local public libraries.

The point being that there is potentially value to be had in going to university, both of the societal and educational variety. But, there are also a lot of alternatives available these days that can help us achieve many of the same outcomes for vastly less money, if we know where to look and if we’re self-motivated enough to actually do the work.

That last part is important—deceptively so—because one of the major problems formal education solves, I think, is telling us what to learn and in what order, in a field that is initially completely obscure and befuddling to us.

Even given all the learning resources in the world, it’s difficult to know where to apply one’s time and energy, and part of what universities and other formal educational institutions offer is a guided tour through that tangle.

There are online courses and similar programs that aim to alleviate some of that problem, by providing what amounts to a full university course, lecture by lecture, homework by homework, and in roughly the same order that a normal, fee-paying student would experience.

But such massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are far from perfect, and suffer from an array of issues, ranging from a lack of feedback from professors (usually, at least) to a lack of firm deadlines and consequences for not doing one’s work or doing well on tests. It’s almost completely self-guided, and that means students must have a lot of internal fortitude and discipline to keep up with and complete them.

Some of these courses, especially those that offer paid versions alongside the free versions, provide some kind of recognition that you’ve completed the course. These certifications are sometimes suitable stand-ins for diplomas, but it will really depend on the industry and the employer: some will primarily be looking for someone who knows what they’re doing, others will put more stock in the fact that you did or didn’t go to a “real” school.

Another element of this conversation, of course, is that it sounds like you’re keen to start up your own thing, and if you go to school, the spare time you currently have to invest in that side-hustle might instead be spent on your class work.

This is probably true, and though I can tell you from experience that it’s possible to start and run small businesses while earning a degree, I also wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, especially if you ever want to get a full night’s sleep.

If you were to take the non-university route, I would suggest formalizing your plans for that project you’re interested in starting up, and for your personal education plans, first. Do some research, figure out your options in terms of what you want to learn, how you want to learn it, and how you’ll maintain that schedule alongside your current job and intended project, and then try out that schedule to see if it’s maintainable, and to see if it actually helps you achieve what you want to achieve.

Give yourself a deadline—maybe after a year, maybe less or more, depending on your schedule and circumstances—at which point you’ll allow yourself to reconsider going to a formal university; if it aligns with your plans at that point. And it would help to have shorter deadlines along the way, as well, at which point you’ll check in with yourself and adjust the knobs on what you’re doing, as needed.

More broadly, I would encourage you to plan to be a lifelong learner, rather than seeing one of these two paths as being the last education-centric thing you’ll need to worry about, investing a handful of years and then you’re done.

The world is changing fast, and although that can be dispiriting and alarming, it also represents an incredible opportunity for those who make learning a key component of who they are; of their self-perception and lifestyle.

Said another way: use this opportunity, whichever direction you choose to go, to establish a framework for yourself so that education in general becomes a normal part of who you are and what you do. That way, as industries change, as opportunities rise and fall, you’ll be willing, able, and enthusiastic to find the spaces in which you fit, and be more likely to flourish within them.

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