December 11, 2023

The Wrong Choice

Author: Stephen Downes
Go to Source

Joanne Jacobs links to an article titled Why I Wish I Hadn’t Gone to College by Keri Savoca.

Savoca writes that she would have been a lot better off had she spent the 11 years doing something else. “I watched my peers who didn’t go to college establish businesses, get into specialized trades, become social media influencers, or do exactly what I was doing, but without the student loan debt.”

I don’t know who her peers are, but I think she imagines life very differently from the reality for high-school graduates. Here’s what she thinks she could do (in italics) along with my commentary:

If I had never gone to college in the first place, I could have:

  •     started a business 11 years ago, right out of high school

With what? People fresh out of high school have neither the start-up funds nor the expertise to start a business. Your life experience out of high school will mostly likely be fast food work or cleaning or some such thing. These are hardly the skills on to start a business.

  •     started to build a social media following 11 years ago

Well, yeah. But you could have done that either way. The people who I know who have become a social media success developed their network and their following while in college. If you’re not in college it’s a lot harder to develop a social media following – harder to access a computer, harder to find the time, harder to live on nothing while your network slowly builds.

  •     started writing books 11 years ago

You don’t come out of high school ready to write books. It takes a long time to build the knowledge and skills and most writers go though years of failure before publishing. And while you’re not making money from your writing career you need to be working at whatever job your high school education will get you – something hard, low-paid and with long hours. You would have had more time to start writing while in college – and been developing skills all that time too.

  •     started coding 11 years ago

Again, if you don’t have any education, you’re not going to make money coding right away. So you have to work at some menial job while you’re learning to code. Good luck buying a decent computer. And anyway, you can learn coding while in college. Even if that’s not your major. You’ll certainly have more free time and space to code at college than you would working at McDonald’s.  

  •     built a recording studio 11 years ago

Seriously? With what? Did you inherit tens of thousands of dollars? Or is your job at 7-Eleven going to pay for recording equipment? No, this would not have been an option. It’s probably not an option until after you’ve landed that decent job your education should be paying for.

  •     taken an office job 11 years ago, and worked my way up to a management position

Maybe there was a time once when you could do that, but that time disappeared no less than thirty years ago. To earn a management position today you have to have a degree (probably one in management). Any management job that doesn’t require a degree is a ‘management’ job – all the responsibility and none of the pay.

For that matter, there aren’t very many office jobs available for people without a degree. Remember, a degree doesn’t guarantee a job. That means that all those people with degrees are applying for these office jobs. Which means that someone with only a high school education doesn’t have a chance.

  •     done an apprenticeship 11 years ago, and worked my way up to a high-paying union job

This might have been the best of the options listed, because it actually involves going to school. Sure, it’s a trade school, but at least you’re learning a skill. But even with the skill, you won’t get “a high paying union job” – at least, not in the U.S., where most unions have been legislated out of existence. But in most other countries, earning a trade is a great way to get ahead.

All this goes to show that the alternatives to college aren’t really realistic. People who think they can just ‘make it’ without an education are deluded. Sure, sometimes it happens. You could be Justin Bieber, maybe. But if it hasn’t happened for you by the time you’re 20, it’s not goine to happen.

What about people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and PewDiePie? Sure, they achieved fame and fortune without a university degree. But they developed these while they were in college and have no degree because they dropped out of the program. Even if you don’t finish the program, being in college gives you advantages (especially if you were lucky enough to drop out of Harvard).

But here’s where we see the real lesson: going to college isn’t about succeeding at college, it’s about preparing for your future.

And that was where Keri Savoca made her real mistakes.

Savoca’s timeline is a bit opaque in the article, but it’s like this: after high school, she went to university for six years. She took an undergraduate degree in music production and arts management in three years, went to graduate school to study theater sound design. Then, she writes, “Turns out that full-time jobs in theater are hard to come by, and at the time, they paid about $40,000 a year. In New York City.”

So she then earned an education degree, thinking, “if I teach for 10 years while making on-time payments, the remaining balance will be forgiven! By age 33, I’ll be debt free!After that, she taught for five years.” Here’s the lament: “I taught for 5 years, got a chunk of the loans forgiven, and realized that I was still in trouble. After paying rent, car insurance, and Sallie Mae, I had literally nothing left at the end of each month. Zero. Nada.”

So what went wrong? She says it herself – she spend all of her time working on her college program, and none of her time working on herself. “From 9:00 AM until midnight each day, I worked on my craft,” she writes.

But here’s what she didn’t do:

  • she didn’t start a business, or develop any sort of sideline at all
  • she didn’t start building a social media following
  • she didn’t start writing books
  • she didn’t learn to code

If she had done any of these she would have have left herself in a better position on graduation. She would have developed those day-to-day skills you need in addition to your university degree to be successful. Yes, she might have only finished one degree in four years, instead of two in three, but she would have built the foundation for a better future.

You might ask, how do I know all this?

Well, I took the other route at first. The one she says she wish she had taken. It wasn’t by choice; I had neither the grades nor the money to go straight into university. And I discovered first-hand that there is a very limited ceiling when you have only a high-school education.

Then I took the university route. I majored in philosophy, for which I’m sure there are even fewer openings than there are openings in music production and arts management. And sure, I taught for a while. But my actual career began when I was able to apply the other skills I had honed alongside my studies at university, especially writing and coding.

And here’s the thing: even if you do everything right, success might still elude you.

But this is not an argument for less skills. You won’t be further ahead if you stop learning after high school. If you want to avoid debt – great. But for most people in most places, you’re looking at college, whatever the cost. Just remember – the degree isn’t the goal. It’s the pathway. You are the goal.

And even if you find yourself still in debt at 28 like Keri Savoca, keep working, keep developing skills and experience, and don’t give up. Make of yourself everything you can, don’t look back, and savour the experience. Life – even when it is hard – is beautiful.

Read more