Pair a recession with escalating college tuition prices and the result is overall skepticism of post-secondary education. As the public begins to question the long-term viability of investing in the stock market after a crash, they criticize the perceived value of a degree when the job market is difficult and loans are oppressive.
There is no question that on average, earning a degree will increase your potential lifetime earnings over someone who receives only a high school education. Before long in economies like today’s, however, people begin trumpeting famous college drop-outs who went on to become leaders of their universe, uncompromisingly wealthy, or both, giving hope to slackers everywhere. Bill Gates dropped out of college, for example.
Aside from personal obligations, people drop out of college for two major reasons. Either they fail out because they can’t handle work, or they leave because they’ve created an amazing opportunity for themselves. The message we can take from Bill Gates’ experience is not that a below-average student who has trouble in college can still be an amazingly successful individual, but that some people who work hard, benefit from luck, and who create their own opportunities do not need to bother with formalized education in order to guarantee a lifetime of financial abundance.
Even those destined to drop out of college could benefit from a year in school. An education has value beyond the increased earnings over time. Even students who end up in fields not requiring a bachelor’s degree benefit. A college education sharpens cognitive and social skills and exposes students to two of what the most important aspects of human knowledge and understanding, cultural awareness and varied worldviews.
According to statistics in a recent New York Times article, 80 percent of high school students in the bottom quarter of their class will never manage to earn even a two-year associate’s degree. Should these students be directed elsewhere, particularly when the cost of college is high and they likely won’t qualify for scholarships or grants?
It’s necessary to take a fiscally responsible viewpoint and evaluate the probability of financial success in life. For some students, college could simply be a waste of time, either because they don’t focus on some of the benefits available with a higher education beyond career preparation for a field that doesn’t require a degree, or because they attend a college that isn’t designed to offer anything beyond career preparation for a field that again doesn’t require a degree.
To see the most non-financial benefit in college, a student should seek out exposure to different fields. Spend some time with as many interests as possible because the likelihood of having immediate access to excellent resources later in life will be significantly lower. When this is the approach, even a few years of post-secondary education is worthwhile, and you can attend a great private college for less money than a public college.
It’s a bad idea to discourage any student from attending college, even if they perform poorly in high school. A fulfilled life is defined only minimally by net worth and income, if at all.
Published or updated July 7, 2011.