Learn more. Owe less.

By » Fri, June 29 2012
7196945640 0faab67519 450x337 Learn more. Owe less.

So, uh… educate yourself. And don’t go into debt. (img by hardtopeel)

College is seeming more and more like a racket, and people are finding out too late to do much more than letter up some cardboard signs, march around the neighborhood beating on cookware, or post on tumblr about how the system did them wrong.

On the one hand, I don’t blame them. They didn’t know what they were getting into when they borrowed a couple of hundred thousand dollars to get a degree. They believed viewbooks and college marketing, which said that people with degrees are guaranteed to make good money fresh out of school.

Circumstances have changed. College education costs have more than doubled in the last 15 years, and people with degrees are worth less than ever due to the collapsed job market and to degree inflation.

What can you do about it? If you’re considering school (for the first time… or if you’re thinking about going back since the economy sucks), you need to first off realize that a degree is neither a requirement for, nor a guarantee of, good employment. Yes, there are some careers that require degrees (law, medicine, academia), but big fields and big money jobs right now don’t require any traditional education.

If you don’t know what you want to do, try your damnedest to get whatever job you can, and while you work that job, read everything, talk to people about their jobs, figure out what sounds cool and what it takes to get into the field. Take free online courses like MIT OpenCourseWare or Stanford’s free online courses, or… hell, just got to Coursera or iTunes U and mess around until something grabs you. Then try a few courses in the field to see if it continues to grab you or if it was a passing thing.

You’re going to find lots of fascinating shit. Which brings us to the hard part: filtering. During your free course exploration and talking with people, there are 2 questions you need to keep asking yourself:

  1. Will study in this field realistically lead to gainful employment?
  2. Do I need a specific environment to learn this stuff?

You’ll quickly find that for certain fields (literature, philosophy, gender studies, other pure humanities) the answer to both questions is “no”. At least not directly. Traditional college humanities will get you practice reading, writing, and thinking about stuff, which can help you in any job that you do, but you don’t really need a classroom to learn those things. You can find meetups or coffee shops or online forums devoted to debate, persuasive writing, etc. If you want to know what it’s like to write on deadline and on topic, start a blog. Ask for feedback. Join a writers group or a reading/discussion group. You don’t have to pay $30k per year to do it.

Engineering, computer science, hard sciences, medicine, and vocations, in contrast, can directly lead to gainful employment. Formal education in these fields usually includes access to facilities (labs, forges, auto shops) that you may not otherwise be able to find on your own. If that’s your path, by all means go to school.

If you know what you want to do for a living, you need to figure out if you need college to do that thing. Find people who work in the field you’re interested in (Google is your friend, and there are usually professional associations that have people specifically to talk to people like you) and talk to them about what they read, how they learned, and what they require. Make it clear that you’re not asking them for a job, but asking them for advice on how to prepare to ask them for a job. If they say you need a college degree, ask them why, and ask them if provenance matters.

If a college degree is required for your field, pick a cost-effective school with a program that can help you get there. Consider community colleges and state schools before go into debt so you can go to an Ivy or boutique liberal arts school (unless you can get them to give you tons of money. I said give, not loan.). Figure out how to get your degree with zero debt, or as close to zero as possible.

If a degree is not required, teach yourself stuff. There are tons of projects out there that want to help you teach yourself. My favorite is this Kickstarter-funded book: Don’t Go Back to School (which isn’t out yet, but there are lots of other things like it).

Finally, you need to understand that you, not a school, make your future. Lots of people think they can outsource initiative to educational institutions. They believe that if they go to a good enough school and pay enough money, the school will somehow instill them with knowledge and a great job. The truth is that most schools don’t care if you succeed or not after you leave their hallowed halls. They’ve already been paid.

You’ve heard the saying “wherever you go, there you are”. It applies to school just as much as it applies to going to Europe to find yourself. If you don’t know what you want or aren’t willing to take responsibility for your own education, you’re going to do just as poorly at Harvard as you will at your local community college. Whatever your choice for education, whether it’s traditional college, tech school, some bootcamp program, or an online home brew, you have to take initiative, talk to people, try things, and make shit happen.

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