Do You Really Have to Go to College?

Dale J. StephensTyler DriscollDale J. Stephens
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Saying No to College | Dec. 2, 2012


As high school seniors await thick envelopes and weigh their options, one young man is making the case for another college choice: None of the above.

The last time Dale J. Stephens appeared on this blog, he was described as “something of a heretic in the world of higher education.” He argued against the five reasons people give for going to college.

Mr. Stephens, a vocal proponent of self-directed learning, is the author of “Hacking Your Education” and the founder of UnCollege.

In his commentary below, Mr. Stephens challenges the notion that college is the only way to become successful. We hope you’ll share your thoughts in the discussion that follows. — Tanya Abrams


This is the time of year when high school seniors across the country are checking the mail obsessively. They’re rushing down the driveway whenever an unusually loud car goes by, hoping the letter carrier has delivered that all-important, life-altering piece of paper: the acceptance letter to their dream school.

You should know, however, that not everyone is paying attention to the mailbox. Some teenagers are making plans to engage in self-directed learning.

All your life, parents, teachers, and guidance counselors have drilled the idea into your head that you must go to college. It has been made clear that if you don’t get good grades and attend a four-year college, the rest of your life will be a dismal failure.

I’m arguing that all of this is wrong. The social cues that defined what you thought about education ought to be questioned.

There is a community of people who are making a different choice. Instead of going into debt, they are taking the future into their own hands. They are using the real world to find mentors and learn practical skills. They are traveling, volunteering, interning and apprenticing.

While many might see this path as extremely risky, I argue that going to school and graduating with an average of $26,000-plus in debt is at least as risky in today’s uncertain job market.

Of course, debt is not the only factor to consider when making decisions about higher education. Learning outcomes are also important, but there are disturbing numbers there as well. According to “Academically Adrift” — a book based on a study about undergraduate education in the United States — as many as 45 percent of students show “no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning or written communication during their first two years in college.”

Furthermore, some recent college graduates are not faring too well in the job market. According to the economist Andrew Sum of Northeastern University, more than 44 percent of college graduates under 25 who were area studies majors were unemployed in 2009 or working in a job that did not require their degree.

Today, self-directed learning is easier than ever. Not long ago, if you told someone that the Internet was coming, there was no chance they would have believed you. Now, you can learn, on your own, the skills you need to succeed. Not only are the resources free, but they’re accessible from nearly anywhere in the world.

If you’d like to learn how to code, you don’t need a $150,000 piece of paper to tell you that you can. Instead, you can do it yourself. The best part? People will pay you for it.

The connection economy we live in today has had drastic effects on the incentives and economics of education — yet it seems that colleges haven’t really taken notice.

Now, entire course loads can be watched online. The breadth of information on the Web is so vast that if you think you don’t have the resources to learn something, you’d be lying to yourself.

While the educational experience at college is flawed — with 90- to 120-minute lectures simply inducing passive, lackadaisical learning — Silicon Valley has cost-effective solutions to it, even if you opt for the system.

Massive open online courses, commonly referred to as MOOCs, are now replacing lecture halls. Students don’t have to sit in a classroom anymore; they can learn on their own terms, at their own pace. They choose what they want to learn. If they are enduring a start-up crisis of their own, they can stop being stuffed Shakespeare (whom I adore), switch gears and adapt.

It’s fluid, it’s flexible, and it’s an education designed for the student.

Self-directed learners, or hackademics as I’d like to call them, aren’t just learning for a fraction of the cost. In many cases, they’re doing it for absolutely free.

With educational resources like Udacity, edUx, Coursera, M.I.T. Open Courseware, and Khan Academy, you can go from grasping the fundamentals to synthesizing entire class loads, without the burden of crushing, unforgivable debt (Oh yes, it’s unforgivable). As the New York Times reporter Tamar Lewin wrote, “No one knows just how these massive courses will evolve, but their appeal to a broad audience is unquestioned: retirees in Indiana see them as a route to lifelong learning, students in India as their only lifeline to college-level work.”

Right now, we need to see in terms of return of investment. Our generation came in believing that with a college degree, came the security of a job and the tangible skills to do it. We also came in believing that the price was bearable.

Not anymore. Now, we see students in paralyzing debt, coming out of college settling for a job they didn’t want. The simple fact is, with a connection economy as powerful as ours, the real world is starting to give a greater return on investment than the manufactured one we set up in college.

Devbootcamp, a nine-week Ruby on Rails course, teaches novices how to program for the cost of $12,200. Yet, the return on investment is incredibly high: Three months after completing the course, 90 percent of graduates found jobs, many of them with starting salaries as high as $80,000.

The reason this happens is because the curriculum doesn’t focus on being a “well-rounded student,” which is intellectual newspeak for “more classes.” Instead it focuses on, as Michael Staton likes to call it, “extreme employability,” which aligns the curriculum with job incentives.

In Pareto-speak, it’s finding the 20 percent of the material that reaps 80 percent of the rewards. If you have the flexibility to choose your own education, you also have the flexibility to choose your own life. This is the blessing of the hackademic.

We need to see college as a choice, not a requisite. Social norms dictate that we all need to go to college — but if you look through history, how many times have social norms steered us in the wrong direction?

What’s at stake is the livelihood of the people who are here to prosper. It’s the difference between graduates racking up debt they can’t pay off, and hackademics living with the freedom they were told was coming. Life started out simple — do as you’re told, and you’ll be O.K. Yet, ironically, this is exactly the kind of thinking that’ll get you into trouble.

The rules are being rewritten, and colleges aren’t taking action. In fact, it seems that they aren’t even taking notice. Now, life is on you. Now, I’d argue, is the best time to take charge of your education. And by doing so, you might just be taking charge of your life.


Is college necessary? What are your personal reasons for (or against) going to college? Join the discussion about Mr. Stephens’s arguments in the comments box below.

Comments are no longer being accepted.

A question for Mr Stevens–have you spoken your truths to the student body of an impoverished inner city high school, where the majority of students have few opportunities for pursuing higher education if they wanted to?

These opportunities for self-education that you describe so blithely–MOOCs, developers’ boot camp–are conditional on having the financial resources to pursue them, not to mention space, time of one’s own, and a dedicated internet signal. If you can launch yourself into a marvelous career using a subpar high school education and a crash course in coding languages, then you’re probably going to do fine in a lot of situations. You’re also not representative of an enormous percentage of the population. (And please don’t cite Bill Gates as an example of how college educations are overrated. He had probably the equivalent of a stellar college education in computer science before he even arrived at Harvard, as the result of some incredible opportunities as a high school student at a prestigious private school. Hardly representative.)

The college debt burden disproportionately falls on non-traditional students from the bottom brackets of US income. Unless you can make this conversation a serious attempt to address the enormous class and race disparities haunting educational attainment in this country, your messianic technobabble is going to just leave more people out in the cold.

I think the hurdle to employment could be overcome in very simple ways.

1. IQ tests
2. Aptitude tests
3. Certification exams

If we could get over the idea that IQ and aptitude tests are somehow “wrong” for human resources to give, that would allow anyone with the IQ and aptitude level determined by the hiring company to be considered for an interview.

Novel thought: actual brain function and interpersonal/acquired skills suitability determines who gets an interview rather than a piece of paper from a college.

Of course high school graduates should really go to college! Education is priceless. Some people say that you can still find a job even when you don’t finish education. But then, you get greater opportunities to get hired and with higher chances of job promotion once you finish college. So, don’t let any negative vibes stop you from aiming for success.

I agree that going to college is not for everyone. Education online is a great idea for self-motivators and those who will be able to prioritize their time to make sure they meet assignment deadlines. Many employers are looking for experienced applicants. Therefore, make sure to take advantage of job opportunities including internships, externships, and/or apprenticeships in whatever path is chosen. Competition is tough in many job markets and the experiences and networking will help in establishing a career regardless of your educational background.

Whether or not self-education is an effective tool depends on the availability of opportunities in that particular field. Lawyers, doctors, engineers would do better in a structured environment to maximise the potential of students in these professions and institutions to grade their calibre in their respective fields. They cannot be replaced by self-directed learning.

This article touches upon conversations that are taking place among parents and children in many households.

While there are many valid points and counterpoints, the bottom line is a college education is required in order to gain most types of employment, even those that are lower level such as administrative support.

During my current job search for employment, I am discovering that my 15+ years of experience as a successful Executive Administrative Assistant is not valued when applying for an entry level or senior level Administrative Assistant position that requires a college degree. Recruiters have informed me that almost all industries are requiring college degrees for most positions.

I have glowing recommendations, I can spell, I am extremely good at what I do; but I don’t have a college degree and, therefore, I have little chance of finding a job.

I couldn’t finish college because of financial reasons and I did not want to go into debt to obtain a degree; apparently that is now the norm. I am resigning myself to the fact that I will have to obtain a small amount of debt like so many students, return to college, obtain the degree, and compete with the younger crowd.

I agree and disagree with this article. Self-directed learning only pays off if you are truly talented in a field that requires talent. I’m an artist myself, and I see it’s pointless to attend a college to get what I’ve already had since I was born. On the other hand, jobs that require loads of knowledge like science, teaching, engineering,… definitely need well trained individuals. No where is better than college for you to get the training.
So the game is not about choosing the best school, it’s about understanding yourself. Then you will see the right way for you.

I honestly cannot stand when people say “this student can’t do this.” I wasn’t always a self motivated student. EVERYTHING in life is LEARNED. I don’t know where people come up with this misconception that we are all just born magically good at things. NO it doesn’t work that way. Go ask Michael Jordan if he was BORN amazing at basketball. NO. People need to understand anything will work if you put your mind to it. The problem is we have educators and parents that DOUBT their children. They fill their heads up with all this negativity. That is why they can’t achieve. It has nothing to do with lack of ability.

my opinion in this is one of the reasons why i choose to read this article. I have always done good in school since pre-k to high school, then once i went to college everything had changed, i want to do fashion, i’m moving from ny and i am also starting up my fashion blog Alot of which i am self teaching through websites and books that i have been buying from Amazon.com. i know school isn’t for everyone, and like it was said in the article, its kinda for a handful of people who are capable of Independence. i have been in a community college for two years and i haven’t gotten squat out of it. i am not knocking down anyone who has been, in or going to college, i am agreeing that it just isn’t for everyone

I think that your research is well done and well thought out, but still very wrong. In my mind there is no smarter investment than in higher education. I don’t think that its possible to prove that people attending college do not advance their critical thinking skills just based on statistics. If a person is a hard worker then they will succeed in college and other forms of education. Take doctors for example. Some doctors come out of med school with 150k in debt, but after making 200k a year I think that they’d find that investment to be worth their time and resources. It’s all based on the individual really. If a person is willing to put forth hard work all of the time then they’ll succeed while others fail. It’s not a short term thing, it’s something that is developed over many years.

It seems that those who have invested heavily in their own education find it hard to swallow the thought that their investment may not have been necessary. Most of the arguments above for the “requirement” of a college degree are nonsense. I have known many highly educated morons who have no useful social skills. They have simply figured out a way to get through the system. On the other hand, I know many career individuals who are doing quite well financially and enjoy what they are doing.

The education culture is a self-perpetuating society that can not understand how someone can “succeed” without going through the brainwashing that they endured for 16-20 years or more. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

The above poster has made some good points. While I agree that education is oversold nowadays (and certainly overpriced), such a comment ignores the professional professions. For example, a medical doctor, surgeon, or lawyer in the US would most certainly not be taken seriously if they did not have any degrees. It is their lengthy education, coupled with training which enabled them to treat patients and receive higher salaries.

Also, most jobs posted in the 2010s now require people to have at least a bachelor’s degree. There is much talk that the bachelor’s degree has become the next high school diploma. The days where you’d get hired just by walking into a store with just an HS diploma are long gone. Prior to the 1950s, it was not uncommon for people to never have finished their HS diplomas as well. I think I recall reading that only the small percentage of wealthy would send their kids to go for useless degrees. College became more of an expected business sometime after the 1970s.

Also, I remember that in my first week of high school, I didn’t even want to go to college. But I am now finishing up a bachelor’s degree. Was it tiring? Yes. Do I think most people are brainwashed? Yes. I didn’t learn much. But the workforce has raised their standards.

As a current college student who’s working on their 2 year degree, I have to say that I am honestly feeling like a failure to myself. This is my last semester, until I graduate with the 2 year. I am so miserable. Each semester I was forced to take 4-5 classes.. At least 3-4 credits each. I still don’t know what I want to do with my life that my parents will find acceptable, and I just don’t feel cut out for the whole college thing. I know I’m smart, and that I have enough common sense to be ok right now… but is it wrong to say that I can’t keep going on in college? My parents have let me stay in their house as long as I stay in school, but I just don’t see why I have to be pushed into going to a college just to know that I am not good at a lot of things.. I am not going to lie, I am truly an artsy kind of person. I’m always doing independent art projects, as well as I constantly think outside of the box. I always question why people do half the things they do, when they don’t even know why they do it… My parents don’t agree with what I am truly gifted in, and have denied me the right to pursue it numerous times. I feel like I’m always disappointing them, and that I’m a failure for not being like everyone else. Is it truly wrong that No matter how hard I try, I can’t grasp the concept behind chemistry? Or even grammar? Literature? I study for hours on end, and make myself self so sick from the amount of stress of trying to be a genius in college. This past semester, i managed to get the flu, a mono relapse, an epstein barr relapse, the cold numerous times, and a migraine every week. I don’t know what to do… I never want to disappoint my parents, but I am truly miserable this way… I have denied myself to indulge in my creative urges, as well as try to keep my imagination suppressed.. I just don’t know what to do..

I don’t want to be a failure, but I know I will be if I keep going down this path. What can I do??

It is true that self-education is possible. It saves a ton of money and the best part is that you don’t have to deal with the stress of college. But lets be realistic. Who really has the motivation and determination to teach themselves say differential equations and linear algebra or algorithms for computer science that model the natural environment. It is true that in the end the student does the learning and it really doesn’t matter where you get it from. But, I think having something pushing you such as grades is much more effective for “most” people. Being a student studying biomedical engineering, that is my personal opinion.

Agree. Thus, do everyone really think that students learn a lot in college? They don’t! as a college student, the only thing I learned that is valuable is interacting with other students, sharing experiences and learning from each other.

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