Should Everyone go to College? How to Effectively Plan for the Future
For many families, the question of sending their child to college will be one of the biggest decisions they make.
It is a very significant investment in terms of time, money, and effort, especially with the costs of college tuition going up year after year. As such, it’s a question well worth exploring with experts.
The pros and cons of going to college
There are pros and cons to going to college that will be unique to each family.
We don’t take the position that every family should send their kids to college, nor do we take the position that no family should send their kids to college. Our goal is to help each family reach the right decisions for themselves, and assist them whatever path they choose.
Many families have heard some version of the saying, that if their child doesn’t get into a good university, it will be very hard for them to get a good-paying job.
This ends up being a fear that drives many families to place a heavy emphasis on getting their child into a good college, sometimes doing things that may not be good for the child’s development.
The “tiger mom” Amy Chua might be emblematic of the problems of a high-pressure, “get into a good college at all costs” approach.
We don’t believe a good college is a prerequisite to a good-paying job or success in life. It wasn’t an absolute years ago, and to whatever extent it may have been true in the past, it’s even less true today. There are many successful entrepreneurs who dropped out of college or never even went to college.
Perhaps the most famous example in recent times is Peter Thiel’s “20 under 20” program, where high-potential young people were awarded $100,000 scholarships to pursue their own vision, without going to college.
Years ago, Lazlo Bock, head of hiring at Google, wrote about why a college degree (or lack thereof) doesn’t necessarily matter to him when evaluating job candidates.
At the same time, college can and does provide value for many families, and if the reasons are right, I would encourage families to send their kids to a good college. But this is contingent on having a good understanding of the “Why?” behind going to college.
To help analyze this decision, I will go over the main reasons behind each choice.
Good reasons to send your child to college
You value the credential and college on your child’s resume & anticipate a career where employers place significant value on the college credential
While some employers like Google have been gradually de-emphasizing the importance of a college degree for their job applicants, there remain a significant number of employers and industries where the college degree is still very much valued.
If your student anticipates or hopes to work in these spaces, then it’s a good idea to go to college.
Getting into those colleges will still be a challenge. So I recommend doing extensive strategic prep before college admissions to strengthen the student’s application.
Value of connecting with professors, other students, and specific programs
In college, if a student is doing what they should be doing, they will be encountering a curated selection of professors, programs, and students. They should make good use of these resources, with specific goals in mind that show they “did their homework”.
Your child should have a well-thought-out answer to explain why they are interested in studying with a certain professor, in a certain program, or with similarly-minded students.
If a student isn’t currently ready with a strong thesis on this topic, they may be better served by taking some time off to develop a thesis first.
Value of the “college experience” for the student: living on their own, developing independent skills, and seeing another part of the world
For many students, going to college is a big first step in life where they experience moving out, living on their own, and practicing skills for adult life.
It can be a lot to take in at once.
Managing bills and living expenses, dealing with roommates, doing your own cooking, and cleaning can be a big new challenge for young people. It can also be very exciting.
It’s up to the student how they want to approach this, but if they are eager to live on their own, college is a great time for that.
Specific programs at the college that will help your student towards longer-term, post-college goals
This is somewhat related to #2. Many students, if asked why they want to go to a certain college, will shrug and give a vague answer such as, “I heard this was a good college, everyone tells me I should go to a good college.”
They haven’t put much thought into what a “good college” means to them and why it is significant. (College admissions officers are also tired of hearing such generic answers from applicants.)
A college-bound student (ideally) should carefully think out their life and post-college goals, and what sort of learning experiences will be helpful along that journey.
Once they have thought out what they are looking for, they are in a position to be a much more specific and discriminating “buyer” of what a given college is offering.
To share a story from my own college experience: at UC Berkeley I took a philosophy course under the famed professor Hubert Dreyfus. I had no idea who he was or the significance of his work before signing up for the course, taking it only to fulfill a graduation requirement. On the other hand, there were other very dedicated philosophy students from around the world, who told me they had specifically applied to UC Berkeley for him.
Because they had heard about the work of this famous professor (on existentialism and humanism), they were passionate about studying under him. While Dreyfus’ teachings sunk in for me 5 years after taking his course... guess which students got the most out of studying with this professor?
Good reasons to NOT send your child to college
You consider the credential to be overrated or unnecessary to your student’s goals
Going back to what Lazlo Bock said, some employers care less about where a student went to college, or even if they went. Instead, they are asking if a job applicant has the requisite skills to perform a given job well.
What’s important is for a student to develop a good idea about what they want to do in life. And there are plenty of worthwhile pursuits that don’t require a college degree.
If the student desires certain skills, we can create a strategy for a student to obtain those skills: via college, vocational education, or self-directed learning.
Similarly, if you look at great entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, they did not consider finishing college to be necessary to achieve their entrepreneurship goals. And it was no impediment to them.
Burdensome financial and/or time cost
College tuition has been rising for years. A few years ago, the total amount of student loan debt exceeded credit card debt. Then there is the opportunity cost of giving up earnings a student could be making for 4 years if they went to college instead of working on something else.
Imagine two students, Alice and Bob, over the same 4-year period Alice spends 4 years studying at college, paying $30,000 in tuition per year for a total of $120,000. Bob works for those 4 years, earning $40,000 per year for a total of $160,000 in earnings.
Both students put in 4 years of work, but the difference between them financially is $280,000 ($120,000 + $160,000). Alice has a college degree after 4 years, but her financial situation is $280,000 less than Bob’s because she passed up the income she could have earned by going straight to the workforce.
For some families, this can be a huge burden. But we can develop strategies where a family can still get most of the benefits of going to college, for significantly less cost.
For starters, the prevalence of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) is a good resource for families looking to save money - but to use them effectively requires expert guidance.
You have a strong personal development thesis for your student that doesn’t require college (they can always go to college later)
Related to #1, sometimes a student has a clear self-development plan (and if they don’t, we can help create one).
The great entrepreneurs listed earlier had a clear plan for what sort of company they wanted to build and knew that college wasn't necessary to those goals. College wasn’t even a sub-optimal use of their limited time.
Maybe a student has a dream of creating their own VR game. They could enroll in Galileo’s programming, VR, and 3D design courses and learn relevant skills for their dreams, without the hassle of a 4-year college program.
You have other programs in place to achieve your student’s learning goals
There is a new abundance of alternative educational programs springing up outside the normal route of a 4-year college degree.
By designing and assembling a cohesive stack of such programs, a student takes ownership of their own educational development, rather than relying on the prescriptions of a 4-year college.
Investing in your student is always worthwhile - college or not
Regardless of whether or not your student plans to go to college, we should aim to build them up as unique and creative human beings. This will be helpful to them in their college application, or in their general life.
At Galileo, we don’t believe in producing cookie-cutter kids with cookie-cutter approaches.
What does building up a student as a unique and creative human being look like in practice? Take, for example, Galileo’s robotics program.
For a student who plans to go to college, this will help their application by showing real investment in and commitment to exploring their interests outside of a traditional schooling system.
If they are applying to an Electrical Engineering program at a university, being able to say that they built a home robot at high school age, makes them stand out from other applicants. It also shows they already have some of the fundamentals of the subject put into practice.
For a student who is not planning to go to college, the robotics program is still helpful for learning and practicing real-world skills. It could eventually prepare them for a startup or to get their first internship or job.
Lazlo Bock mentioned in 2014 that more companies place less emphasis on the college degree and instead look at whether or not the applicant has certain skills (such as robotics).
For students who are not planning on a job, the Galileo Bootcamps provides the foundation to create their own projects independently.
Young Steve Jobs and Michael Dell are great examples of this: on their own initiative, they started assembling electronic parts together to build and sell their own computers. Eventually, they scaled their activities to tremendously successful businesses...
… On that front, Galileo offers entrepreneurship courses too!