Would you skip college for $40,000? How about $50,000?

English: An image of natural gas drillers with...
English: An image of natural gas drillers with a drill near Kokomo Indiana, c. 1885 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interesting piece in The New York Times about young men, especially, skipping college to head to the oil and gas boom in Montana:

Here in oil country, some teenagers are choosing the oil fields over universities, forgoing higher education for jobs with salaries that can start at $50,000 a year.

It is a lucrative but risky decision for any 18-year-old to make, one that could foreclose on his future if the frenzied pace of oil and gas drilling from here to North Dakota to Texas falters and work dries up. But with unemployment at more than 12 percent nationwide for young adults and college tuition soaring, students here on the snow-glazed plains of eastern Montana said they were ready to take their chances.

“I just figured, the oil field is here and I’d make the money while I could,” said Tegan Sivertson, 19, who monitors pipelines for a gas company, sometimes working 15-hour days. “I didn’t want to waste the money and go to school when I could make just as much.”

One of the greatest beliefs in the United States is that everyone must go to college. This, despite the fact many students drop out, are graduating saddled with enormous debt and many can’t find paid work.

So, why not take $40,000 and sock away as much of it as possible? It could fund college later (or not), or travel, or a home you choose to own (or rent out for income.)

I have a lot of difficulty with this persistent insistence that college is the only viable place for people who have graduated high school to grow up, learn about the world, acquire skills, mix with people their age of very different backgrounds and work to high standards independently.

Is it?

For some, it’s joining the military. Or going overseas on a student visa, to work as a nanny or au pair or volunteer. Or staying home and working a variety of less-prestigious jobs until you actually know what truly interests you, and what you are good at and who is hiring and what they pay, entry-level or beyond. Then, if you choose higher education, you know exactly what you’re getting into!

For all its benefits and pleasures, college very rarely teaches the skills you really need in the “real world”, whether running your own business, freelancing or working most effectively within a team or office. (Invoicing 101? Sucking Up 302? Backstabbing 205?)

I wrote a piece for The New York Times recently about a group of smart young people under 20 who are being paid $50,000 a year for two years to skip school. (It was the paper’s third most emailed story that day.)

Here’s a thoughtful blog post on this issue by a professor of political science at Georgetown, a respected American 223-year-old university:

A student at any college will often sense a conflict between prestige and truth, the prestige of the teacher, the school, or the culture. He will soon learn that everything contains some truth worth knowing about, and that the best way to deal with error is to see the truth in which it is embedded.

Or, again to change the metaphor, college life is a minefield, studded with all different kinds of devices, waiting to be crossed. Wise young people will read independently in reliable books, to locate and identify hidden explosives rather than step on them. But the venturesome student will in fact want to know what such mines really are, and how they came to be constructed and buried. They will follow the example of Aquinas, who insisted that the accurate understanding of error is quite a necessary and legitimate side of our learning and living. Thus, we want to know how they function, how the mines are hidden. Yes, we want to know how to avoid stepping on them and indeed how to eliminate them, the first step of which effort is to know what they are and why they were made.

I graduated from the University of Toronto, Canada’s top school, then as now. People I studied with now run think tanks and museums and private schools and have accomplished some great things. I liked having tough professors and smart people around me.

As an English major, my courses were very narrowly restricted, even as an undergrad, to 75 percent English literature. The only other things I studied were political science and philosophy (freshman year), French (three years) and Spanish (four years). I knew I wanted to become a foreign correspondent, so I needed to be able to work in other languages, write well and quickly and have the intellectual confidence to make my arguments persuasively.

Those are the skills I’ve used ever since. My ability to read Chaucer in Middle English or parse Volpone or Victorian poetry? Nope. Never.

If you’re in college, or heading there, why? What do you expect to get out of it?

If you’ve long since graduated, do you regret your choice of school or major?

31 thoughts on “Would you skip college for $40,000? How about $50,000?

  1. I’ve already gotten a ton out of my college experience. My writing’s improved to the point that I’ve gotten published a few times, I’ve gotten career experience doing work-study, I’ve made friends that I’d never meet otherwise, and I’ve learned things that I’d never learn if I decided to fogo a college degree.
    Besides, I’m not too fond of oil or gas. I want us all on solar power.

  2. My school, occasionally. My major never. European Studies and History don’t seem practical on the surface, but I learned to think critically and write much better. I read mountains of academic work as well as fiction that expanded both of those abilities. I also had great work opportunities through the university doing different types of tasks that prepared me technically for my job now, which I think is preparing me for my next job. If anything, in retrospect I don’t think took advantage enough of the experiences my university offered! I did take advantage of the free museum exhibits, lectures and forums, theatre productions, etc., but I could have cultivated more relationships with more professors. I definitely could have tried to get published in the various publications (as a young student I was still painfully nervous and felt too inadequate to try, where I should have seen opportunities to learn and grown)!

    I think that good universities that provide student jobs for work training, reasonably priced extracurricular functions, and an education that produces reasoning skills still have a lot to offer. It’s not for everyone, and I’d personally like to see a system more like Europe’s apprenticeships and trade schools whose certifications and degrees are equally respected, but I don’t think they’re totally obsolete. But the problem are those two words, “reasonably priced.” Formal continuing education has priced itself out of being a valuable investment into a luxury. We either need to find better ways to bring the costs down, or change the conversation away from expecting a university degree do any kind of work in this country.

  3. leah wolfe

    “For all its benefits and pleasures, college very rarely teaches the skills you really need in the “real world”

    Ironically when you have that experience, having to work straight out of high school, many employers do not accept it above the degree.

    We have a whole group of working-class 40 somethings who spent their first twenty years building lives because college was not an option. Now are forced to saddle themselves with second mortgages and overpriced tuition while they struggle to send their own kids to college. Sadly, they’re going not to get experience to do most jobs, but just for the piece of paper.

  4. Such an interesting post because, as you mentioned, there is this idea that a kid MUST go to college in this country. I fell in that boat, college (according to parents and high school counselors) was THE option. What I struggled with later was that I went to college, like everyone said I should, and had little idea where to go or what to do when I got there. My major ended up being the only thing available that kind of, a little bit, could work for what I wanted to do career-wise. I’m not sure that I couldn’t have gained the skills and knowledge necessary for that specific field by interning, reading, working odd jobs and building my resume that way.

    1. Exactly my point. If there were a way to stop using the degree (as it is used) as a sorting mechanism….But what would replace it? It would be fascinating if we could come up with an alternative set of tests to prove competence that would save us the $15-50k each year to go to college. It’s great if it’s what you really want and can afford, but I don’t think that’s most undergrads.

  5. Those kids would have to be CRAZY not to jump at the chance to get a well paid job like that in America. Put the degree on hold I say!

    Here in Australia getting a degree or not is not a big deal. I felt no pressure from neither teachers nor parents to pursue that path and I’m hugely thankful for that because when I graduated High School I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I studied IT at TAFE, gained an Associate Diploma for my troubles but then realised it wasn’t for me.

    It took me a few goes to realise what it was that I wanted to do career wise and now that I know I’m studying part time at University in Engineering whilst working in the same field. I’m finding Uni is very helpful with giving me great foundation to build upon but my job is what gives me the actual experience to put the information I learn into practice.

  6. That’s my point. I think a lot of kids rush right out of high school into college because they can’t think what else to do, and/or their parents are terrified the kids won’t get work without the degree. I wonder how many 18 year olds have any clear idea exactly what they want to do for a living — and then choose a school and courses accordingly.

    Good for you!

  7. As always, your piece transports me to a place of deep thinking. I graduated from college with a BS in Communication and couldn’t do anything with it. I then went to graduate school and majored in Communication Disorders and became a speech/language pathologist because I knew I could find a job. It ended up being a good path for me. I enjoyed working with children with disabilities but I really always liked the big picture and problem solving. I’ve worked my way into an administrative position and I have finally found a fit for me that really uses my strengths. I’m glad I pushed through college because without structure in place I could have just as easily turned out a hippie.

    My daughter knew what she wanted to do….went to a major university in the states, interned with an oil and gas company, graduated early and now has a great job. My son is going down a different path. He is a junior majoring in global studies at a liberal arts college in Austin, TX. He has studied abroad in France and he still isn’t sure what he wants to do. I love the way he thinks, engages with people, and problem solves. I think he too will find success but when and where is yet to be determined.

    As an educator, I so agree with you that college is not the only path for our youth. Our high school is one of the top notch schools in our state yet, in my opinion, we have a learning gap for the students who aren’t special needs but aren’t in the top ten percent of their class either. The average student or the student who doesn’t learn conventionally sometimes falls between the cracks and has a difficult time navigating life.

    1. Thanks for such an insightful comment! Much appreciated…

      I had this conversation/argument at a party this week, with a talented/successful guy who teaches college here in NY and does social media (age 62) and feels strongly that “a job” is a thing of the past. Yes and no. It’s terribly privileged/elite thinking to assume that everyone WANTS to wear a hoodie and be a hipster and work 4 jobs instead of having a paycheck (for better or worse.) Many kids, as you know better than , are simply not sufficiently focused or self-disciplined enough to make this sort of freedom actually work.

      At 20, I was freelancing and going to U of T full-time, but was able to do both well enough — but my transcript is also embarrassingly lousy as a result, because I chose to prioritize making $$$ (having to support myself) over getting high grades. I had no intention of ever attending grad school, so I just didn’t care enough about that. (Jose did the same. We have both created successful journalism careers — but neither of us has an advanced degree.)

      I did love what I learned in college, but truthfully…would I have blown a lot of $$$$$$$ to study Chaucer? Not a smart choice and not for many people who can’t translate knowledge into practical skills employers actually want.

      1. So valid…but I have nothing but respect for those with sub par college transcripts with documented jobs to boast. It goes back to work ethic. I recently interviewed and hired a young lady and her college transcript did not rise to the level of her peers. She, however, emerged from a home with a single mom and worked her butt off all through college. She has not let me down as she is always ready to roll up her sleeves and get the job done. As for your friend who thinks jobs are a thing of the past…I truly love hanging out with these guys. They are insightful and creative thinkers, but like you said most of the world is not wired to be successful without a real job. I have a friend whose son is a senior in high school ….has ADD and Dyslexia and a very high IQ. He HATES school. He is going to forgo college and jump into sales for a company that builds playgrounds for schools and restaurants. He is smart enough to know that sales is the perfect fit for him…on the go and you don’t have to do the same thing all the time….definitely a good fit for a kid with ADD and focusing problems. I’m so proud of him for advocating for himself. Kudos to his parents also for guiding him in a path that is custom fit.

      2. This seems to be (?) the disconnect — that so many kids tromp through high school being told go to college or ELSE when college is a very specific form of learning that is not a great fit for all of us. I really hated how impersonal mine was (53,000 students) and just having to sit there and listen….

        I later attended interior design school in the 1990s, when I was in my late 30s. Loved it!!!! Loved. Such a totally different experience — tiny classes, lots of drawing/painting/problem-solving/presenting. It showed me how differently we learn and how we can thrive in a different setting.

  8. I constantly wish I would have gone to college now at 29 instead of at 18 when I was a completely different, immature person who knew very little about the office/corporate world. I would have made different choices. I would have tried to learn programming, I wouldn’t have majored in Communications. I think it’s terrible how much we stress the “proper” way to become educated when so much more is learned through experience.

  9. This really gets at the notion of what a university is for. Is it supposed to broaden the mind and provide an opportunity for an “professional” career or is it supposed to guarantee a job? I am university educated also but I have never held with the argument that attendance there is the pinnacle requirement for career success or “success in life”. Frankly, that’s complete nonsense. Not everyone should attend university. Not everyone should go into the army. Not everyone should work in the oilfields. However, these are all good choices and depend on the individual and what that person wants for his or her life. The notion that all young people should attend university is based more on the erroneous notion that if they don’t, they’re somehow “stupid” or “academically unable” and plays into the idea that they won’t make enough money to support, at the very least, an upper middle class lifestyle. Are lawyers somehow better than plumbers? I don’t think so, especially when I have a leaking pipe in my basement.

  10. Being a college student I expect to develop writing skills and being able to communicate effectively with people around me. I also except to be challenge daily in my thinking. Being a psychology major and planning to stay in academia, I believe that these skills will help later one. I am also work study which I am gaining job experience. I am also minoring in English which lets me read books that I love and have meaningful conversations about them. This helps in developing my own voice.

  11. Thoughtful post. Written a few articles about whether or not college is worth it myself. In college, of course, (especially at the liberal arts one I attended), the many benefits — mostly the intangible, unquantifiable — were always touted. And while I still see and believe in the benefits, I agree with what you said: “I have a lot of difficulty with this persistent insistence that college is the only viable place for people who have graduated high school to grow up, learn about the world, acquire skills, mix with people their age of very different backgrounds and work to high standards independently.” It being a place to learn those things doesn’t mean it is the only place.

    1. I learned a lot more about how the world works by starting to freelance at 20. I learned to meet deadlines or ELSE; how to negotiate; how to work well with people 20-40 years my senior…I didn’t need to get “well rounded” as I’d already had a pretty interesting life. I didn’t need to learn how to meet deadlines or defer to authority (which college is very big on, it seems.) I enjoyed my college years, but they do seem a bit of blur, a background to my freelancing, not vice versa.

  12. I like the idea of not having to go to college, but I think the reality is that it’s helpful for most. Going back to school at a later age sounds fantastic, but many, like myself, never again have the time or money to go back. I left school because at the time it seemed the only logical choice, I was worn out from working 3 part time jobs supporting myself, and a full time class load. Regardless of major, that one piece of paper is a foot in the door for even the most entry level jobs. Without a bachelor’s, you’d be hard pressed to get a secretarial job here in the city. College is also contacts and connections. $40 or $50,000 a year sounds like a lot of money when you’re 18 and 19, but in many places it isn’t enough to live comfortably once you have a mortgage and/or a family. Practically speaking, even taking a year or two off to earn this money, delaying college until 20, can be an excellent plan, but that income will then be factored in along with parents’ income (until age 26) if applying for Financial Aid. I don’t think there is any easy answer, ie: it’s a waste or it’s a must. I disagree with $100,000+ of debt for an undergraduate degree, or any debt at all for an Associates Degree or “degrees” from For-Profit schools. Studies show these are the loans most likely to be defaulted, because the degrees don’t yield enough of an income later on to survive and make loan payments.

  13. But I still think college is being used a sorting mechanism. One of the best assistants I ever had was a student of mine, still an undergrad, who worked harder and smarter without that piece of paper than others I’ve hired since with grad degrees. You can’t teach a work ethic or common sense!

    I also disagree about this “college is about contacts and connections.” Maybe for some people, but it’s not for all. I made the mistake of not attending college in the U.S. and no one here has even heard of my school (which is really ignorant, as it’s excellent.) So my Canadian connections from U of Toronto, here in NY? Worthless. Nor do Canadian schools (to my knowledge) even bother to connect alumni in consistently meaningful ways to allow us to make use of whatever connections do exist.

    1. Interesting points, and I do agree about college being used as a sorting mechanism. When I talk about contacts and connections, some I mean literally, but part of it is that not having the degrees makes a statement to potential employers. My perspective is of course, my perspective, colored by my experiences.

  14. I’m a junior in college and I am starting to take advantage of the different opportunities available at the university. I’m still not sure exactly what I want to do, but I think I have a good idea. This year is the year I have to find an internship. That is not going as well as I had expected. It kind of makes me nervous about looking for a job.

    1. I don’t think you have to know *exactly* what you want to do, and a good idea is a good start! I would not stress about looking for a job…I’d focus all your energies on defining your skills, strengths, aptitudes so you are very clear what you can offer anyone who you hope to work with/for. People generally hire people they like, trust and respect, and many “jobs” suddenly appear after people have had a chance to assess you and how hard you work and how reliable you are, esp. during an internship. That’s all pretty basic, of course. I might spend a bit of time at your university’s career center and start asking them for advice and tips.

      Good luck! Don’t be nervous. Use that energy to prepare instead.

  15. In many ways I don’t regret going to university at all. I was able to study, post-grad, under Peter Munz – a student of Karl Popper who, himself, was ranked one of the world’s top philosophers. A unique experience which, I think, compensated for having to put up with the viciously exclusive and sanctimonious in-crowds who dominated the student and lecturer community in my department at the time, and who were virtually in a state of open warfare with each other.

    I was also lucky enough to do this at a time when the government largely paid for the system. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I also didn’t need a lot. Most of my fees were paid for me. Today it’s different, ‘user pays’ and the ‘student loan’ scheme leaves New Zealand graduates hobbled with tens of thousands of dollars in debt which, it seems, can continue to hobble them for years afterwards.

    1. I think we were very lucky to be educated well and affordably. My university education in the mid 1970s cost me — yes — $660 a year. It’s now about $5,000/yr. or so, for Canadian residents, which is still insanely cheap by American standards.

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