Can You Afford to Skip College?

“You’re so brave!”

That’s what I hear whenever I tell people that I dropped out of Stanford to work and learn on the job.

This used to baffle me. Then a good friend pointed out that I perceive risk very differently than other people. Most college students rely on a system that supposedly ensures their success; I, on the other hand, could never bring myself do this. After all, relying on a system for my success seemed far riskier than relying on myself.

This is particularly true when it comes to finances. Is it the case that that if I trust the system and make it my goal to do well in school, I will be financially stable? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Certainly lots of college graduates (88.1 percent) these days get jobs. But many don’t. (Twelve percent may not seem like a high number — unless you’re in it, and possibly saddled with high levels of student debt to boot.) Many struggle for years to find work. It happens far too often that we hear about college graduates who are perpetually un- or underemployed. What’s going on?

In terms of boosting your earning potential, a college degree can help. It’s not, however, enough to land a good job — or any job, for that matter. At the end of the day, the thing that employers (or customers, if you’re starting a business) care about is not where you went to school, or even whether you went to school. They care about this: Who are you, and what can you do?

This is true of good employers, anyway. A good employer (and remember that not everyone who hires you is someone you want to work with) will care about your formal education only inasmuch as it may indicate that you have certain positive qualities — things like perseverance or intellectual curiosity. Of course, whether you do in fact possess these qualities, and whether your education serves as a proxy for them, will remain to be seen.

So far, we’ve addressed a commonly perceived risk of forgoing university — whether or not you’ll be able to get a job. There is another concern worth addressing, too: Perhaps you’re not worried about whether you’ll land a job, but rather whether you’ll be able to move up once you do. This worry is likely based in experience, either lived or observed; in corporate settings, the lack of a degree can in fact block you from being promoted to certain positions. At least, this is true on paper. But if we look, we can easily see that reality is much more malleable.

Consider this scenario: You and your colleague-nemesis/professional frenemy, Dave, are competing for the same management position. Dave has a B.S. from Wharton, the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious business school. If it seems to you that Dave obviously has a better shot than you of landing the job, you’re probably forgetting to take into account other critical factors. Between you and Dave, who is better liked and respected at your company? Who is more diligent and willing to work? Who has greater expertise? You should aim to get to a point, regardless of how you acquired your education, at which you are actually the better person for the job.

And what if you are the better person, and still don’t get the job? Then you know that the problem is not you — it’s the company you’re working for.

I’ll be blunt. You cannot afford to skip college, if you do not plan to rigorously educate yourself; if you do not plan to become good enough that you can succeed without it; if you do not want to become a person who has the ability to do (or learn how to do) what is needed.

But why wouldn’t you plan to be that person? Regardless of which path you choose, these are goals that will help you succeed.

Remember, too, that college comes with expenses of its own — from rising tuition rates to the opportunity cost of spending four years (or, for the majority of college students, more than four years) outside the full-time workforce. As you calculate your personal ROI, remember that just as you have the option to rely on the system, you can also choose to rely on yourself.

Looking to enrich your mind outside of the college context? Check out the Noodle classes search, where you can find learning opportunities in the fields most interesting to you. If you’re really set on college, you may also use the Noodle college search to find the right school for you.

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