college education

More than once this past summer I found myself wondering: “What’s wrong with me?”  While my friends excitedly discussed their dream schools and the fears of rejection, I was struggling with a fundamentally different question: should I attend college at all?

As I fill out my college applications, tuition rates continue to soar, saddling students with oppressive loan debt while a stagnant economy diminishes job prospects for graduates. Higher education institutions are at risk of insolvency.

Yet why did it seem that I was the only senior in all of Northern Virginia that didn’t presume college was the inevitable next step?

When I brought up the idea of not attending university, I was immediately met with naysayers telling me exactly what would go wrong, painting a bleak outlook for my future.

The first hurdle I had to overcome when talking with college graduates, students, and applicants was the preconceived notion that a university education would prepare me for the “real world.”

College has long been the stepping-stone from adolescence to adulthood by providing young adults with the knowledge and reasoning power needed to secure a full-time job. Unfortunately, with the upheaval of the job market and economy as a whole, simply graduating will not guarantee even an entry-level position. Even if you are one of the lucky 48 percent of students who start their profession directly out of school, excitedly working a 14-hour day is not a skill that can be taught in the classroom, but having the passion to do so is becoming increasingly necessary.

Perhaps getting a job isn’t the be-all and end-all of your college experience, or even life goals.

Post-secondary education can still present one with the intellectual playground whereby ideas are tested, expressed or challenged amongst bright young students and mentors, right? Absolutely.

But, fortunately for your bank account, a collaborative learning group – or study group of any kind – can sate that need for about the price of a box of pizza. Dale Stephens originally outlined this premise in his book, Hacking Your Education. Instead of eating alone, he recommends inviting “a small, but diverse, group of people over” and discussing with them what you have been learning, projects you’re working on, and challenges you’re facing, from there just let the ideas bounce across the room.

The professional network, which has become an unofficial prerequisite for jobs, can be built more and more easily outside of college thanks to the interconnectivity of the online community.

However, if the college campus environment is one that you would thrive in, I encourage you to go and explore that missing puzzle piece at a school of your choice, but skip the tuition like Kirill Zdronyy did. To replicate his story, simply find a dorm couch to crash on, attend lectures at a top-tier university, and build a successful startup company with other students. Zdronyy utilized many Stanford resources, and even got them to be one of his first clients, all without ever being a student.

The final, and most grueling, illusion to break down was the statistic that college students make on average $800,000 more in a lifetime than a non-college graduate.

Those six figures are alarming. How could you possibly argue with the numbers? Well first, let’s figure out what the real numbers are, because as any economics professor would say, it’s important to factor in opportunity cost. For those four years spent at school paying $30,000 per year, one could have been earning at least $30,000 as well, bringing the total cost of a University education to about $240,000 ($60,000 x 4 years). Let’s go one step further and take the $120,000 you would have actually spent on college (not including opportunity cost) and toss it in to a saving account with a 3.5% interest rate. Over a 50-year period you would make approximately $670,000, a huge dent in that original $800,000 figure. Students who don’t pursue a college degree are able to get a four-five year jump on their career and start saving immediately, where as the rising loan rates keep graduates in debt for years after finishing in the classroom.

Our society has shifted.

Decades ago when professors and professionals started conducting studies about who would make more money today, there were two distinct groups of students. Half who were motivated and ambitious chose to go to college simply because there were no other options. The other half were unmotivated teenagers, who did not have the will to succeed, thus did not go to college. No longer is our high school population split so evenly down the middle, and there are an exceptional amount of other opportunities to pursue other than a four-year college.

In order to get rid of the selection bias in the previously mentioned case studies, a more interesting – and accurate – test recommended by author and financial analyst, James Altucher, would be to take 2,000 students who were accepted to Harvard and make half of them go while forbidding the other half from attending. In 20 years we would be able to check back in and see which group had actually made more money. Altucher and I are in agreement that it would be the latter half.

The more I disputed convention, with friends, family, teachers, and, anyone else willing to hear my arguments, the clearer it became that swimming against the current is much more difficult than floating with it. Bewilderment best describes the collective reaction that everyone had to my “If college, vs. which college” stance.

After facing all of these factors, here I sit, an applicant to over ten schools…  What happened?

For one, I succumbed to peer pressure. Having a cookie cutter answer for the: “Where are you going to school next year?” question made my life a whole lot easier and allowed me to put off my decision for several more months. But, in the end, it became apparent to me that I was exceedingly fortunate to be in a position to even weigh such a decision.  There are many smart, talented people that don’t have the luxury of choosing whether or not to attend college due to financial or familial difficulties.

As of now, I still have no idea whether or not I will be attending college next year, but even if I do, I will be confident in my decision and far more educated about the responsibility than many others. As investor and businessman, Carl Icahn, said: “In life and business, there are two cardinal sins: The first is to act without thought, and the second is to not act at all.” Given the significant investment of time, money, and effort those four years would require, I have to make a thoughtful choice based on sound rationale, not simply because it is pre-determined.

Matt Colwell is a recent high school graduate taking time off from school to pursue his interests in the music and technology fields. He founded his own music blog at 14 and has continued to expand his interests through artist promotion and management.

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