Is Going to College a Colossal Career Mistake?

I believe in education for it's own sake. I believe knowledge makes the world better. Curiosity and research drive innovation and technology! But not when it means shouldering a lifetime of soul-crushing debt for young learners who are not informed nor capable of making those types of difficult financial decisions. What we are asking of our children is morally wrong.

Is it possible we can cultivate our curiosity, indulged in research, without paying gobs in tuition? I think so.

Education is not the same thing as college. As many graduates of "party schools" will tell you, they had the time of their life, but attending class wasn't their highest priority, nor did their degree have much to do with what they currently do for a living. If increasing their alcohol tolerance were a class, they might have to put it on their resume. That skill takes many years of dedicated practice!

The choice we're offering our youth is unjust. Go to college, decide to study something you don't even know if you like, enter into debt, and hope in your last three months the career center can bring in enough job listings. Or, don't go to college, earn 30 percent less than your peers and sit in at the latest Occupy protest complaining about the 1 percent.

Unfortunately, going to college these days leaves many students (and their parents) wondering what it's all for. If it weren't for employers demanding prerequisite, arbitrary bachelors degrees for their entry-level roles, I think the whole broken system would collapse.

I'm almost 40 and still owe close to $80,000 in debt. I deferred repayment most of my life. Reconsolidated foolishly, locked into high rates and became exempt from current forgiveness programs. And what did my degree in Religious Studies get me?

It wasn't until I found entrepreneurship that I began to make money and enjoy my career. If only I had the chance to explore these skills early, rather than analyzing Portuguese oceanic exploration in the 17th century and how that relates to the concept of zero. (Seriously, that was one of my classes)

As a business owner, I use three primary skills, (1) critical thinking, (2) clear communication, spoken and written (3) and resourcefulness to find answers to questions. I did not need to enter into a lifetime of debt to gain these skills and build a comfortable income.

As an intellectually curious human, I find satisfaction in reading books and articles, watching lectures online and engaging in stimulating conversations with friends. Did I need to enter into a lifetime of soul-crushing debt to satiate my intellectual curiosity. No way!

Don't get me wrong, we still need our academics, our researchers, our tenured professors, our peer-reviewed journals, our science labs, our women's studies scholars. But how is an 18 year old going to know that's their life path without first exploring their interests, traveling, poking around, failing fast and learning from those failures.

If you're a parent, I challenge you. I challenge your assumptions about college. College today is NOT what is was when you went 20-30 years ago. What it means to have a college degree also doesn't mean the same thing.

Many employers are dropping the bachelor's degree requirement (not fast enough in my opinion). Programs like Treehouse can teach someone how to be a software developer in three months, allowing them to start at $50,000 a year when they are still 18!

My young neighbor took two years at a community college, joined a company that provides customer support for Apple and makes a very good living with plenty of opportunity to advance.

A childhood friend of mine started a nonprofit selling beer at Cubs stadium for orphans in Africa. He now travels the world consulting on humanitarian programs.

Some of the most successful sales people at the Cisco reseller I used to work for, including the regional manager, only had high-school degrees.

According to Daniel Pink in his book Free Agent Nation, there are over 33 million free agents, non-full time employees, entrepreneurs, temps, freelancers and micro business owners. That's one in four American workers. This easily outnumbers manufacturing and government workers combined.

The dream we seem to subscribe to and perpetuate in our media of college-->job-->promotion-->retire is long dead. Corporations are as likely to reward your loyalty as a college degree guarantees your kids a job. Namely, not likely at all.

The work of Andy Chan, VP of Career Development for Wake Forest University in North Carolina, has started waking up the masses of career professionals across the broken plane of higher ed jobs programs and has sparked a civil war between the President's office and the Dean's office. Where one is required to face the changing value proposition of higher ed, and the other is tasked with preserving the intellectual integrity of the curriculum. It should be no surprise that these two goals very often don't play well together.

It's a classic case of forces of change against forces of status quo. A war where change agents are losing, a failing revolution. Career centers continue to lose about 16 percent of their funding each year according to NACE. Students interested in English chose Engineering degrees to justify the cost of college and are set up for failure when they realize they made a mistake four years later.

I often wonder if change from within is at all feasible. Perhaps at a small scale. Texas A&M at Commerce recently asked me to speak with their students. I was impressed that one of the Deans made having a LinkedIn profile a requirement to graduate. But stories like this are too far and few between, as the cost of curriculum reaches vast figures, and outpaces inflation three to ten.

One reason I joined the board of Wayfinding Academy was to support alternative programs, programs which impart critical thinking, communication and resourcefulness, which promote intellectual curiosity, without the curse of soul-crushing debt nor the false choice of following your passion leads to a degree that leads to a job, pick wisely or fail.

Students will leave Wayfinding Academy with their next step in place, a portfolio that shows the world who they are and what they can do, and a network of people who support them.

They will be equipped with skills that apply to their chosen path. Of course, they'll be able to write thesis statements, read challenging articles and books, and use the scientific method. But, more than than that, they will prepare students to be engaged citizens of the world.

Students will know how to...

  • Learn
  • connect with people
  • ask good questions
  • Collaborate
  • make a plan for something hard that requires other people's help
  • set up life systems that work for them
  • find their way back to their purpose when they feel lost

I want our next generation to be scrappy, strong, smart and inventive. I want them to have the financial freedom to make their best choices, not just safe choices. I want them to get over their fear of having to get it right the first time, failure is data.

I wish these bold choices to our next generation.

The Wayfinding Academy


Joshua Waldman is on the board of the Wayfinding Academy and founder of Career Enlightenment, where they provide professionally written LinkedIn profiles for job seekers.