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De-constructing Society’s Educational Norms: Do your Life Goals Really Require a Traditional Education?

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The validity of the entire educational system, and in particular for the purposes of this post – traditional public and private post-secondary degrees has been under the microscope much more in recent years. And for good reason. Costs are growing disproportionately and resulting in huge debt loads, most of the coursework is available for free online, and people are starting to realize that interest-based learning will ultimately lead to more satisfaction. Since this is a personal finance blog, we’ll start with costs.

Education Inflation

The cost of a traditional college education has skyrocketed. Since 1978, the CPI and wages have increased ~3 times, housing prices have increased 4X, but the cost of attending a state college has increased by a factor of 15 for in-state students and 24 for out-of-state students. The cost of attending a private college has increased by a factor of more than 13!

tuition inflation

At the same time, some of these same private institutions (Stanford, MIT, Harvard) are offering their classes online for free. Hmm… that’s odd.

The Difference Between School (Being Taught to) Vs. Genuine Interest Based Learning Immersion

School is all about testing, and attendance, and credits, and tuition, and note taking, and pop quizzes, and scores, and bell curves, and fear, and all that stuff that doesn’t necessarily make you prepared to enter the work force as a professional ready to positively contribute to society.

True interest based learning, on the other hand, comes only from self-initiative to follow your interests and become immersed in hands-on experience. You’re great at something because you want to be – and our entire society benefits as a result.

School can get you in the door to an employer and can help you climb the ladder.

Interest based learning and the passion and experience that comes from it, can make you elite.

Which sounds better to you?

Which Nurse Would you Rather Have?

A person that I’m very close to is studying to be a nurse right now. In researching all of the educational opportunities available to her, she ended up choosing to go with a 1.5 year accelerated associates degree through a community college that offers a number of online courses and on-the-job training versus a bachelor degree from a university. The associate costs one-fourth of the price of the bachelor’s.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Those graduating from the associate program are getting chosen by employers over those with the bachelor’s degree – AND getting paid just as much. Employers are recognizing that they are better prepared to enter the workforce, smashing down the wall of traditional thought that ‘higher degree = more qualified employee ‘. In this case, ‘less school + more experience > more school + less experience’. It’s rare, but a start in the right direction.

That’s the employer’s perspective, but what about the customer’s? Your significant other or mother or father ends up in intensive care. Who would you rather want to have taking close care of them?  The nurse that just graduated with his/her expensive piece of paper the nurse – OR – the nurse with an associate degree who spent two years shadowing and working with nurses in intensive care

Which ‘Engineer’ would you Rather Have?

You’re the CEO of a tech startup in Silicon Valley in desperate need of expanding it’s user base through the use of social media. Because you’re a brand new company, you’re just starting to hire. You were engineer #1 and you’re looking for engineer #2. The two most qualified candidates that apply for the job are a 20 year old kid with no degree and a PHD in computer engineering from MIT. Easy choice, right? Not so fast. The kid has built 3 multi-million dollar selling social media applications while the MIT grad has a stellar resume with no real world accomplishment. Which do you hire?

But the Resistance is Strong from Larger Employers…

In the last example, what sounds intuitive to me (hiring the kid), would not happen at most large corporations or other institutions. I’ve been employed by an employer who only hired those with a bachelor’s degree and higher who graduated with a 3.5 GPA. NO EXCEPTIONS. The same employer has turned down highly qualified candidates without a bachelor’s degree who would have ran circles around the new college grads with their shiny degree.

When an HR department at a large company sits down and comes up with criteria, or bars that they need to set – degree and GPA are often at the top of that list. They look for differentiators, and degrees and GPA’s are two of the most common criteria in which they can differentiate. In the end, it ultimately ends up hurting them.

Where do you want to get to?

Regardless of where we are in our careers at the moment, we usually aren’t quite where we want to be (we = young professionals, but it could be argued that we = everyone). Realistically, what is your end goal? Where do you want to be in 20 years? If you could be doing exactly what you want to be doing for the rest of your life and make a sustainable income as a result, what would you be doing? Think about this for a few minutes…. or years….

Once you’ve answered that question, ask yourself this: “what learning experience will best prepare me to get there?”. Try to throw all pre-conceived societal standards out the window. This is all about you and what you need to be successful in your mind.

If you have the ambitious drive to get through the door of a large corporate icon and climb the corporate ladder, there are plenty of educational institutions that will be happy to take your money.

If you want anything else, I’d love to hear what it is and what you think it will take to get you there.

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  • Van says:

    You make some good points, though I think this is very career-choice-dependent. Traditional economists would have major trouble getting a job based on an associates degree in economics (it’s tough as it is with a bachelors), but as a replacement for an MBA that arrangement could make sense. It seems to me you’re suggesting that the career paths that can be “vocationalized” should be…?

    Btw, what is the source of the data in the graph?

    • G.E. Miller says:

      @ Van – Yes, as I try to stress in the post, most employers aren’t thinking this way yet and hopefully that changes. Per your comment about ‘vocationalized’, I would recommend that everyone do their due diligence and weigh the monetary, job marketplace, and other factors before deciding between a traditional post-secondary path and a vocationalized path for whatever profession they are interested in.

  • FinanceFreak says:

    Excellent analysis. The traditional assumptions relating to the value of formal higher education are no longer axiomatic.

  • Jose? says:

    Interesting post, with an interesting discussion of the value of interest based learning versus following the established norm. While I agree that school is not for everybody, I feel that your analysis water’s down the impact of a four your degree by pointing to a few exception (how representative of the labor force are they?) Furthermore, beyond the immediate benefit of work experience, a 4 year degree offers life experience, a four year window of self discovery and new perspectives that are valuable in and of themselves, and whom down the road might make for better nurses, engineers etc…

  • JLH says:

    I’m not surprised by this commentary, given that you have made similar comments about higher education in the past here. I disagree with your analysis, however. I admit that I have my own bias in that I carry a substantial amount of medical school debt and I am in a profession that not only requires 4 years of school but also (for my selected ultimate path) an additional 6-7 years of post-graduate training (and likely another degree as part of that).

    I agree with the other comment above that suggests that you are overlooking the benefits of a college education. Although you dismiss the experiences gained in those four years by suggesting they are nothing but a series of pop quizzes and useless homework assignments, I would argue more that there are two types of education: skill and content. Part (or most) of the educational process is learning HOW to read, write, synthesize information, explore new topics, and essentially learning how to learn. The content is far less important until you become specialized in a particular area.

    Since I am in the health care field, I can also respond that at the large academic center where I work, you cannot be hired as a nurse without a bachelor’s degree. Period. As a physician, while I appreciate experienced nurses, I also (probably to a greater degree) appreciate smart, educated nurses who can understand WHY we are doing what we do because they have had the background education in physiology, pharmacology, anatomy, and so forth. Yes, an experienced nurse with an associates degree can hook up an IV just as well as one with a more expensive degree, but one who understands more about human illness and disease pathophysiology is much more powerful as a nurse.

    In answer to your questions, what I want to be doing in twenty years requires both a long educational process and vast amounts of experience. I’ll ask you this: would you really want a doctor who never went to medical school (and therefore never learned anatomy, physiology, pathology, neuroscience, biochemistry, pharmacology, etc)…but who has been shadowing other people for a few years and feels like he or she has picked up enough medicine to take care of patients despite the lack of education? Uh, no thanks.

  • Joe says:

    I’m getting more upset every day about the state of education in the U.S. Even in college, it feels like we’re spending more and ultimately learning less that is useful. Especially since MBAs and Master’s degrees are starting to be required by bigger companies to even be considered for management positions.

  • Paul says:

    People are not going to like this but…

    I won’t hire someone without a college degree. No, my profession is not one you learn by going to college BUT the other skills that you must have to get by in it are not taught well enough anywhere else. Specifically, methods of research and basic writing techniques.

  • Alex says:

    Hi there,

    As others have said, interesting discussion! I’ve always wondered about this, and before I entered college I was right on the cusp of choosing to be a professional dog trainer. Bachelor’s Degree NOT required, but the training was practical and the amount of business very reputation-dependent.

    I am going to agree with JLH – it is very career/vocation specific as to how much education/training is necessary. I happen to be a nurse, and also work at a cutting-edge teaching hospital. Just this year, they started only accepting applications from BSN (Bachelors of Science in Nursing) graduates. When you get to the profession of nursing, there is much debate about “entry-level”. With the changes in technology and information in health care, I happen to believe a 4-year, traditional education is absolutely necessary to function SAFELY. It’s all about safety now, and JLH is correct, you can’t achieve the level of safety without a bachelors degree as a nurse. I happened to train in my job with 1 nurse who had her associate’s, and she has really, really struggled. She wasn’t prepared enough, and didn’t have enough background knowledge. She had to learn when I did in school, on top of the “real” stuff that you can’t learn in school that all new nurses have to learn.

    Anyway, I would have to conclude that this isn’t an area that you can generalize. Some careers/vocations probably don’t require traditional education, but there are enough that necessitate the centralized body of knowledge in a center of higher learning. My 2 cents.

  • Gally says:

    At some point you have to realize that this is the way the world works, and not gripe about it. Sometimes it’s important to be “street smart” and not just “book smart.” In other words, that 20 year old kid who developed 3 multi-million dollar social applications SHOULD have been smart enough to get a degree on the side, just for insurance purposes. With all that money, he could afford the shiny piece of paper couldn’t he?


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