Saturday, November 19, 2011

Axiom 14: A Guide to Higher Education

"The purpose of primary education is the development of your weak characteristics; the purpose of university education, the development of your strong."  -Nevin Fenneman

"Never let formal education get in the way of your learning." -Mark Twain

"It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks." -Albert Einstein

When my father graduated from college in 1974 only 11% of the people in the U.S. had a college degree. He told me how employers were lined up on campus at the job fairs ready to hire new grads with actual good paying jobs. Times were good then, and I was always brought up that getting a college degree would put me on easy street.

Now let's fast forward to 2003 when I completed my undergraduate degree. The job fairs were an absolute joke, and my fellow classmates were pursuing teaching jobs after failing to find anything in the private sector. I sent out 50 résumés only to receive one internship offer. I was starting to question if the whole college thing was overrated.

On the surface the value of an actual bachelor's degree in society has gone down in value. New online universities and government loans have made it accessible for almost anyone that wants to go college to be able to do so. Couple this with an emphasis of pushing a college education over trade schools and we now have record university enrollment nationwide. Now there are about 30% of people in the U.S. with a college degree. Can someone say education bubble?

More people with college degrees means more competition for the same jobs. It means companies can pay less for better talent. It means with over 9% unemployment nationwide that if you are just graduating college there are probably people way more qualified than you fighting for the same job. It means you'll have to work harder and try some less traditional methods for that piece of the American dream.

A college degree has gone from being a prized asset in itself to a simple general admission ticket to the business world that doesn't always work. You'll have to find other ways to use college to increase your perceived value in the business world.

Here are a few suggestions:
  • The value of your degree is inherently tied to the reputation of the university you attend as well as what you study. Choose your school wisely. An online-only university may have a very low value even if the education is of a very high quality. Compare this perceived value with some of the Ivy league school and the differences will be obvious. Choose the best combination of degree plan and college. A theater arts degree from Harvard is just as useless as MBA from a no-name online university.
  • Use degree scarcity to your advantage. The harder a degree is to obtain the less competition you'll have finding a job and the more money you'll make.
  • An easier degree is not necessarily easier. Degrees that are easier to get (like Liberal Arts) have less value and higher competition in the business world. That being said you don't have to force yourself to try to get a science degree if you are an artist at heart. Just understand you may have to rely on your skills rather than your diploma to find a job once you graduate. 
  • Use Hyperspecialization. Use a unique combination of multiple areas of study to make yourself more valuable and create a sub-category that you can be the best in. So, for example, instead of marketing yourself as a general business major market yourself as an international business major that is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. 
  • Go for the skills, stay for the diploma. The diploma will eventually help you get past that glass ceiling in the business world, but the skills you'll learn could inevitably prove to be much more useful. For people that want to learn certain skills but lack the structure and self-discipline to learn on their own college is the perfect place.
  • Don't break the bank. Every dollar you take out in student loans has to be paid back. You can't wipe away student loans even in bankruptcy. A good rule of thumb is to not take out more in loans than your expected average yearly salary in your field of study.
  • Go one step further with your education. A master's degree is quickly become the new bachelor's degree. I'm seeing more and more job ads that put a strong emphasis on hiring people with graduate degrees. If you can afford to go to school longer consider getting your master's degree. You'll go from a pool of 30% of people with bachelor's degrees to a pool of 8% of people with master's degrees.
  • Use the informal job market. If you feel that a college degree won't open any opportunities for you consider using your relationships to search for a job in the informal job market. There is a great article about that here.
  • Don't use college as a crutch. College is a great choice if you are young and you're not sure what you want to do in life. It can expose you to different ideas in a structured environment that most young people need to learn. However, I will say that college isn't the best choice for everyone, nor is it guaranteed that you will find your true calling simply by going. If you already know what you want from life, and you have the motivation to acquire the skills outside of college and become successful, it doesn't make sense to invest the time or money in a college degree.    

You should go to college if:
  • You want to pursue a career in science, mathematics, accounting, medicine, law, engineering, or architecture.
  • You are young and smart but lack the self-discipline to teach yourself outside of a classroom environment.
  • You can attend for little or no debt incurred, or you are going into a field with proven earnings potential that will allow you to pay back any loans in a timely manner.
  • The university is the most accessible place for you to learn a particular skill, and they can offer resources unavailable anywhere else.
  • Going will allow you to move to a particular city of interest, get a fresh start in life, escape from a bad situation at home, or leave behind friends that are a bad influence.
  • You're not sure what to do in life and want to be exposed to many areas of study.
  • You want the personal satisfaction of having a college diploma and the time and money invested are not an issue to you.
  • You will be able to network with people of interest.   

College may not be right for you if:
  • You want a diploma in liberal arts, business, marketing, advertising, communications, English, theater, music, history, or foreign language.
  • You're older than 25 and you are using college solely to escape the real world so you don't have to find a full-time job.
  • You really don't want to go, but someone else is forcing you to.
  • You're going simply to get a diploma under the false pretext that you'll be rich when you graduate.
  • You'll take on massive personal debt to get educated in a field with low average earnings potential.
  • You are highly ambitious, self-disciplined, and have the resources to educate yourself and become successful on your own.
  • You are a wild child and are going mainly for the parties.
  • You want to go into a field that would be better suited (and cheaper) to study at a trade school.
  • You are already very successful in your career and see a college degree as a security blanket. (Your current skills are probably more valuable than a college degree.)
  • You have a better opportunities available to you such as the chance to study under a master of the field you are interested in, or travel the world.

In the next Axiom I will cover how to use the Harvard approach to learning, and also give you some ideas on adding some killer things to your résumé.

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