15 minute read

Riffs about the value of higher education

I’m lucky enough to have gone to college at a Ivy League school on a full scholarship. It definitely changed my life and I’m not sure where I would be without it. But, my brother didn’t go to college, and him not going has made me want to do more critical thinking around the question of “is college worth it?”.

I think that my thoughts about this have evolved over time. I think that, having gone to college myself, it’s always easier to see the “grass is greener on the other side” argument, where I think about the opportunity cost of having gone instead of being grateful for what I have because of it. Being in tech also skews that opinion, since tech isn’t gatekept by a university degree; it’s much easier to get noticed if you have a college degree, but it’s also much easier to get noticed if you, say, developed a popular app or made contributions to open-source. Tech also has the characteristic of being (generally) pretty meritocratic; if a developer is better, they’re better, regardless of name-brand school. I think I felt this frustration early on, when out of college and working my first tech job, I felt like everyone was a better software engineer and a data scientist than I was, so therefore I didn’t really see the value of my education in the first place.

I think it’s only with time that I’ve begun to better appreciate the benefits of a college education broadly and an Ivy League education specifically. For one, I’ve improved my engineering ability and feel much more competent and believing that I have the requisite “baseline skill” that I felt like I was missing. I feel comfortable now as an engineer and no longer feel behind. I’ve done a lot of traveling, both around America and now all throughout Asia, and have met so many different types of people, especially outside the tech and Ivy League bubbles. Lastly, I think I’ve just generally matured in my mentality, now that I’ve had more time to reflect on my journey and I’m 4 years out of college.

I think the argument is true that you don’t 100% need a college degree to “succeed”, whatever that means. Of course it’s a very personalized decision, but I think that, generally speaking, everything is much easier when you have a college degree, especially an Ivy League degree. People look at you differently, and there’s a respect conferred on you, as if it’s society marking you as “someone who’s not a bum after all”. I think it’s also a nice transition period; most 18-22 year olds don’t know what the heck they want and shouldn’t be let loose into society (the argument could theoretically be made for anyone in their 20s, hence why grad school can be a nice option). Plus society’s incentive structures revolve around having a college degree (have you tried to apply to a job without a college degree? Applying with a college degree is hard, but imagine not having one?).

I think my current conclusion is this:

If a person can’t make a higher education worth it, 99% of the time it’s a skill issue.

For 99% of people who say “I don’t think college is worth it?”, my rebuttal is “did you 100% get everything out of college that you could have gotten?” and “what are you going to do otherwise that’s better than going to college?”. Just because college is hard or just because it requires an investment doesn’t make it a bad thing in and of itself. I think that generally speaking, the concern about college “not teaching me things that I need for my job” is mostly a skill issue. For one, I think the value of classes is not that you’ll use the knowledge, but that your ability to learn those things makes you smarter and makes you a better critical thinker, and that in and of itself is worth it long-term (if you know what you’re doing). If you’re just going to classes half-asleep, cheating on homework, and partying every other day, then yes, the education itself worth it. I also think that people easily say things like “college doesn’t teach me things that I need for my job”, but they generally don’t know what they need to know for their job anyways (and often times don’t even know what job they want). If you knew what job you wanted and what you needed to learn for it, you’d be able to use the resources available in college, such as classes, internships, research lab positions, and professors, to your utmost advantage. For many jobs, you do need a theoretical foundation for it, which you’ll have to acquire sooner or later. For example, in tech, you technically don’t need a CS degree, but not having a CS degree (or CS-adjacent, like math in my case) will come back as a handicap, and you’ll need to make up that gap in theoretical knowledge somehow at some point. Yes, college may not teach you “what you need at your job”, but (1) that’s not the point of college, and (2) do you even know what you need for “your job” or “the real world”, and if so, why aren’t you taking advantage of the resources of college towards that end?

(Obvious) caveats:

  • I mean higher education in general. Community college is great and provides a quality education at a fraction of the cost, and people should really be going to those more often. Trade schools are also great and provide a much more direct connection of education to job-related skills.
  • This doesn’t mean taking on $100,000-$250,000 in debt to go to a private university. Again, there are many cheaper options, such as community college and trade school, that should be more embraced. I personally think that the rising cost of college is an unregulated grift and a scam, and people are rightfully upset at the high cost. However, the horror stories of taking on six figures in debt are overblown I think. You can get a quality education for much cheaper, and 99% of higher education options worth considering are much cheaper in my opinion.
  • There are people who genuinely shouldn’t be going to college. But,
    • If you’re an athlete, I can see the value of going professional. However, 99% of athletes in D1 programs (and even more at lower levels) aren’t going to be able to meaningfully and profitably pursue their athletic careers. Plus education is a hedge in case, for example, they get hurt, or their athletic performance goes down.
    • For other skills of expertise (e.g., gaming, art, etc.), I think the same caveats of athletics generally apply. Plus something can meaningfully change in how you see a passion when it becomes the way that you need to sustain yourself.
    • For entrepreneurial types, dropping out is obviously a decision that is worth pondering. After all, every minute spent on homework is a minute not spent building your idea. But college provides a hedge while you pursue your entrepreneurial idea. Maybe the idea will work, maybe it won’t. But your calculus changes when you pursue an idea full time and you having a roof over your head is dependent on the idea working. Plus it’s not like colleges don’t encourage startups; there are many venture programs, startup accelerators, investment groups, and other support networks geared towards student founders, not to mention the easy access to similarly young and hungry people as well as alumni.
      • >99% of entrepreneurs fail, and the stories that we hear of entrepreneurs successfully dropping of college can generally be attributed to survivorship bias, plus many entrepreneurs who do drop out and succeed drop out only after making a calculated decision that their pursuit is worth the risk.
      • Yes, Mark Zuckerberg dropped out, but 99.9999% of people aren’t as talented as Mark Zuckerberg, and he dropped out of Harvard, not a random ordinary school.
      • Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, but I would comfortably bet that 99% of people who mention that they are “entrepreneurial” should really be staying in school anyways (and most people who say they’re “entrepreneurial” just haven’t done the work anyways but want the clout of being an entrepreneur).
    • For content creator types and anyone in the online economy (e.g., copywriting, dropshipping), it generally is possible, sure, to make a solid living doing those ventures without college. But college provides a hedge and lets you upskill while you work gradually towards making your dream a reality (same caveats as entrepreneurship). Plus for content creation, college is a great place for content material and ideas.

I think that for me, the biggest benefits to higher education are:

  • Opening your mind to new possibilities and ways of thinking: I think this effect was particularly magnified for me, where I didn’t know that many people who had a college degree and I was thrust into an Ivy League school. Coming into college, I thought that the only two careers that “smart people” pursued were lawyer and doctor. I remember the first time someone told me that they were working at Goldman Sachs and I thought “as like a bank teller? Aren’t you a little too smart for that?”, so I clearly didn’t know what was possible. I can riff on this on and on, but I think that, at least in my school, there was a feeling of “anything is possible, so why not me?” that was an underlying current of how students approached their pursuits. I think that I’ve gradually come to see how much that mentality has shaped my thinking, especially as of late, and I would not have had that without having been exposed to it through school.
  • Teaching you to think critically: I think this tweet explains it best, and I don’t have much to add to it. I think that you get far ahead in your career (and also life more broadly) when you have the ability to think critically and to learn anything, and college is the premier training ground for your brain. I don’t think the material that you learn is what makes classes worth it, it’s the fact that you were smart enough to learn it in the first place and are thus, generally speaking, better equipped to learn anything, see nuance, and think critically than a person who didn’t receive the same education.
  • Meeting lots of people: college is the only place, I’ve learned now, that you’ll meet thousands of people who are all about your age, at the same stage in life, working on similar things, and who are generally open to meet new people. It’s hard to meet new people after college, and after college people begin to have more life commitments like work and family. You can spontaneously meet someone for lunch, a library study session, or just a chill afternoon to play video games, and that becomes much less true after college. You’ll meet new people in classes, orgs, extracurriculars, at the dining hall, or just in the hallways of your dorms. An introvert’s nightmare, for sure, and I wish that I took more advantage of this to meet more people. But at the end of the day there’s nowhere to meet people as easily as college. Community is a big benefit of college that I think is personally impossible to replicate elsewhere.
  • Increasing the surface area for serendipity: going off the last point, there’s just generally a wider variety of experiences that you’ll have in college. Maybe you meet someone in class, who introduces you to someone, who introduces you to someone. Maybe you try out a new extracurricular that you wouldn’t have had before, and you have a new activity that you’ll do from now on. Maybe you take that one random class that you end up loving and it possibly changes your career choices. Maybe you see someone cute in the dining hall and they become the love of your life. I think that, especially while we’re young, it’s important to increase the surface area for serendipity. At that age, it’s important to do more exploration, learn about how the world works, try a lot of things, and generally have a lot of experiences. It’s a lot harder (though of course possible) to do this when people are locked into one career path and their weekly routines consist of going to work, going home, and maybe once or twice going to somewhere else like a gym or a library or a park.
  • Gives you something to build towards and to do for 4 years: Bluntly speaking, what the heck would you do otherwise? For 99.99% of people, a 4-year college degree is the only thing that they’ll commit nontrivial effort for that long towards. I can confidently say that this is true because we can just look at what people work towards after they get a college degree. The path for 99% of people is to get a degree, get a job, do that job (and perhaps some job-hopping) for 40-50 years, possibly start a family, then hopefully retire and then die. Heck, most people can’t even point to the last book that they read, are out of shape, and don’t have money saved up, and this is largely from people not being able to work on any one goal for the course of multiple years. Although I personally think people should be striving to try their best, just being a regular Joe isn’t a bad thing, and I think that our American society overindexes on “be different”, “hustle harder”, etc., when in reality just getting a paycheck and living life isn’t a bad way to live life (after all, if we care that people can do what they want, is it bad if this is what they want?). It’s really easy to get stuck in a job without any growth. Plus, most jobs that don’t require college degrees are dead-end jobs anyways (hence why many people get a college or an advanced degree to advance in their career). But college is the one experience that many people can point to as a time in which they invested a long period of time towards one specific goal.
  • Gives you a chance to do hard things that you probably wouldn’t do otherwise: this is a personal bias of mine, since I think that doing hard things makes for a more fulfilling life. But commonly, the hardest thing that a person will work towards is a college degree. I think that getting an “easy” degree is generally a waste of time and money and mental capacity, and can only be generally offset if you’re making up for it by, say, working on startups or doing some other things that take advantage of college resources. But I think that college provides great opportunities for doing hard things and getting outside of your comfort zone. Take that class that’s hard, because you’ll come out stronger at the end. As much as we hated the notorious hard classes in our major, we wore it like a badge of honor once we survived the class, and that’s a memory that we’ll always have in common with others like us.
  • Try new things, just because you can: Try out for that improv group, even if it pushes you outside of your comfort zone. Give that dance performance in front of your friends and classmates. Do that public speaking competition. Go to rallies and stand up for what you believe in; there’s no group more bold and audacious in their speech than college students. This goes off the idea of serendipity, in that you might learn new things about yourself from doing these things. But even if you don’t, just doing these things is a good thing in and of itself and life is more fun when you try and experience lots of things.

I think there are generally 4 paths for college.

  • Community college
  • Trade school
  • 2 years at community college + 2 years at university
    • Spending 4 years at university is OK and I think most people prefer this, but the first 2 years of gen ed classes are pretty universally true wherever you go anyways, community college is much cheaper, and many community colleges are located near universities so you can get the social benefits of universities while going to community college.
  • Top-tier university (Ivy League, adjacent schools)
    • I don’t think that the cost of private school is generally worth it unless you (1) get a substantial scholarship, or (2) the tradeoffs for going to the school (access to people, opportunities, lifetime “clout”) offset whatever the cost of going is. The biggest benefit of going to Yale and other similar schools in my opinion, for example, is not the education but the fact that you’re going to parties with future CEOs, millionaires/billionaries, Supreme Court justices, and the like.

Each path has its own tradeoffs and is good for different types of people. I’ve mostly talked about a 4-year university, since that’s my experience, but I think that many of these considerations apply to varying degrees at all forms of higher education.

Regardless, at the end of the day, I think that college was a great investment for me, and I’m glad I went. For 99.999% of people, they are better served going to college. I think we forget how important and impactful the idea of a higher education is and how hard our predecessors fought for access to higher education because it’s such a ubiquitous part of our lives. There was a time after all when higher education was restricted to rich, upper-class white men of the aristocracy. College is in some ways a victim of its own success; by making it so accessible, we forget how impactful it is in the first place. Yes, there are caveats and yes it is expensive. But we can’t overlook all the good things that come with it in the first place. My life has been much better because I went to college, and I suspect that for 99.999% of people that that is true as well.