The Truth About Earning A College Degree

by Guest Blogger on 2009-04-1534

This is a guest post from Grant Baldwin, the author of Reality Check, a book about helping students transition into the real world. His new website, BrokePiggy.com, answers questions from teenagers about personal finance, savings, and all things money.

This series “12 Things Every Teenager Needs To Know About Money (And How To Teach Them)” is a community blog experience. This post is only one of the 12 points in the series so to view the other 11, please visit the list of links below.

Don’t get me wrong… a college degree is valuable. All things being equal, someone with a degree will probably be more likely to get the job than someone without.

In fact, the Census Bureau estimates that someone with a two-year degree will earn on average $500,000 more over the course of their lifetime than someone with just a high school diploma. Someone with a four-year degree will earn on average $1 million more over the course of his/her lifetime than someone with just a high school education.

While I believe highly in education, and I have a pretty piece of paper in the form of a college degree to prove it, having a degree doesn’t guarantee success. Here are some things I do know to be true about a college degree:

1. A lot of successful people don’t have a degree.
Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. Walt Disney. Michael Dell. None of them had a college degree, yet they could all be classified as successful. Having said that though, understand that they are the exception and not the norm. One thing they do each have in common is that they each went out and started their own business and paved their own way for success. Could they have been as successful if they took on a J-O-B? We’ll never know!

2. What you learn outside the classroom may be as important as what you learn inside the classroom.
I sat through 4 years of college classes, and I’m not sure I could tell you a ton of specific things I learned in class. But what I could tell you about were the friendships I made; how I expanded my network through various new connections; and how I learned about time management, developed money management skills, and learned to live on my own. I learned just as much, if not more, about responsibility, dedication, and working hard. While I don’t remember the day those topics were taught, I do remember that I learned them.

college diploma, college degree

3. You will most likely change careers at some point.
Statistics tell us that the average person will change careers seven times over the course of their lifetime. In addition, the Department of Labor says that each generation will have more careers than the previous generation. This means that you’ll probably have more jobs than your parents have had and that your teen will have more jobs than you have. So whatever degree your child ends up getting will probably have less bearing than you think, on the field or work they do during their lifetime.

Like I said, I’m all for college and education in general, but if you think that having a degree is going to open endless doors of opportunity, you’ll quickly find out that this may not be the case.

Here is the full list of articles in the “12 Things Every Teenager Needs To Know About Money (And How To Teach Them)” series:

This is a guest post from Grant Baldwin, the author of Reality Check, a book about helping students transition into the real world. His new website, BrokePiggy.com, answers questions from teenagers about personal finance, savings, and all things money.

Copyright © 2009 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

OBB April 15, 2009 at 4:40 am

Great advice about getting a college degree. I think the most important thing for teenagers to realize is that student loan debt is serious and they must have a plan to pay it off before they incur it.

If you do your due diligence and reasonably know how much you will make from your degree, then you can tell how much in loan payments you will be able to afford to pay each month. Do this before going to college.

Trencher93 April 15, 2009 at 6:13 am

Gates came from a rich family and had early access to computers at a time when most high-school kids did not because of family connections. He was given an all-expense-paid trip to Harvard by his family and did not have to work. He used the time there to develop his first BASIC product by writing an emulator using Harvard’s computers for the early PC it would run on, and then writing the BASIC on Harvard’s computers. He had almost zero start-up costs, and zero chance of failure since he could always go back to Harvard. He did not have to work to pay for college, nor did he have to work to support himself, nor would failure with his first BASIC product ruin him financially. He had a lot of advantages in life most people will never have. People who have to work to pay for college, or who have to get a job and pay off loans afterward, would have trouble doing what he did.

MK April 15, 2009 at 7:06 am

I completely agree that it isn’t necessarily the text book education you receive from going to college that is the most important and most beneficial to students, but also the social education. How to communicate with people, how to take care of yourself, networking, and expoloring different avenues that you wouldn’t have been exposed to had you not gone to college.

As far as the changing careers, I’m pretty much in that boat right now, and my degree was pretty specialized. So time for me to go back to school, take some classes, enrich myself some more, and move on!

funkright April 15, 2009 at 9:17 am

The thing is, a person with a degree will have more doors ‘available’ to them then someone without a degree, all other things being equal.. So, I would rather have a degree than not.. and if you’re young, that’s the time to get it done!

Mikael Rieck April 15, 2009 at 10:07 am

A college degree isn’t bad but without the people skills you won’t get far. On the other hand you can go all the way to the top if you have the people skills and no college degree.

Excellent post!
Mikael

Tim "Credit Card Nerd" April 15, 2009 at 11:41 am

Interesting post -
I think a lot of the billionaire dropouts are bad examples because their businesses were taking off while they were in school & hence the decision was financially motivated (to free up time for the business).
Also, maybe there is a big signaling component involved, where employers assume educated people had to pass through more hoops to get to where they are, all else being equal.

TaxRascal April 15, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Lots of the discussion about the college degrees ignores the difference between correlation and causation. For example, it’s true that people with degrees earn more money than people without degrees. But people who own yachts probably earn a whole lot more than people who don’t — not because they can impress people, or more effectively relax, but because yacht-owners are already more likely to be rich.

One theory is that colleges are good at guessing who will succeed, so Gates made a great move: he got into Harvard, to prove that he was the kind of guy who could do it — then he went off and did his own thing, because that was a better way to spend that time.

Craig April 15, 2009 at 12:43 pm

The answer is simple, and it’s yes. People who earn degrees make more over time than those without more education. Yes you can name prospects who have been successful without, but clearly they are the exception to the rule, not the norm. If one doesn’t go to college, they should concentrate on a specific trade to master that they can be successful at.

Jim April 15, 2009 at 12:56 pm

I think the more important question is : What do you want to do with your life? What career do you want to pursue?

If you want to start a small business or become a plumber then a college degree isn’t really necessary. But if you want to become an engineer, nurse, accountant, lawyer, doctor, etc then a degree is pretty much mandatory.

Stephanie PTY April 15, 2009 at 1:08 pm

@OBB: That’s so true! That’s exactly what I didn’t do when I was a teenager looking at colleges. I don’t regret anything now, but I wish I’d had a better idea of what I was getting into at the time. If nothing else, I probably would have been a little more careful with the money I made during the summers!

Dana April 15, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Cannot deny the benefits of a college education just yet, but good to be open-minded to the alternatives.

Myrtle Beach Bumm April 15, 2009 at 1:32 pm

I agree completely that the degree is “just a piece of paper” but if you don’t have the true entrepreneurial spirit and dedication it takes to start a business, it’s an absolute necessity to live life comfortable and financially stable.

Grant @ BrokePiggy.com April 15, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Thanks for your involvement in this series!

Bambosi Blog April 15, 2009 at 2:31 pm

Degree, it’s just a certificate for us… But how about knowledge??? Many experience blogger that have great salary from blogging is young people and not yet to pass his degree

Wealth Pilgrim April 15, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Your points are very well made. I believe that this is an individual issue. In most cases, folks benefit by having the degree hands down. However, they don’t have to mortgage their left kidney to do it. Get a degree? Yes. Go to a fancy-pants school to get it? What for!

Rhys April 16, 2009 at 12:01 pm

Great observations. I haven’t read the other 11 of these, so I don’t know what else you brought up, but to these three, I would add that the biggest value of college seems to be the people you meet and the things you learn outside of the classroom. Some of the best books I read, I only know about because of conversations with my classmates and professors. That’s “the power of small.”

Tracie April 16, 2009 at 4:09 pm

This is very true. I, myself, have a degree in paralegal studies, a degree and license in interior decorating, certifications in food sanitation and management and teaching and I am an author. What do I do? I write, have my own business and run a farm. I have learned a lot over the years in and out of classess but, what it all comes down to is I do what I love.

Meaghan April 28, 2009 at 3:50 pm

the best thing to do is become well-rounded…earn a traditional degree and pursue other interests on your own!

siobhan curious April 29, 2009 at 8:55 am

I am a college teacher, and one of my main complaints is that there are so few options for students who are not suited for the traditional college system but who want to continue to educate themselves. The CEGEP system in Quebec goes some way toward addressing this – see

http://siobhancurious.wordpress.com/what-is-a-cegep/

…but there is still a societal perception that not pursuing post-secondary studies = failure. I wrote a post on this question a while ago; if you’re interested, you can find it here:

http://siobhancurious.wordpress.com/2009/03/26/who-says-you-have-to-go-to-college/

Jennifer May 28, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Two words: of course. Just go where your heart leads you, sometimes it’s just gets in the way and complicate things. College Education is the foundation of one’s career path. Very important. College Stories

Grant Crow June 21, 2009 at 12:39 pm

To me, this issue is often one of timing. Going to get a degree when you have no foccus is probably not the best idea – although you might have a good time! The ease of access given to mature students now means that even if someone hasn’t performed that well at school, they can still have a crack at getting into college/university. Ultimately not having a degree is likely to be a limitation though, unless you’re in your own business.

Murphy Susan June 30, 2009 at 5:56 am

I beg to disagree. As a graduate from California College San Diego, I think the opportunities provided by a college degree are more than evident. The job market today has changed drastically. And employers now look for a certain level of expertise that can be guaranteed only through a college degree. With new methods of teaching and a wide range of college degree programs available, applying even for an entry level job nowadays demands a certain level of qualification. A college education definitely opens doors. You just have to be smart enough to know which ones.

Julie Wright August 24, 2009 at 7:35 am

I enjoyed reading the article and comments. Their are many online degree programs to choose from if you are in the work force and are looking for a degree with an accredited university.

Roll Off San Diego August 25, 2009 at 1:53 pm

Great post. Much of the knowledge gained in pursuing a degree has little to do with the actual degree — many important social lessons are gained from those years in college!

Abilene September 25, 2009 at 11:52 pm

I think it is safe to say that knowledge and education are not always synonymous, but both are extremely important in being successful in life.

Doug November 16, 2009 at 10:18 am

I never got a job in the field I studied but the things I learned have been very important in my business and personal life. So learning is always a good thing but things change and you have to be versatile as well.

John January 16, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Theoretically education is better than general knowledge because it will earn for you. Knowledge is only for social status and makes you feeling good when talking with people.

I think the best is to have combination of those :)

Greg January 20, 2010 at 1:01 am

Well, sometimes I wonder about this. They say that someone with the degree will have more opportunities open to them. But consider if there is some opportunity but a degree is a requirement. Then ask yourself how much time, energy, and money it would take to simply get around that requirement. Four years, endless study, thousands of dollars? I think there is always a way, and if someone says a degree is required for some opportunity, I bet someone clever who is truly motivated can always find a way around that requirement.

In the end I think it really depends on the field of study how important a formal education will be. It is pretty important for doctors and lawyers.

Cardinal July 3, 2010 at 2:45 pm

The absolute best advice is to be well rounded, which would include having a college degree which offers many additional options. Some people choose earning several degrees, others opt to get only a partial education. Still others opt to get a college degree online while working full time. Whatever your choice it’s always best to have many options to select from.

Mac Fleury August 12, 2010 at 5:31 am

Agree 100%. Most of the successful internet marketers nowadays are self-made millionaires who simply had to learn how the web marketing system works, put in lots of time, were determined and dedicated to get the job done, and look where they are now. I think the education system, although tried and true in terms of providing people with job security that will last a lifetime, needs to be revamped and changed in order to accommodate the needs of students of our age in different institutions such as boarding schools, boot camps, private and public schools.

Michael August 17, 2010 at 7:48 am

I truly believe a college education is worth it, but I know that once I get a degree, the only job I can get that may be relevant to my degree is $5 an hour less than the hard labor jobs I did to put myself through college.

The College Helper September 9, 2010 at 4:23 pm

Great post. You’re right, there are a lot of successful people who did not attend college. However, even if you don’t attend college, everyone should make an effort to continuously educate themselves. If college isn’t for you, then that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean that a person shouldn’t be doing a lot of self-study. Whatever you passion and career goals might be, you have to follow the best path to get you there.

Cardinal December 27, 2010 at 1:40 pm

Of course earning a degree has many advantages. One area that is growing rapidly is online IT degrees. A degree in this area could provide someone a really good opportunity for employment.

Cardinal January 24, 2011 at 5:48 pm

There are many stories of successful individuals who did not graduate college. The best advice however, is to be well prepared which means having as many tools in your arsenal as possible. Of course a degree being one of them. With so many options available these days it’s certainly a bonus to have the degree behind your name. Today it’s much easier than 20 years ago. Now you can get an online IT degree or an engineering degree all online in as little as 2 years. So why not get one? You don’t even have to spend the 4-5 years in a classroom setting you can do it at your own discretion.

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