Going to college is not mandatory: Dr. S’s guide on life choices in one simple blog post

There, I said it. If you don’t want to be in my class, I’d prefer you not be there. I am not a jailer. Nothing is mandatory. There are many paths, and many places to learn.

This news story is making the rounds, and ZOMG it totes proves that higher education is a totes ripoff, I totes tole ya…except why, exactly, we need a ranking system to explain to us that people who major in art, education, and the humanities at tiny second-tier schools are worse off is a bit beyond me. We know this. We’ve known this for years. We pay teachers shit salaries. Artists struggle. The humanities have been a luxury item for decades.

But, hey, uncovering the major shocking factoid that a degree in art from Clodhopper University doesn’t pay is super-big news. Save all that money (that you don’t have) and put the money in stocks. Because, you know, the people who wind up going to Clodhopper U had that money sitting around.”Shall I invest in stocks today, or go to community college? I need Slate to tell me.”)

There are any number of conditions under which a person shouldn’t go to college:

1) If you have to get into serious debt to do it and you are looking to college to pay your way out. I don’t know why everybody thinks it is news, or why the people who point it out think of themselves as special geniuses, but getting into massive debt for anything other than an extremely durable asset or a major increase in human capital is not likely to pay out. There are people in the world who can buy $350,000 cellos for fun even though they don’t play; there are people who can buy $350,000 cellos for whom it actually makes good professional sense to do so (professional cellists). For the rest of us, it would be financial idiocy. You wouldn’t buy a washer and dryer at 25 percent interest. You might at 2 percent. To figure that out, you do the math against the laundry mat. I wish higher education were free for everybody who had the talent, motivation, and interest. But it’s not, so do the math.

If you want to be in college because it’s fun to learn, you know what you want, and you can do it without getting into unrecoverable debt, or you don’t mind the debt, then that’s another thing entirely.

2) If you don’t want to go. I am not listening to any wah-wah about “My mom and dad are making me go.” Please. Get a spine. If you really, seriously have no idea what you want to do and you don’t want to continue your education, then ask them to help you by fronting your first month’s, last month’s and a deposit on an apartment of your own and then get out there and hustle if you think you’d rather do that. College will still be there if you think you want it later, and you might find you like doing something else enough to stick with it without going.

And parents, OMG, please don’t force your kids to go to college by refusing to help them get set up on their own. I am 100 percent behind saying “no” if the answer to not going to college alternative involves kids who think they are going to sponge off you indefinitely. But a person in college who doesn’t want to be there will find a dozen ways to not get anything out of being there, and in the mean time, you are writing tuition checks. So yeah, if little Bobby doesn’t want to do anything besides smoke pot and play video games, you have to realize there is really nobody at college who will force him to do anything besides smoke pot and pay video games. Do you want to pay tuition while he does that, or would you rather not?

I’m sick and tired of hearing about how “college isn’t worth it” when people send wee Bobby to college because he isn’t “ready” to live on his own and, thus, should go to college. That is insanity. The drug trade is alive and well on college campuses, binge drinking is everywhere, and nobody will force wee Bobby to grow up in college. Most colleges and universities are terrible, and exceedingly expensive, babysitters.

3) If a tech libertarian bazillionaire gives you $100,000 to start up your own company. By all means. Again, if it doesn’t work out, college will still be there if you blow through your $100K and fail. You can learn in many places.

4) If you can get the training you want on the job and you can get hired. Why not? College is really fun, but if you can apprentice with somebody and it’s something you want to do–again, college will be there later if you don’t like what you are doing. I repeat: you can learn in many places, and if you do not want to be college, then figure out it on your own. Again, you may find you like being apprenticed to a carpenter, electrician, or hairdresser. Every plumber who has come to my house seems to be genuinely happy in his or her work. That’s the idea. Making a decent living doing something you don’t mind getting up to do strikes me as close to heaven as anybody but the extremely fortunate get. You don’t know what you want until you try many things. And once you learn how to do something, you can, if you are entrepreneurial, start your own business.

I’m not the sort of person who thinks every university needs to survive to the end of the 21st century. I think there are enough people to support what I do. I believe in markets. If I find myself out of a job, I’ll have to do something else. No clue what. But I am going to barf if I hear any more about the “higher education bubble” or any more whining about “having to go to college.” You want to go to college, great. You don’t want to? Don’t. Lots of people do fine if they don’t; lots of people fail if they do–and vice versa. The general numbers about being better or worse off for going to college are general numbers and don’t tell you your future, it’s as simple as that. You could be the person who majors in music and who winds up starting a multi-million dollar label. Or the person who winds up teaching piano at an elementary school. One is more likely than the other, but still.