The Problem with Education


In my previous 2 posts in this series, we’ve talked about ignoring low expectations, and discovering your passions and skills. Now we need to talk about refining those passions and skills into something valuable that people will pay you for through different types of education and experience, both inside and outside the classroom.

The conventional route to getting an education, a comfortable job, and living happily ever after is proving to be incredibly unsuccessful for a lot of people, perhaps even most people, nowadays. Graduating with the equivalent of a mortgage on a house in student loans, with nothing to show for it, and no job prospects is slowly becoming the ‘new normal’ for college graduates today.

Our parents and grandparents grew up in a world where you could ‘make it’ with just a high school degree. Out of high school, people were getting jobs, marrying and raising families, and retiring comfortably without a college degree.

Today, the average age that people get married is much higher, most young people are delaying family life because they can’t get their professional career off the ground, they are living at home up until their 30′s, and working low-paying jobs to pay off their student loan debt that got them a degree, and not much else.

Steve Larosiliere is founder of Stoked Mentoring. He writes the following for the Huffington Post:

Simply going to college, attending classes and obtaining a degree no longer cuts it for any youth, especially immigrant and low-income, to make it in today’s job market. We need a new paradigm. We need a platform for allowing young people to have access to knowledge, resources and opportunities without putting them in severe debt.

Total student loan debt in the US recently surpassed 1 trillion dollars. Now, it would be one thing if college was expensive, but had a good payoff. If spending upwards of $80,000 on a college education was ‘worth it’, we’d all be in much better shape. Even $50,000 wouldn’t be so bad if you made that much your first year out of school. The data, however, is proving that a college degree is becoming increasingly less valuable.

Bloomberg Businessweek did an ROI (return on investment) analysis on college education, and their findings are quite shocking.

On average, all 853 schools in this year’s ranking only graduate about 59 percent of their students, and less than two-thirds of those receive their degrees in four years.


There are 191 schools where graduates had negative ROI. At Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, where only one out of three students graduates in six years, in-state grads earned $289,000 less over 30 years than a high school graduate earning at the 75th percentile, after deducting the cost of the degree. For out-of-state graduates, the figure is $338,000 less.


At all 191 schools with negative ROI, graduates actually fared worse than those who dropped out after a few years—the financial benefit of earning a degree was so meager that the added expense it entailed was simply not worth it. At these schools, at least from an ROI perspective, dropping out was the smartest thing to do.

To further illustrate this point, consider that about 284,000 Americans with college degrees were working minimum wage jobs last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. A report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity says nearly half of the nation’s recent college graduates work jobs that don’t require a degree.

There are two aspects of a college education; the education itself, and the degree. The degree is supposed to be the proof of the education;  it is supposed to show employers that you know what you claim to know. So, is college really pumping tens of thousands of dollars worth of knowledge into our brains?

A closer look reveals that college students really aren’t learning much at all during their 4-6 year education. The Pacific Standard reports:

According to a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning On College Campuses, college students are frittering away their time at an astonishing rate. And the result, it shows, is that 45 percent of undergraduates in a survey of 29 colleges and universities nationwide showed no improvement in critical-thinking scores at the end of their sophomore year in 2007, compared to their scores as entering freshmen. At the end of their senior year, after four years of college instruction, 36 percent still had made no gains in critical thinking.


“Slacker” students are nothing new. But the picture from Academically Adrift is one of pervasive distraction in the halls of higher learning, of disengaged students and a faculty too busy with research to demand much of them.


“We found a set of conditions suggesting that something indeed is seriously amiss in U.S. higher education,” says Richard Arum, a co-author and a sociologist at New York University. “We found that gains in student performance are disturbingly low. Students and faculty and administrators share equally in the blame.


Arum and co-author Josipa Roksa, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, found that undergrads study only 13 hours per week, on average, or less than two hours per day in a typical semester. That’s half as much as their peers studied in the early 1960s. Today’s college students spend more than 80 percent of their time, on average, on work, clubs, fraternities, sororities, sports, volunteering, watching TV, exercising, socializing, playing on their computers and sleeping.


Of more than 3,000 full-time undergraduates in the study, 50 percent took five or fewer classes over their entire four years of college in which they were required to write more than 20 pages per semester. Twenty percent took five or fewer classes requiring more than 40 pages of reading per week. They met with a professor outside of class only once a month, on average.

Simply put, the bar has been lowered to allow the maximum amount of people to graduate with a college degree. Necessarily, this means the quality of a college education has been decreased dramatically over time. It’s not hard to graduate with a degree if you go to class, do a minimal amount of studying, and show up for the tests. The quality of the education in most colleges is pathetic in comparison to what you are paying for it. This is madness.

With the exorbitant price of a college degree nowadays, not only is your return on investment incredibly low, but the quality of the education itself is also incredibly low. If you simply look at the hard facts, it’s easy to get the sense that college simply isn’t worth all the hassle and money any more.

Here’s even more depressing news; according to Steven Rothberg, founder of the job website in Minneapolis, more than 80% of job openings are actually unlisted.

This means that, after you spend 4-6 years, and go into all that debt getting your nearly-worthless degree, unless you already have a network of connections, you’re stuck battling an enormous amount of other people in your same position for the same 20% of the job market. Yikes.

In my view, the inherent problem with formal education is that a classroom is limited to teaching you to memorize facts about the world, and then to repeat them successfully so that you can eventually get a letter grade on a test. The test measures how well you memorized facts or formulas to come to a single correct answer.

Learning, and memorization are completely different things. A classroom does not teach you how to think or analyze. You learn those on your own through taking on real challenges, and forming your own solutions to problems you face in your everyday life. College is a safe, artificial, sterile, orderly environment. For many, it’s simply a way to procrastinate, and push off “real life” for as long as possible. All you have to do is show up a few hours a day, and repeat the information you’ve memorized. It’s easy living.

Formal education is not set up to teach you how to think critically, analyze, identify your passions, and then guide you on how to pursue them. That’s not it’s job. Schools are tasked simply with getting you to memorize enough facts and formulas to meet an arbitrary standard so you can progress to the next grade level. Someone in an office somewhere has decided what you should learn, what a grade level is, which grade level you should be at, and you can either meet those narrowly-defined standards, or you are destined for failure.

Regardless of what you are actually learning outside the classroom, the only thing that matters is if you memorize what they want you to, or not. I don’t mean to be negative or over-critical, I am just pointing out an evident reality. If you rely on the formal education system to prepare you for “real life”, you will be sorely disappointed when you graduate.

Chances are that when you graduate, you won’t be intelligent or wise, you’ll just be “educated”.

For someone like me who saw no reason to memorize the facts and formulas in the classroom, school has been incredibly frustrating my whole life. Leonardo da Vinci once wrote, “Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.”

If you’re like me, you may feel like a round peg that the education system tried to cram into a square hole, because that’s all it knows how to do. I have learned infinitely more on my own than I have ever learned from a textbook or a lecture. I heavily relate to this famous statement made by Mark Twain, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” And this one by Albert Einstein, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school”.

The good thing about learning is that you don’t have to pay for it, or sit in a class. You already do it. For free.

Ask yourself this question; what are you obsessed with? What have you learned about your obsession on your own time, through books, websites, documentaries, experiences, etc.? What interests or skills do you pursue outside of the classroom? No one told you to go learn those things. You went and learned them on your own because you were naturally interested.

That is something that cannot be taught in a classroom. It already exists. It can only be fostered and directed; too often, though, it is crushed and tamed in the classroom setting, and your curiosity and individuality are discouraged, and replaced by busy work and mindless regurgitation of facts and formulas. You’re trained to conform, to be obedient, silent, and to respond to cues such as bells and whistles.

This simply means you’ll be perfectly equipped for an office job where you are expected to sit silently and obediently, are told when to be, and where, and are required perform repetitive tasks over and over everyday. In that sense, school is perfect training for the workplace.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that formal education is all bad. If you don’t know how to acquire the skills and knowledge you need for your chosen career, a formal education can be helpful. However, a formal education is only one way to acquire the skills and knowledge you will need to navigate life, and it tends to be extremely rigid.

What if you could form your own education by drawing from the helpful parts of a formal education, and supplement them with your own natural curiosity and interests? What if instead of thinking about education as the time you spend between the four walls of a school, you turned the entire world into your classroom? Sound too pie-in-the-sky for you? Guess what, you already do it. You didn’t take a class to learn how to play that video game, did you?

For a lot of college students, such as myself, formal education is simply a series of boring, slow, expensive, seemingly endless hoops that we must jump through in order to progress in life. Fighting to break out of this system and gain a little freedom leads to being ostracized, harshly disciplined, humiliated, and sometimes even being psychologically diagnosed and treated.

Now that we’ve adequately identified the problems with a college education, and formal education in general, we need to find the solution. How do you get the education and credentials you need to compete in the job market, without going into a huge amount of debt, and how do you stand out among all the other college grads out there?

Even if you stay in school, there is a lot more you are going to have to do aside from sitting in classes, taking tests, and getting that degree in order to stand out.

The key here is to view a formal education as one asset among many, and not to rely on it entirely for success. That one slight change in your mindset toward a formal education will completely change your life.

It is true that you can learn everything you will need for your chosen career for free online, from mentors, or from books. College is not necessary in order to gain knowledge. In the future, free, online education will make the expensive, antiquated, formal education system obsolete.

I write for an organization called UnCollege. Part of the goal of UnCollege is to assist this wave of change. It is a social movement designed to help you hack your education.

One of the biggest trends in entrepreneurship today is the concept of “disrupting” industries that are entrenched in older ways of doing things when consumers desire progress and innovation. To “disrupt” an industry is to apply new, exciting, improved ideas to that industry in an attempt to topple your competition. In my view, there is no industry more ripe for disruption than the education industry.

My passion is to help others disrupt their educations so they can be fully prepared for the constantly evolving world they are entering, without accruing a mountain of student loan debt in the process.

Hopefully, one day soon, everyone will realize that there’s nothing magical about a college education. Some people seem to think that professors are some kind of almighty wizards who hold the key to unlock the secret realm of learning. That is a farce. Professors are simply people who are knowledgeable about a topic who repeat their favorite parts of the textbook in a classroom, and test you on whether you memorized it or not.

You can pick up that same textbook, or find it on the internet, and read all of it without having it filtered to you through the professor’s bias, and learn much more than you would from a PowerPoint presentation in the classroom. The only real advantages that college gives you are a curriculum that has already been prepared in advance for you, access to the learning wizards (professors and tutors), some resources such as lab equipment and computers, and a piece of paper that proves you know something (a degree).

Unless you are dead-set on a highly specialized, regulated field like a doctor, bio-medical engineer, petroleum engineer, pharmacist or lawyer, chemist, etc., you do not need a college to acquire the knowledge you need. If your goal is knowledge, then there are plenty of free options, and you can learn anything you want without ever paying tuition or stepping into a classroom. However, if your goal is a piece of paper that you can show to employers to prove you know something, then you’ll have to stay in school. Unfortunately, too many employers today still require that piece of paper.

If you were an employer, would you rather hire a person who spent their free time partying in college, and barely scraped by with a degree, or someone who is self-motivated enough to learn the skills they need on their own, and has a portfolio of real-world experience to prove it? Unfortunately, too many employers today require a degree to even have a shot at an interview, which automatically disqualifies the self-learners, even though they are more likely to be much more valuable employees.

Employers are starting to realize that those pieces of paper are no longer the best way to measure whether someone is a valuable employee. However, the notion that someone with a college degree is worthy of higher regard than someone who learned the same thing on their own in the real world is deeply flawed, yet still deeply embedded into society.

The problem here is that employers need the proof that you have the skills you need for the job. For a long time, a college degree was an accurate indication of your education and value as an employee because it was a true accomplishment, certified by a respectable institution, that few people were able to attain. Slowly the standards were lowered to allow more and more people to get a college degree.

The more there is of something, the less valuable it is. That is why sand is worth nothing, but gold and diamonds are so valuable. The fact that college degrees are so prevalent means that you no longer stand out if you have a degree. You’re just another grain of sand in the sea. Hopefully this website, along with the UnCollege movement, provides you with the know-how and resources to learn the skills and take the opportunities outside of the classroom that you will need to set yourself apart.

As a self-learner without a college degree, the only way to prove to an employer that you know something is to accomplish projects, and gain real-world experience you can point to as proof. You have to have a “track record”.

More and more, this is becoming an alternative way to get a job without a degree. In the creative and forward-thinking fields of computers and technology, this is a lot easier, and the glass ceiling without a degree is a lot higher. Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Richard Branson, Walt Disney, and Hans Zimmer all busted through that glass ceiling without a college degree by thinking outside the box and taking the unconventional path to success. If you are frustrated by the rigid bureaucracy of formal education, and thrive in unconventional environments, you might want to study, and learn from these men’s lives and how they achieved their success.

However, you will still run into a lot of employers that require a degree, regardless of the field. In my mind, since I can’t change this reality, the logical decision is to have both; the piece of paper, and the real world experience to back it up. This way, I can learn what I want and better myself on my own to stand out among the crowd of college grads, and also be able to compete for jobs that require a college degree.

Another thing to consider is that branching out, learning, and completing projects outside the classroom oftentimes leads to a great job, or an opportunity to start your own business regardless of your education. If the goal of getting a degree is to land a good job, then self-learning can oftentimes be a much better and cheaper way of achieving that same goal. The ‘old-fashioned’ way of getting a job was to get to know someone who is already doing what you want to do, and ask to learn from them. This requires networking, getting to know people, expressing desire and motivation to learn, and convincing them that investing the time to teach you will be worth their while. I will be writing a lot more about this in the future.

Choose whichever path makes the most sense for you. I would strongly encourage you to at least take a semester off if you can, and explore opportunities outside of college. You might discover that you can be more successful outside the rigid, formal education system. You also might discover that you still need the structure and support that a formal education offers. If you decide to go that route, research long and hard to find the cheapest, most efficient way to do it. Far too many people are graduating with a huge amount of debt with no way to pay it off.

I have discovered that there are a few regionally-accredited, online colleges out there that allow unlimited transfer credits, and allow you to test out of an entire degree (or at least most of it) as long as you know the material. They also offer master’s degrees in many fields, but if you want to go to graduate school somewhere else, the bachelor’s degree you received is regionally-accredited, and accepted at graduate schools.

I plan on enrolling in one of these schools, and learning the courses on my own in a fraction of the time, for a fraction of the cost, and then testing out of as much of my degree as I can. It is common for people who study full-time to able to finish an entire bachelor’s degree in 2 years for under $10,000 going this route. That is an awesome way to hack your education, and get that precious piece of paper from a regionally-accredited school the smartest and most efficient way possible.

I will be completing my degree that way, but I also spend plenty of time learning and completing projects outside of ‘school’. For me, putting the two approaches together is the best path for me right now. Not only will I have the piece of paper that proves to employers I know something, but I will also save a ton of time and money, and have a portfolio of real-world work experience that will teach me things a formal education never will, and allow me to stand out among the throngs of college grads out there today.