Getting Shafted by the College Education

by Alexander Heyne · 16 comments

It used to be that if you worked hard, you were guaranteed a certain kind of life.  There are reasons success is no longer a straight shot.”

- Adam Davidson, in a NYtimes article called When Did the Rules Change? 

Young people are starting to realize that hard work is the bare minimum these days.

The problem is that a lot of us also feel entitled to the whole damn world.

I worked hard, got my college degree, worked hard at my first job, quit it and moved onto another one, and in general did everything right.

But I’m not where I want to be.  So what gives?

I hear this pretty much every day from friends, but the truth is this: A college degree ensures very little now.

I’m going to compare two pieces of conventional advice:

The first recommends “maybe” going for your Master’s because it is the new Bachelor’s.

The other seeks to eliminate the stereotype of formal credentials being the be-all end-all, and instead emphasizes one other key trait of highly successful people. 

The Devil and the Angel

The closing words of article one go like this:

“The rest of us, meanwhile, should go to school, learn some skills and prepare for a rocky road.”

Article two ends like this:

“I’ll leave you with a simple question: What barriers, check-boxes, and credentials do you believe in that are keeping you from the jobs, opportunity, and success you desire? As you’ve seen, nearly all these barriers can be sidestepped, ignored, or hacked.  It just takes some creativity and a few months of work. What’s holding you back?”

The reason why I share these two closing remarks is that they represent the most common polarized views towards education in society today:

  1. [The ‘White Folks’ where I live]: Go to college, go to more college, get a job, get a bigger job, and keep at it.
  2. [Hustlers]: Make connections, make connections, make connections, learn skills, be useful and get hooked up.

It ain’t the good ‘ol days anymore.  

Playing by the rules and working hard doesn’t necessarily get you anything anymore.

Article 1 talks about how many of the low-skilled jobs are being replaced by machinery and computers, and that it’s causing huge unemployment issues.

A while back I was reading The Next Millionaires and had my eyes opened regarding this whole “technology is shafting the unskilled work force” thing.

Pilzner talk about a small hypothetical fishing village where 10 men are fishermen.  Their daily requirements are met, they can feed their families, and they have surpassed the basic needs level of Maslow’s hierarchy.

But one innovative fisherman invents a net that can catch 5x as much food as he used to.  Suddenly, 5 fishermen are out of work and have nothing to do.  Unemployment skyrockets.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? Well, what do the other 5 fishermen do? They’re forced to find other jobs – become teachers, doctors, farmers, or other workers.

Systems and machinery and advances in technology aren’t shafting those of us youth.  They are just forcing us to adapt – and adaptation is the essence of our species.

So how can we adapt to being easily adapt to this change in demands?

  1. Get really specialized
  2. Innovate

Most people only assume there is one option, which forever entails working and pursuing — specialize specialize specialize.

Sure, go ahead and spend 2-3-4-5 more years at university because you think it’ll help you get a leg up.

Or how about this — create something new.  

Innovation and adaptability trump specialization in our new economy.  Not to mention that specialization leaves you very few options in the event that it doesn’t work out.

—————————–

Career Advice is on its Way Out

“Go to school, learn some skills and prepare for a rocky road.”

Why is it that so few people actually offer helpful advice? We spend hours arguing over how education isn’t worth as much as it used to… and then say “well, you should still do it anyway!” and offer no alternatives.

Answer: because most people haven’t tried the other paths.  They haven’t gone for the adventures, sought out the risks, and lived boldly. Of course they can’t advise you honestly.

You don’t want to be like me: one resume out of the 50 million just circulating and being submitted to career builder, monster.com or craigslist waiting to get sorted through or rejected.

Why? Seth Godin said it better than I ever will be able to: Why Bother Having a Resume:

In the last few days, I’ve heard from top students at Cornell and other universities about my internship

It must have been posted in some office or on a site, because each of the applications is just a resume. No real cover letter, no attempt at self marketing. Sort of, “here are the facts about me, please put me in the pile.”

This is controversial, but here goes: I think if you’re remarkable, amazing or just plain spectacular, you probably shouldn’t have a resume at all.

Not just for my little internship, but in general. Great people shouldn’t have a resume.

Here’s why: A resume is an excuse to reject you. Once you send me your resume, I can say, “oh, they’re missing this or they’re missing that,” and boom, you’re out.

Having a resume begs for you to go into that big machine that looks for relevant keywords, and begs for you to get a job as a cog in a giant machine. Just more fodder for the corporate behemoth. That might be fine for average folks looking for an average job, but is that what you deserve?

If you don’t have a resume, what do you have?

How about three extraordinary letters of recommendation from people the employer knows or respects?
Or a sophisticated project they can see or touch?
Or a reputation that precedes you?
Or a blog that is so compelling and insightful that they have no choice but to follow up?

Some say, “well, that’s fine, but I don’t have those.”

Yeah, that’s my point. If you don’t have those, why do you think you are  remarkable, amazing or just plain spectacular? It sounds to me like if you don’t have those, you’ve been brainwashed into acting like you’re sort of ordinary.

Great jobs, world class jobs, jobs people kill for… those jobs don’t get filled by people emailing in resumes.

Ever.

[Emphasis mine]

The problem with us college grads is that we’re bred to be cogs in a machine.  We’re created, designed, selectively cultivated and grown to be nice little form-fitting puzzle pieces.

But unfortunately the puzzle has changed, and now we’re outdated – pieces no longer fitting.

————————-

Play it Smart and Ditch the Competition

The purpose of this article is to even the playing field for you, without the BA, MA or MBA, and without the student debt.  You can get those degrees for other reasons.  But never again should you feel that they’ll give you a massive advantage in job searches or economic opportunity. For your typical job search, those advantages are massively overhyped.  They can be sidestepped, outsmarted, and overcome.” 

We cogs in the machine are usually advised to think one way – work harder.  We’re never advised to be innovative, to work smarter, to outsmart the competition or beat / cheat the machine.

But so many college grads are stuck in the rut of assuming formal education – university or a job – is the only way to work your way up.

Umm. Self-education anyone? Continuing education anyone? Books, classes and seminars anyone?

Thriving in the 21st century means ditching the idea of “playing fair.” That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re cheating anyone – it just seeks to get rid of this outdated idea of the honest hard working laborer.

Forget honesty and forget being hard working.  They just aren’t good enough anymore.

Be new.  And be you.

Quitting the Formal Job Market

After returning from China, I really realized the power of connections. Guanxi (connections) runs the entire country – everything from getting a passport (ever) to getting out of jail scott-free for a crime you really did commit.

I came back to the US and realized my connections were weak at best – realistically, almost non-existent.

So when I went to apply for jobs I didn’t have a strong network to ask through, and realized that I fell into the dreaded pile of resumes being fed into Craigslist.

That’s when I realized that most jobs I had previously came via people I knew.  I imagine the rest of the world works that way too.  It’s called the informal job market, and it’s how most positions are filled.

And then I came across this article on Tim Ferris’ blog (This is article #2 by the way): 8 Steps to Getting What You Want… Without Formal Credentials.

There’s no reason for me to really re-cap, as you should go over and read the post immediately, but essentially it details the power of networking for the right reasons, as well as an emphasis on learning a new skill you don’t already know.

This people-you-know and skills-you-know as currency is constantly showing up everywhere I turn.

In fact, Paul Zane Pilzer’s formula for wealth in the 21st century (from his book The Next Millionaires) goes like this:

Wealth = P X T

  • P = Resources (Originally things like gold, now = people you know)
  • T = Skills you know

He goes on:

“Today, your success in business depends largely on the next, third set of skills: your adapting skills. What these boil down to is the ability with which you learn new things—which is the single most important skill for any person starting a business today.”

The people you know and the skills you have.  And your ability to rapidly learn and adapt in this new economic world.

It’s no longer a straight shot to success anymore, and the time of the honest hard worker is dead.

It’s time to ditch the competition. Are you ready?

————————-

Resources to help you get started:

Uncollege

  • Uncollege “isn’t just an idea or a website. It’s a movement. It’s a lifestyle. We believe that college isn’t the only path to success. UnCollege is a social movement changing the notion that going to college is the only path to success. We empower students to hack their education through resources, writing and workshops. We believe that everyone can live an UnCollege life by hacking their education.”

David Crandall’s Anti-Resume Manifesto

The Dwindling Power of a College Degree

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Bryan Weller December 14, 2011 at 7:17 am

I know exactly what you mean. I went and got a Masters just cause I thought it would look good on a resume. Has done nothing for me. I clearly need to find a better path.

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afheyne December 14, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Bryan,

Yeah I spent a lot of time (more than a year) thinking about whether to go back for my Master’s (since it’s the thing to do, when you don’t know what you do these days).

I decided not to, for the time being, just because I couldn’t justify spending the time or money without knowing 100% what I wanted to do.

What are you up to now?

Alex

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Mel December 15, 2011 at 4:41 am

This post came at exactly the right time.
I’m currently finishing up my bachelor’s, and have picked a Master’s… but only because I feel like I need one, not because the subject genuinely holds any decent amount of my interest.
It’s just a general feeling of anxiety about ending up in a position where you can pay your bills, mortgage, have some money for when you’re old… I imagine many people have the same. Of course all this does in the present is make you miserable, and all it does in the future is MAYBE get you some money if you make it through the resume raffle.

I don’t want a crappy 9-to-5 office job. I’m an English major which prepares me for absolutely nothing, especially when somebody gets a look at my grades and sees and the incredibly bad scores I got when I was fighting off depression. So I’ve been in a panic about what I’m going to do.
That’s why this article and the links in it came at exactly the right time :)
So thanks a lot!
So this

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afheyne December 15, 2011 at 11:06 am

Mel,

You’re welcome :) I hope it helps.

Think of it like this: if you aren’t genuinely interested in the Master’s it’s going to be hard to get focused and really care about that work later.

Also imagine the time spend doing a 1 year master’s versus doing that same amount of working starting your own business.

Just some other options to consider :).

And amen, do whatever you can to avoid the 9-5 office job, I’ve been there and done that, and unfortunately am doing it again – for the last time in my life until my things take off.

Best of luck !

Alex

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Laura Kimball December 19, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Not sure if I fully agree with you that college degrees are a waste of time. I have a BA and MA and while I’m not working in the exact industry I got my MA in (book publishing), everything I learned in grad school has helped me get to where I am today (online communications, marketing, etc.). It all comes down to what do you want to do? And are you getting the tools to help you get there?

Totally agree with you about connections – as my mama said, it’s all who you know. :)

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afheyne December 19, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Lamiki —

I had a hard time closing this post — I definitely wouldn’t say college is a waste of time. I have a B.S. in Biology, and wouldn’t’ change that for anything.

But for some people who can’t afford to go the route of the suburban white kid.. there are other options to think about.

Also, this post is especially related to grad school — that was one thing I pondered for a while. I still pondering doing a Masters, MBA, MD, PhD… but until I can say 100% this is all going to be useful to me, I’m not investing my time or money into it.

It was mostly geared towards people like me who are considering doing their master’s because they are bored and don’t know what to do. Bad idea, in my opinion.

Alex

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Jbird September 7, 2014 at 7:37 am

I just wanted to say, in a few of your posts you seem to hold this stereotype. The “suburban white kid”__ as if white people are the only ones with an education or that can travel. Please stop referring to yourself as this. These are great posts, but are discredited when you do that. I am an African American and was able to go to a university AND study abroad.My parents are lawyers…There are other races in the suburbs just like there are more races in the urban areas who may not(but there are still many who can) be able to afford to go to a university. So people don’t try to go “in the route of a suburban white kid”..they focus on themselves in getting their education. Sorry, but that just came off slightly backhanded and cocky.

Brasilicana January 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm

Although I haven’t used my chemistry degree at all, my college fortunately had a strong focus on developing research, analysis, speaking, and writing skills – particularly the latter – and those have served me extremely well in whatever area I choose. (Not to say that college is the only way to develop those “core” skills, but it certainly helps.)

I did, however, turn down a full scholarship to a PhD program because I just wasn’t passionate about working in chemistry. Instead, I moved to Brazil, met my husband, and became an English teacher and translator. If I’d taken the other path, I’d still be in school!

P.S. Congrats on your ProBlogger post!

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afheyne January 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Brasilicana,

That’s an awesome story, I love seeing people with huge potential (full ride for a PhD!) who choose something else that makes them more happy.

I don’t believe a college education is useless — not at all. But for people who really have that business bug, and who may or may not have the opportunity/money to go to college, it isn’t the only way.

And in fact the real world works in very different ways. A kid who studies business for 4 years maybe learns as much as someone really interested in business in 6 months. There is no comparison. Showing up for classes and deliberately pursuing learning are lifetimes away in efficiency.

That’s awesome about being in Brazil, what city are you in? How do you like the life over there? I’m planning on heading down there in the coming years — gotta learn some spanish or portuguese and Salsa!

Alex

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Brasilicana January 1, 2012 at 3:07 pm

I wonder if it also comes down to self-discipline. For example, an extremely motivated (and passionate!) person can check out books from the library and learn from all the textbooks you’d study in college anyway.

But I suspect that most people don’t have that level of drive – either due to their personality, or due to the fact that they haven’t yet discovered their passion – so we go to college so that someone will “require” us to study :-p

I’m in the city of Salvador in northeastern Brazil, this is the region with the highest concentration of Afro-Brazilian culture. It’s also one of the best places for capoeira (a blend of martial arts and dance), which is what got me into Brazil in the first place.

Do come visit, it’s a wonderful country! You won’t learn salsa though… you’ll learn SAMBA!

Miranda Grimm January 4, 2012 at 1:54 pm

I just dropped out of College….I kicked it goodbye when I realized how far in debt I am going and for what? I was not getting an education I was just getting a degree. But my University is horrible. If I were to start life over again, I would do a lot of things differently and choosing a better college would have been one of them

Anyway, I love the pic you used. Reminding me that there is not one path to happiness. We all have our own paths and while it is the standard and expected to do one thing, sometimes we have to let go of standards and realize what is best for our lives. What will get us to our goal may not be what your parents or anyone else expects.

Take a leap of faith, control your own destiny.

Great post- followed you from ProBlogger BTW

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afheyne January 4, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Miranda,

Yeah college really depends on the person. I mean, more education is better at the end of the day – more to fall back upon. But each person has to assess how useful it’s going to be and if there is any other way to get the same results faster & cheaper. It is mostly a money issue after all.

What’s on your agenda now?

And thanks for stopping by —

Alex

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Bridgett January 17, 2012 at 7:26 am

I really needed this. I’m a lost 50 something who can no longer stand teaching in a school district. In moments of desperation and self doubt I feel sure I need to get another masters or apply to a doc program to make my dreams come true. Yeah, that’s just what I need – a lot more education that allows me to be a low paid people pleaser.

This was a pretty brilliant post – thanks.

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afheyne January 17, 2012 at 11:11 am

My pleasure Bridgett, I hope it helps.

Where I live, people are raised inoculated with the idea that education only = formal education. And this constant rat race for education means we need a MS then a PHD.. then something else. It just doesn’t make sense.

I think there are definitely many different ways to go about it

Alex

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afheyne January 1, 2012 at 3:16 pm

It does really depend.

I check out & read a library book about 1x a week. But that passion / fire is only temporary. Inspiration is fleeting, so you have to have a plan that really gets you fired up day after day, whatever it takes.

Yeah, I totally agree — most people DON’T have that drive, especially young kids going to college. And you’re right they don’t have passion or direction so it’s easy to waste time. College is often a good choice since it provides structure.

Hahah I’d be happy to learn samba and capoeira ! I got into a capoeira battle with some taureg nomads in the sahara desert one night.. I’ll have to tell you about that when I visit!

Alex

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Alexander Heyne September 7, 2014 at 10:57 am

Hi Jbird,

Didn’t mean for it to be that way. I was merely joking about the classic “connecticut white kids” stereotype.

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