By William B. Conerly, Ph.D.
The old advice about college isn’t working anymore. College graduates (as well as “quituates”) face poor job prospects in many cases, as well as high student debt. A college degree is not the meal ticket it once was, especially unfortunate at the time when loans have to be paid off. Young men and women need to consider an alternate path.
I wrote an article for Forbes that got a great deal of attention: “The Six Courses That Will Make Any College Grad Employable.” That advice is still right for a student in college, but let’s address the younger person: Maybe you should not go to college right away.
University professor and social critic Camille Paglia made some very pointed comments about college in a recent Reason TV interview. (The entire interview is long and somewhat rambling, but Paglia makes strong points about the weakness of the current higher education model.) She said that young people need to learn how to make a living.
An alternative model is to get job skills first, then head to college for a broader perspective on the world through science, history, and literature. Here’s how that might work.
There are many jobs that pay decent money with just a little training. The health professions have many, such as phlebotomist (the person who draws blood for tests). Many computer-related jobs can be had with a year or two of applied schooling, or even disciplined self-study. Local community colleges have counselors who are familiar with training requirements for different jobs. The construction trades have apprenticeships with a three-to-five-year path of paid work plus free training, ending in journeyman certification in a trade. Instead of getting out of college with debt, the apprentice ends with no debt, work experience, and a job.
My parents feared that if I didn’t go to college straight from high school, I’d never go, or at least never finish. My father got two years of college under his belt before military service in World War II. When the war was over, he had a wife and family and never went back to school. He didn’t want that to happen to me or my siblings. However, back in the 1950s a college degree was a meal ticket. To acquire one, the student needed some combination of brains, ambition, and family connections, all relevant to career success. There were so few college grads that to have a degree was very distinctive. Today, degrees are much more common and thus mean much less.
Even the most talented high school students should consider going out on their own before heading to college. My parents ran into financial difficulties just as I was finishing high school, and I received no money from them. I probably had a better relationship with them than any of my classmates had with their parents. The difference was that I could do as I pleased, but I sought their counsel and advice. They acknowledged that they had no say-so, because they were not footing the bills. We got along quite well in my college years.
I was very motivated to study economics and make a career in the field, but many others go to college without such a clear goal. College is simply too expensive, though, for a find-yourself experience. You can find yourself with positive cash flow working a job.
After the young person has a starting job, it’s time to think about education. It’s not easy to work full time and go to school part-time, but plenty of people do it. Starting a family later in life helps. Learning a construction trade makes a lot of sense for an 18-year-old. Working in hard labor makes less sense 30 years later. Before the body objects to carrying heavy loads, it’s time to transition to carrying a clipboard. More schooling gets the tradesman into management, estimating, or sales.
“Follow your passion” is common advice, but often dangerous advice. If your passion is finance or computer programming, I heartily agree. One can make a good living while having fun. If, however, your passion is Roman history, it’s going to be very tough. The solution is to find a way to earn a living while keeping your passion as a hobby. I know people who work full time and paint in their spare time. One guy, whom I’ve written about regarding business models in art, is transitioning from art-as-a-hobby to art-as-a-profession. He is making the transition with both money in the bank and a good head for business, which help tremendously to succeed as an artist.
A technical writer I once worked with quit her corporate job to wait tables in a restaurant. I was mystified, but she explained that the job had been great for producing volumes of boring text, which helped her write clear prose. But it was time for her to pursue her passion of writing fiction, the next great American novel. She needed to make money, but have more time for her own writing. She also needed a job that was less intellectually challenging, so that she could go home to a pretty cerebral activity. Waiting tables fit the bill. It has a fairly high hourly rate, but bad hours and part-time work. Jobs like this work well for people trying to balance passion and money.
One final way to look at college uses an economist’s approach. Some purchases are consumer goods, motivated by pleasure. Think movies, party dresses, vacations. Other purchases are investment goods. For a company, this includes factory equipment, trucks, or office buildings. For a family, an investment might be a washing machine (avoiding putting quarters in a laundromat), a basic car (to get to work in), or a house (to avoid paying rent). Borrowing money for an investment can be okay, but borrowing for a pure consumption good is not smart. Now, what is college? A person majoring in engineering is buying an investment good. A person studying Russian literature is buying a consumption good. Borrowing for a pure consumption good does not make sense.
This advice is doubly important for the poorly performing student. College requires even more self-discipline than high school. Unless there is a major change, the poor high school student becomes not a college graduate but rather a flunktuate.
College is great for some people just out of high school, and great at a later time for others, and a very bad idea for yet others. Every high school student should consider work options before embarking on an expensive college experience.
William B. Conerly, Ph.D. is the principal of Conerly Consulting, an economic and financial consulting firm, and chairman of the board of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market research center. A version of this article was originally published on Forbes.com.