College: is it worthless?

Is getting a college degree worthless?

I hear bad things even from people who graduated successfully. This sums up most most of what my peers tell me. Basically all I hear is:

  • Too expensive

  • Get a degree in something, works in a completely different field unrelated to what you studied

  • They won’t mind making you pay thousands of dollars for programs that won’t get you a job

  • Overpriced books

  • Fun for parties and networking though

What are your experiences?

I think it probably depends on what you want out of it… But I think many employers are getting to the point that they want to see a higher education degree, even if the job is not in your field. Good grades, etc, show a commitment to hard work, and being able to work within time constraints. So even if you are, say, getting a job in the tech sector, a humanities degree will make you look good.

I think the problem might be that many colleges and universities have become pretty subject to the vagaries of the market, meaning they need to be shown to be “profitable” in terms of a bottom line, but not all things that are valuable can be shown to be profitable. I’m getting a phd, and I’ll end up writing a couple of books over my life, at least, but its doubtful that it will make me any money - (if I’m lucky, that is, knock on wood), I’ll have a job teaching which pays my way, and the work I do in terms of scholarship (though still expected by my employer), will be the icing on the cake. If I look good in my field, my employer looks good, so they should support my research and give me time off for that. But then again, I might end up at a job with a heavy teaching load and less time for my own work.

Maybe its time to draw a firmer line between jobs that need specific types of training and jobs that are more in tune with a traditional college education, meaning a liberal arts education? Going into a class room and having interesting discussions about any number of topics that might not be related to your future job prospects does I think improve your quality of life - knowing lots of interesting things is just good for you, I’d argue (though I’m biased, as a phd candidate). some argue that you can get the same education just by being a good reader, and that’s I think mostly true, but I think being able to learn something from an expert in a field (and I don’t just mean tenured faculty either - some of my best courses as an undergrad were actually taught by PhD candidates, who are excited about teaching and actually give a shit - hell, I’m a phd candidate and I actually give a shit about the kids in my classes), who might be able to give you a different perspective and turn you on to books you might not have otherwise read, because they aren’t sitting in Barnes and Noble in a prominent place, has value. Being able to understand how to properly do research and to accurately vet the sources you find has value. Being able to hold up your end in a discussion or debate, while learning to understand the other side of that debate has value. Being able to write a convincing paper on a number of topics has value. But, then again, you might be able to get all this type of trying with self-directed study, and a great set of smart friends.

I have personally found it worth going to college. I understand that despite this… over a decade now of hard work… I might get to the end of this and not get the kind of job I want, but I’ll be able to get something that will probably pay me pretty well. And I’ve been very lucky to be able to do all this, anyway.

TL;DR College is what you make of it. You can learn interesting things, make good connections, and have some fun along the way… But you can also end up with a useless degree and a heap of debt, and a bunch of textbooks you paid too much for that you’ll probably never use again. Overall, I’d say what you get out of it, is what you put into it. Even if you end up doing something not related to your field, if you worked hard in your classes, you’ll probably come away with something worthwhile…

[edited for clarity]


I never considered not going to university, but I scraped into the last year or so where students weren’t charged tuition fees in the UK, even if my maintenance grants were means tested out of existence. Still very expensive anyway, but I was lucky enough to have parents who had saved for my sister and I to go our whole lives.

I’m an engineer, I couldn’t have got the jobs I have had without my degree (could have done in the past though - I’ve worked with good engineers without degrees). Simply no option, so if I wasn’t prepared to take on the expense now, I’d have to choose a different career. Even though I don’t use a lot of what of I was taught day to day, I still think it was valuable and enjoyed it, and was lucky enough to have an employer who funded a Masters degree for me. Personally, I adore studying and learning.

On top of the education, I got an awful lot out of living away from home for three years, did a lot of growing up. I wasn’t a crazy partier, but made some good friends


I think that’s an important part too. Learning how to be an adult, how to manage your time, how to take care of yourself away from your parents.

These are two completely different questions. It seems to me that there is always an obvious value to resources for learning whatever you need to know. But a degree is only recognition of your achievements after the fact, and represents a back-asswards motivation for learning. It could be considered analogous to the difference in value between athletic activity and winning an award for it. The award could only be meaningful if the activity itself is worthwhile. Meanwhile, the benchmarks for achievement are one’s own progress.

What I think is worthless is making an academic degree a goal rather than accepting it in recognition of what one has already accomplished. The conflicting motivations seem to center around whether one defines “education” as actual learning, or as a means to impress other people. This I think is symptomatic of a gullible culture which is more concerned with personal reputation than it is with empirical evidence. IMO anyone with a sincere interest will concentrate more upon evidence of what you actually know instead of what others say about you.


I spent several years as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, working towards an English major and philosophy minor. Between depression, a loss of faith in myself and in the institution, and financial difficulties, I eventually gave up my pursuit of a degree as hopeless.

Years later, as part of a process of rebuilding my life, with my partner’s support and encouragement, I spent a few years at a community college. My original plan was to work through the prerequisites for a computer science degree program, then transfer. I found most of the coursework interesting but surprisingly easy, with the critical exception of calculus; I easily got A’s in courses on programming, system administration, and networking, while spending 90% or more of my study time on calculus, in which I got a C. Barely.

I re-considered my plans, and decided to try to finish a certificate program in Linux system administration, then try to get a job on the strength of that, while my partner went to graduate school in order to restart her career; perhaps I’d go back to college some time after that. A few months after that, I got my current job in IT, where I’ve been for several years now, and my partner did get her graduate degree.

From this account, one might be inclined to draw the conclusion that my liberal arts education was a waste of time, and that my practically-oriented community college courses were my salvation.

However, I know that part of my success in those practical courses was based largely on growing up with regular access to computers, with some past work experience, and with having installed Linux on my desktop at home and monkeying around with it. And, the technical interview for my current job focused on my knowledge of shell scripting and Perl programming – skills I have never actually used on the job. In fact, despite the fact that I’ve got “IT consultant” and “operations engineer” as job titles, I don’t think the technical knowledge I acquired before I started this job was at all relevant. Anyone who is literate, and familiar with using a Windows PC, could do my job.

Meanwhile, I keep looking at job listings for jobs that (claim to) require the skills I was trained for, but require a computer science or engineering degree. You don’t need a computer science degree to configure a Web server running a LAMP stack, and it’s entirely possible to get a CS degree without learning much relevant to practical tasks.

From that, one might be inclined to draw the conclusion that higher education is really just a matter of creating artificial standards for stratifying workers, as a means of social control, so that you do need to get some sort of degree, but the content of what you study is almost irrelevant to your career prospects. I’ve said before that what a four-year degree means is that you’re willing to conform to expectations of middle-class professionalism and that you’re probably in so much debt that you don’t dare rock the boat.

However, from time to time, I run into people I knew as undergraduates at UC Berkeley, and I notice there are some other patterns to take into account.

On the cynical side, a few times I’ve run into people I knew who were English majors, who graduated and moved on to various careers, who don’t seem to have any interest in literature. There was a seminar on John Milton that I gave up on, taking an incomplete; I remember meeting another student from that class, who passed it, who couldn’t remember who John Milton was.

On the other hand: there was my first girlfriend, who went on to become a professional poet; her sharp-witted, viciously sarcastic roommate, who I recently read is now a successful playwright; the two easy-going guys across the hall in my college dorm, one who had a talent for languages who went on to become a lawyer working in a non-profit that assists low-income immigrants from Asia in attaining citizenship, and the other spent years as a labor organizer before going on to become a history professor. Ironically, my best friend for years, with whom I cut ties in part out of frustration with his apathy about politics, went on to become president of a labor union that was formed through a rank-and-file revolt against the bureaucratic sclerosis of an older, larger union. Every now and then I run across a radical left activist with a deep knowledge of theory, who was involved with a small circulation newsletter I’d found a few times on a countertop in the English department office. And there have been several journalists, right and left, that I remember arguing with when they were students.

The conclusion I get from all that is that colleges are corrupted institutions, just as are all major institutions in our society; the purposes they claim to serve are not quite the real purposes they serve. However, with a combination of luck and hard work and sincerity, some people manage to dig through all the bullshit, and jump through the ludicrous flaming rings, and manage to reach the idealized purpose of a liberal arts education.

And just as a final note, from my current perspective as a nominal high-tech worker, who spends many of his nominal working hours reading and participating in political and cultural debates on the Internet, I see a lot of reason to wish for a resurgence of the ideal of a liberal arts education – in particular, valuing knowing the basic methods of cultural criticism and social science as well as natural science and engineering. But that, of course, also depends upon access to leisure, in both the classical and contemporary senses.



I thought you might enjoy this article about a great book college in Chicago… it’s been listed as one of the worst colleges in America, but I think Jon Ronson makes a strong case that it offers something worthwhile, none the less. The question is what do you want out of an education - is it only about how it positions you in the job market, or is it more about learning something worthwhile (to be fair, I think you can get both, but it’s increasingly hard to do so):

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Thanks for that! I’d never heard of Shimer, but it sounds ideal. This “fast-paced Socratic dialogue” sounds like what I hope for in a school, and in daily life. The problem with these rankings I think is that they are based upon “graduation”, i.e. the primacy of degree programs. Most (practically all?) colleges seem to be focused upon structuring the educational experience this way. And many people simply don’t immerse themselves so deeply in the learning process without the promise of a degree. Why bother learning if somebody’s not going to reward you for it? Gee… maybe because it’s your mind, and your culture, which you then need to live in?

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Yeah, this sounds awesome too. But I think all too often, these options are really only available to a select few. It’s much easier to go through a program like this if you don’t have to worry about a living at the end of it… Which is incredibly sad to me, because it means that fewer people have options like this.

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I think that the popular conception of “making a living” is something of a scam, and preferably avoided. The goal really seems to be not so much people being encouraged to provide vital goods and services, but rather simply to keep most people busy. The “value” placed upon work is often institutionally entrenched and nonsensical. For instance, my previous (and perhaps final) “real job” was being quite well paid doing administrative work for a wine and liquor distribution company - whilst my ex-spouse was saving lives as a volunteer EMT who the municipality refused to pay for, because “somebody will do it”. Perpetuating this “to pay the bills” would IMO have been socially irresponsible. But, sadly, I find it typical of the priorities encountered when money is made a goal instead of a tool.

People easily forget or dismiss that participating in a system such as this, or even the separate problem of worrying about it, are a choice. It is easier to defer the responsibility onto others in the world at large and deny that this is one’s choice to make. What I have chosen to do is deal with people only as equals. If anybody needs to know about me, who I am, and what I have to offer, they can discuss this with me. If they require some hierarchy of people to validate me, then they are not people who I should be involved with. Creating culture in the margins with some autonomy seems more genuinely “meritocratic” than unthinking subordination to the systems of others. Whether I survive it or not, this is perfectly equitable,


What’s the alternative to wage labor at this point? How is it not the only game in town at this point? My larger point is partial that those who can “drop out” of the system are in a advantageous positon within the power structure already. I don’t think that is necessarily deferring responsibility onto others, it is part of realty. Its hard to disconnect work and money precisely because labor is so connected to wage labor. When all you have to sell is your labor, what are the alternatives? Let’s not romanticize outsider status, because often that status is tough on the individuals who are social outsiders.

FWIW, I do agree that you can eek out survival within the margins, but again, I think this is not an option available to all or even many. It tends to be middle class, white, more often than not males who can make this work. All too often, the care of children and the elderly falls on women, and black men are often subject to unfair scrutiny by the police through our racist criminal justice system.

And I’m not making an indictment against you, because I don’t know your race/gender/sexual orientation, etc. I am just pointing out that not everyone has access to the same set of choices… by that I mean that we can make those choices, but the consequences are more severe for some than others. The way I see it, the only way through here is together.


Uh, my college degree is in exactly what my business card says, and it’s a hard science. I paid off my loans over 15 years, including some deferments and direct repayments from my post-undergrad AmeriCorps service. I took bad jobs in my field after college. And rose through the ranks until I had the skillset I wished to have.

Recently I have gone into business for myself, and I do well with oversight consulting on jobs I used to be the hourly grunt (just out of college, and paying her/his dues while hopefully learning the trade) doing the bulk of the work on.

A good attitude and knowing that a college degree is a way to access additional experience, but not ever a substitute for one minute of it.

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College as an investment in earning potential is useless unless you know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life. At 17-19 years of age you can not possibly know.

College if you want to learn things is great.


Yeah, a high degree will get your foot in the door in many cases, even in a field that’s totally unrelated to yours, and you will get paid higher than those who don’t have a higher degree. I can see that these are advantages. But the cost is really high, unless you live in France or Canada…

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Agreed. Even the cost of a public university is sky-rocketing, especially for a higher degree (MAs and PhDs). It’s sad because it means that people with less means have less of a chance to become a part of the academy. That’s bad for the academy. Although, there are more opportunities for expressing oneself outside the academy and for creating knowledge for the world. So there is that aspect to consider. I think it’s an important thing to think about, whether or not the systems we live within are worth preserving.

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