How to prepare for post-campus America


The demise of the college education is coming fast. It’s clear that college is largely a rip off. At this point, Generation Y is the most in-debt generation in American history largely because of the over-inflated price of a college education. To illustrate this situation, Sannah Kvist took photos of Generation Y with everything they own. One of the photos is above, and it’s a great illustration of post-college disappointment. (There are more photos from Kvist’s project here.)

You can bet that Gen Y won’t let this happen to their kids. And Generation X, whose kids have not yet entered college, is not likely to be wiling to foot the bill for establishment BS, when Gen X has had no patience for establishment BS in the past.

The Atlantic has a great article about what life will be like when there is wide acknowlegement that the college degree is a rip off. Here are some tips about how to prepare.

1. The only college degrees that will be worth getting are from elite schools. In the near future, according to the Atlantic, college education will be dominated by a few top players. Harvard, Yale, MIT, you know them. They are the schools that attract the best of the best and do a great job of sorting through 17 year old kids to find those destined for greatness. Sure, they miss a bunch. But the ones they pick are almost always great. Those schools will continue to thrive because it’s still an honor to be selected by them.

You can tell the Atlantic is on target with this prediction because Benchmark, a Venture Capital firm known for seeing trends and investing in them before everyone else, has invested in Minervae, which is a school expressly for a very select group of students who will use the school’s acceptance as a badge of honor by itself. Does this sound stupid to you? Me too. But I think it affirms that colleges that are not extremely selective will fall to the wayside.

2. Most students will do best getting online badges instead of college degrees. The rest of the schools will probably die. And even if they are not dead when your kid gets to school, they will be close enough to dead that you won’t want to be a part of them.  The non-elite colleges will be replaced with certification programs. Earning a badge, through online education, will be enough to open doors that used to require college degrees. The online badge program will be more specific, more relevant, and more economically viable.

Homeschoolers will start earning badges earlier than kids bogged down with school work based on standardized tests. The more that college degrees become useless to mainstream students, the more likely it is that mainstream students will turn to homeschooling. The burden of standardized testing and standardized learning is justified today by college entrance exams. But without that justification, programs like online badges will make standardized learning look like more of a time suck than it seems to be already.

3. Entrepreneurship will be the best bet for highly motivated students. The Wall Street Journal reports that already, parents are buying kids franchises for college graduation. It makes sense: a job is really valuable today, especially one where you learn a lot. It’s just a short step to realize that a franchise is worth more than a degree, and parents should buy kids a franchise instead of college.

Some investors are so convinced that entrepreneurship is more valuable than school that there’s a $100,000 cash reward for dropping out of school to start a business.

There is very little in business that can be taught in books. The two most important aspects of success in the workplace are being able to learn on your own and having good social skills. Having your own company forces you to do both, every day. So even if entrepreneur is not the final goal, those early years of young adult life are a time for learning to be an adult. And the things entrepreneurship teaches are what people really need to know to go out in the world and be an adult.


29 replies
  1. Katy
    Katy says:

    I was thinking last year that it might be more cost effective to buy my daughter a farm when she turns 18. Or my son, maybe a hotel.

    Seriously — whatever they want real estate-wise, I’d rather buy that than a useless college degree. (And I’m one of those Gen Xers who won’t be funding this bullshit in 10 years when my kids are ready for adulthood)

  2. redrock
    redrock says:

    Ok, I swore not to comment again on the topic of college and graduate school because my opinion is pretty much the opposite of what is written above. It is fine with me to have a different opinion and I happily engage in a civilized discussion. However, the photos by Sannah Kvist, which I think are fabulous and am happy to discover here, were made in Sweden. A country where college is essentially FREE, and the costs are limited to the usual living expenses. Sweden in addition has a well developed apprenticeship system, something sorely missing in the US.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I don’t think you would ever be able to restrain yourself from commenting. You are the most frequent commenter, across both my blogs, by a long shot. And you pretty much always disagree with me.

      That said, this is a very useful comment, about Sweden. Thanks.


      • karelys
        karelys says:

        In my humble, short-sighted, and sore opinion, even if college is free it’s costly. It’s costly because of the time it takes away from building actual experience in the workforce and discovering yourself in a non score life.

        Much of learning about my life outside college/school is that the closest that comes to score card is the employee evaluation. And even that. Everything else, staying up late doing essays, research, etc. is not applicable the same outside of school as it is in it if you don’t work in an area directly to what you studied. And even then.

        Anyway, part of the reason why I wanted to do online school is because I realized that a bachelors is pretty much a paper requirement. And that I was too poor to go in there with a schoolarship/loan and not have to work or work random weird hours in a city far away that I disliked a lot. I didn’t want the dorm life. I wanted to advance in real life (real to me).

        To me, having the online availability was good because in the meantime I worked, I sought out volunteering opportunities in institutions that I thought would be like a “foot in the door.” Perhaps the best I learned is that I would hate my life if I ever worked for that “mental health” institution after college.

        To sum up, even if college is free but you don’t have a job lined up to slide into after graduation it’s very costly in many ways.

        At least from where I stand.

  3. Luke Redd
    Luke Redd says:

    This is a conversation our society badly needs to have, no matter how pissy or protective of the status quo some people want to get. I don’t know if I agree with all of your predictions, but I certainly do agree with the general premise that much of traditional higher education will have to change in a big way or perish. One of the barriers to that change, however, is that so many professions require state licensing (or equivalent), which often means earning a specific type of college or post-secondary degree from an accredited program and accredited institution (it’s own sort of protectionist racket). And the associations for each of those professions lobby successfully to have such requirements written into state law. Of course, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing to want a minimum level of qualifications for professionals like doctors and nurses. But college has definitely become far too expensive. The student debt problem alone is going to bite society hard unless we can come up with a unifying vision of our future and stop holding on to outdated education models that accomplish less and less.

  4. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    A friend in college to be an elementary teacher posts that she must study all weekend to learn “any of the countries, bodies of water, land form, and major cities in the world…”

    She then jokes how it will all leave her brain promptly after the test.

    This is how teachers are trained: learn it short term so we can “track it” long term (i.e. a grade) so you can progress onward and upward in our system, earning the right to keep paying us.

    It’s a slick version of indentured servitude: you pay us to get to work for us, then you incur so much debt that you HAVE TO WORK for us.

    • Lisa S
      Lisa S says:

      Without fail, each one of my education professors “taught to the test.” Took me one semester to realize I needed to get out of that major and find one where a better model was used. After asking around, I found the best prof on campus–and from then on, took nearly every class he had to offer. Ended up with a BS in psychology but learned an amazing amount about teaching (which is why I went to college in the first place). Today I homeschool my kids and owe much of my vision to that one prof. I am incredibly thankful for out-of-the-box and forward-thinking people, Penelope being one, that prof being another.

  5. P Flooers
    P Flooers says:

    I do not have a college fund set up for my unschooling children. I would much sooner buy them land. Don’t get me wrong, I hope they go for themselves. But I don’t care if they don’t.

    I think the single most important event on the road to becoming a fully balanced intelligent responsible adult is having a child. I don’t wish this to be true. I disagree with it as a plan. Yet, I have met very few people able to fully grow up without becoming a parent. The college experience pales in comparison.

    My family is fully supported on the salary of my husband who is an academic. Yet I know, the system is a sham. On the other hand, in terms of national economic development, the university system is a fine one for generating jobs that neither pollute nor oppress. On the whole, a fine thing for our country. Perhaps we need to become more like Sweden–taxed based healthcare and taxed based education. Bring it on!

  6. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    What of Asian parents who still hold a lot of value for education and will probably continue to do so? I think most college/univs. will direct their attention to Asians. What do you think?

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        I read that article a while ago when you commented on Amy Chua’s book and wow. It really opened up a can of worms for me.

        I’ve lived here for 8 yrs (9 now?) and still feel like I don’t fit quite well.

        I am more sensitive to think of immigrants and their experience, or the kids of first generation immigrants who haven’t fully assimilated.

  7. CJ
    CJ says:

    College edu is just like anything else we accomplish or float through. It is entirely what you make of it for it to take on real world meaning. When I say that college is not meant for everyone, it is considered “snobby” or something similar. If you are not inspired to embrace the learning, seek out mentors, do the hard work, it is just a waste of time and money- doesn’t matter if it is top tier university or state funded vocational. Also, when we pay for it ourselves we work harder. I refused to let my GI Bill go to waste on a half ass effort and I chose a state university because the “good schools” would have still left me in debt. I consider that first degree the foundation to countless positive characteristics of my life. While I agree with many parts of your opinion here, I just cringe when we only talk about a college ticket as a means to a job. It describes us all as those factory workers you oft mention. Factory workers are valuable still globally, but that doesn’t summarize what we all are and/or can be. And, well I am addicted to learning, both in and out of school so maybe I am A LOT bias ;-)

  8. vangel
    vangel says:

    I have a job I love as a petroleum engineer. I agree that the most important skills for this job and most positions are self directed learning and social skills. But I can’t envision how jobs like this will be available to someone without a college degree within the next generation. It seems so far away from that right now.

    I was able to get my MS in petroleum engineering without getting an undergraduate degree in engineering (had one in chemistry), so maybe that increase in flexibility is the first step. Also the MS was distance and in the evenings while I worked another job, so it did feel more like an online certificate program; just to give me the credentials to get in the door. But I admit the info I learned there helped me hit the ground running. I understood the basic concepts we were all working from in studying petroleum systems. So it wasn’t completely useless.

    I need to figure out how to handle my 2 year old son’s education, and I want to make sure he has the potential for a job he loves as well. Do homeschoolers ever go into engineering? That world seems dominated by college degrees right now.

    • Crissy
      Crissy says:

      @vangel Yes!!! Homeschooling children can grow up to work careers in engineering! A veteran homeschooling Mom of five has one child who after 25 years now works in a high paying engineer’s job. I am not sure everything the parents did or encouraged during childhood to aid their child’s success in life. However in response to your question the answer is yes.

      To the author of this article, I am the face of a generation X homeschooling family and it is funny I just recently discussed with my 18 year old that college might be a waste of her time and family resources since she prefers entrepreneur adventures and has no dreams of rocket science or heart surgery. For her college might be pointless. How refreshing to see we are not alone in our thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Greg
    Greg says:

    Tyler Cowen made a great comment on this topic in response to Bryan Caplan. Caplan argued that the current college system is not going to change, despite the option of online accreditation, because college is better for signalling conformity.
    Tyler Cowen replied:

    “You don’t need to overturn all convention.  The top schools could shift at the margin, as they have many times in the past, and suddenly the conformist thing to do is to have ?? percent of your classes be on-line, and so on.  In virtually any other context you would see the flexibility of the market here!  No major credentials need to collapse, if it turns out that cannot happen easily.”

  10. Greg
    Greg says:

    I’m not sure if what Tyler Cowen is talking about would still provide homeschoolers with an advantage. I think the big advantages of homeschooling are the weird and interesting hobbies you can pursue when you have the time spare.

  11. Steven Davis
    Steven Davis says:

    While college is the “front door” problem, the bigger issue may be the Cult of Human Resources.

    Most jobs require basic reading, writing, and math with some reasonable social skills. But, in order to justify their existence, HR creates the need for ever more rigorous certifications and degrees so they can run Google searches on people without interviewing them or understanding what they are looking for.

    This is not true in actual specialist areas, but I’ve rarely met an HR person who can find, interview, or hire an actual specialist.

    HR has made college necessary for more and more Americans, not the complexity of modern work.

    … and don’t get me started on some of the crap certifications that are out there. I would not hire someone based on the IT certifications available. You still need to talk to someone to find out if they keep up with the field, are active in the subject, know when what they learned in school is bunk, etc.

    That being said, I think my 10-month old daughter is better off getting certified as a master electrician or plumber (this makes for a great conversation with grandparents and others, by the way). At least she won’t be outsource-able.

  12. Alina
    Alina says:

    We will still need doctors, engineers, architects, scientists with a certain depth of knowledge that one can’t learn from a certificate program. Anyone can read about painters and walk through a museum with a book; yet, an excellent tour guide with years of experience can expand your perspective a great deal in a fairly short amount of time. Ideally, colleges would be filled with those kinds of guides and masters.

  13. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I’m on the older end of the Generation Y spectrum. I never finished college and I probably never will. There are lots of things wrong with higher education, but if I could sum it up…there are way too many people who go and it is way too easy to get a loan. That is the main driver of tuition costs. It would be like the beanie baby craze if it was subsidized by the government. Ridiculously expensive and unlikely to stop anytime soon. That is until people wake up and realize they don’t need it.

  14. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    That said, my best college experience was last year when I decided to go back to school just to take some classes I was interested in…without any regard for a major. If school was set up where the classes were independent commodities, as opposed to means to the school’s end, it would be a much more effective tool for education.

  15. BubbaPhD
    BubbaPhD says:

    Lots of good comments. Very necessary discussion. I am a business professor at a state university in the Heartland, and I thought I would alert you all to one key factor in the conversation. Very few entering freshman are literate, numerate, or even curious. In my experience, “Johnny can’t read” barely scratches the surface. Some want to win and learn and do something special, but so many of the kids I meet have absolutely no clue of anything beyond texting or playing games (of various kinds). I am trying to figure out what they care about. I have no interest in being cranky about this. Just making note of the millions of kids who are just floating along in a sort of hazy limbo.

  16. P Flooers
    P Flooers says:

    Bubba, you’re preaching to the choir. Why do you think we all homeschool our kids? Stanford recruits homeschoolers for their “academic vitality.” Which they have because they haven’t been bludgeoned by 12 years of academic institutionalization.

  17. Andi
    Andi says:

    Penelope said, “Earning a badge, through online education, will be enough to open doors that used to require college degrees.:

    While I completely agree that badges and certificates will be more useful than college degrees, I am concerned that KNOWING this fact doesn’t change the hiring practices — HR and upper management in the companies to which I’d most likely be “qualified” to apply are fairly “traditional” sticks in the mud. They still want to see that worthless diploma, because that’s what’s on their checklist of requirements.

    CJ said, “When I say that college is not meant for everyone, it is considered “snobby” or something similar. If you are not inspired to embrace the learning, seek out mentors, do the hard work, it is just a waste of time and money.”

    When I went back to college, I was saddened by how easy the classes had become. Granted, I was attending a community college, so maybe four-year schools offer more challenging work, but I just don’t get that impression from the “kids” who had transferred to the bigger colleges; which is to say, these goofballs were still barely able to complete a sentence and had no concept of respect, personal integrity, or pushing oneself to achieve success. Many instructors at my institution taught directly from the textbook’s website — yes, I’m the nerd that actually enjoyed learning to such a ridiculous degree that I even bothered to research the textbook online for further study guides, vocab quizzes, etc. Imagine my chagrin when one particular prof actually pulled up the textbook website’s PowerPoint teaching guide and passed off the outline as his own!

    My point here, CJ, is that college is watered down nonsense that anyone with half a brain should be able to walk through without stumbling once, but because kids who can’t read in elementary school are being passed up, grade by grade, even the most simple of courses seems “challenging”. I’m not a highly educated person, by any stretch of the imagination, yet I felt downright SMART by comparison to these lethargic brats who weren’t even TRYING. Which leads me to my next point:

    BubbaPhD said, “”Johnny can’t read” barely scratches the surface,” and that he is “making note of the millions of kids who are just floating along in a sort of hazy limbo.”

    I can tell you all about the kids “floating along in a sort of hazy limbo”, Bubba. It’s due in large part to this wonderful “all natural” fad in which the more “Jones-centric” mamas are engaging. Firstly, they smugly insist on an all natural birth — “because it’s best” — which indicates you’re a twat if you got an epidural, and thereby denouncing 21st Century advances in medicine and pain allocation. Then they nurse — which is wonderful and healthy for the baby, so don’t think I disagree with this course of action. What I contest is the (again) smug attitude about it — and how long it goes on. I’m sure you saw the recent magazine cover sporting a skinny broad with her tank top pulled down so her three-yr-old could climb on a chair for a fly-by “comfort suckle”, the argument being that “this is common practice in most of the rest of the world”, thereby denouncing 21st Century advances in Western culture in an attempt to bring back the African head dress while we dance naked around fires and shake our ta-tas underneath huge, gold necklaces. These loonies don’t stop there — they allow baby to share a bed with them every night, and never discipline the little ones because after all, a discussion and explanation is always better than a swift swat on the rump, especially when a car is about to run over your precious angel. So finally, you are a GOOD TEACHER and you end up with these spoiled brats who have never been pushed to do anything on their own, who have never been told “NO”, who have no idea what to do with their lives because Mama has always been there to figure it out for them. It’s no wonder they are in a hazy limbo. They are feeble-minded cretins who never had a chance due to their over-involved, over-indulgent mothers. I’m sorry they end up in your classroom Bubba. I’d suggest you just fail them out and send them home.


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