The education bubble


There are a lot of bubbles we need to talk about. Some are certainly more alarming than others, but our entire economy is just one giant debt fueled bubble. Our bubbles have bubbles.

If you’re apart of my generation or younger, then you are intimately familiar with today’s state of public education. From the beginning to the end, you are inundated with the idea that successful people go to college. Every step you take from grade school up until the day they shove you out of the door your senior year, you are told that college is what you must do if you want to make it in a world where SAT prep courses are given priority over shop class.

Academia has become a big business. Academic curriculum’s are based around funding in particular areas of interest and with that funding comes agendas. Often peer reviewed research must be slanted towards a particular confirmation bias to even consider being published. If you’re a college professor and you don’t publish research, don’t expect to ever make tenure, and don’t expect to ever have a comfortable work position. This is not to say that all of academia has no merit, but rather that it has become so tainted in it’s intertwined with the too big to fail, subsidized profit model, that it’s no longer sustainable in the free market, without massive push to keep the money flowing.

The real truth of the matter is that young people pushed out the door of adolescence with a pat on the back and a predetermined course to 5-6 figures in debt is not a good way to start out a life of success. Do many people who get college degrees end up with successful careers? Absolutely. Is the median income for those with degrees higher than for those without? Yes, of course. Is education a bad thing for someone with a career plan? Nope, its absolutely necessary. Is there still value in academia? Yes, some.

But where we run into trouble is coercing young people into a 4 year degree program who have no plans for their future or concept of personal responsibility. Spending a couple years to “figure out what you want to do with your life” is a recipe for disaster when you’re paying $20,000 a year for the privilege. The real truth of the matter is that higher education is a business, and the business model is failing. Bubbles are perpetuated by the greater fool theory…so if a person goes a college program with the assumption that on the other end their investment of time and money will pay off in the long run. What good is all that money spent on education if the job prospects on the other end don’t even afford a person the opportunity to pay back the principle in a reasonable amount of time?

Spend some time investigating twitter if you’re not familiar with just how indebted the average millennial is with student loans. It should make you feel a little sick to your stomach.

The real problem here, isn’t so much that people have to take on debt to get an education. Far from it, there is no such thing as a free lunch and a college education costs money.

I can remember being a freshman undergrad and walking through my college campus for the first time. I was amazed at all the large flat screen televisions along the wall in the lobby of the business school. I never once saw those televisions turned on the entirety of my time there. Colleges have put forth a failing business model, and that business model is being propped up by government subsidized student loan debt, which is being forced onto the backs of college age American’s who believe the only path to success in life is at the end of a college education, regardless of what they study.

Now, anecdotally, through very careful financial management and a little bit of slave labor, I was able to pay off the entirety of my wife and I’s student loans in about 4 years. To provide a little perspective though, it took my wife 5 years to get an associates (due to various issues with transfer credits and constant changing of degree requirements) and she now has a great job as a trauma nurse, and I had to attend summer school every year in order to finish my bachelor’s on time and don’t even work in my field of study (B.S. exercise physiology). We are apart of a lucky (is it luck?) minority who is not held underwater by continuously capitalizing interest and income based repayment plans.

We don’t have a problem with needing college to be free, with have a problem with propping up a failing business model that’s in a bubble and continues to inflate because there are no consequences when subsidized profit continues to roll in. We don’t need to raise taxes and pay more every year for education that provides no ROI. The value created by academia should be wholly capable of sustaining its business model, otherwise, let it die and reinvent itself.

I don’t want to give you the wrong idea, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t go to college. I met some of my favorite people while I was in college and had some profoundly impactful life experiences. There is some value in formal education and the merits and certifications that come along with it. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you can “just go to college” you’ll be fine, or that you can “figure everything out later” and not have to come up with a plan of action now.

Some important things to consider if you want to get a college education (whether you are getting ready to graduate high school or have been in the workforce for decades):

-Come up with a career plan before you start your higher education
There is little, if any tangible benefit for paying to get a college degree in art history if you have no desire to work at an art gallery. You will end up with a very expensive diploma and no marketable skills to show for it. There are many cheap ways to increase your knowledge and understanding. Libraries are still a thing. The internet alone has more free information than you could digest in a lifetime of study, and many online courses are often affordable and more up to date than a brick and mortar school curriculum.

-Realize that not everyone NEEDS to go to college to be successful
There is a growing shortage of skilled workers in technical fields. Things like plumbers, electricians, construction workers, welders, etc. are all great paying jobs, with often paid mentorships and relatively inexpensive vocational programs. Certain states offer enough in state tuition assistance that you could probably cover the entire cost of a vocational school, free of charge. These jobs are actually the backbone of society and economies and might be much better paying than you might think…especially when you factor in not starting out your adult life with 6 figures in debt and nothing to show for it.

-Focus on the STEM field
Long gone are the days of my parents where simply any college degree made you more qualified to do a job. If you are going to spend the time and money to get an education, get it in a field that has longevity and teaches applicable knowledge. These fields are Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. If these things sound too hard…well congratulations, you just figured out super early that college might not be the best thing for you and you shouldn’t waste your time and money, get some work experience, learn about the world, and maybe you will feel differently in 5 or 10 years.

-Stick to your plan
Obviously if you set out to become a surgeon and then realize half way through that you faint at the sight of blood, you may need to rethink your career path, but this can be an expensive process. I met someone during my undergrad who took a sabbatical from school half way through his junior year and went to go work for a few years instead. He received a letter in the mail from the school a few years later, saying that if he didn’t return to work on his degree in the upcoming semester, all of his credit hours would expire and become null and void for transfer. (Business model!)

Unfortunately life is often about who you know, not necessarily what you know. The sooner you embrace this, the better.