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“I thought that if I don’t go to college, I failed.” — Anthony ONeal.
Anthony isn’t the only one who was told that college was the right next step after high school. Actually, the majority of high school graduates feel like college is just what you do, when they should be asking, “Is college worth it for me?”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 69.1% of high school graduates in 2018 were enrolled in colleges or universities. But of those people, the U.S. department of education found that only 55% of them will graduate with a degree within six years.1
Put another way, for every three students that graduate from high school, two will go to college, but only one will finish within six years. And many of them took out student loans and have nothing to show for it. That means for about half of the students going to college, it might be the wrong next step.
Why Does Everyone Believe College Is Worth It?
“Man, I was told if I want to be successful, if I want to be rich, if I want to be famous for something, I got to go to college,” says Anthony. “There was no ifs, ands or buts. No one said, ‘Hey, you know what? You could be successful without going to college.’”
Going to college debt-free is possible! Find out how.
Anthony was under the impression that if he didn’t go to college, he’d lose his shot at a real career and he might even wind up broke. In episode 2 of Borrowed Future, we dig a little deeper to find out why so many students believe that college is for everyone, at any cost.
Most students we talked to believe there’s definitely a correlation between having the college degree and making more money in life. But beyond that, students are facing all kinds of pressure to go to college—with everything from family pressure to the economy to being “normal” weighing on their minds.
Here are some of the reasons these students gave for why college is worth it:
“If you don’t go to college, there’s not much promise of finding good jobs out there.”
“Everyone in my family has gone to college . . . it’s to prove myself.”
“All my family’s gone to college and everyone does it. Most people do and I want to live the college life like a normal person.”
These kids aren’t saying anything unusual. The college experience has been put on a pedestal by both schools and students. But once you graduate and get into the real world, the college experience doesn’t necessarily lead to a real job.
How to Know If You Should Go to College
Bestselling author, entrepreneur and thought leader Seth Godin says that while there is a clear correlation between higher income and going to college, it’s not simply the degree that makes college worth anything.
“Think for a minute about a successful person you know,” he explains. “They are successful because they have an array of skills that include things like creativity, honesty, directness, leadership, resilience. Some people call these things soft skills. I call them real skills.”
Simply going to college is not what sets you up for success. It’s how you apply what you learn to grow your character and skill set. Mark Cuban agrees. Mark is an entrepreneur, billionaire, investor and owner of the Dallas Mavericks. But you probably know him best as one of the sharks from the show Shark Tank.
“I always said college is a place where you learn how to learn,” says Mark. “When you choose a college, it’s more about, are you committing to learn? Or are you committing just to do this because your parents want you to? Or because you don’t want to get a job and this is the next best thing? ‘I’ll just go to class and screw around and maybe I’ll meet somebody I can date. I’ll go party with some people.’ If that’s your attitude, you’ve already lost.”
8 Questions to Help You Know If College Is Worth It for You
College isn’t for everyone for several reasons. Some people don’t thrive in the college system. Others will need to get their grades up in order to qualify for scholarships and even get into college. And as thought leaders and alarming student loan statistics have revealed, going to college is a crazy expensive decision—and it’s not always the right one.
Here are eight questions to help you decide if college is right for you:
- Do you know what career you want to pursue?
- Do you want to learn how to learn?
- Does the career you want require a four-year degree?
- Is it what you really want, independently of your parents’ and family’s wishes?
- Is there a lot of job opportunity in the field you want to study?
- Do you have money saved up to go to college?
- Are you getting decent grades?
- What will you do to make your college plan cost less (i.e., community college, trade school, living at home instead of on campus, etc.)?
The College Lifestyle: Is It Worth It?
Anthony ONeal points out that one of the big reasons students and their parents are willing to shell out massive amounts of money for college is because it’s not just about higher education anymore—it’s about the lifestyle.
“I believe that there’s a time and place for everything,” says Anthony. “I want you to have a good time while you’re in college. I want you to enjoy the college experience. But I do not want you to fall for the lifestyle—as in, have the lifestyle own you.”
Seth Godin addresses the way college is marketed to students:
“Well, if I wanted to sell a college to the normal group of semi-unmotivated, semi-uninformed people, I would start with the football team. I would move on to the parties. I would then go on to shiny pictures of people at graduation. I wouldn’t mention student debt. I wouldn’t mention all the hours you have in between class—because most colleges aren’t good at helping people through that.”
He continues, “But there are so many things they can do during those four years. It’s not clear to me that they should be sitting there memorizing what year that some play was written. There are so many other ways to engage people while we were waiting for them to become fully baked.
“So, yeah, many magical things happened to me and to others during our college experience.” Seth says. “[But] I wonder what would happen if we had been in the Peace Corps during that period of time. I wonder what would happen if we had been part of an organization that helped kids who are less privileged . . . learn how to be in the world. So many things I could think of for that cohort of people to do, as opposed to advanced expensive school with a football team.”
Anthony agrees and begs the question, “Why do I have to spend $40,000 a year to learn how to deal with people?”
Anthony says he sees the benefits of going to college, but with the debt that so often comes with it, he just doesn’t think it’s worth it.
It’s going to be your character, your work ethic and how you present yourself [that makes you succeed]. . . and that doesn’t cost a dime.
“I can learn how to be respectful,” he says. “I could learn how to deal with attitudes. I can learn how to deal with different kinds of people for free. I can do that on my own. I do believe that colleges will open certain doors. Certain relationships will open certain doors, but it’s going to be your character, your work ethic and how you present yourself [that makes you succeed]. . . and that doesn’t cost a dime.”
With 1.6 trillion dollars in student loan debt being borrowed for life experience, that’s a lot of dimes.2 When you go to college for the experience, it’s easy to get sucked into the lifestyle.
According to The Survey of Consumer Debt conducted by Ramsey Research, 40% of Americans with student loan debt use their loans to pay for something totally unrelated to school—like spring breaks on the beach, new clothes, or late-night fast food runs.
Kyle, a science teacher in Nebraska who went to college debt-free, saw his friends fall into the lifestyle trap. “It was hard seeing my friends that were just stupid,” he says. “I saw my friends get these checks for scholarships and financial aid that they received. Instead of putting it toward the tuition and the cost of college, they would take that and go spend it on things that they wanted. I don’t think they understood at all how these checks worked. They would just spend it on purses and things like that, whereas they should’ve just taken that money and applied it to their college bill.”
Common sense is hard to come by these days. Brad Barnett is the director of financial aid and scholarships at James Madison University, and he sees the lack of common sense firsthand every day.
“They’re so into today,” says Brad, “[They think] ‘I’ll deal with it tomorrow. I’ll be making money tomorrow. I’ll be fine.’”
Brad says what they don’t realize is the bills for the lifestyle they’re living right now will eventually have a lot more zeros at the end. Interest accumulates, you graduate with more debt than you’ve ever had before, and the pressure to keep up that lifestyle won’t just go away.
“Because now you’re around people who are making more money,” he explains. “And then there’s more pressure to do more and to spend more [than you did] as that broke a college student, and it’s a wake-up call. And some of them don’t really wake up until decades down the road.”
Someone else who believes that college students are spending too much on the lifestyle is financial expert, bestselling author and host of The Rachel Cruze Show, Rachel Cruze. Rachel says the expectations of a college student should be that you’re broke, living on ramen noodles, and working hard.
Rachel says, “I would rather you live like a college student while you’re in college than try to live like a 25-year-old and graduate and have to go back to living like an actual college student because you have no money and so much debt.
“The good thing is that everyone else around you is in the same boat,” she continues. “Be broke together—enjoy the time of life because that’s the time you can actually be broke and enjoy it.”
Anthony ONeal still regrets the mistakes he made with student loans. “I spent $10,000 on my student loans just so I could have a lifestyle,” he admits. “Not one penny—hear me clearly—not one penny went toward books or education. It went toward the lifestyle.”
Anthony, Rachel and so many experts we spoke with agree: The cool college lifestyle isn’t worth student loan debt.
“Do not allow the lifestyle to be the reason why you’re in bondage for the next 20, 30, 40 years,” says Anthony. “Sacrifice. Act like you’re broke. So that way, when you do graduate college, you can start enjoying some of the things that you wanted to enjoy. By now, you’re in your career and you have the resources, the financial resources to enjoy it.”
Is College Really an Investment?
Since people have been convinced that college is an investment for your future, they think it’s worth going into debt for. But like any investment, ROI is important. That’s return on investment.
Dave Ramsey is a bestselling author, financial expert and host of The Dave Ramsey Show, and he says there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see that return on investment. And he points out one of the things people always point to:
“They say, ‘Well, college graduates on average make more than noncollege graduates.’ But the problem is you’re leaving out the stupid stuff. And so what you’ve got to do is look at your particular degree field and say. . . ‘If I get a degree in German polka history, what am I going to get in that field?’ And that keeps you from getting caught up in this idea that college is always a good idea. College is not always a good idea any more than home ownership is always a good idea.”
Figuring out the ROI on your degree is just one piece of the puzzle. The reality is, that piece of paper may not be enough to land you your dream job. There’s more to it, and we got Ken Coleman to weigh in. He’s a career expert and host of The Ken Coleman Show.
“There’s a myth out there . . . that the moment you move the tassel and walk off the stage, employers are blowing your phone up: ‘We want you, you’re special. You had a good grade point average and picked a very attractive major.’ It’s a giant myth.”
Ken believes it’s time to stop buying into that myth, especially since we already know the system isn’t working. “We have a real scourge—a real problem in America—where people are coming out of college with a degree, and they’re overqualified for what [job] they can actually get because the degree is not as important as it used to be for employers. And so you’ve got to be very careful to say, ‘Is this major, is this degree truly preparing me for my future?’”
If college won’t truly prepare you for your career and the rest of your adult life, then why is it worth it? At that point, is college even worth it at all? It’s a question that both students and parents need to take more seriously.
Too many people are sleepwalking their way into college and student loan debt. What starts as the “right” next step quickly turns into millions of students with decades of debt.
College exists to prepare you for a job and your future, but it’s not always the right next step. So you need to determine if it’s right for you.
If you or someone you know needs a path for how to avoid student loans and graduate debt-free, Anthony ONeal’s new book will help. Debt-Free Degree teaches parents how to help their kids pay for college without debt, even if they haven’t saved for it. This is a step-by-step plan that combines common sense and honest humor.
Debt-Free Degree doesn’t just tell you what to do. It also tells you why to do it, how to do it, and when to do it.
In the next episode of Borrowed Future, we’ll dive into why we choose the colleges that we do, why a famous college might not be worth the cost, and why a fancy cafeteria or even a pool shouldn’t be a deciding factor in your college choice.