The gig economy is growing, tuition fees are rising, and more people are looking to self-made entrepreneurs for inspiration. Is College still a ‘no-brainer’?
There’s a growing movement of people asking the question “is college worth it?”, and for good reason. As of May 2018, 88% of graduates from for-profit colleges had loans with an average debt of $40,000. Almost 50% of them default on their loans. (source) On top of that, according to U.S. Census data, only 27% of college grads have a job related to their major (source).
These are some of the stats many influential people point to in their argument against college. Every morning, I wake up to an Instagram feed full of infographics telling me to quit my job and become an entrepreneur. Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal, is even paying people to drop out. Are they right? Should you reject college, get an entry-level job, start a side-gig and hustle your way to the top?
The truth is, college is still the best decision for most of us. One prominent study found that the annual return on investment of college is about 17%, far more than any conventional investment. Further, U.S. jobs data shows that the unemployment rate among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 4.1%. The rate for high school graduates is 8.7%, and for dropouts, it’s 11.3%.
Even the majority of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs (think Elon Musk, Gary Vaynerchuck, Jeff Bezos, and Oprah Winfrey) have at least one college degree.
The real question isn’t “is college worth it?”. It’s “if I choose to go, how do I make it worth my time and money?”
In this article, I’m not going to tell you whether you should go to college or not. What I’m going to do is show you steps you can take while you are there to come out ready to build a successful career in your chosen field.
The Elephant in the Room
University is a huge commitment and a huge risk. You’re about to lose 4 years of full-time income and pay around $33,000 to train for a job you’ve never done and don’t even know if you’ll like (or get). Meanwhile, you have family, friends, advisors, and influencers giving you conflicting advice.
Further, maybe you didn’t get good grades in high school, which makes it hard to get into a top school or some programs like science or engineering. And even if you did get good grades and can pick whatever program you want, how can you know you’re choosing the right one? Changing job markets mean your ideal job could be automated or redundant by the time your graduate.
The real problem won’t be the program you chose — you can find success with any program. Your problem will be a lack of skills and experience that employers are looking for. Because no matter how hands-on your learning was, employers rarely consider education as a substitute for experience. Your degree is the bare minimum, used only to make it easier for employers to narrow down their pool of applicants. A lot of people go straight from high school into college, and when they graduate, they have no work experience at all. This is why so many people have expensive degrees, but work at entry-level jobs outside of their chosen fields.
The trick is building your resume while completing your degree. Fortunately, you can do this entirely on campus, get paid for your efforts, and have a great time doing it. From my own experience, along with some tips from highly successful people I met along the way, I’ll show you how you can:
- Gain high-level job skills and experience without leaving campus
- Give yourself the option to go further in your studies with a masters degree, regardless of how you did in high-school
- Leave school with a degree, relevant job skills and experience, and amazing memories
Anyone Can Do It
Let my bias be known — I’m an evangelist for post-secondary education now, but it wasn’t always that way.
After high school, I spent a few years grinding in the back of kitchens and on construction sites before finally deciding to make a change. I applied for the Navy and college, and I only chose college because they accepted me first.
I come from a working-class family, and while they always told me to do well in school, I didn’t listen. In fact, I did poorly in high school. I rarely did my homework, and almost never studied. People told me I needed straight A’s in high school or I wouldn’t get into a good college and I’d be doomed to a lifetime of minimum wage jobs. This was very discouraging to me, and probably the main reason I took years to apply.
I want you to know, if you’re sitting there thinking about your report cards full of C’s, D’s and the occasional F, you’re not out of the fight. Not at all. My high-school report card was atrocious, I didn’t play any sports, didn’t join any clubs. I even got arrested and had to do community service, twice!
Despite all that, I finished college with as Valedictorian, President of the student government, and built an academic resume strong enough to get me into grad school. I got a job as a manager at a great company right after graduation, and today, I work at one of the world’s best colleges where I manage hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of projects every day.
I don’t say this to brag. I say this to all of you who feel like you screwed up and took yourself out of contention: unless you’re dead, it’s not over. You don’t have to settle just because you can’t get into Harvard Law. I went to a small town college with modest aspirations. College transformed my confidence, attitude, and capabilities, and gave me the foundations I needed to build a great career.
So without further ado, here are my best recommendations for finding similar success for yourself.
1. Join the Student Government
In my second year of college, some friends convinced me to run in the student government elections. I ran for one of the ‘at-large’ positions, which meant I’d vote at board meetings, but had no real obligations other than helping out at students’ union events.
At the time, I was conservative in my political beliefs and thought the student government could use a ‘business-minded individual’ such as myself. I ran on that as my platform and I was elected. What I found was not a bunch of disorganized students, but a sophisticated and tightly-run business led by a mix of highly-committed students and staff. I decided to get involved in every way I could. I volunteered for every committee, event and project team available to me. In my second year, I was elected to the executive committee’s Director of Services position, and after that, as President.
The problem with college is that it doesn’t give employers the confidence that you’ll be able to do the job. The student government fills that gap by offering senior leadership positions without any leadership experience. You learn to understand, analyze and contribute to strategic planning — from events to large capital expenditures like new buildings. This means you’ll gain experience with project management, financial planning and budgeting, and risk management. If you get involved with running students’ union events, you’ll gain experience managing volunteers. You’ll learn supervisory skills like recruitment, coordination, effective delegation, and employee motivation.
Since you’ll be in an elected student position, you’ll get a lot of flexibility with how you contribute. If you want to help for a couple hours here and there, you can. If you want to go all-in by planning projects, coordinating events, joining committees, working with politicians, and giving news interviews, you can do that too. You’ll have several other student members who are in the same situation, so you don’t have to feel out of place. Do what you can, they’ll welcome you either way!
While you technically outrank the non-elected staff members, they actually make great mentors. It’s in their best interest to see you do well, and many of them started out as elected students themselves. They understand your situation and lack of experience and will help you get caught up.
Beyond the skills and experience you’ll gain, you’ll also make excellent connections. For me, I chose to go the all-in route. In doing so, I was able to connect with college executives, business leaders, politicians, and faculty. That’s been a tremendous benefit both through mentorship as well as high-quality references I’ve been able to use over the years. Not to mention, I made great friends, went to some excellent parties, and even got an office on campus.
I credit my student union experience as one of the main reasons I was able to get a management position right out of school. Without that experience, it might have taken me years to get that first promotion.
2. Join Clubs
I mentioned that I had some rigid political and economic opinions going into my first year of University. My stepdad thought it would be a good idea for me to get out of my comfort zone, connect with people I don’t normally connect with, and try and gain a holistic view of the world. He wasn’t trying to push me into voting one way or another, he just thought it would be valuable to challenge my views and see things from different perspectives. He suggested I join a club. He’s full of good wisdom, so I took his advice and joined the Rights and Democracy Club.
Once again, I expected to find a bunch of disorganized students padding their resumes for grad school. While there were some people who fit that description, the club comprised mostly of students so passionate and engaged that they were willing to put in their own time towards causes they believed in.
I was really drawn to the group, the camaraderie, and the fun from being part of this group of friends all working together to get work done. It was a wonderful feeling to be part of that. Have you ever been to a half-party/ half-project-planning meeting? I hadn’t, and I loved it. In my second year in the club, our President graduated, and I took the reigns as the new Club President.
The greatest experience I gained here was around inspiring people to work as a team towards a goal, when the only benefits were intrinsic. There was no pay, very little training, and it was a lot of work.
In my first semester as President, I faced a serious learning curve. Our previous President was fun, flexible, open, and made everyone feel like they were her best friend. This created buy-in, and it was never hard to get a group together. I took a more serious, business-minded approach, and I lost a lot of people. We put on some impressive events and raised a lot of money for charity, but it was unsustainable because I didn’t inspire people the way our past President did.
From this, I learned to form stronger connections with people, be more flexible, and support people to pursue their passions. The principles I learned at the Rights and Democracy Club have helped me develop new leaders, reduce turnover, and have fun along the way.
3. Dabble in Courses
Unless you’re in engineering or a vocational program like nursing, you’ll probably need to take some electives. This is a great opportunity for you to try different things and see what topics you really enjoy.
In my first year, I thought I was going to be a high school teacher. I wasn’t sure what subject I’d teach, so I took a mix of courses. I ended up in French, History, Math, and for some strange reason that I can’t explain, I took an ‘Intro to Management’ course. I absolutely loved the management course, and it inspired me to switch to the Business program.
By dabbling in courses, I found a topic I really enjoyed, rather than one linked to the job I thought I wanted. Because I did this, I was able to do well in my program, and found myself on a career path that is definitely a better fit for me.
4. Practice Effective Communication With People Different From Yourself
According to a recent study, employers rated verbal communication skills as the most important skill for new job candidates. Meanwhile, 80% percent of employers are struggling to find graduates with the communications skills they need. (source)
Speak with any leader, and they’ll tell you that effective communication is probably the most important skill they have. From getting the job in the first place, to closing deals and inspiring others, communication is the foundation for workplace success in any environment. Yet ‘effective communication’ is not a simple thing. Workplaces are increasingly diverse, and you’ll need to be able to change the way you communicate from person to person, taking into consideration each person’s values, cultural norms, and life experiences.
The U.S. workforce is experiencing a demographic transformation. From 1980 to 2020, the white working-age population is projected to decline from 82% to 63%. During the same period, the minority portion of the workforce is projected to double from 18% to 37%, and the Hispanic/Latino portion is projected to almost triple from 6% to 17%. (source) In addition, the growing gig and mobile economy are removing geographic barriers. Regardless of what you do and where you do it, you should expect to find yourself working with people from different backgrounds.
I’m not here to tell you that you need to change your opinions or care more about others (but you probably should). What I’m here to tell you is that you’ll have a more successful career if you learn to respect, empathize, and connect with the people you work with.
University is a great training ground for this. You’ll find a wider array of opinions, beliefs, backgrounds, and cultures than anywhere else you’ll ever be. You’ll meet professors and students from all over the world, practicing different religions, speaking different languages, dressing differently, and communicating differently. You’ll have opportunities to work in groups with people vastly different from yourself, and you’ll be able to learn how to work with them effectively.
I recognize that a lot of you have strongly held beliefs about politics, race, and culture. That’s fine, you probably have reasons for feeling the way you do. When I first went to college, I wasn’t very flexible in my beliefs, but I knew I had to learn to connect with everyone. To help with this, I read two books that completely elevated my ability to communicate with people, even when they held views that were the complete opposite of my own. These books were:
- How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
- Non Violent Communication, by Marshall Rosenberg
I strongly recommend you read these two books before you head to school in the Fall.
5. Get Good Grades
Yes, this is the one we’ve all heard, and don’t want to hear anymore. But unlike the abstract reasons we get from our parents and career counselors, I’ll give some clear reasons why you should keep your transcript looking good and how to do it.
First, you want to give yourself the flexibility to change plans. For instance, you might decide at some point that you want to do a master’s degree or change majors. Take my example: I wanted to be a high school teacher but switched to business. My original path wouldn’t have required anything better than a B average. Today however, I intend to complete a master’s degree. It’s fortunate that I kept my grades up, otherwise, I’d have to do some serious upgrading. If you’re reading this after having already partied your way to a C average in your first couple years, that’s ok — most grad schools don’t consider your first two years. Make sure you do well in your 3rd and 4th years though!
Second, you’ll need good references, whether it’s for a job or a master’s degree application. Your professors remember the good students, be one of those.
Third, you’ll get in good groups for group projects. Unlike high school, college students don’t just look for their friends in class, they look for people who can help them get a good grade. Over time, you’ll start to recognize who’s good and who isn’t. The straight A students will find each other and team up, which makes the work easier for them and pretty much guarantees a good grade. You want in those groups, otherwise, you can look forward to pulling last-minute all-nighters for a B.
Here are some tricks to keep your transcript looking good:
- Take advantage of the extremely underused university resources, such as free tutoring and editing.
- Visit professors and teacher’s assistants during office hours for feedback on your work.
- Schools give a ‘grace period’ where you can drop a course with no harm to your GPA, plus a refund. If you find you’re struggling early on, consider dropping the course. It’s better to take a make-up course in the Summer than to fail.
- Scout your professors on www.ratemyprofessor.com before taking their class. The platform has it’s problems (eg the ‘hot bias’), but if you check the comments, you can get a good sense of how good they are. I’ve always tried to choose professors with a reputation for good feedback, test preparation, and fair grading. It’s great to have a ‘nice prof who all the students love’, but it’s better to come out of the course ready for the next one, and with a good grade on your transcript.
I recognize I’m privileged in a lot of ways. I’m a white male who had no kids, lived in my hometown at the time, and had access to cheap student loans. I know I had some opportunities that won’t come as easy for everyone. However, if you feel you are in a position to go to college, I really hope you won’t “do it for the piece of paper”. College can be a rewarding and life-changing experience if you let it.
I finished my undergrad 7 years ago, and I’ve changed jobs 5 times. Each time has been on my own terms, in an effort to expand my responsibilities and learn new things. Despite the wealth of experience I’ve gained along the way, the experiences I gained during my undergrad still come up in every job interview. There’s no way my career would have come together the way it has if I simply went to my classes, did my homework and left with my degree.
Let it be said that college IS worth it, so long as YOU make it worth it. Good luck!
My name is Chris, and my mission is to elevate standards and skills across the Management profession. I want managers to be better, and I’m taking personal responsibility to help them get better.
I train coaches and managers to build winning cultures through trust, pride, ownership, and empowerment. I’m especially interested in harnessing and developing the power of the front-line and entry-level staff.
I enjoy science fiction, 80’s hair-metal and spending time with my partner and two orange cats. I’d love to connect with you! Find me on Twitter and say “hi”.
This article was originally posted at RockstarManagers.com
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