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The Question You're Not Asking: Should You Go To College?

If you have (or are currently attending college in pursuit of) an engineering, law, computer science, medical or any other kind of degree that qualifies you to do something with a tangible effect on the world, this is not the column for you. You're not going to get anything out of it. Well, maybe some well-earned Schadenfreude at the expense of all the little grasshoppers who didn't till for winter, but aren't you above all that? Why don't you go somewhere and understand some math, asshole.

For the rest of you, I need to tell you something, and it's probably going to hurt: All that talk about how a higher education improves you as a human being, instantly launches a stellar career and hurls you screaming into the transcendental nirvana of financial stability -- yeah, that was all bullshit. Unless you're going for a professional degree, you really should not go to college.

You know what to do here.

Not for credit, and not at a four-year school, anyway. I know, I know: "But what about all those posters in the guidance counselor's office, stating in plain, hard numbers how much more a degree-earner makes over their lifetime?" Even a Bachelor's degree, they say, nets you over a million dollars more than a high school graduate.

Isn't that number strange? A million.

Even $900k sounds substantially less impressive, doesn't it? But no, it's that fabled "more than a million." Shit, that's no longer money, it's a lifestyle: Going to college makes you one whole millionaire better than those savage high school plebeians. And though the findings change a little with every new census bureau report, it's always been right around that magic number. The latest version tells us this: High school graduates average 1.2 million over their lifetimes, while a Bachelor's degree nets you 2.1 million, and it scales upward from there. But here's the actual language:

"Adults ages 25 to 64 who worked at any time during the study period earned an average of $34,700 per year. Average earnings ranged from $18,900 for high school dropouts to $25,900 for high school graduates, $45,400 for college graduates"

I've bolded the relevant text. Everybody in that survey has a job, which, incidentally, is a thing that your college degree absolutely does not guarantee you. All the unemployed people, their college degrees doing nothing for them? They don't factor in. But hey, maybe the situation will be better when you're out of college. Things might pick up. You just need to get more loans for now, to get you through, is all. And that's exactly what's happening, according to Robert Shireman, deputy undersecretary of the Education Department: "We're also in an economic situation that nobody predicted. The eye-opening increase in borrowing is largely due to the dire economic environment, which is causing more people to seek federal loans."

So, the reason you're collecting federal debt like soul-sucking Pokemon is because the working world is rough right now. Your parents, like most people, are in a tough financial spot, and they can't afford to send you to school. Since you can't find a job to support yourself either, you just need to borrow more, assuming you're going to make it back in the future, when you get out of college and into that thriving working worl- aw, shit.

Soon the old brag "first in the family to go to college" will be "first in the family to be debt free after high school."

But, hey, you're young and full of foolish hope: Let's assume the optimistic scenario -- that you get out of college without owing an unreasonable amount, after which you're immediately and miraculously employed, and you make that nice, round, one million dollars more per lifetime. Awesome, right?

But what if it wasn't a million dollars? What if that amount starts dropping? How low does that number have to go until it's no longer worth it? 750K? Half a million? The real figure, when all is said and done, is closer to 300,000. Over a lifetime. An economist tasked with studying the long-term value of a college degree found the following:

"College graduates earn, on average, about $20,000 a year more than those who finished their educations at high school. Add that up over a 40-year working life and the total differential is about $800,000 ... But since much of that bonus is earned many years from now, subtracting out the impact of inflation means that $800,000 in future dollars is worth only about $450,000 in today's dollars. Then, if you subtract out the cost of a college degree -- about $30,000 in tuition and books for students who get no aid and attend public in-state universities -- and the money a student could have earned at a job instead of attending school, the real net value in today's dollars is somewhere in the $300,000 range a number confirmed by other studies."

OK, but $300,000 is not to be dismissed outright. That buys you a decent house in Oregon, a sweet parking spot in New York or an extravagant meal in Tokyo. But still, 300k has a lot less kick than "more than a million dollars more!" For some reason, "exchange four years of your life and a decade of debt for a house ... 40 years later!" just doesn't have the same ring to it. And that's IF you get a job, and THAT depends on whether or not your degree is even remotely useful.

And we sent all those useful people away at the start, so that's probably not you.

Pictured: You. Not being useful.

If you start looking into the benefits of a college degree, you'll see this phrase a lot in the articles extolling their virtues: "... people with professional degrees earn more/have more rewarding employment/satisfy more sexual partners on top of a Ferrari." What does that mean, exactly? Can you even get an amateur degree? You can get a professional degree in the Liberal Arts, right? Like ... like a professional Theoretical Sociologist? Nope! They mean the hard sciences again, or law, or medicine.

So very, very not you.

But I think we need to pause and clarify now: If those are the fields you want to go into, you absolutely should go to college and study incredibly hard. If an architect skips the wrong day - to play an ARG, listen to retro-grunge-pop, start a Libyan revolution, or whatever it is kids these days do for fun - and he makes a mistake in his job, my apartment building collapses. If, say, a philosophy major skips the wrong day, he might not know what kind of idealism Kant supports, and that freshman with the pink MacBook won't give him a handjob in the back of her Jetta later.

The stakes are different.

So I'm not saying college does not have a use, I'm just saying that if you're the type of kid who, at 18, hasn't quite formed a complete and detailed plan for the next sixty years of your life, then you're probably not majoring in Esoteric Quantum Engineering. You're taking a survey on Quentin Tarantino films and you won't even show up for that half the time.

Right around the time you catch yourself pirating cliff's notes for Pulp Fiction, you start to redefine the term "higher education."

But then, I never quite understood the professional degree kids who knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives before they were even legally allowed to smoke. At 18, all I actually "knew" that I wanted to do was girls, bong rips, and handstands - and I never did get that handstand down. We live in a coddling society, and our culture is extending mental adolescence further and further into the late teens and even 20s. I, for example, didn't really feel like a grown, responsible adult male until any day now, hopefully. The kids that have a life-map at 18 were always somewhat rare to start with, and now they're a dying breed. But even the lost teenagers still have that drive. It kicks in the second they get out of high school, and it's propagated by one of the most pervasive PR campaigns ever: "Go to college. You're nothing without a college education. It doesn't matter what you want to do, or even if you know what that is at all. Go to college. College fixes everything."

And why would the government be so gung ho about it -- willing to offer you all that free money (hey, you don't have to pay it back until college is over, and that's a lifetime from now! That's basically not even you anymore! Ha ha, fuck that guy!) - if it just ultimately screws you? Because of something called SLABS. If you haven't clicked on that link, that's okay: You're probably high right now and muddling through the second half of Jackie Brown. You're in no shape for the finer points of finance, but the gist is this: Remember what collapsed the housing market? The repackaged loans being traded with no capital behind them? This is the exact same deal.

Well, that's not fair. It's better. For the loaners, anyway, but much worse for the loanees (that's you).

The average debt load of a college student is $23,186 by graduation. And after the Bankruptcy Reform Bill passed back in 2005, student loans were no longer wiped clean during bankruptcy. That means there is literally no scenario, short of death, where you don't have to pay back that student loan - pay it back to the government, or private lending institutions backed by the government. You know, those people who funded all the programs telling you that you have to go to college or you're worthless and will die in a gutter while baccalaureate holders cavort about your stinking corpse on their golden unicorns? Yep, same guys.

They know they've got you, too: College tuition has been steadily rising, at three to four times the rate of inflation (and that's not even counting the textbooks, which clock out at an average of $7200 now). But, hey, that's no problem, because everybody qualifies for those loans, and you can basically take as much as you need! It's a vicious circle: They jack up the rates because they know the money's there, and then they have to make more money available because those rates are so jacked up. It's a debt circle-jerk and you're the one in the middle that everybody's aiming at.

Wait, it's not all loans though, right? Hey, yeah, you can get free money, too! Yep, the Pell Grant (the only free money everybody guaranteed qualifies for, if they present sufficient financial need). In 1990, those covered 60 percent of a student's costs. In 2006, they covered 30 percent.

If you go to college, you're all but guaranteed some significant debt, and don't think it won't affect you: In a 2006 survey, 39 percent of college graduates needed more than the default 10 years to pay back their loans. Most couldn't buy a house because of the payments, and 28 percent even delayed having children. Jesus, we're not just putting off idle hopes and dreams because of student debt; we're putting off propagating the fucking species. College graduates have yet another reason not to have kids, while dropouts, with their raging, debt-free boners, are out there whoring it up with impunity. Two seconds ago, somebody stopped reading that last sentence to page down to the comments section and write "IDIOCRACY WAS RIGHT!"

Yes. I know it was. It was a satire about current trends, not prophecy. If you believe otherwise, you're the kind of idiot the movie was referring to.

So the financial gains aren't so great, so what? College isn't about money: You learn things, you gain wisdom and you improve as a human being. Maybe the benefit isn't in net worth, but in collective knowledge ...

Maybe not: Sociologists at New York University found that about 45 percent of students showed no intellectual progress by sophomore year.

"To gauge their progress, at the start of college and also at the end of each student's sophomore year, we did surveys, collected transcripts and administered something called the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures higher education's impact on student learning. We tested them in areas like critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication. These are the general skills that most people believe should be at the core of undergraduate learning...as many as 45 percent of students by sophomore year show little to no progress."

And again, that 45 percent probably wasn't taking Super Hard Math 701 as a prerequisite for their For Realsies Adult Degree. They were probably majoring in English with a minor in Oh God, What Am I Going to Do When They Make Me Leave Here. And just to hammer in that financial distress angle one more time, those researchers followed the same students beyond college, and it didn't get any better:

"Since graduating, 60 percent have full-time jobs, nearly 36 percent have moved back home to live with either their parents or relatives and nearly one-tenth are carrying more than $60,000 worth of debt. Of those who have jobs, more than two-thirds were making less than $35,000 a year and 45 percent were earning $15,000 or less."

Where I live, you make more than that working full time at a gas station.

"I really find that course in West African Feminist Fiction has helped me distinguish between the regular and the plus pumps."

I'm not saying you won't get anything out of college: While I was there, I certainly felt like I learned and grew as a person...for about the first year and a half. I think everybody should go to a community college for a bit. Everybody needs some of those early mandatory classes and social experiences, assuming they didn't already get them in high school. You need to take at least up to Calculus in math, so you can immediately forget it, but insist to the IT guys that you totally understood it at one point in your life. You need the introductory writing classes, at least up until argumentative essays, so you can win fights on the internet. And you need all of the general survey history courses, with a few psychology and philosophy courses thrown in on the side, so you can see how fucked up our species is, and come up with some pretentious bullshit reasons as to why that might be. And by all means, if you have the money, audit any class that sounds interesting, but keep in mind that this is the information age: You can get an Ivy League education for nothing. All that knowledge is free now. If you're paying, you're paying for paper.

Listen: Learning is awesome, and you should always be doing it, but unless your life goals line up with one of those handy Professional Degrees, you probably shouldn't sell fifteen years of your life for a certificate that says you got to the finish line once.

"He wasn't the absolute worst in school!"

But in the end, we can only really speak to personal experience: I'm a writer/editor, and I have an English degree. Yet I was so turned around and brainwashed by college-lust that I actually postponed accepting my dream job, writing dick jokes on the internet, because I wanted finish my degree...so that I could get a job writing someday. This is the only career that I know, and all I can tell you is that college didn't do much for me, personally, past sophomore year. If I've learned anything in my field, I've done it by practicing writing. A lot. If you want to go into the same profession, then I highly advocate joining writer's workshops. You can learn a lot there. But if you find yourself paying twelve hundred dollars for one -- like they charge in most colleges - you should look down and see at least four strong but supple hands on your junk at all times.

Now, in the interest of public service, I'll see if I can't save you a bit of time and a lot of money. The single most important lesson I learned in college -- and it was a good one, so I hope you're paying attention -- is this:

Never, ever, ever give Hamed, the Sudanese crackhead who lives above you, $50. He's like a bear: If you feed him once, he will only see you as a source of food. And he will come back to your apartment in the night, jimmy the lock on your sliding glass door, creep in silently past your helpless slumbering form on the couch that doubles as your bed and he will steal your toaster.

You can buy Robert's book, Everything is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Oh, but for the record, it's not this bad everywhere: Here's a list of reasonably priced schools that are as full of exotic potential sexual partners as they are of knowledge.

Want to reduce your college debt? Find out how in 7 College Scholarships That Require Absolutely No Talent. And get you some more Brockway in 5 Movie Martial Artists That Lost a Deathmatch to Dignity.

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Robert Brockway

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