According to College Board the average cost of attending a four-year college course in the U.S. has risen an astounding 41% in the last decade. A freshman going off to college this fall can expect to pay an average of $42,419 per year at a private university, $32,762 per year as an out-of-state student at a public university, or $18,943 at an in-state public university. Multiply those figures by four years and the average student with no outside financial help will have between $76,000 and $168,000 of student debt when they graduate.
Matter of fact, the total national student loan debt is increasing at such an alarming rate–it goes up another $3,055 per second, totaling over $1.2 trillion–that many financial experts are now calling student loans the biggest economic threat to America. The amount of debt has even led to the New York Times running an op-ed by Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Lee Siegel suggesting others follow in his footsteps and default on their student loans (hint: not a good idea).
Due to these mortgage-sized student loan debts, there’s been a growing chorus of people questioning if the cost/benefit ratio of college is worth it anymore–the most notable being the influential venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who founded the Thiel Foundation, which awards grants to promising young entrepreneurs who are willing to skip college to start a business.
“College is really expensive in America. If you’re gonna come out with significant debt, you might want to take another path,” says Dale Stephens, a Thiel fellow himself, and the founder of UnCollege, an organization that offers gap years focused on skill building and entrepreneurship. Stephens is also the author of Hacking Your Education and an outspoken advocate of non-traditional higher education.
While Stephens concedes that there are some schools that do an excellent job of linking what they teach to the real world, his issue with the U.S. education system stems from believing that most colleges teach you how to complete a degree without teaching you any real-world business skills to go with it. “In most colleges, classes are taught by academics, not practitioners,” he says. “There’s absolutely value in research, but research without application is meaningless.”
So in 2011, Stephens did what most would consider unthinkable: he dropped out of college after one semester to found a startup that teaches young people like him real-world skills employers want for their workforce. His brainchild, UnCollege, struck a chord with many–including the TED conference and the Thiel Foundation. For Stephens, becoming a college dropout was the best decision he ever made.
“If I’d spent four years in school and only just entered the professional world a year ago, there’s no way I could have written a book, consulted with governments, spoken around the world, and started a company,” says Stephens, now 23.
Ironically, when some people hear about a college dropout starting a company called UnCollege, they believe Stephens is anti-education. But Stephens says that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I think everyone should pursue some kind of higher education–and if college were both practical and reasonably priced, I’d say everyone should go to college,” he says. “But that’s not reality, and it’s more important than ever for young people to make the right investment in their education. For some, that’s college–for others, it’s too expensive or too slow.”
So how do you know if college is right for you? Stephens says if you fall into one of the three categories below you might want to pass on the Ivory Tower–for now, anyway.
If you don’t know exactly what you want to do.
It’s almost ludicrous when you think about it. We expect teenagers to pick the thing they want to be their life’s work before most of them can even legally vote. We ask them to choose their life’s work before they’ve barely had time to live. And then if they can’t we seem to promote the myth that they shouldn’t worry–they’ll find out what they want to do during their freshman year. Instead, Stephens argues, we should be encouraging these people to put off college until they can find out what they really want in work and life.
“We’re told that college is a great place to ‘find yourself,’ but in reality there’s little guidance or coaching to help you understand potential careers,” he says.
So instead of dropping $30k to miraculously “discover” your calling in freshman year between gen-eds and keggers, Stephens suggest to put off college for the time being in favor of other life experiences, such as apprenticeships, internships, or skill-building gap years like UnCollege offers.
“Taking the time to understand that, before you waste time studying something you don’t actually want to do, is why research shows that those who take a gap year before college graduate more quickly, have higher GPAs, and are happier with their jobs.”
If you want to gain a specific skill set.
If you want to become a doctor, lawyer, or accountant, then absolutely, 100% you need to go to college. Those professions are dictated by regulatory bodies and the only way to become accredited is by following their regimented educational structures.
However, other skill sets–like those needed by the software developer, designer, photographer, or even journalist–can be acquired outside of the traditional education system–and those that desire these types of skill sets should look outside traditional education.
“Becoming a designer or programmer doesn’t take four years,” says Stephens. “Programs like General Assembly have proven they can take young people and, in three months, train them to be employable developers and designers. If you want to get into technology, consider a coding bootcamp to accelerate your career.”
If college is going to leave you with more than $50,000 in debt–and that scares you.
The final type of person that Stephens believes should give college a miss is also probably the most obvious: those that don’t want to rack up high five- or six-figure student loan debt. After all, if your student loans are going to keep you from enjoying life and working at two jobs just to pay them off so you can eventually work only your one dream job–is that worth it? Stephens doesn’t believe so, especially when, to his point above, the skills for so many in-demand jobs today can be acquired through workshops or online learning courses.
But that’s not to say that if you’re this type of person, you’ll never go to college. As Stephens points out, those in this category may want to consider looking at colleges overseas.
“College in Germany–and many other countries–costs about 280 euros ($315) a year,” he says. That’s a much wiser choice than a private liberal-arts college with a $60,000 per year price tag.”
No, that’s not a typo and Stephens didn’t misspeak. While a college education in most European countries has always been considerably cheaper than in the U.S., last year Germany actually eradicated all college tuition at state schools–even for international students. Of course, being an American student in Germany has its own challenges: you’ll need to learn how to both read and speak the language, get acclimated to new customs, and be comfortable being away from your family and friends.
Then again, coming out of college with virtually no debt is a pretty big consolation prize–not to mention the skills you’ll acquire learning another language and from living and working in a foreign country. That’s not only something your future bank account will consider a wise investment–but future employer as well. And if Germany isn’t your thing, there are a number of other countries where Americans can earn a degree for cents on the dollar.
But no matter what you decide to do–go to college, skip school for more hands-on real-world experience, or leave U.S. shores for education overseas–don’t rush into the decision. At 17 or 18, it may feel like your time is running out because everyone seems to be pressuring you to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life, but in actuality you are still very young with plenty of options and time–and taking an extra six months or a year to figure out what is really right for you could pay dividends for decades.