A message for high schoolers

tl;dr: Before you start looking at colleges, be able to discuss coherently the following three topics:

  1. Credentialism
  2. Signaling
  3. Opportunity cost

If you can wrap your head around that, you'll be ahead of most of your peers. I've got a few links for you farther down in this article.

What you should learn in college, or at least know by the time you graduate:

  • time management
  • how to interact with peers as you might in a professional environment
  • research skills
  • problem solving
  • How to write a paper
  • How to get along with roommates
  • How to manage money 
  • How to party
  • How to shirk the minimum age drinking limit
  • "How to think" (or so says the New York Times)
  • How to deal with people you don't like
  • How to put up with arbitrary rules
  • How to deal with often arcane syllubi 
  • How to prepare for tests
  • How to identify the expectations of people of influence, and then meet those expectations
  • How to live within your means
  • How to file your taxes
  • How to conduct a job search
  • How to perform well at work
  • How to cook simple, easy, healthy, cost-effective meals
  • How to budget (and stick to it)
  • How to set up and contribute to retirement accounts
  • How to change a tire
  • How to identify knowledgeable people who are not compelled by their job to help you, and solicit their help

Items from the above list you can learn without going to college:

  • time management
  • how to interact with peers as you might in a professional environment
  • research skills
  • problem solving
  • How to write a paper
  • How to get along with roommates
  • How to manage money 
  • How to party
  • How to shirk the minimum age drinking limit
  • "How to think" (or so says the New York Times)
  • How to deal with people you don't like
  • How to put up with arbitrary rules
  • How to deal with often arcane syllubi 
  • How to prepare for tests
  • How to identify the expectations of people of influence, and then meet those expectations
  • How to live within your means
  • How to file your taxes
  • How to conduct a job search
  • How to perform well at work
  • How to cook simple, easy, healthy, cost-effective meals
  • How to budget (and stick to it)
  • How to set up and contribute to retirement accounts
  • How to change a tire
  • How to identify knowledgeable people who are not compelled by their job to help you, and solicit their help

Items from list one not on list two:

  • n/a
OK, Josh, are you arguing that no one should go to college?

Not at all, anonymous internet person.

I think college is a good fit for lots of people, as long as they are looking for something that's not on the above list. If they are looking for something that can be had only by going to college, they should do two things:

  1. Evaluate if the thing is really worth having
  2. Determine if it can be had in any other way

For example, so many people still stay the degree matters. "Oh, you can't get a certain job without having a degree" or "you can't get promoted beyond a certain level without a degree."

This may be true, in which case you've got research to do. Interview people who have done well for themselves, and find out how much of it could have happened without a degree. 

Decide if it's possible that you don't want to work for a company that requires a degree.

Just because a job requires a degree doesn't mean that it requires a degree. A company that publishes this requirement often doesn't actually put it in practice, which means you don't need a degree to work at that company. (See "signaling, qualifying applicants")

Conversely, you should not aspire to work at a company that enforces this requirement. College is mostly signaling and credentialism. From EconLib

According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows ("signals") about the student.  Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist - three crucial traits for almost any job.

So, if the value of college is because of the degree-as-signal component, do it as cheaply and quickly as possible. There is no other reasonable way to go.

If the value of college is in credentialism, go to the best college you can. (Harvard, Yale, MIT, or as close to those as you can get.)

If the value of college is in preparing you for a job by giving you practical skills that directly relate to future employment, take off the rose-colored glasses and think outside the box. 

As I mentioned, there are plenty of good reasons to go to college, but it's too expensive and time consuming to not evaluate with a critical eye.

And yet, this year, millions of students are taking out billions of dollars in loans to fund four years of mediocre education to provide a degree that no one will care about, to get a job that allows them to pay off that loan sometime in the next fifteen years.

Full disclosure: I went to college. I was a poor student. I think I had a low B average, (I failed a class my last semester. oops). Besides meeting Kristi and some good friends, I'm hard pressed to find the value of my education. When I consider the opportunity cost, besides my wife and my friends, it was a huge net loss. 

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

PPS Forward this to your favorite high schooler. Might save them a couple ten thousand dollars.

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