Only stupid people wasting money on pointless education
Just kidding. The real subtitle is...
Only mistaken beliefs about the connection between college education and career prospects
I have two brothers in law. One majored in engineering and the other in Kligon. Who do you think has better career prospects?
What if I told you that my engineering brother in law cuts grass in the summer and works with a moving company the rest of the year? On the other hand, my Klingon brother in law works as a board game designer at the most rapidly growing board game company in the United States. Who is more successful now?
Okay, let's add one more wrinkle to this. My engineering brother-in-law owns the lawn care company and the moving company so he's actually earning close to $750K per year, whereas my board game designer brother earns the comparably paltry sum of $75K per year. Who has better career prospects?
By the way, almost none of this is true, but I'm still about to make some brilliant points, so keep reading.
College degrees do not entitle us to stable, reliable careers.
My undergraduate degree was in economics. I say that as if I have other degrees, but I don't. Unlike my husband, I am not motivated to earn more degrees than Farenheit.
My husband's first degree was in bio-chemistry, and his Master's was in Materials Science and Engineering.
We have degrees in the "right" fields. The fields that have lots of job prospects. However, both my husband and I had a hard time landing our first jobs out of college. Shockingly, it seems that businesses aren't actually all that eager to hire unproven young people with no relevant work experience.
Almost exactly one year ago, one third of my department was laid off. Despite being talented "tech" people, a few former co-workers had difficulty finding good jobs. This seems pretty similar to the experience that Brian at DebtDiscipline shared when he openly walked through finding a new job after working in IT for over 20 years.
Layoffs happen, industry changes in the blink of an eye. Macro-economics shift during times of peace or war. The most valuable skills today are rarely the most valuable skills tomorrow.
Majoring in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering or Math) is no guarantee that you'll have job much less a career a decade from now. Simply put, college degrees, and even college degrees in currently marketable majors are no guarantee that you'll have the career you want.
Law used to be considered a solid career choice. These days, it's just as likely that you know a lawyer earning $39K per year after having taken on six figures of debt (don't worry, they are digging out rapidly), or even worse, a JD who has never practiced yet has $500K in law school debt. Who is to say that medicine or engineering won't be the next law?
It is absolutely crazy to think that a degree will ever lead to a stable career. A degree means you completed a course of study. It means nothing as to whether or not you should have career prospects now or in the future.
As a parent, the last thing I ever want to do to my kid is teach him that if he gets a degree that the natural consequence of the degree will be a stable career. It's simply not true.
Our kids can't afford (financially) to buy into this kind of thinking, and as parents and educators we need to do our best to not perpetuate this myth.
Stable, reliable careers don't exist.
Some fields (like hairdressing, or teaching, or marketing) have been around for decades or even centuries, and the fields don't seem like they are going anywhere. However, just because a field is expected to exist for the next century doesn't mean that you'll be able to generate a stable career in that field.
I have no doubt that computer programming is going to continue to grow as a career field over the next four decades. The world is becoming more digitized, and we need more people who can program. But coding in and of itself is simply learning a language. Nearly anyone can do it. I have no reason to believe that computer programmers in the United States will be able to maintain a high paying career for the next few decades. Many computer programming jobs will move off shore, just as manufacturing has moved off-shore over the last several decades.
This isn't to say that no computer programmers will make tons of money over the next forty years. In fact, I think a certain type of programmer (programmers who can also speak the language of business) will increase in value. However, computer programming careers aren't inherently stable. It's just that career all-stars are more likely than most to have a steady stream of "career suitors" wearing a digital path to their LinkedIn Profile.
No career or job path is inherently stable. Stability is partially a function of being a rockstar at your job, and partially a function of being able to adapt to changes more quickly than everyone else. We do a disservice to young people when we ask them to think about career stability when they choose a college major. It indicates to young people that certain majors lead to stable careers. That is simply not true because stable careers don't exist. The best you can do is to choose a reasonable field of study, and learn to adapt quickly, or build your own career path that is less reliant on other people.
College degrees aren't a career safety net.
I really loved my ungraduate experience. I have no doubt that it positively shaped the woman that I've become. Even though I'm way different than I ever expected, and I have no regrets about getting a degree or the major that I chose, I don't view my degree as a college safety net.
I didn't get my first job because of my credentials. I got my first job because I found someone willing to take a risk on me (for which I am sincerely grateful). My next jobs and promotions were outflows of my first job. When I think about exiting the workforce, I can't lie to myself and say, "At least I have a great degree in economics, so I'll be able to find work again." It wasn't true six years ago, so it can hardly be true now.
Yes, I can make it through an automated mechanism that prompts me for a degree, but that's of little comfort to me. I find much more comfort in the fact that I've learned how to add value to others, and that businesses are usually willing to pay for that.
Degrees, even of the good variety aren't a real safety net. At best, degrees provide some minimum prerequisite. Real safety nets and real stability is about understanding how you add value, and assertively positioning yourself to take advantage of opportunities (and wealthy parents or big piles of money help too).
I'm a wife, a mom, an employee, and a personal finance nerd who is devoted to spreadsheeting my way through life.