Let me be clear upfront – this article is not my effort to convince you not to go to college like most loud-mouth influencers today. It’s instead an urging to change the attitude we have towards getting a college education. College isn’t for everyone, and that’s ok, but for those who want to get their degree, there’s some things you should know.

For most people, the reason they go to college is either because their parents told them to or because they want to get a “good job”. I get it, because I went to college for both of those reasons. While I don’t intend to argue with any parents, I do want to call out that getting a “good job” after college is not a guarantee like we might want to believe. The Wall Street Journal did a study in 2018 that showed 43% of college graduates are in a job that did not require a college degree. Almost half of college grads were in a job they didn’t even need to go to college for! Couple that with the average U.S. student loan debt of $30,000, it makes you wonder if college is worth the investment. Now, I happen to think that it is, but only if you approach it the right way. 

Let me show you what I mean.

First, remember what a college degree really is – it’s proof that you completed a structured program that focused on a particular subject (it doesn’t mean you are an expert or can contribute value to a company). You likely learned a lot about that specific subject like chemistry or marketing, but did you know most of the time your degree is useless in your job? The 2010 U.S. Census data proved this when it showed that only 27% of college grads held a job that matched their major (likely related to the professional fields like medicine, law, engineering, accounting, etc). A college degree is simply proof that you completed a structured program that requires focus, thinking, and discipline. Nothing more.

So if what you study in college doesn’t largely affect your employment, what is the point of going to all the classes and paying for credit hours?

Ok, so based on all that, where do we go from here? How do we attend college and actually get something out of it? Answer – you need to figure out how to do college the right way, and it is centered on these 2 principles:

Develop yourself. College is a period of time where you get to define who you are. Are you going to be overweight or in shape? Are you going to be disciplined or lazy? Are you going to read self-improvement books or play mindless video games? Are you going to build solid relationships or get drunk at parties? Are you going to take control of your life or just go with the flow? College is the time to set your course and develop into the person you want to become. Notice that none of these relate to academics by the way. 

I’m not naive, I’m not expecting a 20 year old student to suddenly drop the video games and turn into a disciplined professional (I definitely wouldn’t have done that). What I am saying is that the voices of our parents, teachers, staff, and society need to stress the importance of deciding who we want to be in these college years. If you are a college student, start thinking about your habits and priorities – are they helping you build the future career you want? Are they setting you up to live a free life where you control what you do, who you associate with and how you spend your money?

Practical Stuff: If you want to start developing yourself, here are some things you can do

  • Start working out, every day.
  • Read amazing books that will make you better at what you are interested in.
  • Find positive friends and influences and make them central in your life.
  • Create a vision for what you want your future to be. Don’t live in the moment.

Gain real-world experience. When you interview for your first job, I guarantee they will not ask you to balance a chemistry equation or describe Newton’s 2nd law of thermodynamics (stuff you would have learned in college). Instead, they are going to ask for an example of you leading a team, or solving a problem, or acting with integrity. They are going to ask why you are interested in their particular line of work. And you better have some good answers for them. The only way to answer these questions effectively is by getting as much experience as you can outside the classroom. Working a job, being the captain of a sports team, leading a student group, getting an internship, attending conferences, finding a mentor – these are the experiences you need to prove you can provide value to the company you want to work at.

Practical Stuff: If you want to get real-world experience, here is what you can do:

  • Take a job that challenges you
  • Shadow or intern people in the career you are interested in
  • Identify a mentor who is in the position you want to be in 10 years and ask them to coffee
  • Take a leadership role in a club, job, class, or charity
  • Go create something that is all yours. Dream it, build it, perfect it.

Am I saying that the content in the classes is not important? Generally, yes, and the data from the 2010 U.S. Census supports that assertion. It is much more valuable today to gain real-world experience that can be instantly applied to a job as opposed to getting straight A’s in school. If a straight A student with no experience applies to the same job as a below-average student with proven soft skills and experience, the straight A student is going to be looking for another job…every time.

I still believe in the value of a college education because it forces you to grow your mind and challenges your intellect to grow. A college degree also still remains the gateway to many rewarding careers, which also makes it worth pursuing. But you won’t learn the principles we just discussed in the classroom. There is no course on how to develop yourself. Your curriculum (likely) does not force you to take an internship and get real world leadership experience. You have to make it happen on your own. It’s a shame (since you pay so much for an education), but it’s the truth.  A college education certainly is still relevant today, but the prior guarantee of a good job has vanished. College grads must prioritize personal development and experiences that no classroom or lecture can provide. 


For more ideas and practical ways to build your best life, listen to the Big Things Done Podcast anywhere you find podcasts.