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Why College Is Overrated

We need to debunk the myth that a college degree leads to success. The pinnacle of education should revolve around learning and gaining knowledge.

We need to debunk the myth that a college degree leads to success. The pinnacle of education should revolve around learning and gaining knowledge.

A couple of months ago, I wrote an essay titled “College, Inc.,” which shed a light on the inevitable student loan crisis, and the collective action we can do to prevent it from happening. As a follow-up, I’ll share with you my view about why higher education is overrated.

Ben Casnocha recently wrote an article about what 17 million Americans got from a college degree. Not surprisingly, millions of Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that require less than the skills level associated with a bachelor’s degree:

For hundreds of thousands of Americans, spending four years and untold amounts of money (and debt?) gets you a job as a waiter, parking lot attendant, or janitor. Yet everyone from Barack Obama to Bill Gates keep pushing a college education as the way to secure one’s economic future. That is a view that should be heavily qualified.


Richard Vedder from The Chronicle of Higher Education digs a little deeper and debunks the myth that a college education will result in higher paying returns: “In other words, the stats have always been skewed for certain subgroups—particularly relatively disadvantaged groups with low education outcomes—are higher than the average marginal returns to education in the population as a whole.”

This is the fundamental problem with documentaries like Waiting for Superman and organizations like Teach for America. They are focused on a small subgroup of the entire education system. And here's the reality: not everyone will attend Harvard. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, about 18 million students enrolled in college in 2007. Harvard only enrolls 20,000 students per year and the rest of the top notch schools can only fit a specified number of students. So, where do the majority of students receive their higher education? Most attend either community colleges or non-prestigious four-year colleges. It makes one consider: What’s the value of a degree from college? A job as a waiter?

The Project on Student Debt makes a compelling case: “College seniors who graduated in 2009 carried an average of $24,000 in student loan debt. Meanwhile, unemployment for recent college graduates climbed from 5.8% in 2008 to 8.7% in 2009—the highest annual rate on record for college graduates aged 20 to 24.”

Some innovative leaders like Peter Thiel (you’ll know him from The Social Network) are taking matters into their own hands. Peter Thiel is paying students to quit college with something called the Thiel Felloswhip, which pays would-be entrepreneurs under-20 $100,000 to drop out of school.

Peter Thiel’s idea is a great one but I think there’s an even easier, scalable solution. We need to go back to the true goal of education: learning new skills. The grievously undervalued human capital issue here isn’t quality education in school but quality of skills in markets. This is the basic premise behind the edupunk movement: learning new skills that result from a DIY attitude. And the idea behind our start-up, Skillshare, which is a platform to learn anything from anyone.

Instead of looking at where students got their degree, we need to start looking at their real-world experience and the skills they’ve developed. Why hire a student with a degree in “marketing” when their real education is about to start? Like Sir Ken Robinson says: “We have to think differently about human capacity.” It starts by debunking the myth that higher education is an indicator of success, and focus on what matters most: doing shit.

Michael Karnjanaprakorn is the co-founder of Skillshare, which is a platform to learn anything, from anyone. He is based in New York City.

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