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Why you shouldn't go back to school

How much is too much to spend on an education?

Image of Don't Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything
Author: Kio Stark
Publisher: Kio Stark (2013)
Binding: Paperback, 214 pages

We don't just waste money on little things. We throw money away on big ticket items, too. Take education. This week, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau published a report that identified student loan debt as a roadblock to what it calls "a full financial life for consumers." It seems the burden of paying for college is preventing a whole generation of educated, young people from owning homes, saving for retirement and becoming entrepreneurs.

With all that in mind, we asked you to tell us whether you've ever thought your costly college education wasn't worth it. And plenty of you were quick to tell us that you considered your degrees a waste of money.

Our Facebook friend Kat Gregor has thought a lot about the value of her degree. She went to art school in New York City and graduated in 2008. But today, she's still trying to pay off over $200,000 in student debt.

"It was one of the greatest periods of my life," says Gregor. But from a monetary standpoint she has her doubts. 

So how much is too much to spend on an education? And what choices are out there for people who think a traditional expensive education is a waste of money?

Kio Stark has some ideas about this -- she interviewed scores of people wrestling with these questions for her new book, "Don't Go Back to School," and they came up with lots of alternatives.

"A lot of people think that they need to have the structure of school in order to learn," says Stark, "and one of the things that was important to me in writing the book was to give people a sense of how you can accomplish that without the structure of school to give models and techniques." 

Stark says it isn't easy, but it is definitely cheaper. And she's found that alternative education pays off in the long run too. 

"I think people always worry about, 'will I be able to get a job if I learn outside of school, if I don't have a degree.' And all the stories that I collected show that people have every opportunity to find work without having a degree," says Stark. "So I think five years from now, given the economic situation we're in, employers are going to have to respect people who have learned outside of school and their credentials are their experience."

Do you agree that education is a waste?

About the author

In more than 20 years in public radio, Barbara Bogaev has served as the longtime guest host of NPR’s flagship program Fresh Air with Terry Gross, as well as host of APM’s news and culture magazine, Weekend America and the weekly national documentary series, Soundprint.
Image of Don't Go Back to School: A Handbook for Learning Anything
Author: Kio Stark
Publisher: Kio Stark (2013)
Binding: Paperback, 214 pages
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Although I got my undergrad degree years ago, I don't think my experience is that different today. I dropped out of college after two years, got married, and began working in my field of journalism at relatively low wages for several years. While working full time, I went back to college. In the meantime, I applied for better jobs but either didn't get the interview or didn't get the job. Within a month of completing my degree, I was able to land a better job. I have no doubt that the degree gave me the edge.

Finishing a degree wasn't just about getting a better job. My college experience as a traditional student at a private college and later a non-traditional student a public university exposed me to new ideas, more knowledge, and critical thinking. Completing something on my own also gave me personal satisfaction. Through grants, scholarships, and hard work, I was able to graduate with very little debt. The debt was paid off long ago, and my husband and I have since put two sons through college. They now have good jobs, and we are all now free of college debt. We're not rich, monthly loan payments were not always easy, but I wouldn't do anything differently.

A college degree needs to be considered with economics in mind. The mythical "critical thinking" that some tout as being a benefit of a college degree cannot be proven and should be taken with much skepticism and discarded as an argument. There are ways of getting a degree without racking up draconian loans. When someone comes on your show with extraordinarily high loans for a questionable degree some push back is called for: the mental process needs to be explored. Or, to put it more bluntly, ask the caller "what were the thought processes when you were borrowing the money." Hundreds of thousands of dollars for an art degree defies common sense.

I don't think there is a problem going back to school; I don't think there's anything to regret about furthering your education. The primary problem is value; the returns (tangible or intangible) you expect for every dollar spent on education. This is a problem I deal with every day as I grapple with about $120k in debt from a "top tier" private institution for an MA in International Relations/International Economy, on top of another $40k from a satellite state undergraduate institution.

I did not go to school until I was 25 for financial aid reasons. I had just returned from a deployment to Iraq/Kuwait in the Army (as a Reservist) and from that experience, knew that I needed to turn my life around. I was very successful in my undergraduate program, earning a BA in Economics and Political Science; despite going to a large school, I received a lot of help and attention from the faculty, including a large grant to study abroad and several scholarships. By my junior year I had made up my mind that I wanted to be involved in International Relations.

The graduate schools that specialize in this field are few and far between, and mostly relegated to top-tier private institutions. After doing research (U.S. News, University websites, authors of academic literature, etc.). I narrowed my choices down to 2 private schools that seemed to suit my interests and were considered the best in the field of International Relations and then several other "safety" schools (to use the parlance of Elaine Benes) .

I was accepted to my top choice and jumped at the chance. The way it portrayed itself lent to the notion that it was geared toward practical application and not strictly academic theory. However, was After just one semester, however, I was deeply disappointed. While I was immersed in scholarly engagement with my fellow students , more so than at any point in my life, the pedagogical focus and methods, as well as the class sizes really weren't what I had expected, especially for the hefty price of tuition, fees, and general living expenses. Over a quarter of my classes had more students attending them than the average size of my undergraduate class (one class had atleast 180 students with 3 sections of 50-80 students each; another had so many students that they couldn't fit them all in the auditorium)... while challenging, many of the classes concentrated on theory... not one practicum was available in my field of specialization.

After graduating in 2010, ironically, despite all the hype of the university's "alumni network", I feel as though my military background was the most crucial part of my resume that helped me attain the job that I eventually found (within the Federal Government). I will note that the university's career services department did a good job preparing me for the position, and while the position required a graduate degree, I feel that I would have received more value out of a cheaper, state school. All the value-added parts of the program I went through, while good, really couldn't account for the lack of value that I got from the academic portion of my graduate school tenure.

It's hard to for me to justify my complaints because I am well paid and I enjoy my work. True, the grass might have been greener on the other side, but having been there before going through an expensive graduate program, I think I can say with some certainty that going for the best and greatest may not be the most prudent approach for all people, especially when you consider the debt involved.

I agree with the person who spoke about our excellent community colleges and CSUs and being able to get out debt free. I went to community college, a CSU, then graduate school at a UC: debt free. Granted the latter was paid by an inheritance, I still lived at home and did not live above my means. My friends that did the same now have houses (like myself) and have no student loan debt. In certain industries, say my friend who chose USC for law school (instead of a school that offered her more scholarship $$) is a different story. She chose USC for the name and was able to pay back her loans quicker than had she paid less at another school (she got a job at a better firm). However, I'm a teacher.. and for me... it worked out fine!

My husband, on the other hand, lived on pizza crusts he picked up around the cafeteria and paid his way through his undergrad degrees (he received two in four years) at UW (debt free). His hard work earned him a fellowship for grad school. His degrees do mean something too as he's in computer science. Work hard, pick a good field to be in, reap the rewards. Pick art or psychology and, well,.. good luck to you! I almost majored in music. Almost. I still enjoy playing, I just knew the reality of it.

Degrees aren't worthless, but don't pick worthless degrees :).

So far this exercise has been an economic one. Economics is not a predictive study. Let's look at the non-economic advantages of a college education. More education makes for better citizens, and teaches criticle thinking skills that serve in more than economic venues. No matter what career path you eventually take, studies in the 'Arts' (leading to a BA degree) will probably make you better able to see the bigger picture.

Then there are the 'intangibles' of education that those who do not go to college do not acquire.

If all the universities in the world disappeared "poof" in a puff of smoke, those 18 year olds that would have otherwise gone on to graduate from college would instead go on to earn 50% more than the other 18 years in their senior class without a degree. The people that are the smartest , hardest working, and most motivated will always do better than others. Correlation isn't proof of causation. Universities are claiming ownership of the success of these people and it isn't warrented. We need to get government out of financing secondary education because they're creating crazy inflation in prices and the value of a degree.

A degree is still important if you're not aiming to be an entrepreneur. I'm a graphic designer working a corporate job I love, making 60k/year and I have no debt.

The bulk of career-important knowledge was learned in community college, I also I went to a cheap state school to get my degree and made sure to get good internships during my time there.

A degree is still important if you're not aiming to be an entrepreneur. I'm a graphic designer working a corporate job I love, making 60k/year and I have no debt.

The bulk of career-important knowledge was learned in community college, I also I went to a cheap state school to get my degree and made sure to get good internships during my time there.

I think we need to start recognizing that much of the exorbitant college cost discussed in articles like these is associated with going away to a 4 yr college. While that's an amazing & wonderful experience, it's expensive, and may not make financial sense for everyone. But there is another option. In CA we have 110 amazing Community Colleges & 23 CSU campuses; you can complete your first 2 yrs of college at a local Community College for about $2,000 a yr in tuition. Then you can transfer to your closest CSU and finish up there for about $5500 a yr in tuition. If you choose to live at home and pursue this route, you can get a BA or BS and a great education for about $16,000 in tuition. I know a number of kids who have gone that route; working the whole time and living at home, and they graduated with a BS or BA from CSUN, a great local 4 yr state University with no debt; indeed in a # of cases with money in the bank! There are some excellent options that allow you to get a good education and obtain a quality degree without racking up $200,000 in debt.

Despite tuition going up, there are some excellent public universities with terrific fine arts programs for a fraction of $200,000. If you find the right school, you will have a terrific experience and make quality connections that will last a lifetime. I myself graduated with an MFA. Since selling art didn't pay the bills, I am currently studying to pass a network support certification exam. So, if you can't afford a bachelor's degree... consider studying and passing a certification exam (or two) instead.

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