Educational Value – Is College the Best Option?

My first semester of college was in the fall of 1990.  Like most families, both of my parents worked and we lived paycheck to paycheck.  My dad had money put back, but that was emergency money.  To be honest, my dad was and still is a bit tight when it comes to money.  He somehow convinced me to live at home those first few semesters.  If I lived at home, and kept the grades up, he would pay for college.  What could go wrong?

The party ended around 2 AM.  My buddy dropped me off at the house around 2:30.  No curfew was in effect, but if I woke anyone up, there would be hell to pay.  I perfected the quiet entrance, even when I was a few sheets past toasty.  Food is the first order of business.  I scarf down whatever I could get to first and then head to my room.  I fall onto the bed, clothes and shoes still on, and bury my face into the pillow.  History class is at 8 AM.  No need to set the alarm, I have no plans to get up until noon.

This dream is one of those realistic dreams.  There is a bright light and someone is kicking me.  I can hear a muffled voice in the distance.  “Boy, get up.  Your class starts in 45 minutes.”  Crap, this is not a dream.  No need to attempt to argue with dad.  Two seconds into that conversation and he would be yelling about how he is paying for this education and I am going to get educated.  Still clothed from last night, I only needed to change shirts, brush my teeth, and put on a hat.  We pulled out of the driveway at the same time.  Dad left for work while I made one trip around the block and hit the sack.

This ended up being my routine for much of my first three semesters and my GPA was proof.  First semester was a 2.3, then dropped to a 1.9, and finished off with a paltry .9.  At the end of the third semester, dad was ready for a chat.  He decided the best course of action was for me to pay for my own education until my grades went up.  Given that I worked part time at Walmart, this was going to hurt.  Man, college is expensive.  I had to start drinking cheap beer and eating at home more often.

I paid my own way for a couple of semesters and had the grades going in the right direction.  To my dismay, the grades were not high enough for dad to foot the bill.  At twenty years old, I had to make my first adult decision.  After much deliberation, a friend and I decided we needed to join the Army and get the GI Bill.  It only required a four year enlistment and they would pay for college.  We had the desire to get out of our small town so this seemed like a viable plan.   Let’s do it.

Now is not the time to get into my military stories and lessons, but they will appear in the future.  My brief time in the U.S. Army was one of the most beneficial times in my life.  I am happy to say I served my country and I am proud of that service.  As a future discussion teaser, I plan to cover why it would be a good idea to require all high school students, male and female, to attend basic training.

Upon returning from active duty, I initiated my GI Bill and returned to college.  The difference in my focus was astounding.  I was ready to learn.  While in the military, I was introduced to computers.  As it turns out, I had a knack for them and was given responsibility of our unit’s systems.  My college counselor put me on a technology track.  A couple of semesters in, I had this feeling I was being left behind and I needed to explore other options for technology education.

After a few months of research, I discovered a certification track with Microsoft.  The program was called, MCSE, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer.  It was a nine month school covering a wide range of Microsoft technologies.  Rumor had it the course was hard, but it pretty much guaranteed you a great salary and long term growth.  The downside, this was a trade certification not a college degree.  I decided to take my chances and converted my GI Bill to pay for the technical school.  I worked hard, because it was as hard as advertised, and found a job quickly for awesome pay.  I was making double what my college educated friends were making.

Completing the MCSE proved to be the right decision.  Over the next ten years, I would travel the world moving from one technical job to another.  In technology, the name of the game is experience.  Every career move I made was a move up the ladder of experience and pay.  Fifteen years after I started, with no college degree, I moved into management.  I am now the CIO of a medium sized company.  All that was done without a college degree.

I am not saying a college degree is not worth your time.  I completed my Bachelor’s degree last year, at forty-five years old.  The most important take away is that college is not the best option for everyone.  There are doors you may not be able to access, without a college degree, and that is ok.  It all depends on what doors you want to access.  I was fortunate to make CIO without a degree.  I had great mentors and worked for CEO’s that valued people, experience, and heart above a college degree.

I want to share another thought, which I feel a majority of young people don’t understand.  A College degree, whether it be a Bachelor’s, Master’s or PHD, does not guarantee success.  In fact, they don’t even guarantee a job.  A degree is now more of a prerequisite, not a competitive advantage.  Too often, a recent graduate will expect employers to lay at their feet and offer them a pile of money.  Very few employers will hand out big money to someone fresh out of college with no experience.

In today’s market, I see more people combining college degrees with industry certifications.  This combination has proved advantageous when searching for a job and advancing within a current job.  In some industries, like technology, a college degree can’t keep up with the pace of industry changes.  The key, to just about everything, is continuing education.  Industry certifications allow you to keep your skills up to date and show employers you are striving to get better.  There are many prosperous careers that don’t require a college degree and rely on certifications for proof of expertise.

If you decide to go the college route, give some serious consideration to the degree you pursue.  In my opinion, there are many degree options that are not that useful in the real world.  It is important to note that you don’t have to go to an Ivy League school to get the best degree.  In most cases, a degree is a degree.  There are exceptions, if you plan to be a doctor, lawyer or other highly specialized degree.  Don’t believe the hype of spending $150,000 for a degree you can get for $50,000 at a less well known but great school.  College debt is expensive, spend it wisely.

The most useful advice I can give you is always search for ways to expand your knowledge.  If you finish your degree, don’t stop taking classes, courses or certifications.  Online learning systems have completely changed the education game.

In the end, the path you take is up to you.  The best thing you can do is plan out your career and design a path that gives you the best chance at success.