College is Pointless, but You Can Change That

How to Pick a Major and Not #Fail

graph on college grads average earnings

Source: The Atlantic

Middle class wages have stagnated for over a decade and college graduate wages are falling, so you might as well ignore those “average” wage estimates schools provide you during freshmen orientation because those will change – and likely fall – before you graduate in 4 – 7 years. For example, I majored in Business. When I graduated in 2005, Business majors were expected to average around $50,000 at their first job. I made $18,000 at my first job after college. Sure, $18k is greater than $0 and “a job is a job,” but I couldn’t help but wonder why I invested over $50,000 in my college “education” to make less money than I made as a High School Junior working at IHOP. I don’t say that to scare you. I say that to point out that not everyone is going to meet or exceed the average. Someone has to fall below, in my case way below, the average and that someone might be you.

I ask that you keep this in  mind when you’re balling out of control on school loan reimbursements at the club, car dealership, or at the mall with your college boo. You will have to pay that money back and you might not initially make the income you have in your imagination. Despite this reality, there is never a reason for your GPA to read like this in college.

Doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects and maybe three to four other majors aside, college will be fairly pointless for the majority of us. When’s the last time you were at work and thought to yourself, “Thank God I mastered the Pythagorean Theorem or I would never be able to complete this work assignment!” I doubt it was recently.

Most people will learn how to do their jobs through trial, error, and on the job experience. Still, many wouldn’t have even been able to get a job interview if we didn’t obtain that little piece of paper from that expensive institution we attended for 4 – 7 years. Does that mean we would have been any less equipped to successfully complete our jobs without a college degree? It’s hard to tell – and I guess we’ll never know. However, I’m fairly positive that for $50,000+ or less, we could have figured out how to do our jobs given 4 – 7 years to do so.

If your major doesn’t matter in the long run, then how do you pick one and not fail out of college like the almost 60 percent of people who begin and never graduate? I’ll happily enlighten you today. There are two secrets to mastering any college system in the known universe (or at least in America).

1) Study; and 2) Show up to class.

College is not that complicated. I’m amazed how many people go to college and don’t 1) study; and 2) show up, then wonder why they’re failing almost all of their classes. I’m not the smartest person in the world. I’m not even the smartest person on this website. I know plenty of people smarter than myself who should have graduated college, but they didn’t. Ninety-five percent of the time they failed to do one or both of aforementioned tips – study or show up.

In the end, I’m not for or against college. Hypocritically, I even plan on pursuing my Masters. However, I think college is the best worst plan for people who have no plan at all. If you’re an entrepreneur with a great idea like Facebook, come from a rich family, want to go into a branch of the military, want to take the chance at obtaining one of those six-figure-non-college-degree requiring jobs, or you simply don’t care about making a substantial (yet, not guaranteed) income in the future, then I honestly believe college will be nothing more than a complete waste of time and money for you. As with life, you will only get out what you put into college.

College is one of many paths to achieving your goals, but it is by no means the only path. Depending on your goals, it might not even be the best path. However, if the path you choose is routed through college, then I think the most important lesson you can learn is the one thing they never bother to teach you. You need to learn what you’re going to do after college while in college – and if you’re really smart, before you ever get to college. This was a lesson I had to learn on my own. It was very time consuming and very expensive. I don’t regret the experience, but I do wish I had learned it much sooner and much cheaper. It would have made my life a lot easier, but maybe life isn’t meant to be easy.

What are some informal lessons you learned from the college experience that you wish you knew sooner or that someone explained to you before you started? Let’s help others learn from our mistakes instead of suffering from them themselves.

A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others. – Latin Proverb

PS… Excuse all the hyperlinks. They’ve been made available to provide quick references for the college students among us.

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  • Mr_SD

    It had to be around 96-97, AOL chatroom's were poppin, Sega's Atari's and Nintendo's was the thing to have. I knew from that point on computers would rule the world one day. Today if you mistakenly leave ya phone home you'd actually die. Wanna know why? Because that handheld computer you call an iphone or android (or dare i say blackberry..lol) has basically taken over ya life. Its kinda like a 3rd lung.. I say all of that to say degree or no degree you cant go wrong studying technology! – trust me.

  • aftermathll

    Good Post.

    I'd also add the point of scholarships. They can be a lifesaver in college. But there are no scholarships for the "middle of the road student", everything's dedicated to you being (or talking a good game about being) at or near the top of the class in something. But there's definitely a hustle in the scholarship game as I knew people who were able to do searches for tons and tons of $1000 scholarships here and there to pay for tuition and books and all that stuff, and some even lucked into the half tuition or full tuition things that are so highly coveted.

    But in the end, college is another way that our society tries to use to put the population into classes. "Oh they went to college, they're educated". When "being educated" and going to college really have more of a correlation than an implied relationship. But supposedly if you can go to college and finish one of these majors, particularly with a high GPA, then its supposed to mean something about your ability to understand concepts, to acquire new information and use that to solve problems. While college degrees aren't too important, those last three are pretty important in the workplace, especially when you don't have anybody over your shoulder telling you that the problem you're trying to solve has been studied over and over again throughout history with attempts that may or may not fit the objective you've put forth.
    My recent post Visualizing Huffman Coding Trees

  • Smilez_920

    I don’t think I made a horrible choice, for the most part I had a solid plan. But I will tell people

    1) heavily research your schools career center. Ask them how many of their graduates work in their field of choice, how many career fairs they have, and what companies come on campus to recruit. People will spend 3 years in college and never go to the career center. They get to senior yer and finally step foot in the career center and look disappointed when they realize they’ve wasted thousands of dollars on a school with a crappy career center.

    2) don’t rush to college if your not ready. College is too expensive to go there and ” find yourself”. If your not sure why you really want to do , or are interested in tell your parents. Tell them you want to take a year off , work and really look at all your options before you make such an expensive investment.

    3) if you know what you want to do, really investigate the professor who are apart of that program. Have they worked in the field? How long did they work in the field? Why did they decided to teach? Do they help talented students find internships ?

  • http://stanoffewwords.wordpress.com Tristan.

    1. Looking back I wish I would've networked more. You'd think college is where you find your future business partners, a spouse, etc but I left just as I came. Alone. I was surprisingly popular on campus, yet I'm still the dude that struggles to put references together.

    2. Don't major in art. I love art, I draw, paint, graphic design, I took a few art courses just because, not only are art classes probably the most expensive courses you can take but as the chart shows there isn't much career options there, you could've freelanced on your own without college

    3. Piggybacking Smilez point, don't rush if you don't need to. Far too many people can't wait to get to college, never finish now have the same amount of debt but no degree to show for it. Get an associates first (buyer beware, most of the 2nd year courses dont transfer over), go part time and work (especially since most jobs want work experience anyway)
    My recent post Today’s Word is… PAST

    • Smilez_920

      Yes. Too many ppl go to college and don’t start networking until second semester senior yr or they don’t network at all. Your freshman/ sophomore yr you need to be heavily involved on campus, join young democrats , or the BUISNESS club, or the ( full in the blank) society. These are things you can put on your résumé especially if you hold an e-board Postion. Plus when these things are on your résumé you can get better internships. Even internships want to know your being active. Also network with professors. Atleast 4 professors in your major department should have worked in the field she/he teaches in. Also try to go to alumni / student mixers, alumni don’t mind helping as long as they see your’re driven.

      2) get your resume looked over by more than one person. A professor, a career advisor and a dean. Too many graduates with terribly written resumes.

    • http://www.singleblackmale.org/author/wisdomismisery/ WisdomIsMisery

      1) I def agree on the networking piece. Great addition. I also think this is getting easier and easier with websites like Facebook and LinkedIn. LinkedIn has already proven to be a valuable resource for myself. I essentially add everyone I meet at panels and networking events. Never know when you might need someone to help you get a job or write a letter of reference. In all actuality, you cant have too many contacts in your network.

      2) I agree. Although I wouldn’t tell someone not to major in art, because you should pursue whatever passion you want. I think this goes for any major BUT you have to be realistic about what you’re putting in and what you’ll be getting out. Plus, people need to take a real assessment of their career paths. A lot of people go to college and get a degree to work in a field where they don’t even need a degree.

      3) Agreed. The only point I would emphasize is to be careful. It’s easy to “take a year off” from college and that year becomes two, three, four, etc. Next thing you know, you just never go or life happens – relationships, marriage, kids, etc. Technically you’re never too old to go to college but the longer you wait, the more complicated your life and the excuses not to go can become.

  • Teyana

    This was a great post and actually funny im reading it before i submit my research proposal for my Masters degree. Fortunately my parents paid for my undergrad studies in law, but because i didnt have a cooking clue what i was getting myself into; im ready to re-route into something else. Ive been working as an attorney for 2 years now, I work in a big firm- if i stay at it for 5 years, i can build a comfortable life, but I want more. I am grateful for my job, its shown me a different route in mineral engineering and hopefully this time ill get it right!

    I co-sign all the comments above and just want to add that people must try and do "vacation work" with the prospective employer so that you can get a hands on feel of what you will do. It may be 2 weeks, but most importantly it will show you the characters you can expect to find in the 'ivory towers'.

    Tristan is right, it is all about connections and contacts because in 10 years time those people may be leaders of industry and you need their number on speed dial. Get out of your comfort zone and regular groups- because even when you get a job; its highly unlikely you will be at the same place as your BFF so learn interaction and small talk skills PRONTO!!
    I cant over emphasize this one: regardless of whether you not you go to college; READ!

    • Teyana

      Typo in the last sentence: *whether OR not you go to college.

  • Lioness Rising

    I think charts like these are very important, especially for those who don't have those close to them who have college educations and can help guide them through some of the obstacles of getting to college and graduating successfully.
    I agree with others that you have to be more purposeful when entering college. My mom would always say in typical Caribbean fashion that the only thing I was at school for was to learn. When I got to college I knew what she meant. Some people are in college for some college fantasy. You won't pay $20 to enter a club but you will pay $20k+ a year for Frat parties? Okay.

    You don't have to know exactly what you want to do, but you know that when you get out you need contacts who can get you wherever in life you need to go. Get involved in campus activities, prove yourself!

    The only other thing I will add is that I don't see college as a numbers game. Now that college has become for expensive, there is a tendency to look at outcomes. 20k at X college will get to Y income. When I was growing up my parents never phrased it that way. It was a chance to become an educated person, to explore academic interest, and grow. Yes, it will help you get a job but if you just focus on the end result you may miss some important aspects of college. With the job I am doing right now, I don't need a college diploma. That doesn't mean that I regret college at all. That also doesn't mean I will never use it, because I do plan to further my education and move up in my field. I value the experiences to develop myself.

    I think the bottom line is we need to reduce cost, get people to stop paying tons of money for crappy schools, and convince people who shouldn't be in college in the first place that their money is better spend elsewhere.

  • cynicaloptmst81

    A PLAN! A PLAN! A PLAN! Once I decided I didn't have the yrs of schooling in me to become a lawyer, I decided to go into the computer field. I was 12. I applied to a new magnet school with a computer/math magnet (aka trade), was accepted and spent 8th grade honing my craft. I got into a HS with a great IT magnet that has a GREAT relationship with area businesses. My junior year of HS, I applied for a job with my current employer as a summer aide…just to get my foot in the door. I got the job…and told them I had no intention leaving, lol. They transitioned me into a stay-in-school progam which allowed me to work alternate days M-F through my 12th grade yr. That year, I found out about another program at my job that would allow me to get my official position in my field BEFORE graduation after my soph year of college…essentially, holding my spot till I graduated and paying my tuition and books (WINNING). So I stayed in the other program till after my soph year of college (IT major) and then I applied for the second program that summer and got my job…a journeyman position with non-competitve promotions.

    Again, a plan will SAVE YOUR LIFE!

    • http://www.singleblackmale.org/author/wisdomismisery/ WisdomIsMisery

      Employers still pay for training and education? What a novel concept! Lol

      If any lurkers have program recommendations, please add those to the comments. One I recently foud out about is the ‘Cadet’ program that a number of police stations offer. They don’t pay well and I hear it’s a lot of grunt work BUT they will pay your tuition costs and most don’t have a requirement that you go into safety (police, fire, sheriff) after. Some do, so you should obviously look into that before signing up but I can not emphasize enough how BIG of a favor you’ll be doing yourself by going to school for free or by acquiring the minimal amount in school loans. You’ll literally be leaps an bounds beyond your peers who fail to do the same.

  • Peter Parker

    I am a bit bias, because the one thing a college degree or post-high school education does provide is something that no one can take from you which is an education. To me, in this society, an education is the best thing to have under your belt. Granted, it is definitely not a necessity and you can definitely make money in careers that don't require post-high school education (plummer, medical assistance, pharmacy tech, and etc.) Not only does going to college provide the opportunity to obtain a degree, but as stated above, the networking is priceless!

  • Peter Parker

    I am a bit bias, because the one thing a college degree or post-high school education does provide is something that no one can take from you which is an education. To me, in this society, an education is the best thing to have under your belt. Granted, it is definitely not a necessity and you can definitely make money in careers that don't require post-high school education (plummer, medical assistance, pharmacy tech, and etc.) Not only does going to college provide the opportunity to obtain a degree, but as stated above, the networking is priceless! I have many friends from my college experience that if I didn't attend college, I would not have met these individuals.

  • Jeremy

    If you're from money or you have a family member willing to take you into the family business straight out of high school, you have options at age 18.

    If you're not in that situation, as a young Black man/woman you NEED to have a college degree on your resume to open the door to Corporate America and a middle class lifestyle. More than likely you will dislike your first job, or even few jobs out of college, and will probably want to go back to school to improve your job prospects. At that point, your options are A) Layout $50k-$100k to go back to grad school B) Hop to another job that you may or may not like any better in a year C) Strike out on your own as an entrepreneur.

    I would disagree that a college degree is pointless but I would definitely say have a plan and go somewhere that you, or whomever is helping to pay, can afford so that you don't fall into debt slavery and have to work until you drop dead.

  • Peter Parker

    I am a bit bias, because the one thing a college degree or post-high school education does provide is something that no one can take from you which is an education. To me, in this society, an education is the best thing to have under your belt. Granted, it is definitely not a necessity and you can definitely make money in careers that don't require post-high school education (plummer, medical assistance, pharmacy tech, and etc.)

  • http://www.therealslimjackson.com Slim Jackson

    Great article. Hoping some other sites pick it up.

    I'll have more thoughts later when meetings ain't lurking around the corners of life.
    My recent post I Can’t Fit My Suit!

  • Peter Parker

    Having good friends is priceless to me! I think the graph you provided is a good when assessing what you should major in for college. Certain majors will require you to go further and pursue a master's or phd. Also, I have friends who didn't finish college or decided they would not pursue higher education and it's hard for them. Like a few people I know from high school who decided college or community college was not the route for them, it's been hard out here for them…. Anyways, to me an education is the best investment you can make as long as you have a plan and that plan is in alignment with what you are passionate about.

    • Peter Parker

      #1 I am a bit bias, because the one thing a college degree or post-high school education does provide is something that no one can take from you which is an education. To me, in this society, an education is the best thing to have under your belt. Granted, it is definitely not a necessity and you can definitely make money in careers that don't require post-high school education (plummer, medical assistance, pharmacy tech, and etc.) Not only does going to college provide the opportunity to obtain a degree, but as stated above, the networking is priceless! I have many friends from my college experience that if I didn't attend college, I would not have met these individuals.

    • Peter Parker

      The first part of my response did not post: I wanted to say that I am a bit bias also because education is the one thing no one can take away from you. I do agree that it is not for everyone and that you definitely need a plane either before or during your college years, but going to college was the best thing I could have done. I think the networking piece is very important because you will meet life long friends and college.

  • blackprofessor

    Interesting post! I speak as a former college student and a current college professor. I think that college is very necessary to make the appropriate connections to get you where you want to be in life. Closed mouths don't get fed! If you aren't willing to talk to your professors about your plans and heed their advice, then college can be a waste of time. The world is very small, especially for professional Blacks so college, more often than not, is your entry point into the world you are trying to gain entrance to.

    I have two examples of undergrads. One didn't take my advice and one did. The former took my class and then worked in my research lab. She is applying to med school and I gave her the information of a famous Black MD I am friends with. He is very well connected around the country and more importantly, could tell her how to get med school paid for to reduce her debt load. Most doctors graduate with six figure debt but he was going to coach her on what not do to. She never reached out and didn't get the information.

    Another undergrad worked in my lab and wasn't sure if she wanted to do clinical work or psychological research. I put her in touch with a Black clinician and a Black professor at another institution. She has properly worked those channels and has received advice, more connections and information for how she wants to proceed. She is clear on what she wants to do now and the path is literally laid out before her. In addition to me, she has added two mentors of color who are ready to assist her whenever she needs help.

    Those are just two stories that come to mind, but this happens all the time and my own story is very similar. The world is based on who you know and who they know. Can you make those connections if you are not in college? Sure, anything is possible. It is just more improbable that you won't make those connections outside of a college setting.

    • http://www.singleblackmale.org/author/wisdomismisery/ WisdomIsMisery

      Thanks for the comment and firsthand perspective.

  • DeKeLa

    College is a filter in our economy to separate people into classes such as Blue Collar, White Collar, Management, etc. Hence why the majority of Jobs don't require more than basic skills to perform, but still require (some) college education. Let's not forget the historical economic and racial divide that perpetrated for years, guaranteeing all but a certain sub-sector of the population (There was/is a Federal Mandate quota implemented for a reason)

    . Typically the only career paths that require the formal education are Professions i.e. Lawers, Doctors, Engineers, Scientists,Medical, Accounting where you have specific training in that field of study.

    What's worse is this country's strong disdain for Tradesman work (Electrician, Plumbers, Mechanics, Masons, Carpenters etc.) which is looked at as low brow, but their salaries match and exceed quite a few of the jobs on that chart.

    • DeKeLa

      Please excuse the typos, I was rushing to type on a smart phone. My bad y'all.

  • Renata

    Great article! College is an interesting notion that I have conflicting ideas on. I have two interesting subset of friends. One subset of friends who have benefited greatly from their college education and have used their specific degrees to find jobs in that field or related one. These people included accountants, engineers, educators, and psychologists. Then I have another subset of friends who were business, marketing, or technology majors that often found themselves in careers that didnt make use of any of their college education. Its just so hit or miss. Or maybe it has to do with how generic your major is, or how you decide to find your niche before or once your graduate.

    All I do know is, that I would advise anyone who’s deciding what to major in or where to attend school, is to find the school where you can get the most for your dollar. Also to think through hard about what you may enjoy doing for the rest of your life. Also if that happens to be something that requires a “generic” major, then have a real plan of how you want to utilize internships, your college name or alumni, or other networks to get what you want.

  • Bree

    I like this sentence right here – “you should still go to college, the right way.”

    Bottom line is for most all jobs, even somewhat remedial jobs like being an admin assistant or a legal assistant, or customer service position you will need at least a Bachelors in something nowadays. Granted this also depends on what city and state you live in. Nowadays you also need good credit to work in collections or certain customer service positions, again depending on what state you live in.

    Caveat is this, if you live in a state where no degree is required for most non management positions like customer service and administrative, your probably not making as much money as opposed to if you lived in NY, Philly, Jersey, DC, MD or Chicago or any big metro city.

    So that piece of paper will get your foot in the door and get you an interview because I know in DC & MD a lot of places won’t even look at your resume for more than a few seconds if you don’t have some type of Degree. You can also get a certificate or training and that will work. I am getting my Property Management BOMI certification as we speak. That’s really all I need to be a Property Manager.

    I agree to a point that college can be a waste of money if you don’t know what u want to do and if you are just goin to obtain knowledge in a field and major in something just because you like it. The fields that you like sometimes do not make you any money unless you have a PHD in them and are a professor or something. I have a BA in Psychology and only used it while I was in college, go figure.

    So college taught me that I should’ve got a scholarship. I could’ve done like my bff and wrote a paper and got a full scholarship funded by Coca-Cola. But I was too busy partying and hanging out and trying to get out of highschool. It also taught me to major in something not just that I liked, but that would pay me enough where it would be a return on my investment. Fortunately my family had the money to pay for my college education thru saving bonds and trust funds. So I have no loans to pay back, thank goodness. I should’ve been smarter though and got a scholarship and double majored and got my Masters degree. I also should’ve thought more about how I would make money to finance getting a PHD in psychology. I had enough for undergrad, but not grad school so that was it for me. I didn’t want to have to pay any student loans so I stopped at a BA. I toy with the idea of getting a Masters, but then change my mind. It’s just too expensive.

    I think the smartest things highschoolers and college freshman can do is Research Everything. Research what u want to major in, not just the available jobs but how much it will cost to get the education you need to do it.

    If your interested in Engineering or CIS or anything in that field you can take classes and get certified in various programs and get a job. Many times the comany u work for will pay for you to keep up the certs and further training. From people I know who do this for a living you don’t necessarily need a degree for Engineering or CIS and stuff like web design and things like that. So you should also research and find out if a degree is absolutely necessary for what you want to do.

    Also work as much as you can while in college so your resume doesn’t look like dry and empty like no mans land. Try to get in with the company u worked for/interned for while in college, that way your more likely to get a higher starting salary because you have a work history there. Also plan as best as you can for The Big Payback. See how much you of your education you can finance yourself. If u do loan deferral save some of the money so you can pay back as much as possible and get it paid off as quickly as possible. Start off in Community College then transfer to a four year college. This saves some money too. I agree with Tristian that networking and keeping in touch with the people in your classmates and professors is important and can help a great deal. Of course research your major as far as how much you will make and find out if you need a degree in it or not.

    Be mindful of your lifestyle. If your not living large you will have more money to put towards paying off student loans.

    One thing I think that needs to be incorporated in every curriculum that my school WSSU had is a World of Work class. This class teaches you how to right resume’s, cover letters, and interviewing skills. Cause if you have Masters degree and can’t right a decent legible resume and cover letter and interview properly your degree won’t mean much. You won’t be able to even get your foot in the door.

    I also think every college needs to provide and require money management courses. They should have people that work in finance and investing and budgeting to teach students the best ways to manage their money and teach them about 401K’s and IRA’s and investments and stocks and bonds and all of those things. Students need to know more than basic bank info like savings and checking accounts.

    I think this would help a lot more people manage their money well and not be in so much debt.

    • Peter Parker

      Wsup fellow RAM. WSSU in the HOUSE!

  • Naija

    Just doing a quick browse-by. Great post!

  • http://glippost.wordpress.com Darrk Gable

    On the real, this should be required reading for all high school seniors, and college freshman, as well as their parents. Those above freshman status are already sucked into the machine. I myself am a 14 year student working on an as yet, unfinished Bachelors. I should have been done, but slacking here and there, and the cares of life caught up to me. Now I’m at the point where I don’t want to even be in school.anymore, but life has made it so I feel like I need it to improve my standing as well as that of my family. The kicker is what I’m majoring in, I doubt I’ll be working in when I do graduate.

    For those caught up in the cycle, they need to do whatever is necessary to complete it. That includes buckling down and getting that degree. Just realize, the game continually changes and how it’s played today may very well be different tomorrow.

  • SkinsFan28

    There is a program I was apart of called INROADS (http://www.inroads.org/). It's for talented minorities(Black,Native American, Latino/Hispanic) and places them in internships while in school. I joined my senior year in high school but you can also join I believe up until your junior year in college.