Who Should and Should Not Be Going to College?

I divide this question into three categories of high school students: academic underachievers, academic overachievers, and independent overachievers.

1. I think a lot of underachieving high school students should not be going to four year colleges. Marty Nemko says the “U.S. Department of Education reports that among the hundreds of thousands of college freshmen who graduated in the bottom 40% of their high school class, 2/3 do not graduate even if given 8 1/2 years. Most mediocre high school students would be wiser to consider apprenticeship programs, short-term career training programs at community college, or learning entrepreneurship at the elbow of good and ethical small business owners.”

2. Among high achieving high school students, I think most should enroll in a four year college. This includes liberal arts programs. Even stand-out students in high school may not be motivated enough to do independent education. Many benefit from structure. All benefit from obtaining the credential.

3. Maybe 5-10% of high school high achievers should pursue higher education without attending a four year traditional college. This is the “Real Life University” option for entrepreneurial spirits. This is for folks who can learn a lot on their own, can assemble mentors and advisors to guide the process, and most of all find their creativity smothered by drudgery of school — or otherwise are on a trajectory higher than what college can offer — and therefore need an alternative path. Dropping out after a semester or two may be the optimal point in terms of a taste of a common experience and the institutional affiliation…

So, I would say among high school grads currently enrolling in four year college, ~ 25% of them should instead be going to vocational schools and the like, ~ 65% should stay in four year colleges, and 10% (the more independent of the high achievers) should be exploring alternative paths to get educated.

I expect the percentage of students in #3 — those high achievers who choose to not graduate from a four year — will grow over time thanks to the weakening signaling value of a B.A. and the emergence of semi-structured learning options for high potential 18 year-olds.

Here is my post on the three categories of benefit of going to college. For clarity and concision, I believe it stands above my other posts on the topic.

21 Responses to Who Should and Should Not Be Going to College?

  1. Justin Wehr says:

    Good way of looking at it. It might vary a bit depending on the goal. If the goal is maximizing job security or hire-ability, the 2nd group should be higher. If maximizing lifetime income or happiness, I think the 3rd group should be higher.

    Probably more than half of the people reading this blog would do best in the 3rd group.

  2. Ben you’re right that their is a weaker signal in a BA degree by itself . Most career fields leading to the upper middle or upper class demand graduate school degrees or certifications which require undergraduate degrees. I think this is where your path of independent entrepreneurship has led to a perceived bias that I don’t believe is grounded in the marketplace.

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    "Most career fields leading to upper middle or upper class" — maybe for the
    very upper class, but not lower than that. It's a small percentage.

  4. JU says:

    Ben, the percentages do not add up:

    “3. Maybe 5-10% of high school high achievers should pursue higher education without attending a four year traditional college.”

    “and 10% (the more independent of the high achievers) should be exploring alternative paths to get educated.”

    You said 5-10% of “high school high achievers”

    Great article nonetheless

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    I meant 5-10% overall….

  6. DaveJ says:

    I think your analysis of the best paths for these three groups is reasonable, but I don’t think this is a very good partition of the population for two reasons:

    1. You’re missing the big-fat-middle of the bell curve. Just as a guess, I’d venture that 40% of the student population is neither under- or over-achieving. So – what should they do?

    2. I think you far overestimate the number of high school students who can self-educate and who can do things like put together a team of advisors. I’ve only met a few people in my life who could do it at that age. If it was even 1% I’d be shocked.

  7. The time for critically analyzing the structure of the US education system has arrived, and your ideas are certainly worthy of consideration. Anyone who doubts that changes are coming to higher education should read up on the Bologna Accords linked below.

    link to en.wikipedia.org

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

  8. I don’t believe that is the case. If I didn’t have a masters degree I wouldn’t have gotten my entry-level job with the federal government. I’m no executive, but that’s the requirements for the job.
    Nearly 9% of Americans now hold some form of graduate degree. There is education inflation and if you don’t have the credentials then career paths can close for you.
    The reason I’ve had such a negative reaction to your post is that you would counsel a significant amount of our highest performers to forego traditional education to follow your path. I just view it as an attempt to rationalize your decisions. That’s not wrong, it’s your blog and I like coming here, but think about it.

    • Brandon says:

      Ben never said that people should not go on and earn a Master’s degree. He simply broke down classes of people, using his own estimates, and logically thought through a situation. Telling every kid to go to college is absurd. What’s even more absurd is to think high achieving kids cannot do as well as they could if they decided to go to college. Also, think about your statement, “I just view it as an attempt to rationalize your decisions. That’s not wrong, it’s your blog and I like coming here, but think about it.” Do you honestly think Ben needs to ‘rationalize’ his decision for not completing his degree? That’s preposterous. Ben is an extremely intelligent and entrepreneurial individuals. Even if his business did not succeed, the skills and thick skin he picked up along the way would suit him much better than a really expensive piece of paper.

      Your argument for earning more degrees because a job market is becoming increasingly more competitive and formally educated is also flawed. Why fight fire with fire? If you want to get into a building and there’s a long line bottle-necking the front entrance, just use some common sense and walk through the back door.

      My point: develop REAL skills, add value to people’s lives, and things will come around for you.

  9. Krishna says:

    The base assumption of this post harps around the point that under-achievers or over-achievers in High School remain so forever. In quite a few cases, under-achievers in High School recognize their sloppiness, regret it and work hard thro college to emerge as super-achievers. For such transformational types, this formula may not necessarily apply.

  10. Ben Casnocha says:

    I'd say this is rare.

  11. Ben Casnocha says:

    We would have to look at the data around how many entry level jobs require a masters degree. It's definitely lower than 9%. I'd guess maybe 1-2% of all
    jobs.

    I do not believe 5-10% of high achievers (so it's a lower total percentage) is a "significant amount of our highest performers." But it depends on the
    person I suppose for how you view those numbers.

    If I am just trying to rationalize my own decisions, then surely I can say you are just rationalizing yours. That's why impugning motives in this instance is not very productive.

    • Brandon says:

      Ben never said that people should not go on and earn a Master’s degree. He simply broke down classes of people, using his own estimates, and logically thought through a situation. Telling every kid to go to college is absurd. What’s even more absurd is to think high achieving kids cannot do as well as they could if they decided to go to college. Also, think about your statement, “I just view it as an attempt to rationalize your decisions. That’s not wrong, it’s your blog and I like coming here, but think about it.” Do you honestly think Ben needs to ‘rationalize’ his decision for not completing his degree? That’s preposterous. Ben is an extremely intelligent and entrepreneurial individuals. Even if his business did not succeed, the skills and thick skin he picked up along the way would suit him much better than a really expensive piece of paper.

      Your argument for earning more degrees because a job market is becoming increasingly more competitive and formally educated is also flawed. Why fight fire with fire? If you want to get into a building and there’s a long line bottle-necking the front entrance, just use some common sense and walk through the back door.

      My point: develop REAL skills, add value to people’s lives, and things will come around for you.

  12. Ben Casnocha says:

    1. If they graduate in the bottom 40% of the high school class, perhaps community college. If they're above that, they should try a four year college.

    2. A valid point. I disagree but neither of us really know what the numbers are here…

  13. Mentors and advisors are very different from top-level teachers, in that they are effectively “employed” by you- you can’t “fail” according to their preset standards. So your suggestion is comparable to “autonomous” homeschooling, at college level- it isn’t formal education, in the sense of cultural knowledge passed down by experts with the intellectual authority to judge you.

    This will work for some, not others: anyone who can’t even see the risks is likely to fail at it, in terms of becoming genuinely intellectually stretched (ie. in the weaker areas where they are most resistant), however.

    If you have a parent or mentor with top level education who understands the system and endorses your decision to go it alone, fair enough. Other than than, a better life learning would consist of starting career life early, while maintaining intellectual growth throughout one’s life. There’s no need to postpone work at all, if you are serious about intellectual growth outside university strictures.

  14. It depends on how you define entry-level, certainly there are entry-level doctor (intern), lawyer (associate/bitchboy), and teacher jobs which all require graduate degrees.
    Unless a person is on the path to self-employment then it is nearly career-suicide to counsel them out of going to college. Besides, I believe Alice (below) is correct: college forces you to “stretch” to different areas, which is a great thing because it opens new doors. For me, at 18 I was a bleeding heart liberal, but after completing a few economics courses in college I made a 180.

    You’re right, my point of view is skewed by my own experiences.

  15. In most countries have the same problem, should not give so many facilities to work so young people because they think much about money and not think about their future.

  16. Great post!

    So how would we go about knowing how to separate the three types of people? Especially when most of them are at a time when they barely know themselves.

  17. Ben Casnocha says:

    Achievement and accomplishment to date.

  18. Excellent post. Nice blog. I’ll be back for more of your post mate

  19. Stanley Lee says:

    Ben,

    I think those 3 groups also need to be aware of the presence of the other groups, in order to adjust to the changing economic ecosystem better as a result of this changing educational paradigm.

    Also, I don’t think it’s just the value of a BA that’s decreasing. Business and science/engineering majors are getting overhyped as well despite their “marketability.”

    Stanley

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