1. The legally-bound
Sadly, a number of professions have lobbied to secure barriers to entry in order to keep out plucky young upstarts who might undercut monopoly pricing. If you know beyond a shadow of a doubt you want to work in one of these professions, you’ll need to get the magic paper. Just be careful not to let the paper do all the work. For the sake of your customers, try to get more than just the legally required credential. The most common jobs with degree requirements are lawyers, doctors, and CPAs. If that’s you, bite the bullet.
2. The well-to-do, insecure partier
College is a consumption good for some people. It’s a four (or five or six) year party covered by mom and dad. If you’ve got stacks of cash and your major goal for your early twenties is to chill at frat houses with a Solo cup, maybe you should go to college. Let me take that back. You see, you can move to a college town and party without enrolling. But if you’re really insecure and worried about not having official student status at parties, you’ll need to pay the piper. Tuition and sitting through classes are a small price for a well-off party junkie who can’t think of non-credentialing methods of having a good time. Go for it!
3. The parental pleaser
A lot of parents will be mad at you and ashamed to talk about you to their friends if you’re not in college. Luckily, most parents don’t care too much if you’re actually getting value out of the experience, as long as you’re enrolled and passing. If keeping mom and dad reasonably happy without challenging them to rethink what happiness means to you is your top priority, go to college. There’s nothing else with the same mystical power to elicit parental pride.
4. The college professor
If your dream is to be a professor, you’ve got to do your time. In fact, the entire education system top to bottom is optimized for the creation of professors. Every other profession to emerge from 20+ years of institutional education requires a deschooling process, because only academia plays by the same rules and incentives as the school system. All other industries are remarkably different, what with their accountability to customers and emphasis on value creation. If the system is your first love, and doing research and teaching within its walls your sole dream, do it. You can be an intellectual without a degree, but not a university-sanctioned professor.
5. The bureaucrat
Government isn’t known for rewarding merit, but it’s great at rewarding rule-following and form-filing. If you dream of reviewing building permits or vehicle registration documents, you’ll need a degree of some kind. The nice thing in this field is that the things you’ll do in school are pretty similar to what you’ll do at work. Comply and complain about the non-compliant. As an added perk, you really can’t be fired for being rude to everyone once you’re in.
6. The frightened 9-5er
If security sits atop your personal hierarchy of needs, and working for a big corporation with a massive HR department that specializes in sameness and risk-avoidance sounds like the life you’ve been waiting for, go to college. It’s changing, and a little faster than you’d probably like, but most big companies still filter out non-degreed applicants for entry level jobs that require a heavy dose of repetitive process-oriented labor. You’ll be competing with machines and software, but for the time being, there’s still a slot for you.
7. Everyone else
If you don’t fit into one of these categories, college may still provide some value, but it should in no way be considered the default option. There are myriad ways to tailor your own learning experience or gain skills, knowledge, and a network to discover and do what makes you come alive. College should be treated as one option among many, and no more or less valuable or open to scrutiny and cost-benefit analysis.