Real Talk: The Value Of Your College Degree


Nobody ever woke up and thought “my life’s ambition is to work at the local Starbucks.” And yet, legions of newly minted college graduates will become baristas or worse (at least Starbucks offers benefits to employees who work 20+ hours per week). I get it. You feel betrayed. All your life you were told that a college degree is a ticket to high paying, career track success. Now you get out and a life of “would you like to apply for our store credit card?” awaits you.

There’s no easy way to put this. The world, or rather your own sense of delusional entitlement, tricked you. A college degree guarantees nothing. Even though all college degrees are degrees conferred by colleges, some degrees are more equal than others. Because the truth is the value of your degree is determined by three important factors.

1. The prestige of the university that awards your degree.

Let’s face facts. A degree from Harvard looks a lot better to an employer than a degree from Third Tier State U or Underfunded Municipal Community College. In fact, there is a general hierarchy that makes it easy to determine where you fall in relation to your peers.

The first tier is the Ivy League plus Duke, Stanford, MIT, Cal-Tech, Chicago, and Northwestern.

The second tier are the top public universities in your state (the Berkeleys, Michigans, and Virginias of the collegiate world), plus semi-elite private schools like Emory, Rice, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, etc. Bonus points are awarded if your school’s Division I FBS football team played in a BCS bowl in the past 10 years.

The third tier is populated by State U and its Directional State U cousins.

The fourth tier is community college.

The fifth tier is Phoenix University and the rest of the for-profit colleges.

2. Your degree concentration

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all about STEM vs the rest. It’s really engineering, computer science, math, and accounting vs. the rest. If you want to maximize your chance of getting a career track job out of college, you can distinguish yourself from your peers by getting a B.S in a practical field, as long as those fields are related to engineering, software development, accounting, or project management.

3. Your GPA

Any idiot can skip a third of their classes, half ass their coursework, show up hungover to the final exam and scrape by with a 2.0 by the time they graduate college. But career track employers look for something more than the bare minimum. They want to see students who actually put in the effort. Because employers are going to be paying you, and they’d rather take a chance on a person who looks responsible rather than the person who YOLO’d their way through Greek Row on their way to Cirrhosis Avenue.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen plenty of high functioning alcoholics breeze through college with high GPAs, but they make up a tiny minority of the student body in general. You probably aren’t one of them. If you don’t have at least a 3.5, don’t kid yourself.

Spare me your rationalizations. English and philosophy majors aren’t the only ones who “really learn to think critically”, nor are history and art majors the only people to truly appreciate culture and the finer things in life. Reading Thoreau or Melville in your American Lit 102 class doesn’t make you a better person. Nor does it make you particularly employable.

If you’re still in college, you need to decide what you really want to get out of the experience. And you need to be realistic in what you can expect to achieve once you get out of college. You might be content to dismiss what I’m writing now, but if you’re financing your liberal arts degree from some unknown, ungodly expensive private school and your parents aren’t rich, there’s about a 98% chance that you’re seriously going to regret that decision.

The vast majority of college degrees are more or less interchangeable. A few elite universities award elite degrees that do have more value in the labor market, but that’s it. Everybody else is pretty much on their own. And most college graduates won’t work in fields related to their major.

The American system of higher education fails in one fundamental way: it entrusts people to make one of the most expensive and important decisions of their life when they are teenagers. If college were free, it’d be an entirely different story. But it isn’t. And unless you’re counting on a massive inheritance somewhere off into the future, you can’t make a decision about college without considering the financial aspect.

Oh, and by the way. Once you’ve been working at a career track job for 2-3 years, nobody is going to care about which college you went to unless they want to talk trash about your college football team.
Everything I said is the unvarnished truth. Do with it what you will. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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