College can be an expensive waste of time. Not everyone has the capability or will-power to make the most of higher education. That’s perfectly acceptable. If you look at specific cases, a bachelor’s degree is often not worth the time, effort, and money.
On average, college graduates earn more than those with nothing more than a high school diploma, and most of the time, college opens opportunities for earning back the investment. How do you know whether this generalization will apply to you? If your chosen career path involves a low-paying salary but requires a college degree, it could be many years before the cost of the degree is recovered by increased income, if ever.
People love hearing stories about famous — and rich — individuals who never earned their college degree. The typical examples include Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard to create Microsoft. Mark Zuckerberg also dropped out of Harvard following the success of Facebook. Lady Gaga left the Tisch School of the Arts to be a burlesque dancer, and soon after established an amazing music career.
These examples may give some hope to the underachiever, not performing well in college, or the confused high school student unsure whether he’s ready to take on more education. Some commentators go so far to say that the fact that superstars have gone on to become wildly successful without completing a degree is proof that anyone could, and should, do the same.
The thought is motivational in the “you can do anything you put your mind to” way, but it’s crazy. A select few can become wildly successful without a college degree, but that doesn’t mean a college degree is unnecessary. Nor is it necessary, but it opens doors that would not have been available otherwise. Although Mark Zuckerberg dropped out, he wouldn’t have had the same opportunities to create Facebook, although it’s difficult to argue a hypothetical situation.
Most of the time, opportunities come to these superstars (or they bring about the opportunities through their actions), changing their life path. This is not a typical situation and should not be motivation to ditch a college education. For a few talented kids, reading the stories of Bill Gates, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Harrison Ford — all drop-outs — might be the motivation they need to leave the books behind and realize their full potential without wasting more time earning a degree. But for most, the danger is it can instill a sense that there’s little value to education after high school.
Moderate success can be likely without a college degree, particularly for those who have an entrepreneurial spirit, even without billion-dollar ideas. And certainly not every college student is making the most of her time, seeking opportunities to develop. Society needs people to fill the roles that don’t require college degrees, so there’s no dishonor in not attending college, but someone who strives to reach his full potential in life should not drop out.
Be cool. Stay in school. Unless you are presented with a life-changing opportunity. But don’t count on it.
Published or updated November 4, 2010.