College Was the Biggest Mistake of My Life
We desperately need a change in culture.
I have a new piece out in Areo Magazine: “Leading by Example: A Quiet but Effective Form of Activism.”
When I was 18, I thought I wanted to be a filmmaker. I developed a passion for it in high school, and went on to study film at university. I won’t say I learned nothing over those four years, but I wasn’t taught anything that couldn't have been learned on my own, much of which has gone unretained and unused. I didn’t even bother attending my graduation. I graduated with honors, I think. You see, I have no idea where my diploma is, and haven’t seen it in well over ten years. I’m reasonably sure it’s been lost. No matter. It’s not worth the paper it was printed on. A degree in film is absolutely worthless for obtaining work in the film industry. What matters are connections, professional experience, and the ability to raise large sums of money. Those aren’t things film school can teach you.
I went out into the world just as the Great Recession was hitting in 2008, and spent several years pursuing a career in film with no success. In fact, I found that no one would hire me at all. Not even minimum wage retailers. In interviews for shelf-stocking gigs, employers would look at the film degree on my resume with an expression I came to associate with instant rejection. Eventually, I began leaving it off my resume, which helped. There’s a kind of gothic comedy to all of this that I may never be able to truly appreciate.
I entered the workforce in my early 20’s doing what my teenage self had sworn I would never stoop to: sitting at a desk and pushing papers in an unfulfilling, underpaid, soul-crushing job — one that didn’t require a college degree. I had well over $100,000 of student loan debt, even having been a commuter with a partial scholarship. With interest, I probably paid tens of thousands more. To speak nothing of the opportunity cost. Had I simply entered the job market directly out of high school, as I should have done, the net impact in terms of money saved plus income earned would have totaled about a quarter million dollars. Instead, I spent the decade of my 20’s toiling in order to pay off my debts. And I did pay them all off before the age of 30, at great personal sacrifice. Nothing I have achieved in my post-college life has been as a result of my degree.
My decision to go to college was made under pressure — from my parents, peers, social circles, and from society — but no one put a gun to my head. I was a legal adult. And I took responsibility for my decision. I paid off all my debts, after all. But I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I went to college. I didn’t have realistic expectations for how it would turn out. Of course I didn’t. I thought I did, but I didn’t have the first fucking clue. Film, in the final analysis, was merely a phase, not a true calling. I was a dumb, naïve kid — poorly-advised, ignorant of the world, who ultimately didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but felt an intense pressure urging him to decide anyway.
I was steeped in a culture that incessantly extolls the virtue and necessity of higher education, raised by Jewish parents for whom not attending university was an unthinkable scenario that was never even considered, and pumped full of 90’s horseshit about how the sky’s the limit if you follow your dreams. I legitimately thought that if I didn’t go to college, my only career options would be of the lowliest, least remunerated, most depressing order imaginable. So, yes, I made the decision. I could have refused. But I didn’t. Because my choice was inevitable. You’d have to visit trillions of alternate universes to find a single simulation where I did, in fact, choose differently.
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the fathomless insanity of expecting teenagers to hatch decade-spanning plans intended to shape the course of their lives, while their brain’s prefrontal cortex, responsible for long-term planning, is seven years away from being fully developed. Humans today live longer than ever, and technology transforms economies and labor forces faster than ever. Even the best-laid plans involve a great deal of luck to succeed. Is it reasonable to expect high schoolers to nail this?
The truth is, college isn’t for everyone. It’s a virtual requirement for fields like STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), medicine, academia, and law. But if you have no interest or aptitude in such disciplines (and the economy can only support so many scientists, engineers, academics, etc. in any event), higher education is a roll of the dice. We do young people a great disservice by not making this abundantly clear.
As a culture, we must stop pushing college on everyone as a universal panacea. We should emphasize other options, such as trade schools or professional certification tracks. We should make sure kids understand that it’s okay if they don’t know what they want to do, and that taking a few years after high school to figure that out may be what’s best for them. We should build the kind of society where everyone has that freedom and flexibility. University is not for everyone. I was a fine student, I scored well on standardized tests, and I had the ability to concentrate and sit still. And college wasn’t for me. Now imagine how many students are being guided to make the wrong choice here. Well, we don’t have to imagine.
Student loan debt in the US totals over $1.7 trillion. The very existence of this student debt crisis is evidence that college is a bad deal for many. Finding ways to lower the exorbitant cost of higher education and to make it more affordable, including addressing at least some of this existing debt, will lower the stakes a bit. It’s difficult to deny that if my education had been free, or paid for by my parents, or just vastly less expensive to begin with, I would have viewed the entire ordeal differently. It would still have been a mistake, and a waste of time. But it would not have financially hamstrung a decade of my life subsequently. Young people have always made mistakes. That’s not going to change anytime soon. And mistakes should have consequences. Those consequences should not, however, be in the trillions of dollars — especially when we are actively misleading them. We can do better by young people. We must.
See also: “The Liberal Arts Crash Course”
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Degrees can hurt! I leave some of mine off my resume and then I get called back. Crazy
I've had a similar experience with my education, but not until I completed a PhD. When I had a Masters in Linguistics and BA in linguistics on my resume, I'd still have a good leg up in child-education roles.
I got a job as a swim instructor, then a job as a tutor, but my PhD is like resume HIV. I started getting calls back for swim instructor roles again after I omitted it early this year.