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Is College a Waste of Time and Money?

College for everyone is a great American myth.

For many people, college can be a waste of time and money. Too many people are going to college because they believe a great American myth: college is for everyone and happiness and wealth depend on a college degree.

Despite the enormous financial burdens imposed by college tuition and room and board, along with the fact that many students take six years to complete a four-year program and then have trouble finding a job, the idea persists that parents who have a student at a university have bragging rights. These bragging rights come from the reputations of institutions such as Duke, Stanford, Notre Dame, and many high-caliber state universities. These are the academic elitists. They are proud of themselves and their institutions, as well they should be.

But seriously, should marginally motivated students with mediocre achievement skills go into debt to the tune of $120,000 for tuition loans and the cost of leaving the workforce for four to five years?

College works best for students with intelligence scores placing them in the top 30% of the general population. And students seeking a college education need more than high IQ numbers. Roy Baumeister, social psychology professor emeritus at Florida State University, is co-author with John Tierney of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Strength. According to Baumeister and Tierney, willpower and self-control are necessary for success. It is possible for someone to have a high IQ score, but less self-control. And some may have a lower IQ score, but possess tremendous self-control.

There are some individuals who are not only academically bright, but have high aptitude for technical and creative thinking. These folks will do very well in the university setting and go on to become professors, lawyers, physicians, engineers, and research scientists. But high school students majoring in career studies will hold their own against many college graduates and, in fact, may create more wealth than college graduates, including the professions mentioned above. And they will get there a lot sooner.

Some academically inclined students attend college to immerse themselves in the humanities. This is a good thing, but it’s not for everyone. If we go back to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, surely getting a job comes before self-actualization.

Practically minded students can have bragging rights too, if we permit that to happen. A February 2013 report by Jon Marcus of the Hechinger Institute (a service of CNN, Fortune, and Money) indicates that a graduate with an associate degree from a community college started work as a computer networking engineer at a local TV station making about $50,000 a year. That is 15% higher than the average starting salary for college graduates—not only from community colleges, but for bachelor’s degree holders from four-year universities.

An interesting video developed by Kevin Fleming at demonstrates the 1, 2, 7 formula, which Fleming claims is as true today as it was in 1950. The idea is that for every job requiring a master’s degree or above there will be two jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree and seven jobs for those with career skills.

Fleming’s research shows that the average earnings range for the associate of arts degree is $27,000 to $68,000 whereas a business manager with a bachelor’s degree falls in the range of $34,000 to $97,000. But one must also take into account skills and abilities. The most accomplished individuals with an associate of arts degree can reach $86,000, while the bottom range of bachelors’ degree manager is $56,000. And those choosing career education avoid at least $100,000 in lost wages and college debt.

As pointed out in my new book, The Elephant in the Classroom, the 25% to 30% of college graduates who can really benefit financially from that education, especially those majoring in finance, engineering, accounting, etc. are pulling up the overall average earnings for college graduates. These statistics utilize a mean average to compare university and career students, but they need to use a modal average, which would show the average income of most college graduates.

College offers many benefits that can’t be measured by financial costs, but unless the student has high academic ability, self-control, motivation and the ability to concentrate, college can be a frustrating and disappointing choice. The majority of high school students today will benefit most from career education rather than college-prep courses. Unfortunately, the myth of college for everyone prevents them from getting the career courses they need, leading to frustration and academic failure.