Is College a Waste of Time and Money?

I had an opportunity to interview James Altucher, a writer, Web guy, venture capitalist, stock picker, who has a big following as a blogger. We discussed a lot of topics, but the one I found most provocative was his view of the importance of college for most young people.

Altucher thinks the notion of 18 year olds heading off to five years of college and piling up huge debt is dumb. He looks back on his time at Cornell and wonders why he did college. This was the same conclusion Steve Jobs arrived at when he went to Reed College for one semester and Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard. The real world offered much more interesting opportunities than the overpriced Academy. Yet I see my nieces and nephews following the crowd to undergraduate life and applications holding strong, even during periods of economic stress.

I admit I followed the masses to college as did my children, and things worked out okay. But tuitions were more manageable then and the employment prospects more visible for college grads.

Today I like the Israel model of military service at 19 and then a few years of travel, followed by college for those who are motivated. I’m not convinced the military is for everybody, but a year of public service or charitable endeavor after high school makes sense. Even the missionary model of the Mormons is appealing because the young people who do something extremely hard like bringing their message to Mongolia emerge more confident.

College directly out of high school may be a luxury wasted on the young.

Question: Do you think a university experience is worth the money today?

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26 thoughts on “Is College a Waste of Time and Money?

  1. Nick Bloom

    PayPal founder Peter Theil says that higher education is the next bubble. The cost is out of control at private schools and rapidly growing at public schools. When the bubble bursts maybe ROI will come back into balance. A college education won’t assure a good job today, as it was more likely to in the past. But if we call attention to the good job opportunities (with so many that go unfilled) in manufacturing and the importance of our industry to the economy and our countries overall welfare, maybe trade schools will get the attention they deserve. As for the good looking girls, one need not attend school, just know where the parties are.

  2. Kevin Hartford

    Lloyd I’m a loyal reader of your emails but this is the first time I’ve ever responded. Lke you I’m a college graduate, as is my wife, and have a Masters. Our two sons both went Wake Forest University. Our eldest graduated from their business school and has been with PNC Bank for 18 months and is doing very well, both financially and career-wise. Our youngest is now a senior majoring in Health & Exercise Science (which is Wake’s all encompassing pre-med major). He’s already been accepted into the Nation’s #1 rated Chiropractic School in Georgia.

    As you can imagine it wasn’t cheap. That being said it’s the best money we’ve ever spent. We’re firm believers that, just like with most things in life, it’s all about choices. What school are you choosing and what are you majoring in. You need a plan to succeed in business and the same is true with college. Living in Pittsburgh we knew PNC loved Wake’s business school and have hired dozens of graduates over the years. We also knew they had a strong pre-med program. It just so happens that our youngest son wanted to be a sports chiropractor like his aunt rather the a spinal surgeon like his uncle.

    Ironically we have a neighbor whose youngest daughter was both brilliant and and athletic. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in Anthropology and was also an All-American diver. She’s now in her late 20s and still struggling to make ends meet. Again, you have to look a the choice she made.

    So is college worth the money? As far as I’m concerned that’s up to each individual student. Hopefully their parents will do some parenting and help them with their choices.

  3. Gerald

    Lloyd I personally left school a couple of months before my sixteenth birthday and started work in a busy sub-contract jobbing shop I started a day release collage course which lasted for four years gaining good results (mainly distinctions and credits) however I’m not sure the certificates have been all that beneficial, as during the few interviews I went to after leaving that job, the interviewees were more impressed with the samples of work I showed them than the paperwork!

    As for full time collage courses I have seen different results from a number of friends and family, on the one hand, getting good results is no guarantee of getting the job you want if there is little demand in that industry or if there are so many people able to do the said job that the wage is poor.

    On the other hand I have seen people come out of collage and walk straight into very high paid niche jobs.

    I have also noticed a growing trend seeing parents pushing their kids through college with seemingly no direction. I say this because they finish with a mish mash of subjects which have no relevance to any job whatsoever. This can only mean that if you feel that you must go to college then you should do the research before you commit your money and time.

  4. Gerald


    I’ve Just read your post after I hit the enter key !!

    I think were basically saying the same thing here which reminds me of a saying i used to use when i was racing motorcycles:
    You must prepare to win or be prepared to loose!

  5. Bill Lukens

    I’m a 70 year old shop owner. I’m degreed as are my 4 children, 2 teachers and 2 marketing people with big firms…all doing well, but none are interested in my business which put them through school. And, I’m fine with that.

    In Washington several weeks ago, The Manufacturing Institute along with Deloitte announced there are currently 600,000 open manufacturing in the US. We collectively bemoaned the poor liberal arts grads that have $40,000 in debt but no employable skills. Mom and Dad don’t want their kid to work in a factory. Why, because all they read about is plants closing and jobs going off shore. Manufacturing has not done a very good job informing the public about how important manufacturing is to our economy and our nation. Those of us in the tooling / precision machining business know it’s not all going away. We are the “gate keepers”. Nothing, absolutely nothing gets made that we don’t touch in one way or another. The only way it’s going to go away is if we can’t do it, ala lack of employees.

    Just like college, our industry isn’t for everyone. But, I truly believe a lot of young people are missing great opportunities. Being a machinist does not mean you can’t get a degree, or eventually own your own business. It’s not a dead end.

    College is a lot of fun and a great experience. For me, it taught me how much I didn’t know. It taught me social graces and gave me the confidence to do what I believed I could do. Having said that, I would be in favor of everyone serving 2 years in somekind of national service. 2 years would allow a lot of young people to go away from home and grow up. Kids might have a different view of what is important in the world.

    I’m glad my children had the opportunity to get an education beyond high school. It’s something they will have the rest of their lives. In the same breath, I believe there will always be a place for a skilled machinist. My son is a teacher and writer. Our VP of Manufacturing was a classmate of his in high school. Our VP did not go to college and he makes twice as much as my son. Unique? Perhaps not as unique as you might think.

    The important thing is to recognize that somekind of post secondary training / education is mandatory today to get a good job. Competition is tough and not likely to get easier. A college education is a good thing if it leads to a good job. A good job is one that let’s you enjoy a good lifestyle. Obviously, there are many things in life that are not connected to earning money, but not having that opportunity is hard to rise above.

    College is a big expenditure. What’s the ROI? Does it really make sense to go tens of thousands of dollars in debt and not have the skills to pay off that debt? Too many times today the answer is no.

  6. Seth Emerson

    Lloyd – I, too, followed the masses off to college after graduating from High School in 1965. That was a particularly good era to stay in School. Truly, I didn’t belong in college at 17. That was confirmed over the next two years at school, via flunking out and getting drafted. Returning from Vietnam in 1970, a much wiser fellow, I was able to apply myself after returning to school. With the GI Bill and working half-time, I was able to graduate by 1974 with no debt. My wife and I met at the California State college system, and later sent our two daughters through the University of California System. A step up? Today neither daughter is using her degree, One is running a cupcake shop, the other a sales manager at a high end bike shop. Neither has student loans to pay for. Both are happy doing what they do.

  7. Josh

    I agree with many of the points you made in the article about mandatory public service after high school. I also like the educational programs that end basic education skills earlier at around 16 and those who chose to pursue lives in academia or advanced education can choose to go on to the higher level programs. I completely agree that a university education is somewhat wasted on the young.

    I attended 2 different schools after high school, one a university and one a community college. I didn’t find a home at either. I love education and I love the critical thinking skills and writing skills I acquired in my brief stay but I never felt like I knew where I was going. Again it comes down to choices like an earlier comment had said. If you have a path and a passion and you know what you want to do then I believe university education is infinitely valuable.

    For certain professions it will always be valuable and necessary to have a college education. Doctors, lawyers and those who pursue hard science & engineering will always require education that is a lot harder to learn in the field. That said, there are a lot of other paths one can travel where on the job experience is as good or better than a college education. This is what explains the success of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg because they had all the skills for success before they went to college.

    For those like me who aren’t sure of their path or goals I think college can be an extreme waste of time and money until you find your passion. I was lucky enough to end up in a job in manufacturing with no previous experience whatsoever(I was a computer/tech nerd previously). It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. In high school there was an attitude that working with machines was menial and that everyone was a line worker. I now know how astronomically wrong this is and I love coming to work every day. Not going to college has worked out well for me but I would never say it isn’t valuable.

    I learned things at school that may not have led to my success in business, but they led to my own enlightenment. The major value of the university environment is being exposed to so many different cultures/opinions/knowledge that you weren’t before. Whether you agree with this information or not, it inspires one to think more critically about a topic before they make a decision. When you learn something that you’ve always believed is false, or are exposed to an opinion extremely opposed from your own you are forced to think more critically about everything in your life. That is where the value of higher education lies.

  8. RP

    25 years ago, an undergraduate degree in engineering was worth it to me (less than $30k total for the whole 4 years). Along with the specifics, I learned problem solving techniques, how to research and study. However, I never felt like an advanced degree would be worth my time and money. I can study any topic I want on my own and learn faster than it would be presented in a college setting. I have studied numerous topics on my own after college.

    Now the price of college is perhaps 5 times as high, and I think the bubble must burst, because there is not return on investment in most majors. 40+ years ago, the statement “Knowledge is power” was true. Now with the internet “Knowledge is free” is true. Any truly motivated person can study on his/her own towards a career path.

    Unfortunately, a college degree is the “price of admission” for most career oriented jobs, if for no other reason than to “weed out” the stack of resumes for an opening.

    The bubble will burst when more and more smart and motivated individuals forge their way into industry through self study, and other learning methods outside of college. When that happens, personnel departments will realize that they may be missing out on the best and brightest young people if they ignore applicants without a college degree. At the same time, colleges will be forced to me more conscience about the return on investment that they offer.

  9. Jim

    For quite a few students YES, a four year degree is a huge mistake! Looking at the results of our US education proves this without a doubt. Tech colleges, business colleges, vocational colleges are for many a much better way to go. Many high school students should and do choose to go into the military and as a benefit, have the opportunity to education after the service. A simple way to help balance the budget and to make sure the value and appreciation of education being are part of the process would be to STOP subsidizing education through taxes. Colleges today are limiting enrollment because they rates of student success are less than 50% in many university’s today. If a student and there family can’t afford college, borrow funds. If this is not an option, then some organization would need to sponsor the student. That didn’t say pay for the student but guarantee student performance and if the student doesn’t make B averages or better, the student will be dropped from the program. Also, we need to realize that today’s mantra “Education is Important” is not really correct. We must realize that educational results are important and accountability must recognized not only in students performance, but teacher’s performance too! This then must be supported and condoned by parents. This is the right thing to do but a tough sell in today’s socialist society’s thinking. Unfortunately for students as they are finding out, it isn’t enough to participate and get a ribbon or certificate of achievement to make a living!

  10. Bob Cardoza

    Hello Lloyd,
    what a great debate-able topic! I graduated high school and ran directly to my local community college only to drop out into my sophomore year. I had great real world job opportunities and decided to pursue them instead of higher education. Twenty four years later, I am married to the same beautiful woman, I have a Master’s degree in business management and I am selling multi-spindle machines and loving life. I have a college sophomore and a high school senior who has just been accepted to a top ten university. I truly believe that college is a very exciting and worthwhile investment! Whether it be college, a job, your marriage or life itself, it is going to turn out exactly as what you are willing to put into it. I am looking forward to both a very successful kinder garden teacher as well as a very successful environmental engineer in the near future. Of course I am also expecting to be pretty broke by then…..

  11. Leo

    Wow, I’m really impressed with the replies on here. I was completely sure I was going to look in the comments and see completely black and white answers. Most people are seeing what I also believe is the correct gray. For some jobs, it is a must, for others, not so much. There is definitely nothing wrong with getting the education, but perhaps more people should be thinking that this education needs to represent an actual job opportunity. Some of the more off-the-wall degrees are great for people who either already have something lined up and are just interested in that field, but to blindly get any old degree and expect to just get a job is ludicrous at best.

  12. Leo

    Forgot to add in that, it seems many people who get degrees, sometimes lack any real world knowledge of said field. I have been dabbling on the side with computers for many years now, and I know way too many people with CompSci degrees who seemingly know nothing about computers. It just boggles the mind what they are actually teaching them during this 4 year degree! Is it more just a follow-the-maze mouse experiment to prove that they can jump through colleges specific hurdles, and never mind the actual learning of knowledge?

  13. Julie

    I love the comments. I am in total agreement with the shades of grey described.

    But just as many find that a college degree is superfluous for many occupational pursuits, I find your choice of graphic for this discourse equally superfluous. Normally, I would just let this go by, but it just kept nagging at me. You do a disservice to the men that look to you as a valuable resource but may be struggling with addictions to online pornography. I never in my life would expect to find such a graphic used in what I consider to be a conscientious and intelligent machining resource.

  14. Lloyd Graff

    Regarding the photo, actually Emily Aniakou, our Managing Editor chose it. I knew we would get a post complaining about it. My issue was whether it was on point, but I decided to go with Emily’s call to add a little fun to the blog, and hopefully irritate a few politically correct women.

  15. Lloyd Graff

    I cannot resist adding that I wish the sexy girls were carrying signs saying “we hate guns” or “we cherish our guns” just to elevate the blood pressure of a few more readers. Lighten up a little, dudes.

  16. Joe Dvorak

    Hello Julie, I not sure how someone could be struggling with online pornography. It’s quite easy to find… 😉 Go to a beach to relax awhile. Maybe one of these girls will bring you a lemonade.

    Lloyd… I am one of the people that chose to go into the family factory right out of High School. After 15 years of family fun, I bought the rest of the family out. Now many years, and a few recessions later, not only are we still open but we are thriving. Pure drive, motivation and a little common sense has kept me alive. One of the smartest and most educated people I know is working in a warehouse. Drive is the Key. Higher education will help the motivated. For the under achievers, college is just an expensive place to learn how to make a beer bong.
    Just one mans opinion.

  17. Larry A


    Another good topic. I have 3 Jr High and High Schoolers, the oldest is a high school freshman this year, so your post and the replies were of particular interest. I am fortunate that all 3 are have been honor roll kids so far. Unfortunately for my pocketbook, this may mean that I will be looking at sending all 3 through college. That would mean 10 years of hard labor for me to afford this.

    Thank you all for taking the time to respond. As we begin to prepare for college decisions, it’s good to hear a few opinions on the matter.


  18. rob

    How about the other American model: Four years of College with ROTC, 3 years active duty and some Reserve time and ready to work.
    I went to college ( Ivy League) and into the Army Engineers, and spent my time in Germany running supply depots. I got an entry level management job with a manufacturing company based on my Military experience.
    After a long and interesting career, all in manufacturing, I recently retired after selling my metal fab company and a machine tool company.
    It is a matter of attitude and hard work more than anything else.

  19. Julie

    Listen to your gut next time, Lloyd. It isn’t remotely on point. And it doesn’t impress me that a woman selected it, either. A woman selecting it doesn’t make it any more professional. I can’t even begin to express all the different ways it is just wrong. Mature adults are able to make the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate ways of having “fun” in the workplace.

    Yes, it does irritate me. No, I am not going to “lighten up”.

  20. Bill

    I worked my way through a state university and earned a degree in mechanical engineering. Went to work, and got my MBA at night, paid for by my employer. So, I got through college with good degrees and very little debt. For certain jobs, as has been mentioned, a BS degree is a must, and often an advanced degree is required. However, what I have told my kids is to present me with a “business plan”. Why should I invest hard earned money towards a liberal arts education, at a private school that will never return the investment? It just does not make sense. What I would like to see to help out the manufacturing arena is more emphasis on technical schools, company apprenticeship programs (where did they all go?), and recognizing that experience and education must go hand in hand to be successful.

  21. Matt Klecka

    Mandatory national service? Give me a break. Talk about a violation of our rights and individual liberties as Americans. It goes against everything we stand for. If that happened, I would think long and hard about raising my future children in this country.

    I’ve been an admirer of both Peter Thiel and James Altucher for some time. Even though I have both an undergraduate and graduate degree, I’ve reached the point where I agree with them completely. Federal government intervention w/ tuition grants and financial aid have driven up prices to levels where it no longer “pays” in the long run to accumulate such high levels of debt. It will only get worse as government keeps championing the cause for more college graduates. Some people simply aren’t cut out for it! We are incenting people to pursue activites that do not fit their aptitudes and skill sets. There is nothing wrong with being a machinist, an electrician, or a construction worker. In fact, I admire them. They have the unique ability to create products and goods. I have business degrees. I have no ability to create these parts that machinists show me every day. It takes unique talent to produce these goods. We need people to realize there is nothing wrong with “blue collar” skill sets. It’s a gift, a gift that if constantly developed and improved over time can pay very handsomely when these people start their own successful businesses.

    My business degrees? They def. look great on a resume, but had I not gone to school and jumped into the industry immediately, I would probably be at the same level of knowledge/understanding that I am now, if not further ahead. I do think I experienced social growth in college, but could I have received that same social growth outside the university setting? Maybe.

  22. Ross Wegryn-Jones


    Is the University Experience worth it? In a word, yes.

    The undergraduate years were a complete racket. Used book sellers; the money you received when you sold them back versus when you bought them? You figured out pretty quick that this system was a faceless bureaucracy that you had to work with to get through. Before the likes of Google, you learned pretty fast how to find things. You also had to work with people that did not have your best interests in mind. It wasn’t always fair. Some teaching assistants were out to make your life a picture of misery.

    Just like real life, isn’t it? I’ve often wondered, however, how large universities pay for the juggernauts that they are. Bricks and mortar, power plants, these things all cost money – whether they are being used or not. Universities are barely working at one shift – have you every visited a campus on a Friday? Next to no classes are being conducted. So the amount of money we shell out for this less-than-efficient system may not be optimal and I’m sure this is the underpinning of the argument against a college education. Unfortunately, the alternative can get you in a tight spot as well. With NO college education, your opportunities are limited. WITH a college education, you are in a spot where it just comes down to details.

    That’s the point. You struggled through adversity for X years and you persevered. You shelled out some serious cash while you were at it. You graduated. Nobody can take that experience or degree(s) away from you.

    20 years after Graduation, I finally find myself doing what I was trained to do in my undergrad years.

    The masters degree that I earned part time after my undergrad? It got me this job. What does the MBA have to do with marketing Gear Grinding equipment? Not very much.

    For what it’s worth, I noticed an on-line article listing the top 10 most useless degrees. Human Resources, Art History, Journalism were up there. I started laughing, because Advertising was something like #2 or #3. See Below.

    BA – Advertising – Michigan State University ’89.
    MBA – Management – Western Michigan University ’94.

  23. John


    I am a BSME and a PE. I work in the wood industry. PE’s are nearly unheard of in the wood industry. What I have learned is that industry doesn’t understand or appreciate the difference between a mechanical engineer, or an industrial engineer, or an engineering technology major, or an associates degree, or a degree from an accredited university, community college or a degree from Pheonix. Now, I’m not putting down all on-line degrees, but…..
    I don’t care what anybody says. Engineering school was tough. It was brutal. The only reason I made it through was that I was young enough to handle the stress. Nobody is going to tell me that a degree from an on-line school is going to match the hell I went through and I can prove it. I passed the PE exam 7 years after graduation, and I didn’t crack a book to do it. It’s not that I’m a genius. I just went to a really good and very tough school and it permanently changed my brain.
    Unfortunately, what I have learned is that my education, my skillset and my abilities to make my company a fortune doesn’t come close to the clout and respect from being able to BS with the boss about last night’s college ball game or play a round of golf with the “in” circle. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t kiss ass and the bottom line is that the plant doesn’t run without me while I am the least appreciated, lowest rated and the most vilified member of the team. When a problem comes up it’s my fault. When I fix it, then I’m just doing my job. I don’t know which has the majority around me, the thumbs or asses. Yup. Going to school and excelling in my major and career did me a real service. Come to find out, a high school education, maybe, and “polishing the knob” is what it takes to make it in the industry.

  24. BR-549

    Lloyd, quite a question. I mixed college and a job. That did 3 things that were and are still very important.

    When I left, I had only one loan for $250 to pay off.

    I was able to apply what I was learning on my jobs. Most of the time when one is taught something, the student asks one self “when am I going to use that?” I was an engineering student and quickly learned engineering school was one continuous all day math class in one form or another solving different problems. This allowed me to figure things out right at the machine instead of seeking help to get through problems. That has propelled me through companies toward better positions.

    And last is to get educated in what you plan to do as a work career. What if programs were offered for careers with no future as non fundable? In other words, this study program will never support you, your family and so you probably shouldn’t take on serious debt to learn this subject matter.

    I went to college right out of high school. That is probably a better time than starting to work and then think I would go back. So many don’t.

    It is a grey question because continuing education is not for everyone. Our neighbors have forced their children into college and 3 out of 4 do not plan to go into the field they were educated in. So far 3 out of 4 have graduated with a payment coupon book.

    As far as the 3 young women go, I was at engineering school. Those look like party creatures. School, work, study and sleep was all I had time for. It seems school is not taken as seriously as it should be.

  25. Mike Dempewolf

    Yes, I do feel it is a waste of time for some. I have been in manufacturing for 34 years. I started out as a Tool and Die maker apprentice and worked my way up through the ranks to became Sr. Tool Designer for a large manufacturing company. This company has a policy in place that prevents me from going any farther, even though I have the knowledge and experience. That policy is, You must have a degree if you want to be eligible for a supervisory position. I feel they are passing up some very good candidates because of this. Those with degrees feel that those without haven’t proven themselves and therefore wouldn’t be able to do the job of leading people. I think they are wrong.

  26. Rob

    You can’t put a price on meeting new people, having fun, and actually doing something good for yourself and your future. If it doesn’t work out for you that’s no good, and you can inform everyone of your bad experience thanks to freedom of thought,speech,and entitlement to your own opinion, but don’t put a bad rep for college and advice against it for everyone.


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