Over Thanksgiving dinner, I talked with my neighbor, a smart high school senior, about where he wanted to go to college. But before we got too far in, he told me a number that shocked me: $20,000. That’s the cost of instate tuition, fees, books, and dorms at the University of Wisconsin. When I attended in 2004 for my freshman year, it was ~$14,000. He’s clearly smart enough to do the work at Wisconsin, but he’s doing the mental calculus and see’s he’ll save $20,000 over two years and end up with the same degree if he goes to a cheaper school and transfers in. That’s a tough decision.
Like most 17 year olds, he’s not sure what he wants to do in life. And there’s nothing wrong with that. At 27 I still don’t know what I want to do in life. But to go to school to figure out what he wants is now going to cost at least $80,000 for four years at a good school. If he were to go to a private school it’d cost upwards of $200,000 for four years. And with many students taking 5 years, he’s at between $100,000 and $250,000 in the hole as a 22 year old. That’s absolute insanity. Especially since college doesn’t guarantee you a job that will let you pay that debt back anytime soon anymore.
We are going through the biggest economic shift since 1750 when the industrial revolution reshaped our economies. That change took 100+ years. We’re 40 years into the new revolution today. Software and robots are eating the world. In the 1970s, low skilled jobs mainly filled by urban minorities were eliminated. Our economy didn’t need them anymore. Shamefully, pretty much nobody cared. In the 90s, computers, robots and outsourcing began to eliminate manufacturing jobs. People started to take notice, but many figured it was progress. We’re moving to a knowledge economy.
But that all changed in 2007-2009. That recession eliminated the last vestiges of the old manufacturing systems, leaning out the workforce via increased efficiency from robots and software. But the big change was the elimination of millions of middle management white collar jobs. Businesses fired managers, lawyers, spreadsheet jockeys and more. By 2012, businesses realized that they got along just fine with fewer managers. Most of those jobs are gone forever.
So what should someone like my 17 year old neighbor do? Where will the jobs be in our new economy? Is it even worth going to college? What majors are worth taking? And if you do go to college, how do you prepare yourself for success after graduation?
Our economy will have jobs in four major areas:
- High paid, high skill jobs like engineers, doctors, scientists, designers, technicians, health care, computer programmers
- High paid, high skill trade jobs like plumbers, electricians, mechanics, welders
- Working for yourself, with pay ranging from minimum wage to high wages
- Low paid, low skill service jobs in restaurants, hotels, stores
We’ll still have manufacturing, finance, business people and lawyers, but each company will need progressively fewer and fewer jobs as these jobs get mechanized and we squeeze out more efficiency from each worker and pay goes down because of increased competition.
If you go to college, go to a good public university and study hard sciences like engineering, physics, biology, astronomy, computer science, medicine, dentistry, nursing or elder care. But what if you don’t like any of those?
If you absolutely don’t like any of the hard sciences or health care and you plan on graduating with a poli sci, english, art history, women’s studies, psychology, journalism or another liberal arts degree, the days of waltzing through university, getting a degree and then getting a good job are over. And going to law school is not the fallback it once was: 55% of 2011 law grads didn’t have law related jobs and 28% were unemployed one year after graduation. You either need to be in the top 5% of all of these degree seekers in smarts, work ethic and perseverance or you need to develop skills outside the classroom. Preferably both.
You need to set yourself apart from the vast majority of your peers who will coast through college and emerge with a piece of paper, a pile of debt and no skills other than binge drinking. Get out in the world. Volunteer. Intern. Work. Start a small business. Take online classes outside of your university. Read books that you’re interested in. Meet people, join clubs.
But don’t do things to check a list or get the credentials like you did in high school. Do it because you think you might like it or to develop skills. The biggest (only?) benefit of taking a liberal arts degree today is that you’ll be exposed to smart, educated, motivated people who you can connect with for life as friends, business contacts, smart people to start a business. Don’t underestimate these benefits.
For example, if you think you might want to be an attorney, take a law and society class. Contact local attorneys to ask to shadow them for a day or intern in their office. You might love it, but you also might hate it. Finding out what you don’t like is just as important as what you actually do like. Learn to communicate, to write, to problem solve, to earn money on your own. To make things happen. Work hard. Figure out how to relate to people. Kill off any vestiges of shyness or timidity. Find something that you truly love to do. Because coming out with a paper degree guarantees you nothing but a huge pile of debt and a wasted four (or more) years of lost earning and learning potential. And avoid small, private, liberal arts colleges like the plague unless absolutely necessary.