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Why Your College Degree is Worthless

by Shawanda Greene

Torched MoneyRecently, I wrote a blog post that asked the question, “Is College Worth It?

For me and many other personal finance bloggers, the answer is “Yes.”

A college degree is a smart investment. 

Not only do you learn from great minds and meet interesting people, but most important, you set yourself up to earn substantially more money over your working life than if you settled for a high school diploma.

But sadly, your college education wasn’t the golden ticket to financial success that you hoped for. It’s been more of an obligation than an asset.

Unable to find a decent job and burdened with massive student debt loads of tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of dollars, you’re worried your energy was wasted chasing a degree you’ll never use.

So, why did a college education pay off for some people, but was a complete bust for you?

If you want to do it all over again, you need to know why your college degree failed you the first time around.

You Forgot that a College Education is an Investment

The first question you should ask yourself before deciding on whether you should pursue a degree is, “What is my return on investment?”

Simply put, your return on investment (ROI) is what you’ll get out of what you put in.

Let’s say you loan me $10,000 on January 1, 2013 with the agreement I’d pay you $11,000 in one year. You invest $10,000 (what you put in) and receive $11,000.

Your ROI is 10%, the extra $1,000 (what you actually got out of the investment).

Now what if you loan me $100,000 on January 1, 2013 and stupidly agree to receive $101,000 at the end of the year? What’s your return on investment then?

You’d get the same $1,000, but your ROI shrinks to 1%.

Think of the above example in terms of your college education.

You can reasonably expect your salary to fall within a certain range given your field of study.

Whether you pay $20,000 or $120,000 for that accounting degree, you’ll earn about $50,000 per year as an accountant.

How you find yourself in trouble is when you overpay for the degree.

  • For the love of all things pink, get in and get out! I’ll never be able to understand people who spend six years getting a 4-year degree. Not because they changed majors or because their GPA wasn’t high enough, but because they took the wrong frickin’ classes! Don’t enroll in courses that aren’t necessary for your degree.
  • Borrow responsibly. If you know nothing else about student loans, know this, whether public or private, student loan debt is almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy. You cannot ignore your future earning potential. You’ll need your income to pay back the money you borrowed and engage in fun activities like eating and stuff.
  • Get a job. According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, the typical full-time college student studies about 15 hours a week. As early as you can, visit your university’s career services office to figure out which cooperative education and internship programs you qualify for? Surely you can find a few hours of paid work to reduce the opportunity cost of delaying your entry into the workforce.
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You Picked the Wrong Major

The main argument for acquiring a college degree is the increased salary you’ll be able to demand. However, any ol’ degree won’t do. Graduate with a degree in puppetry, and you might be shocked to find that no one is willing to pay a premium, or anything at all, for your newly obtained skill.

There’s a risk of losing money on any investment, but there are ways to reduce your chances of suffering a loss on your college education.

  • Get an idea of what the job market will be like for the careers you’re interested in. Check out the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Are more jobs being created for your possible profession or are they being destroyed? What’s the starting salary, the opportunities for career growth, the working environment? What additional certifications will boost your income or marketability?
  • Pick a specialty. Choose a major that will make you the most marketable when you graduate. Some employers don’t care what you get a degree in as long as you have one. Others are very specific about the majors they’re looking for. As an accounting major, you’d get considered for jobs that required an accounting degree, any business degree or any degree whatsoever. That’s not the case when you get a degree in liberal studies.
  • Find out where your skills and passions lie. Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment. Ask yourself, “What do I want to do? What am I good it?” Don’t start aimlessly taking classes before you undergo a thorough self evaluation. You’re less likely to change your major and more likely to excel in your career once you start working.

You Weren’t Prepared to Enter the Job Market

Regardless of what the economy is like when you graduate, you’ve got to make yourself as attractive as possible to employers. Waiting a couple weeks or even a couple months before graduation to start prepping for a full-time job isn’t gonna cut it. You’ve got to be aggressive in your job search. And the search starts the moment you step foot on campus.

  • Network with people who work in your chosen profession. Talk to recruiters at career fairs. Find out what prospective employers look for in job applicants. Join student organizations that frequently invite working professionals to speak. Gather information from classmates who’ve interned with companies you’d like to work for.
  • Make good grades.  Although you don’t need a high GPA to be successful, it certainly doesn’t hurt. I can’t imagine a hiring manager tossing your resume in the trash because your grades were too good. Your professors may know of job openings they could refer you to. They’re less inclined to stick their neck out for average students. BONUS: Many auto insurance companies offer “good student” discounts for drivers with a “B” average or higher.

What steps did you take to make sure your college degree was a worthwhile investment?

Did you enjoy this article?
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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

In Budgets We Trust March 14, 2012 at 3:26 PM

So so so true! ROI is super important even with education! I took 5 years to finish a 4 year engineering degree because I continued to take classes for a degree program I was already rejected from. HUGE mistake!

In the grand scheme of things though, I knew that an engineering degree would be fairly marketable, and I chose Chemical Engineering because it spanned more industries than any other major I could find. I was right! Remember how I said I was rejected from an engineering program? After graduation, a graduate of the program told me he wished his degree was more generally applicable like mine because many employers thought his degree was too specific. It's all pretty lucky what happened.

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Shawanda March 14, 2012 at 9:43 PM

Great job! You have to strike the right balance between the general and the specialized. I chose to major in accounting because it gave me the most flexibility of all the business majors.

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Aloysa March 14, 2012 at 10:02 PM

I actually picked all the right classes and took six years to get my Bachelor's and Master's. People who cannot decide what they want to study after three years of college drive me nuts. I want to tell them to forget college and go get a job.

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Shawanda March 14, 2012 at 10:39 PM

I hear ya. A lot of colleges require you to take like two years of fluffy general education courses before starting your major. That should be plenty of time to figure what you'd like to do, at least for your first career.

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Marina K. Villatoro March 15, 2012 at 12:16 AM

Don't get me started on college talk. I don't think it's a good investment at all. I went to college, and wished I didn't. I lost my parents a probably over 100k!

However, then there is someone like my brother who is getting his PhD in MIT, and for his career he needs a PhD and thinks there is nothing better than going to college.

My husband, is with me on most parts, he feels Uni is good for those who need it – ironically, he's getting his PhD now too – becuase his career can't advance without it.

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Shawanda March 15, 2012 at 12:36 AM

Eek! $100K?! I went to a public university in the state of Florida and all 4 years might've cost $25K (includes tuition only).

When I was in high school, I took an AP Psychology class and loved it. I even thought about majoring in Psychology for a brief second. After I did a little research, I discovered I couldn't make any real dough in the field without a doctorate. Yeah, eight years of post-secondary education wasn't for me.

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Marina K. Villatoro March 15, 2012 at 12:39 AM

My brother's Uni which is Ivy league cost my parents $150k and U. Penn made them feel as though the university was doing them a favor for taking their son.

but, for my bro, it's really worked out :)

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Shawanda March 15, 2012 at 1:05 AM

At $150K, I'm really glad that it did.

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Andrew March 15, 2012 at 6:02 AM

Six and half years for me on a 4-year BS. Then again, I paid my own way and finished with almost no debt.

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Shawanda March 15, 2012 at 9:09 AM

Must've felt great to graduate with practically no debt.

If I had to do it all over again, I probably still would've gone into student loan debt, just less of it. When I finally got serious, it took me less than a year to pay it off. I can't say I'd want to stay in school longer to avoid the relatively small amount of debt I took out.

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After College Money March 15, 2012 at 10:07 PM

I think college is on average a good investment. But, it is getting more and more expensive then it used to be 20 years ago. With the internet, information is becoming available to everyone. Even with all this free information, it is hard for people to find the motivation to study a subject for 4 years. College makes people find themselves and get motivated about a field of study, and I guess that it what it is most valuable for.

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Shawanda March 15, 2012 at 11:15 PM

I actually valued college for more than the experiences. I had fun, but college prepared me for my career. I couldn't be a CPA without a degree. So far, it's served me well. College is becoming more and more expensive, but in my home state of Florida, a public education is still quite reasonable. I know that's not the case everywhere.

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Ray@Finance Degrees April 10, 2012 at 2:43 AM

i don't think that college degrees are worthless, its always good to get higher education to increase your knowledge and get good jobs and high paid salaries..!

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QUALITY STOCKS UNDER FIVE DOLLARS December 21, 2012 at 4:16 PM

Learning can take place in many different ways and forms besides just through formal education. How many folks are their out their that have a vast amount of knowledge about a wide aray of topics but they will not get a credit for what they have learned because they do not have any formal education transcripts to prove they have acquired the knowledge that they have.

I have had a computer for almost three years when I bought it I did not know how to type I was a terrible speller. I have come a long way in less than three years. I can type and spell pretty good on my computer today. I taught myself to type on the computer I learned how to use the computer by myself I did not take any lessons or anything like that.

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