Why You Wasted Your Time and Money at School

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I love writing incendiary titles like the one for this post.

Titles like that are a common marketing tactic. The idea is that by making a “controversial” statement, you attract both people who agree as well as people who disagree. So in this case, folks who didn’t go to school see a title like that and click on it in order to validate their decision to eschew academia. People with college degrees click on it to see what kind of moron would make such a claim. Or perhaps they simply feel a niggling sensation in the back of their mind that says, “He might be right.”

Whatever the reason you decided to read this post, I’m glad you did.

I’ll be upfront and say that I’m not here to make the case against higher education. I’m not. There are certain industries where I believe it is still absolutely fundamental. When I walk into a doctor’s office, I want to see a slew of certifications plastered across the wall. It’s also a great comfort to know that most bridges have been built by engineers who were traditionally educated in some manner.

But medicine and engineering aren’t the topics of this site. We mainly discuss creative pursuits here (call them “the arts” if you must). And that’s the area that I want to discuss in relation to college or university degrees.

Are they really necessary?

What I Learned in High School

I’m one of those odd birds that never really took to academic life. My high school career was a fairly chaotic affair. I attended three different schools, including a Microsoft-funded charter school. What that means is that there was nothing particularly different from the other high schools I had attended, except that students were expected to type their homework instead of writing it out long-hand. It was at this institution that the principal informed me that I would “never amount to anything”.

Not “You’ll never amount to anything if you don’t…”

It was “You’ll never amount to anything.” Period. Full stop.

Less than four years later I was making a bit over ten thousand dollars each month in the then-budding field of internet marketing. I’m painfully aware that in the grand scheme of things this isn’t very much money, but to a twenty-two year old high school dropout with nothing more than a GED (Good Enough Degree, am I right?), it’s pretty damn great. Sure, this amount of early success led to obsessive workaholism and a serious reassessment of my life priorities several years later, but I can still remember the staggering sense of vindication I felt toward my former principal. Jaime Escalante she was not.

To be fair, my English teachers always liked me. I’m not an amazing writer, but I have made thousands of dollars with this craft too.

As cathartic as that was to share, it’s not my ultimate point. Hang with me, I’m getting there.

Education vs. Action

Over my years of being a member of the “work at home in your underwear” club, I’ve learned countless invaluable lessons. While my lifestyle most certainly isn’t for everyone, I’ve always enjoyed the ability to glide from one venture to the next, never entirely sure if it’s the right move or not until I find out—it’s exciting, and it beats the hell out of sitting in a cubicle.

And you know what? I haven’t had to eat cat food for dinner yet.

(Side note: I’ve never really understood the correlation between people eating cat food and being poor. Cat food is expensive.)

During this course of time, I’ve had the opportunity to hire a number of freelancers for a variety of tasks ranging from writing to graphic design and everything in between. Having been involved in the freelance industry in some capacity or another, which I am to this day, I likely had some unique insights on how to make good hires. Most of my experiences were exceedingly positive.

You know what I never asked for?

Academic credentials.

You know what I always asked for?

A portfolio.

I think in the vast majority of creative industries, particularly within the context of freelancing, educational achievements mean very little.

Clients want solid proof of your skill set, and this means providing a solid portfolio of some kind to showcase your abilities. If you’re the kind of person who responds well to traditional education and can learn all the skills you need in this manner, that’s totally fine and you should definitely do it. But a piece of paper saying that you might be good at your craft will almost never be enough. A writer needs to have samples or links to published works, a graphic designer might send potential clients to their site where their works are prominently displayed, and a video editor isn’t getting anywhere without a stellar demo reel. This is all true regardless of your educational background.

Pause for a moment and imagine that you’re the client. You’re in the process of rebranding your business, and you need someone to create a new logo for you. You’ve spent a ton of time formulating the perfect strategy to get new eyeballs on your business—and you’re spending quite a lot to do it. Advertising campaigns, web development, maybe even a few consultants. You need this new logo of yours to really, really pop.

So you start looking to hire a graphic designer. Maybe you go to one of these freelancing sites, maybe you ask on your favorite marketing forum. However you do it, eventually the applications are pouring in. Who are you going to hire? The kid fresh out of art school, or the self taught guy with a killer portfolio?

Clients are Selfish, and Rightfully So

The “harsh reality” is that clients don’t care about you or your background. They care about the quality of the service that you can provide.

This, as I see it, is exactly how it should be. Actions will always speak louder than words.

I’m not the only one who thinks this way. Tech giant Google has been notoriously outspoken about its stance on higher education, with Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Bock going so far as to say “G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring”. The international accounting firm Ernst and Young no longer requires employees to have a college degree, instead opting to evaluate potential employees with a series of in-house tests. A Gallup poll which questioned major U.S. business leaders and found that 79% believed an applicant’s skills were “very important”, which is a stark contrast to the 28% who said that an applicant’s college major was “very important”.

This is the attitude slowly overcoming much of the traditional employment sphere. And as I see it, it’s already here in full force for freelancers.

Don’t Forget About Debt

I have zero debt. None. My post secondary school apathy has saved me tens of thousands of dollars.

The path I’ve taken with work and education has also given me a lot of free time to spend on my other interests, like music or writing fiction, not to mention being with my loved ones. I can go pretty much wherever I want since I narrowly avoided the trap of buying a house.

On the other hand, most of my friends have debt, and for almost all of them it’s student loan debt. And, true to all the news stories you’ve been hearing for the past half decade or better, most of them aren’t working in the fields they have a degree in. So what was the point?

At the time of this writing, there’s approximately 1.2 trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt in the United States, with each of the 40 million borrowers owing an average of $29,000. Over 9% of college graduates under 25 are unemployed. There are over 300,000 waiters and waitresses with college degrees. Nearly 25% of the people working retail have a degree.

Again, just what in the hell was the point of getting into all of that debt for the people waiting tables or showing you where the duct tape is at Home Depot?

There’s a great documentary on YouTube from 2011 that goes into a lot of these kinds of statistics, and also some very sad cases of the burdensome nature of student loans (take some of it with a grain of salt, like their hilariously bad advice to buy silver).

This kind of growing concern isn’t exactly a secret. Amazon is swimming in books with titles like The Higher Education Bubble, The Student Loan Scam, and, my personal favorite, F**k My Student Loans.

Is Freelancing Your Hobby or Your Business?

If freelancing is your hobby, that’s completely fine. A lot of people do a little work on the side to bolster their income.

But if you’re treating it like a real business and you haven’t already attended higher education, I encourage you to to take some time to consider it.

Is it really the right investment for you?

Because that’s exactly what an education should be: an investment. Don’t go to college because you think you have to order to be successful or because it’s what your parents want. Go because it’s the smart move for YOU. All I’m saying here is that sometimes, for some people—gasp!—it isn’t.

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