Off to College! Or Are They?

It’s the end of May and inevitably you’ve seen Facebook become inundated with more and more pictures of boys and girls donning graduation robes as they walk the stage and leave high school forever.  Congratulations to them, no doubt.  But now they’re posed with a big decision – to continue their education or not.  Most will likely continue their education.  It’s the “right” thing to do.  It’s what everyone does.  But is it necessarily the right choice?

Man rolling rock onto another to show college competition

Competition After College

As someone who went to college after high school, I can say at this point in my career it wasn’t worth it.  Yet, I loved college.  And I do recommend it for a lot of people.  However, I notice a lot of bad information out there.  Granted, it’s all anecdotal, but I volunteer for a local juvenile pre-trial diversion program and have this talk with A LOT of kids.  Some of the kids are great candidates for college, some aren’t.  All of them have no idea what the heck is going on or what questions they should be asking.  I’m not sure if it’s a deficiency in school or just misinformation, but there is a void where they should be curiosity.

This is my two cents.

Alternatives to College

Peter Thiel, one of the co-founders of PayPal, famously started the Thiel Fellowship in 2010.  It was designed to give 30 kids $100,000 to drop out of college and start their own business or social movement organizations.  His goal was to admonish the current status quo that mandates all graduates to go to college.  It’s had some success.  There are quite a few successful start-ups that have come out of the Thiel Foundation and some busts, but it is an interesting social experiment.

Starting a business for most high school graduates isn’t practical.  They just simply don’t have enough knowledge or work experience to find inefficiencies in the marketplace to find a marketable niche.  That’s to say nothing of the logistical issues of an 18 year old getting funding for their idea.  However, there are more blue collar, low start-up cost businesses’ one could start: lawn care, join a multi-level marketing company, or attempt to get a small loan and try to start a carpet cleaning franchise (no joke, I actually know someone who did this and has done well with it).  Not a route that most kids can take, but it is an alternative.

The more common route that I’ve seen people take is apprenticeship doing electrical or plumbing.  The BLS Occupational Handbook notes both of those jobs had a median take home pay of $50,000+ and have anticipated job growth of 12-14%.  Both also only require a high school diploma and on the job training.  You won’t find many better paying jobs with a high school degree.  The fantastic thing about these though is that there is so much room to maneuver in the career field.  You can manage your own crew or get further education and licensing and be a general contractor.  The only thing is the job is physically intensive work and without further education to get away from the front lines, you probably won’t be able to do it into your 60’s.

Finally, and this one is becoming more and more popular, you can get a job doing ‘something’ and work in that job as a stop-gap measure until you decide your future.  Things like call centers or debt collection is a popular choice as the educational requirements are low and the pay isn’t bad for most places.  You can probably make a solid $20-25,000 a year doing this.  Poverty level wages for sure, but doable with a few roommates in most cities.

The Cash Flow Celt College Critique

Many of the high school graduates will still seek to be college graduates in five years though.  And to them, I say good luck.  Do your homework.  Millenials are having an exceedingly difficult time finding good work for good pay – to hell if it’s work within their major.  Job requirements are becoming more stringent and the application pool is becoming dense.  Workers tenure at jobs are growing shorter, down to three years now.  That means that there are more people looking for work at any given time.  Plus, Millenials were really the first generation that was told “GO TO COLLEGE” so all the older ones went to college and it has really killed the market for younger ones.  All in all, it just reiterates the fact that you need to do your homework on your chosen major.  Money isn’t the be all end all, but if you’re hoping to get a job in social science or other non-STEM field, just understand that the labor competition is large and the wages are small.  If you’re okay with that, and understand it, then major in whatever you want.

I went to school for economics, I took math classes and advanced economic logic courses.  Because I have an injured back I can’t work a lot of the usual college jobs like movers or waiters; and because my economics courses took place Mon-Thurs from 9-3, I couldn’t get an office job.  So I became heavily involved in school functions to pad my resume.  I coached a university mock trial team for three years and was appointed to serve in the Judicial Branch of SGA.  I was also involved in an investing club and went to a few real estate club meetings.  I was very, very involved in school extracurricular activities.  I met some awesome people and gained a lot of practical experiences.  So let me be the first to tell you that they don’t matter.  At least for business majors.  If you are majoring in business and want to work in business, you need to get a job in business.  The most common thing I heard in job rejections was “Well, you don’t really have a lot of actual work experience.”  After redesigning the SGA Judicial procedures and managing 16-20 kids every semester and teaching them how to do mock trial, on top of the community work I was involved in, it was an eye opening slap in the face.  To me, the very feat of getting college students to show up to an optional practice (brownie bribe or not) and get them to be productive is monumental.  I have more control over my two year old.  So there you have it.  Your extracurricular activities don’t matter.  You are expected to have them though.  My recommendation is to have a job and sign up for those activities. Pay your dues and attend a few meetings, but put your efforts in things that will be more long-term.  You’re still going to have to work exceedingly hard.

The Takeaway

College can be very worth it.  The experiences alone will be lifetime memories.  However, it comes at an extreme cost.  My student loans are larger than my yearly salary.  Do your homework and understand your job prospects.  Come to terms with it and check out a few calculators to see how much your monthly student loan payments would be.  Could you afford that on your yearly salary?  For a lot of the non-STEM majors it probably makes more sense to work full-time and go to school part-time to reduce your debt load.


Readers, what advise do you have to graduating high schoolers right now as they embark on their new lives?  If you went to college, did you think it was worth it and would you recommend high schoolers to go right now?  Be sure to discuss in the comments below.  Don’t forget to ‘like’ Cash Flow Celt on Facebook and share the posts.  Show your friends your conquering your financial empire!

Cash Flow Celt

I'm just a local business and finance nerd looking to help people get educated about small business, marketing, and personal finance! I write about anything and everything that I can tie into those themes. I'm also Central Florida's only Kilted Realtor, so I write about Real Estate too! Check out my About Me page to see the origins of Cash Flow Celt.

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4 Responses

  1. Catherine J Colangelo says:

    I really like your column. I find it interesting to see how you see yourself while you are in the beginnings of life/career/children. College is what you make it. Nothing more, nothing less. If you skate by, just trying to get the sheepskin, at the expense of actually learning/mastering the information, you will not do as well as those who buckle down – regardless of whether or not they graduate. As for the debt, that is a national disgrace. In my day, the total indebtedness that I incurred through two colleges, was $10K. I paid it off at $100/mo. for 10 years. I worked throughout school and I got several scholarships. But I also had 10 years of solid (in my field) work experience before ever enrolling in college. As far as what I’d recommend to someone in high school now, that has not changed and I doubt it ever will: Find what you WANT to do and work like crazy to find a path towards it. The catch is that seldom (if ever) does an 17 year old know what they want to do. There are so many choices that college does not address. I’ve thought – ever since we had our exchange student from Germany – that one of the best ideas is 2 years of mandatory public service after high school graduation. Tuition -free college is a great step too. Remember that there is a LOT MORE TO LIFE after high school than what job/career you might pursue. Also, you are allowed to change your mind once you work in a career. More advice from me includes working during the college years at something in your field.

    • Cash Flow Celt says:

      I was reading an article the other day about why student debt isn’t eligible for bankruptcy and it follows with your point. In college, you’re paying for an intangible thing because you’re paying for knowledge and life experiences. The very nature of college makes it a loan that could never be secured like a mortgage or auto loan. Although, in that sense, running up $30,000 in credit card expenses and then declaring bankruptcy to minimize your debt is in that same realm. The credit card company probably isn’t going to take all the clothes or food that you bought on the card.

      You mention the ultimate Catch 22 though. Colleges are becoming more strict in how many credits you’re allowed to take without a penalty. Florida just reduced the number a student can graduate with, so they’re penalizing students who change their majors after the first semester; this rule is in conjunction with the required courses a student has to take anyway, limiting the number of their Gen. Ed. they even have available. They want these 18 year old kids to know exactly what the want for the next 40 years. Yet the school administration still has the gall to say they encourage students to take multiple abstract topics to find the major of their choice; however, we’re only going to pay for one. Luckily I got out before that happened though, because I started as an English major, then a legal studies major, before finally settling on economics.

  2. Thank you for pointing out that us millennials have all been told to go to college. I know many people who are now stuck in low-paid jobs, having left degrees that they never wanted to study. Schools (and parents) need to be more encouraging of other avenues and this is changing but too slowly. We need manual workers, entrepreneurs, entertainers, artists, carers… We don’t need hundreds of unemployed graduates fighting for the same jobs.

    • Cash Flow Celt says:

      Hello Jenna and thanks so much for taking time to read the blog. It’s a frustrating fact for sure and it sometimes seems so arbitrary as to who gets jobs and who doesn’t. I’ve got incredibly smart and ambitious friends that I graduated with who are stuck like I am in a job that doesn’t complement their skills (but is in fact a job) and then I’ve got friends who don’t network or have excellent drive, and yet great jobs with good pay are falling into their laps.

      The ones who are consistently doing well though are the ones who went into trade labor like mechanics or electricians. I really hope it makes upcoming high school graduates think about what the job market may look like in five years, because that’s when they’ll begin competing with an economically disadvantaged, but more experienced, Millennial crowd.

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