094: The Wrong Reason to Go (Back) to College [Podcast]

Recent graduates are faced with disappointment in a college experience that implicitly promised them a marketable skill and good money. Unfortunately, the ROI of a traditional degree pales in comparison to the alternative.

The Wrong Reason to Go (Back) to College

For generations, a college diploma was a ticket to a better life. You finished high school, attended a university, got a decent job, started a family, and lived the dream.

If you wanted to level up your career again, all you had to do was go back to school for your masters. This typically bumped you up a few rungs on the ladder and accelerated your career.

Today, many graduates, burdened with student loans and disillusioned by their prospects in the job market, are returning to school under the false notion this will help them circumvent the real problem. A broken system.

This week on The Portfolio Life, Andy and I talk about alternative options to higher ed and how a customized educational experience can lead to greater success on a shorter timeline.

Listen in as we discuss the proven benefits of online courses and why it’s never too late (or early) to start learning differently.

Listen to the podcast

To listen to the show, click the player below (If you are reading this via email or RSS, please click here).

Skip the student loan debt

One night, my wife and I sat down to calculate the costs of sending our toddler to college some day. The results were staggering.

Given the rate of inflation, rising tuition, and estimated market trends, it will cost roughly $180,000 to send our son to a 4-year, in-state school when he’s 18 years old. And that’s just for one kid.

It’d be cheaper to pay the tycoons on Shark Tank to let our son shadow them for six months and learn first hand from their successes and failures of running multi-million dollar businesses.

While that sounds outlandish (or awesome depending on your feelings about Mr. Wonderful) the truth is not far off. Many experts and thought leaders in every field imaginable are willing to share their knowledge through online courses.

You can learn just about anything online. Either on YouTube, via a course library, or directly from a professional who has created a deep dive experience on a given topic.

One of the things I find most interesting and valuable about online courses is the practical application. In stark contrast to most college classes, in an online course you learn a principle and immediately can turn around and apply it.

Wherever you are, there’s an opportunity for you to find the skills you need to do the kind of work you want to do. Usually for far less money than the cost of a college degree.

Show highlights

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How online courses differ from online colleges
  • Why college is still a formative experience
  • The value of focused learning versus general education
  • Debunking the stigma of “making a buck” products
  • How an 18-year-old Tribe Writer skipped college and built business
  • Keeping the promise you made to yourself as a kid
  • The best thing you can do if you want to be the best at what you do
  • How do you do what you love and pay the bills
  • Alternatives to consider before you spend a dime on more education

Quotes and takeaways

  • Great work is it’s own reward
  • Find ways to share your gift with the world.
  • It’s an incredible feeling when you’re doing the work you were meant to do.
  • Reject the excuse of not having enough time, money, or resources.
  • Don’t go back to school just because you don’t know what else to do.


How are you choosing to educate yourself? What’s the best way to educate future generations? Share in the comments

15 thoughts on “094: The Wrong Reason to Go (Back) to College [Podcast]

  1. After Tribe Writers, I’ve also “drunk the Kool Aid.” So far, I’ve also taken great art courses through Will Kemp Art School and Craftsy and even seminary classes through iTunes U.

    I shared this with a brilliant girl who’s been devastated she can’t go to college (her immigration status disqualifies her for financial aid and her family can’t afford to pay). She wants to be a social entrepreneur-this is going to be a huge paradigm shift for her. Thanks so much for this!

  2. I’ve been a fan of the blog and podcast for awhile now. Today’s episode threw me for a loop. While I do agree that things like Skill Crush, General Assembly and Khan Academy are going to change education I think the message portrayed in this episode was optimistic to the point of negligence. In America we live in a credential society. So of course someone can pay their favorite entrepreneur to spend some time with them but that is not going to replace the credentials that degrees and formal education provide. While we can all name people like Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of college and made it bigger than most can imagine, I don’t think that’s a smart bet to take. In fact, now most of the companies started by genius college drop outs now recruit mainly if not exclusively from the nation’s top colleges and universities. It is also worth mentioning the networks gained through formal education. Sure you can meet someone at a conference but I’m not sure that replaces the networks gained by the being around peers, upper & under classmen and professors at an institution of higher learning, especially for people not born into families of a certain pedigree/status. I also think the element of privilege throughout this episode needs not be forgotten. Many HS graduates do not have entrepreneur parents who can fund them doing whatever they want instead of going to college. Just as many parents are not in the financial position to spend $60K on their child just so they can pursue a passion in a major city. I think we all love the idea of working our way up from the mailroom but I don’t know if that’s a real possibility anymore. The price of higher education has gotten out of control. However I still don’t think we are at the point where it can be truthfully said that a non-traditional education such as Khan Academy can open the same doors that traditional degree does. I think we should work towards making public education more affordable and colleges need to incorporate elements from places like Khan Academy, The Great Courses ,etc in order to prepare students for the new economy. After all, many of the best entrepreneurs do business with people they know from places such as school and as stated earlier, many of the best positions are not even available to someone who is at least enrolled in some type of educational institution. I live in NYC where many people come to chase their dreams only to realize that there are way more barriers than they imagined, especially if they are not formally educated.

  3. I agree with Nicole that it’s overly optimistic advice. My bf learned IT skills as a teen and got his first junior developer job at 19 without a college degree in Omaha, Ne. However, the IT field has changed a lot since the early 2000’s, companies now prefer to hire people with at least a bachelor’s degree.

    There are a lot of companies in Omaha that are asking for masters degrees. Before living in Omaha, I lived in Phoenix and they operated the same way. If you look at requirements at Apple and Microsoft they prefer to hire university graduates even though their founders started it without a college degree. As someone without a college degree, all I’ve been able to find have been survival jobs, so now I’m in college.

    While websites like Team Treehouse, Lynda, and Khan Academy are great, it’s still very true that we live in a credential society. Designing your own education sounds quirky and weird to many companies across America. If I could do it all over again…I’d rewind time and go to college, get a pragmatic degree so I could have the fast cash to pursue my dreams.

    See the thing is that dreams often require planning in order for them to come true.
    Many artists and entrepreneurs that I’ve known had to work other jobs before they could follow the dream.

    You’re not giving up on your dream if you go to college and have to work a day job for 4-5 years after college while you’re working on your dream job on the side and saving/investing money on the side until you can leave that day job.

    And in this economy it helps to have an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree as part of your plan B. If you can’t afford to get a bachelor’s degree then definitely get an associate degree.

  4. College may be the right choice for someone, or it may not be. The point is that, if your only life experience is high school, you’re ill-equipped to make this determination. I have three young girls, and while I want to keep every door of opportunity open to them, I don’t want them to uncritically follow the conventional path just because it’s the conventional path. I want them to get out in the world. Ask questions. Challenge assumptions. Be bold. Just because you don’t go to college right away doesn’t mean you can’t go later. But you can never un-ring the bell of college loan debt.

  5. I’ve got a solid career but have never used my college degree to land a job or get a pay raise. All I could think while listening to this episode is a lot of what Seth Godin has said many times. (And how he breaks down why colleges were initially created, like you touched on.)

    I hope my kids are open to sampling online courses. I think that’s the future (unless you want to be a doctor or something like that). My wife and I already talk to our 10 and 7 year old kids about this. We can see education is rapidly evolving for adults while the school system stays relatively the same old model. I believe online courses can help people discover new and better ways to impact the world with minimal financial exposure.

    Thanks for bringing attention to this guys!

  6. Great post, I’m looking at this from a marketing point of view. This is exactly the kind of content I want to share with prospective students. I promote a training academy for fitness professionals. Courses are fully accredited, professionally presented and media-rich, presenting exactly the same content as a live course. The price point is high, but a fraction of the cost of full-time college tuition. People don’t always “get” it though, there seems to be a roadblock about elearning, people think they will miss out on p2p interaction. There are pros and cons to each system but I’m definitely going to recommend this article and podcast to others. Jeff, come work with me!

  7. I think the biggest problem with online courses is wading through the muck to find the diamonds. But the diamonds are out there, and for someone like me who has challenges getting around, they are a real blessing.

  8. I’m sending my son to college for the experiences and advantages a degree will bring. But I take advantage of on line learning and so does he. If my son becomes an entrepreneur and doesn’t have to rely on an employer, great. But a degree is like a hunting license. It enables you to pursue bigger game than the next guy with a high school diploma.

  9. Great podcast Jeff! I didn’t go to college mostly because it wasn’t something my family ever talked about. No one in my family went to college either and a lot of influential people in my life looked down at people going to college. They would bring up the fact that many who went for a certain degree weren’t even in the field they studied. I’m not sure college would have helped me other than possibly help me get closer to discovering what I wanted to do, but not sure… I didn’t really discover my talent until after I turned 30 and it was totally by accident. But Thankfully, you don’t have to have a degree to work in the IT field. I agree that online courses are an excellent vehicle to learn the real important things you need. Online courses have allowed me to take knowledge and apply it in the real world.

  10. It’s funny to see how college can be so expensive in the United States. I live in Brazil, and the BEST colleges are public (and free), managed by the government. It is really hard to enter in one of those, because of the competition.

    I did 4 years of college in a public university, but I still think that most of my time was wasted. I learn better with online courses. My parents never gave me another options. The “common path” was always the college, and nothing more.

  11. Jeff, thank you for this episode! I clearly remember being in high school and thinking of college degree as a ticket to life. I believed that my life would be ruined without that degree. I would end up being a bus driver or something. And I went the exact route you talked with Andy about: years in university, job with small salary, years and years of working hard, climbing up until you succeed and find it’s good, but not great, it’s okay but still not what you are meant to be. Here I am, 39, being a student again, starting all over, learning everything from scratch. Taking online courses, jumping deep in what I like.

    That childish belief about college degree seems so ridiculous to me nowadays. Not only because there’s an option to be an entrepreneur, but also because I found one can be a solid personality irrespective of positions, titles and industries. Bus driver is also quite an experience… Maybe some day…

  12. I also learned form a few online courses. I think Online courses is much more reasonable but lack of interactions compared to the usual college that we attended.

Comments are closed.