College Is A Waste Of Time And Money. Here’s A Better Way. What Do You Think?

college-broken-homeIs the college system dead?

Seth Godin ranted about the problems with college textbooks, but isn’t the problem bigger than the books? Aren’t we really looking at a 4-year time and money drain?

I think, for many students, a better solution is to invest in them the way incubators like Y Combinator invest in entrepreneurs. I’ll show you my reasoning in this post, but I’d like to hear what you think.

What’s wrong with the college system

It creates corporate drones

Students today leave school with so much debt that they lose their independence and become pawns of whatever company pays them enough to help make payments on their debt.

What it teaches is out of date by the time students graduate

When I was in college, learning about the internet meant understanding how to search using Archie and how to browse using gopher. Archie and gopher were dead technologies the minute I graduated. That’s the problem with a 4-years school system that operates in a world that changes every 4 months.

It doesn’t teach the way people learn

I bet you that a college graduate learns more in her first year on the job than she does in all four years in college.

People learn by doing, not by sitting in a class and being lectured to.

Four years of information is too much to retain

Students end up cramming as much information about a class as they need for to do well on a test and they forget almost all of it after they finish a semester. On graduation day, most students can’t remember what they learned a month before. What they learned as freshmen is a fuzzy memory at best.

Its promise is a hoax

Colleges say that over a lifetime, graduates earn as much as $1 million more than non-graduates. But, as Forbes pointed out in an article appropriately called The Great College Hoax, “A correlation between B.A.s and incomes is not proof of cause and effect. It may reflect nothing more than the fact that the economy rewards smart people and smart people are likely to go to college.”

The truth is that college is one big party

The evidence of the massive 4-year party that college really is can be see all over Facebook.

Are there some students who study hard and learn a lot in college? Yes, but most of those students are learning despite the environment, not because of it.

We need a better model

Acknowledge the problem

We’ll never even begin to look for a solution if we keep the idea of a college education on a pedestal and refuse to question its value. We need to acknowledge that it’s out of touch.

My proposal: the incubator model

After hearing Alexis Ohanion of Reddit say how much he learned in the 3 months that Y Combinator incubated his startup I think that’s the best model for education.

Can’t we let students work on real projects, and give them experienced mentors that they can turn to for answers and advice?

Some of this is already happening

USC, for example, has a masters program called APOC which teaches community-building by giving students seed capital so they could build real communities.

And Seth Godin himself created an “alternative MBA” program where his students learned by creating companies.

What do you think?

– If you went to college, do you feel it was the best use of your time and money?

– What do you think of the incubator idea for education?

– Do you know any examples of alternatives to college that are working well?

Update: TechCrunch has an article about how lousy the system is. We need a radically different approach.

  • yo

    If all education were about companies, marketing or “entreperneurism”, they wouldn't exist. The kind of things that keeps people like you (with all my respects) making money are made by graduates.

  • Hari

    I agree.
    In good ol' days, things developed slowly, so you could afford to sit in the college for 4 years and then enter the “real” world to actually create something. Everything or at least most of what you learnt was still relevant.

    Times have certainly changed now. So every class that is taught has to be put to use right away,
    so may be like 1 semester of class followed by 1 semester of practical implementation.

    @sripathi, I don't think Andrew is suggesting everyone train themselves to become entrepreneurs. He is simply suggesting the “incubator” model for learning which has worked successfully for Y Combinator and Seth's alternative mba.

  • Dan Grossman

    Hmm. I don't think anything I learned in my computer science degree, which I finished over a year ago, is obsolete.

    Or have we invented quantum computers and AI, so I can come into Google and suggest some NP-complete algorithms for search?

  • Sripathi

    There are some stats that suggest that 1 in a 100 make it through the start-up experience. What is your fall-back if you are one of the 99. Education is the bedrock of all future discipline and thinking.

  • AndrewWarner

    You're right that it wouldn't work for every profession.

    Though I think the applications reach beyond entrepreneurship. I was a
    finance major @ NYU. For 4 years we studied theories. I think it left us
    with an unrealistic view of what finance is really about.

  • AndrewWarner

    Glad to hear it Dan. I don't mean to imply that it's perfect for everyone.

    I like the design of your site, by the way.

  • AndrewWarner

    Thanks Hari. I felt cooped up in my classroom for 4 years. To be honest, I
    probably should have left school early on, but I have some kind of obsession
    with finishing what I started.

  • AndrewWarner

    I don't mean to imply that everyone should be an entrepreneur.

    I do think that this system is broken for more than just business people.
    Here's a non-profit that helps writers do something similar to what I'm

  • Michael_Schaecher

    I have friends that just graduated with marketing degrees and they were never taught anything about PPC, SEM, or Social Media just to name a few things they missed.

  • Michael_Schaecher

    Also Andrew, here is a great article by Eliot Spitzer on reforming the way we pay for a college education. A good read and a great idea.

  • Joseph Joel Sherman

    Consider how people in other countries treat a college education. In Israel, for example, people serve in national service or in the military for a few years, often travel for a year and then go on to college. By the time they enter college, they have already partied and students are serious. I think a lot of it depends on the approach of the students. When I studied in Göttingen, Germany, the public universities are very inexpensive, perhaps 500 to 700 US a year for tuition. Students will often stay on for a extra year or two, pursing personal interests, even another degree out of intellectual curiosity, or as a way to escape or defer the economy.

  • AndrewWarner

    I've noticed that too. Different countries have different systems and


    Andrew Warner
    (sent from my mobile)

  • AndrewWarner

    I've been enjoying his writing on Slate. I like his thought process.

    Thanks for this. I'm going to read it now on my iPhone and go to sleep.

    Andrew Warner
    (sent from my mobile)

  • AndrewWarner

    I read the article and it's not what I expected. I'm not looking to
    charge people based on their ability to pay. I want to change the
    system by eliminating waste and trying creative solutions.

    Andrew Warner
    (sent from my mobile)

  • AndrewWarner

    As Seth Godin said in his piece, even the big concepts like permission
    marketing are being ignored. Not just in the classes, but in the text

    Andrew Warner
    (sent from my mobile)

  • Michael_Schaecher

    And I totally agree with you. I think the Spitzer idea is a creative solution to part of the problem, specifically the first point in your article about being trapped by debt.

  • fogus

    Like anything in life, you get out of college exactly what you put into it. If your goal is to party, then you can easily find a good time. If your goal is to get through and get a degree, then it's not difficult. However, if your goal is to take something of lasting value from it, then that requires some extra thought and definitely a lot of extra work. College is not perfect, but neither are any of the alternatives (well, except for Wizard School). To get an edge in college and in business requires digging deeper then everyone else.


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  • anon

    successful troll is successful

  • Konstantina

    I SOOOO agree.. I wasted 6 years and over 100k on a degree that I don't want to use. Albeit, I learned some amazing and useful things…but I could've done the same had i researched some tutorials online.

    I swear I will not influence my children to go to college if they don't want to.

    Besides, I feel the 'educated' world is losing ability to work beyond the 'books'. Education is not a means for survival, it is merely a bullet-point in lifes survival guide.

  • Jack

    Perhaps in USA but Universitys are great in New Zealand offering study support, job support. Students should be expected to Remember stuff for a semester. After that semester, it is not the content that is remembered but the method of getting the content.

    As for the party part, that depends on where you go and who you are. If you want your degree, then find balence.


  • hajrice

    Hey Andrew. I've read your post and I'm really liking it. I've been thinking if I should go to college or not. The ONLY reason I would go to college is cause of the College Diploma. The thing that sucks in the world today is that college graduates are usually seen as “smarter” than people with a HS diploma.
    My opinion on Business schools, etc is that they dont and CANT teach you anything. I'm pretty sure that if you took those 4 years of your life and started building a business you'd be a million dollars richer than the person who just got out of Harvard(congratulations guy, you're in 100k of debt).

    My opinon on what you could do(not trying to force you, just suggesting): If you were to open a college, I think that could be interesting…

  • wilburyu

    I'm not too familiar with the American School System, but I do know that the Canadian School System has a strong emphasis on co-op (Essentially, switching between a workterm and a schoolterm). The alternative of that in the USA is internship but in an internship you normally do not get paid, and if you do, it's not a lot.

    I am currently in a co-op program that earns me at least $2000 a workterm. There are a total of 5 workterms and 8 schoolterms (2 terms x 4 years = 8 terms). My average annual tuition is $5500.
    Given my workterm salary, I can make a total of (5 x 4 = 20 months) 20 x 200 = $40,000 (excluding Tax). now, if my annual tuition is $5500, then in 8 terms (4 years) I would be paying 4 x 5500 = $22,000. So (without Tax) I would actually have a surplus of $18,000 by the time I graduate. I will not be in debt.

    In addition, I would have accommodated a well set of experience to find a decently paid (better than co-op of course) job when I graduate. Furthermore, some companies are known to sign contracts with students so they can hire them immediately after they graduate.

    In my opinion, university/college is doing me a whole world of good. The co-op program allows me to build up connections, and school allows me to add things into my resume (Especially because I try to do projects so it's more presentable).

  • AndrewWarner

    If I asked you to spend $100k on anything in business, you'd want to know what the ROI was on that expense. But for some reason, school gets a pass. People don't ask schools to justify their return on investment.

  • AndrewWarner

    We need a more practical education system. This isn't cutting it.

  • charlesdarwinxxx

    YES, come to class

    NO, cannot come to class.

    College degree: piece of paper with ink.

    physics, chemistry lectures are all FREE FREE FREE on Net.

    One-digital college can reach 1-3 billion.

    college will be gone by 2020 2030

  • Name

    For one thing, they should at least learn to avoid spelling errors like “collage graduate”.

  • S

    You say, “My proposal: the incubator model

    After hearing Alexis Ohanion of Reddit say how much he learned in the 3 months that Y Combinator incubated his startup I think that's the best model for education.”

    And yet, your proposal includes NOTHING about this incubator model. I clicked on your interview link, and that did not explain it either.

    If you want your proposal to be heard, you might want to include some information about what it actually IS.

    This is the first I'm hearing about the 'Y incubator', and I assume its going to be the last.


  • newworldorder

    My 4 years of college could've definitely been condensed into like 2…2.5 max.

  • Andrew Warner

    Mine too.

    Plus the money would have been nice to have when I started out.

    Sent from my mobile

  • Radar72

    Well, I have an advanced degree and make good money now – but if I was 18 today there is no way I'd go to college. The cost is insane when compared to the miserable job prospects. Why would anyone in their right mind pay $30k-$50k a year for 4-5 years to obtain a job that pays $25k or whatever. You'd have to be nuts. And grad school is no different. Just delays the inevitable. Higher education today has become a money making machine for lazy professors and administrators. Young people now should start a new business, move out of the US to a more dynamic country, learn a “trade” and earn their way into ownership of a small business, jump on a tramp steam ship, join the military….anything to get out there and start experiencing the real world, making money and living life now. The only thing higher education can guarantee today is lots of debt. It is a middle class pipe dream with a massive and sophisticated marketing machine behind it. Don't be fooled.

  • Jacob

    College is not the basis for education. This is just the perspective of an insecure cultural norm.

  • Student of Disgust

    I feel that learning anything really relevant in college has been a waste of my time and money. Ihave spent 6 semesters sort of learning in a haphazard manner the graphic programs I need for my chosen field. But do I get to do it in a linear manner, NO. So I forget how to use the tools in the programs after not using then for 6 months because I have been in a humanity class and some other class not related to my field, where I am cramming vast amounts of information into my head and not recalling most of it after the tests. It all seems like a pointless answer the questions routine. Do I learn anything, maybe a tiny bit but mostly I just forget the information, wondering when and how am I actually going to learn to do the things required by my job choice in graphics and web design? And ALL but one class had brand new never taught before teachers that overloaded us with so much homework that the students cried “slow down we cannot do all this homework there just aren't enough hours in a week!” And as an adult I DO have other duties to perform. 15 credits per semester turned out way too much to do and live a life. Basically I am re-educating because all my jobs were shipped over seas. Most of my classmates are over 40 since they lost their jobs in my area.
    When I searched for colleges I chose the one close to me because I am stuck out in a country area and cannot move at this time, I did not want to go deep into debt, I am an older student and promised my family NOT to get us into debt and bring that on them. I feel half educated and over loaded mentally.
    I just finished a class my advisor suggested, computer repair! Ok I thought sure I work on them all day long let's learn how to at least keep them running, well this turned out to be a computer repair prep class for their big test on becoming licensed as a computer repair technician. Nearly everyone one there has been working on computers for years, they tried to cram a years worth of information at us true beginners in the class in 2 and a half months. I failed the test. I got tired of trying to keep up at a maddening pace with seasoned geeks. I realized I couldn't compete with these geeks just doing the motions to get a piece of paper. I needed much more time to absorb what I call an avalanche of new to me information. $700 and what I got was sort of understanding how computers work and how the hardware goes in but the rest was a wash. and I couldn't pass the test they take to get that license, and yes I was required to. Next they want me to learn doctorate level math, I can't see a reason to take this and since its been 15 years since I was in high school doing algebra I can't remember squat so I have to take 3 classes before this one. At $1000 per class x 4. This would hold me back at a two year college yet another year and a half, when am I supposed to graduate?4 of my friends have given up trying to get a degree after 3 years of struggling and spending money they are running out of.
    I asked a friend of mine in the tech class, “what would you think if you had to take a class in ballet and a class in art and perform the Swan Princess and paint like Norman Rockewell?” He said “I see your point”. I decided my money would be better spent buying lightwave animtaion and other graphics/ animation programs and sitting with a $35 book and just learning on my own BECAUSE I have a deep desire to. I gave up caring about college after this. I am tired of waiting and waiting to learn what is truly in my field and I am dropping out to go actually LEARN how to do things and move on. I found that all they ever do anyway is say, “read this book do the lessons in it answer these questions so we can guage you” all for $800 per class x 3 each semester. I can read the book alone thanks. I am motivated and excited to learn what I love to do but I feel held back by time waste classes.

  • mzcherry

    No, college was a BIG waste of my TIME and MONEY. I am in debt to the tune of 65 thousand dollars because after I got my bachelors in Business, I guess I didn't feel I got screwed enough so I went back and got a Masters Degree in Organizational Management and here I am, 36 years old with a Masters degree and working in call center as a customer service rep. I can't get a different job internally even though I have tried several times. I have been trying like crazy to get a job that would give me experience in a CAREER but since I left college in 2000 all I have had is JOBS no career no nothing and now the economy sucks and so the baby boomers are not retiring and leaving their jobs and making room for my generation to move up and get opportunities, so I here I am. Overeducated and Underemployed.

  • ted

    highly agreed.

    college was well worth the investment in 1800's because information was not being transferred at a rate that it is today. i recall a buddy of mine discussing of design's for cleaner water that i was surprised he was able to explain how it would work etc. etc. i was like “are you a professor?” he reply…

    clearly information is not a problem, and i ended up with an associates for Graphic design that cost me $93,000 for learning something i could have learned on, seriously.

    on top most companies don't even care about a degree since a bachelors is as common as owing a car these days. most want experience.

    i started reading your post and i pondered to why i even when to college in the first place. and then i realized all this time that i was stuffed with fear that without college i would end up in a cardboard box with no way to escape. how society and most importantly, my peers kept the input of fear in my head at such a young age. i dont blame them, they were simply looking out for me. thus they too were subject to lies as i was.

    the light for a brighter future starts within. i highly recommend to anyone thinking of going to college to find that one simple thing that you love the most and stick to it. if it means getting on a surfboard and riding waves all day and sleeping on the beach at night, go out and do it because thats going to make you happy.

    money doesn't grow off trees, but then you don't need all the money in world to support yourself. especially if your going what you really want to do.

  • AmerryKan

    yes, i don't think it would work for certain subjects. however in any engineering, business, physics, chemistry,music, art, social science class the benefits would be better. EX1: taking a social science group from nyc to atlanta.. they have to actually observe firsthand how it is different. the people, food, stores, and weather.
    EX2: taking a group interested in biology from different places in the western us, and on a tour throughout places central america. they'd see all different types of birds, fish, bugs, and animal. Not to mention the different people and biologist from those countries that would be helping them out..
    ehh im down ranting now.

  • New World Order

    The problem with college is that it offers many useless majors and fields of study that people cannot build careers with in the new harsh economic climate. The current recession kicked in about a year before I graduated college so I was officially screwed considering my major was graphic design. Although graphic design and advertising was a viable field a few short years ago, today no companies need advertising because nobody is buying anything. The few jobs available are going to recently laid off professionals with decades more experience than someone like me. However, I am not as half as delusional as most recent college grads in my position. My plan is to join the Peace Corps or a similar program and go overseas because there are no skilled living wage jobs out here in America for someone with my educational background. But it is a truly sad commentary on the state of our country, when thousands of its educated, intelligent and capable citizens of able mind and body are actually considering going to strange, far way foreign countries just to get decent jobs. Grad school is a joke. I think the longer you stay in school, the less likely you will be able to find any job or be able to support yourself in the future. And you know why? Because college is a sheltered dream world free of any real world responsibility where hippies contemplate worthless communist dogma and 18-25 year old kids swim daily in an ever flowing stream of alcohol only to emerging to breathe in clouds of pot smoke.

  • Van Savell

    I was a sports writer for a large daily newspaper, covered the racial issues of the 60s, was an education editor of the Gannett flagship paper, the first regional public relations specialist for the NEA, technical writer for the Educational Facilities Laboratories of the Ford Foundation, writer for numerous newspapers, educational public relations counselor, pollster for school districts, book editor, blogger, minister, and non-profit administrator. Oh, and no college!

  • newsconsumer

    College is a big waste of time and money IF you are looking at it only as a means to get a job. If you want job prep, go to tech school, become an apprentice somewhere, or go the incubator route.

    The purpose of a college education isn't job prep; it's to enhance critical thinking skills. We've gotten away from that in this country. The reason many employers require a college degree isn't because the graduate knows the latest in technology (that can be learned on the job). Rather, employers want people with problem-solving and critical thinking skills, so we're really missing the boat with this whole discussion. Unfortunately, colleges today do not encourage critical thinking anymore.

    Personally, if I had my life to do over again, I would NOT go to college, but would identify a craft that excited me (writing, research, painting, textiles, whatever…) and then seek out experts in those areas and become an apprentice to learn from them. That's what elite athletes do. They don't go sit in an athletic classroom for four years; they find mentors and coaches, get out, and DO it. But I favor this approach only because my preference is self-employment — and not to climb the corporate ladder in some stuffy company and become a corporate drone.

    Of course, this approach wouldn't work for some professions (medicine, law, etc. If I need a brain surgeon, I want someone who has the experience AND the degree credentials!)

    Bottom line: I do think too much importance is placed on a college education, and I do think colleges now indoctrinate students, rather than encourage critical thinking. But there are as many ways to become successful in life as there are people. One size does not fit all. College is great for some. For others (entrepreneurs, mainly, who usually succeed by being independent thinkers), college may not be the best route. (The founder of FedEx was told by a college professor that his idea for the company was a guaranteed loser; both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates dropped out of college.)

    But it's up to each person to identify who they are, what they want out of life, and the best way to achieve it. Don't let parents, the media, friends, spouses, career counselors, or even people who post on blogs ;) to make your decision for you.

  • Heather

    Iam about to graduate with a BS in psychology and a five course minor in Substance abuse treatment. I just realized this week that this degree means nothing unless I go to the Masters or PhD level. I cannot get a job in the psychology field without a PhD and the only Masters program that would even come close is the MSW and those programs accept about 15 people a year and this is based on GPA and GRE scores. Just try to get into a clinical psychology program anywhere in Michigan without a 4.0 and a high GRE score and letters of recommendation and a long wait and another $100,000 dollars on top of the $50,000 I already owe. I cannot find a job without the proper letters behind my name and a ton of experience that I have never been able to get aside from a two semester internship. I am trying to figure out exactly what I have learned and I cannot even formulate proper questions as to where I should go from here and what can I do with this. I rarely paid attention to the lectures as they were dry and boring and the work I do as an intern at a substance abuse agency has nothing to do with anything I have learned from the books. I have managed a 3.4 without ever reading an entire chapter. These are real people in the world with all different issues and the DSM V does not tell me how to help them, but I can probably spot someone with any number of the symptoms from any number of the disorders in the manual. I have been diligently forging this education without a break through two children, now five weeks from graduation and I do not fit any of the criteria for any job out there.

  • wasteoftimeandmoney

    I just graduated with a BBA in Finance from Southern Methodist University and I could not agree with you more. Honestly, I wish I never went to college. I had an awesome job before I started school and could have been accumulating wealth over the last four years. College stifled my innate love of learning by boring me to death with “theories” I do even agree with. Anyways can't changed the past but thats my two cents.

  • Mike

    You're absolutely right. I go to a public Ivy and I've just about completed 3 years. It's just one big party and little learning. I just cram as much into my head right before the test and then I forget it right after. It's pathetic.

  • Jordan

    Yep it's all true. I'm not angry though, my parents payed for every dollar of it so I can just take my worthless degree and smile. I am completely debt free, sorry for those who were less fortunate than me.

  • psychgrad

    ummmm..technically to classify yourself as a “counselor” legally you have to be licensed and that requires a Masters degree. Which pays aweful compared to the cost of tuition but that's beside the point.

  • Bullitt

    College is a complete waste of time and money. I have a degree in History (in preparation for a law degree. It was during this degree that I realized what a waste of time and money college was). I finished up with a second degree in Elementary Education, fueled by the lie that male teachers are in demand. Four years later, I still didn't have a teaching job (with a 4.0 GPA) because they were hiring females like they were casting for an episode of “Girls Gone Wild.” Fuck college. I paid off my student loans, tore up my diploma and mailed it back to the President of the college (signature confirmation required) with a letter telling him where he could shove it.

  • Bullitt

    College is a complete waste of time and money. I have a degree in History (in preparation for a law degree. It was during this degree that I realized what a waste of time and money college was). I finished up with a second degree in Elementary Education, fueled by the lie that male teachers are in demand. Four years later, I still didn't have a teaching job (with a 4.0 GPA) because they were hiring females like they were casting for an episode of “Girls Gone Wild.” Fuck college. I paid off my student loans, tore up my diploma and mailed it back to the President of the college (signature confirmation required) with a letter telling him where he could shove it.

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