Do People Really Go to College for an Education?

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Almost any discussion on the decreasing value of going to college will find one onlooker asking, "sure, but what about going to college to learn and to get an education?" The implied claim is obvious, "Even if going to college isn't worth it if you are going to get a job, lots of students actually go to get an education and to learn."

Without wandering into the weeds too far on how college is rarely the best place to get an education, the things that actually are learned at college are either outdated or not wanted in the first place, and that few college students know what they want to go learn, we can dispel the argument implied in this question pretty quickly.

Take a cross-section of your average incoming freshman for the Class of 2015 and ask them why they are going to college. A good few will tell you that they are going to learn. A larger chunk will probably tell you they are going so they can get a job. And another group will probably tell you they are going because it seems like a good experience.

There are at least three explicit reasons right here:

  1. Education
  2. Job/career
  3. Social/consumption

We could just end this here and take students' on their word, or we could delve further and see if any of these are the dominant factors for driving students to college.

Now pose this question to any of them:

"Would you go to college if it meant you would be no better off for finding a job when you graduated as you are right now?"

This would be a charitable interpretation, too, considering that college is a place where many young people spend 4 years insulated from the marketplace, learning from people who have never spent time in the marketplace, and being told what the marketplace is like. A more realistic question would be:

"Would you go to college if it meant you would not only be no better off for finding a job when you graduated, but would actually be worse off, having to play catch-up for 4 years, pay off tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, an completely change your mindset from college?"

I would wager that most of the students in your audience would say no, they would not go. Most young people are motivated primarily by the fact that they "have to" go to college in order to find a job. If college were seen as one option among many for your average- or high-achieving young person, many fewer would attend. Instead, the culture pushed on students from many guidance counselors, teachers, and parents is that they must go in order to have any shot at being successful.

A select few students from our hypothetical cross-section would still say that they would go. Those students are probably best-off as academics.

I'm Zak. I'm a venture capital professional and writer focusing on how to build a great career. You can find my writings here or reach out to me at

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