Guest Column

Going to college with no plan is a waste of time

March 1, 2019
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I have been talking to several people lately about the value of a college degree. The value is not in the degree; the value lies in what you do with it.

The choice of certain professions requires a college degree as a prerequisite to entering that profession. Law, public accounting, medicine, dentistry and education are examples of fields that require at least a bachelor’s degree to enter further education programs or take a professional exam. There is not a choice if you choose a profession that requires a certain education level. It is the minimum requirement to acquire that degree.

I was in college 50 years ago. That was a long time ago, but the basics haven’t changed and I have the advantage of perspective. This subject is best discussed in the context of common sense.

First, let’s look at income. If you compare lifetime income for all workers, obviously, the college educated will average a higher income. The error in following that line of thinking is that we are discussing you, not the workforce as a whole.

That does not mean that if you don’t complete college you are doomed to be poor. It also does not mean that you if do get your college degree you will automatically be a success.

I knew a man who barely finished high school. He did not have a college degree, but he had a real talent for handling heavy equipment. He always made good money as an equipment operator and made a fortune when he acquired his own business.

Life enhancement is a definite benefit of a college degree. I went to the University of Detroit, which is a Jesuit college. I never had a boss ask me for any knowledge derived from reading Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. I did, however, have many conversations around campfires, at cocktail parties and political gatherings about ideas derived from my education.

A college degree can give you a false sense of security or even entitlement. Whether your first job is after high school, college or an advanced degree, you are hired to do a job. If you can’t do the job, your employer will fire you, as they should.

At the completion of my college degree, I was no more work ready than when I graduated from high school. I would have missed a lot of basketball games, but I believe it would have served me better to work while I was in school. If I had known I was going to be a CPA, I would have taken a lot more accounting classes, which would have enhanced my job performance.

There is a term my parents used frequently. They would say that someone had their head screwed on straight. We all should strive for that condition. My father often commented on college graduates as being educated beyond their usefulness.

Jared Diamond, in his book “Guns, Germs, and Steal,” recounts a conversation with a guide on a bird-watching trip to Indonesia. The author felt a sense of hostility from one of the Indonesians and inquired as to the source of his resentment. The guide answered that he found the group to be incompetent. Dr. Diamond asked for an explanation after pointing out his educational accomplishments. The guide pointed out that without his guidance, they would not survive more than a few days without him. What you know is only relevant to the task at hand.

Before you do anything, have a plan. Going to college without a plan is an incredible waste of time and money. Eighteen is the age to take responsibility for yourself. For many students, college is just an extension of puberty.

That waste shows up as your parents’ burden in years of paying off student loans for you that will negatively affect your life for decades. A bit of advice: Delay having a family until you know what you want to do with your life. Raising kids and working is a daunting task. Add job insecurity and you may overwhelm yourself. That’s bad for everyone including the child.

Paul Hense is the retired president of local accounting firm Hense & Associates and past chairman of the Small Business Association of Michigan.

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