That’s my answer when someone asks me where I went to college. Thirty years after I made that fateful decision, the words still stick in my throat sometimes.
Why didn’t I — a naturally bright, unnaturally well-read kid in my high school’s “advanced” stream — go to university (as we call “college” up here in Canada) and get a BA?
For one thing, it was the Reagan era. Every night on the news (not to mention talk shows and comedy programs), we were assured that Ronald Reagan was about to start World War 3. Roll your eyes if you like, but plenty of people older and supposedly smarter than I purported to believe that.
Next: Never mind that wailing Zuni doll from Trilogy of Terror, or any of the other scary stuff readers share at Kindertrauma.com. What horrified me on TV when I was a kid? The Paper Chase (1973). The middlebrow saga of a guy’s struggle to get through law school — hell, his struggle to get from one end of his vast Ivy League campus to the next without being late for his next class and getting insulted by John Houseman at his withering best (or is that worst?) — genuinely terrified me.
Probably because — reason #3 — no one in my family had gone to college. In fact, I was the first one to finish high school. Filling out applications, applying for grants, moving into a dorm — you might as well have been talking about a voyage to the moon.
OK, so those reasons sound pretty stupid. But not going to university was one of the smartest decisions of my life.
Instead, I graduated from a two-year media program at a community college, armed with an award-winning writing and production portfolio. In an era of double-digit unemployment and interest rates, I got my first “real” job at a Toronto communications firm pretty easily, and paid off my relatively puny student loans in short order (unlike some of my friends, who got BAs — then declared bankruptcy). I’d say 90% of the jobs I’ve ever held have been in my field.
When it comes to college, Aaron Clarey and I agree about a lot. He blogs as “Captain Capitalism” and just wrote the book Worthless: The Young Person’s Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major.
Today, we have more and more people chasing more and more worthless degrees. For those of us without either children or degrees ourselves, the spectacle resembles nothing short of a zombie movie, set during Tulipmania.
Reading Worthless was spooky at times. Like me, Clarey’s been saying for years that BAs are today what high school diplomas used to be: that is, so commonplace that not having one makes no difference if you’re a genius, an energetic entrepreneur, or both.
Like me, he believes too many people are being pushed into getting a degree (i.e., brainwashed in junk science and political correctness at their own expense) when they should be learning a trade or just plain left alone.
And like me, Clarey thinks lots of would-be students should use the money they’re wasting on tuition as start-up capital instead.
Some will object that his tips on choosing your college major — should you insist on going to university despite everything — are simply common sense. Yet we all know supposedly “smart” young people from middle and upper class backgrounds (and who should therefore “know better”) who nevertheless voluntarily wasted tens of thousands of dollars to go to J-school or get a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and who are now back living with their parents.
(Note: Once I moved out at age 21, I never moved “back home,” even after coming down with an incurable disease. In my day, all of two decades ago, living with mom and dad after age 25 at most simply wasn’t done.)
Anyway, here are some of Clarey’s tips on choosing your college major….
Speaking of those kids “everybody knows,” above, haven’t you noticed how many of them tell you (or that reporter from Forbes or Time) that they’re “shocked” and “surprised” that they can’t get jobs, in spite of having a brand new college degree?
They’ve been told all their lives that getting a degree meant they’d be guaranteed a job after graduation. Their guidance counselors had the charts and graphs to prove it!
Then I’m the one who is “shocked” and “surprised” after I hear this stuff. First of all, jokes about “philosophy majors driving taxi cabs” or “flipping burgers” were stale when I first started hearing them back in the 1970s.
Secondly: if your guidance counselor is so smart, how come he’s just a guidance counselor…?
As Clarey explains in Worthless: yes, in general, people with degrees earn more than people who just have a high school diploma — BUT only those who have degrees in fields of study that are in high demand in the real-life workforce.
Why oh why, progressives wail, do professional athletes earn millions more than teachers? Simple, Clarey answers: supply and demand.
There is a flood of teachers in the labor market and maybe 300 or so outstanding baseball players.
Clarey gets his students to list all the things they want or plan to buy in the near future. Predictably, they write down things like cars, gas, phones, and computers.
Then he asks them what they’re majoring in. Also predictably, they respond: Sociology. Women’s Studies. Political Science. Psychology. Education.
Nobody was willing to study the fields that ultimately produced these items. (…) Everyone wanted gas, but not one petroleum engineer was in the group.
Also ironic was how there were so many sociology majors, but not one person listed “social work” in their wish list. There was always the token women’s studies major, but I have yet to see a student ask Santa for a lecture on women’s studies.
Clarey’s other advice?
The highest paying professions fall into the “STEM” category: science, technology, engineering, and math.
He insists, contra Barbie, that math isn’t that hard, and also unpacks the STEM rule by explaining why not all engineering degrees are created equal, either.
It likely goes without saying that Clarey thinks English degrees are useless, but he thinks the same thing about bachelors in “business administration” and “finance,” too.
(Do NOT get him started on law school and MBAs.)
Clarey also reveals the nefarious business model that teachers’ unions and universities are using to profit off you and/or your child’s worthless degree, to the tune of billions of dollars. (Hint: it involves their clever use of the word “median income” when describing your post-grad job prospects, when you should be looking at “mean income” instead.)
He also explains why grade inflation has rendered the Dean’s List a joke, why “critical thinking” is the exact opposite of what you’d expect, and why internships are (mostly) stupid. He also explodes other myths (“you need a bachelor’s degree just to get in the door”).
The story of how he went from being an over-educated security guard to making $350/hour doing something you’d never guess is an inspiration.
One quibble, though: I share Clarey’s disdain for English degrees, but he needs to hire a proofreader for his next manuscript. A second pair of eyes would have improved the authority of Worthless tenfold. (For example, “behooves” doesn’t mean what he thinks it means.)
That said, Aaron Clarey’s Worthless is a breezy read that even the most impatient young person could digest in one sitting, or in small doses. (I suggest leaving it in the bathroom.)
I’m not sure this book can possibly counterbalance years of outdated cultural and familial assumptions about going to college — just look at the grief Rick Santorum received for daring to raise the subject — but it’s part of a growing push back against these myths that’s been a long time coming. In that respect, Worthless is worthwhile indeed.