What if I Had Skipped College?

College incentives are completely misaligned because its success is not properly linked to student outcomes anymore. Rather, it has become a social apparatus to which students go because they just feel that they have to.

Since the day I joined the Ironhack team, I have witnessed — from the very first row, more than one hundred students graduating from our bootcamp here in Barcelona. Right after the program, most of them successfully land amazing jobs as developers or start working on their own projects. Because of that, sometimes, I can’t help but ask myself what would have happened if I had skipped college altogether.

I know it is a useless exercise and just food for thought — I’m not getting back my college years anytime soon. It helps me, though, better understand how I got here, and also share with the newcomers what I have learned — and got wrong, from the experience.

The best way to frame this exercise is to go back to your eighteen-year-old self, facing the decision of “what to do next”, right after school. Giving some thought to the subject, you soon realize that there were three main factors driving the decision:

  • Lack of information
  • Peer pressure and societal momentum
  • Asking the wrong question

Lack of Information

Back to the eighteen-year-old, fresh out of school, preparing for a long summer and with an unclear picture of what would happen in September. With this encouraging, yet confusing scenario, you are given a few days to make, arguably, one of the most important decisions of your life: what to do next.

Maybe, maybe, you have already discovered your life passion during your childhood and laid out a master plan for the next five years. The data notes that this is not usually the case among school graduates and, if I may, although you think you know, you are probably wrong anyway.

In other words, the poor eighteen-year-old has no clue of what happens next.

I presume each country would have its own rarenesses in the way college programs are chosen, but for the most part, it was not clear to me how to link studies of choice with a future professional path. Sure, I got lots of propaganda, lots of workshops, but I did not get a clear understanding of which options were available outside the box.

Because of the lack of information, it is almost impossible to decide on which path is the one that will get you closer to your future goals. At least to me, it was not clear how such programs would help me get industry valuable skills.

Despite the lack of knowledge, somehow, I wandered with the idea that in order to get there — this promised land I didn’t even know what it was, I had to enroll a college program. I didn’t understand how it worked, but the message I got sounded like this: proper citizens have meaningful jobs, obviously, you want a good job, but you can’t have it right now (don’t ask), first, you have to do something to be worthy.

The most fascinating part to me it is not how the argument was laid out without a structured logic reasoning behind, but this one size fits all approach and the number of things it presumed to be true:

  • Being employed is always the end game.
  • In order to be employed you need help from a 3rd party, you won’t get there by yourself.
  • This third party looks a lot like college.
  • You are useless the way you are — because the end game is being employed, right now you are not, but you can’t fix it on your own.
  • A good job looks like you wearing a suit sketching something in a meeting room’s whiteboard.
  • If you enroll college, then you will get a job. Despite the data says otherwise and the process is not clear to you.
  • You have to choose right away because losing a year is an unmitigated disaster (a topic for a whole other post).

With these points in mind, let’s go back again to how the eighteen-year-old felt dealing with all this stuff. I can’t remember which were the exact feelings I had back then, but I guess they were related to fear, anxiety, but mostly, failure.

Yet here comes the most interesting part: when avoiding failure becomes the main driver for decision making, the natural reaction is leaning towards the safer place, not taking risks, and this is the moment when peer pressure and societal momentum kick in.

Peer Pressure and Societal Momentum

These are the main reasons why college still prevails as the central mechanism we are educating the new generations on. When you are about to make a decision and there is an asymmetry in the amount of information available for both parties (those being you and the University) you always default to the safer choice in order to decrease risk.

Your incentive is not about winning the most but losing the least. In this situation, less risk means mimicking your peers’ path.

Once everybody is thinking exactly the same, the line that points straight to college is already drawn.

The main drivers for the decision making are not aligned with starting a meaningful career. They are influenced by the fear of making a bad choice, or worse, one that can disappoint in societal terms.

This gets us to the most worrisome part. If the newcomers are joining college because of a false promise, the lack of information and the fear of getting it wrong, then Universities are not incentivized to provide an outstanding education. Because whether they do it or not, students will keep joining for a different set of reasons.

That is the worst (depending on which side you are at) thing that could happen to an industry. If you are not judged by the quality of your craft, and business keeps going because of a societal momentum, you are not incentivized to improve or innovate. You are just ripping the benefits of a false construction that we have all agreed on, for the time being. Enjoy while it lasts.

Asking the Wrong Question

Although we can acknowledge the former points, as a fresh school graduate looking for the best choice, there is not much you can do.

What you could do, though, in order to choose a path that is intimately aligned with your future goals, is ask yourself why instead of what.

The default thinking goes about asking what to study because the rest of the options have already been already preselected, for you. Asking what presumes the path is already set, but you get to choose the flavor.

Maybe instead of what, you can ask why you want to study.

The answer to why will get you much further down the road and will reveal several options that were previously hidden. Answering this question will force you to think of the career as a way to fulfill a vision, not just an end by itself.

Despite every industry keeps evolving and changing its needs, college degrees remain exactly the same. They are not incentivized to adapt, because they thrive under other premises separate from preparing the students for their next job.

For example, if you want to become a carpenter, maybe you don’t need a mechanical engineering degree. The same applies if you want to build software, maybe you don’t need to go for five years of CS.

Just try to figure out which is the end game and trace the path backward. Sometimes it might not be 100% defined, and that’s OK, but at least try to understand how each step in the way will help you move closer to your end goal.

That being said, I am not, by any means, against University or college degrees. I believe they provide a ton of value and they are a great choice for a lot of people. I have both admiration and respect for Universities and I look up to them, from time to time, as a source of inspiration.

What I am not comfortable with, is the way we have set the path for education, and how we have created a false correlation between college degrees and preparing for a job. I know a lot of people who have pursued the college dream because of the false promise of getting a job at the end.

I am not sure how we got here, what I do know is that we have created the false illusion that college is the one fits all solution for a properly working society. I don’t want to hold a dogmatic truth about it, maybe even I am completely wrong. But I find it worrisome that we have rooted this issue so deep in our societal believes, that we are not even questioning why is it there in the first place.

First published on June 26, 2016