A lot of bright young people are unhappy in college. They hate wasting money. They hate wasting time. They hate the fact that what they’re getting in return is of so little value in preparing them for career and life.
Many of these young people are resigned to push themselves through that one final semester, or year, or two years. Sure, it sucks. But they’ve come so far, it seems the sensible thing is to soldier through the drudgery and finish before pursuing things they are really passionate about. At least then they’ll walk away with something, right?
Not so fast.
Here are six things to consider if you don’t love college but think you need to finish anyway.
1. Don’t fall for the sunk cost fallacy.
It’s gone. It can never be recovered. You will never get back the money or time you’ve put in.
This fallacy plagues everyone from investors to gamblers to your friend who makes you wait in an hour-long line to see a mediocre movie because “We’ve already waited half an hour and I don’t want that to be for nothing!”
I hate to break it to your friend, but it was for nothing. Past expenditures that can’t be recovered shouldn’t factor into decisions about the present and future. It doesn’t matter that you sunk three and a half years and 50 grand into college. What matters is whether the next six months and ten grand is better spent on college than all other alternatives. Remove yourself from your prior experience. If you had never spent any time or money on college and someone offered to put you through lectures for a year if you paid upwards of five figures, would that be your ideal way to spend those resources? If not, don’t.
Quitting doesn’t make it all for nothing, it makes it all for whatever it is you’ve gained up to this point. If that wasn’t worth it, why would the next semester or year be? Looking only ahead and not behind, what gets you closer to the kind of experiences and life you will enjoy?
2. Don’t see college as a single, unified product.
College comes as a bundle of goods; knowledge, a social experience, parties, football games, a signal that you’re a normal person, a degree, etc. Unbundle it.
What parts do you really value? If it’s knowledge gained from good lectures and discussions, ask yourself if that component can be had better or cheaper elsewhere. If it’s the social experience, ask them same. Do you really need four years and six figures to have a good time and meet new friends? Can football games only be enjoyed if you have student loans? Is a degree really the most effective and direct route to a career you love?
Consider the individual units of time, money, and energy you put in and get out. Perhaps it was valuable for the first few semesters before you really knew yourself. Rather than assuming you have to either take the whole bundle or leave it, take those valuable units, be thankful for them, and when the value ceases, move on to the next best use of the next unit of time, money, and passion. Economists call this thinking at the margin. I call it good sense.
3. Don’t let your past control your future. So you once thought your dream was to be a doctor, argue before the Supreme Court, or walk down the aisle in a cap and gown with an MBA. Now that you’re in the thick of it, it doesn’t move you. It bores you. It tires you. You don’t see the point in all the monotony. But you’ve always been known as the gal who’s heart was set on that path. To change course would make everyone think something was terribly wrong. So what.
It’s hard to be really honest with yourself about what makes you come alive. It’s painful too, as what you wish you were and what you used to be pass away. The only thing worse is living your present the way your past self wanted, rather than the way your present self needs. It sucks to be a slave to anything. Being a slave to your past personality is one of the worst forms. Break the chains and do what gets you going today.
4. Don’t assume staying the course is a virtue.
If you’re being punked by Ashton Kutcher, it’s best to figure it out and quit whatever embarrassing thing you’re doing. Persistence is a great virtue; unless you’re persisting to drive in the wrong direction, take the wrong medicine, or cut the wrong sequence of wires while defusing a bomb.
Recognizing a fools errand takes insight. Dropping out for something better takes courage. If it ain’t right, don’t keep at it.
5. Don’t be a slave to your resume.
It’s not that important anyway.
Sure, a college degree it still carries some psychological weight, but not much in a stack of resumes. Titles, degrees, letters after your name and other accolades seem very important when you’re young and inexperienced in the professional world. It’s because you have no other metric for success. The education you’ve experienced for most of your life is all about gold stars and letter grades and honor rolls and GPA. The market is nothing like that. It cares about value. Do you have it? Can you prove it?
Resumes matter on occasion, but really only after you’ve got a foot in the door through your network, experience, and reputation as a hard worker. Is college equipping you with those things?
What your resume lacks in degrees it can more than make up for in content. It’s really impressive when someone is self-aware enough to know college wasn’t working, and bold enough to head for greener pastures. It stands out from the crowd and opens the way for you to tell your story. Plus, you can say, “I took the Mark Zuckerberg/Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Larry Ellison route.”
An employer who writes off your great reputation, smarts, communication skills, and stellar work ethic, just because you don’t have a degree, is probably not someone you want to work with anyway.
6. Don’t forget opportunity cost.
You need to weigh the costs of finishing college. You’ve got it. Ignore sunk costs, think at the margin, and all that other stuff I’ve been saying. Yeah, yeah. You get out your calculator to add up the dollars, or if you’re more sophisticated, days and dollars. But you’re ignoring the biggest cost: you.
You are scarce. You can only be in one place, doing one thing, at one time. That means for every choice you make there are countless other things you are unable to choose. The cost of one decision is more than the money paid; it’s the value of the next best alternative. Once again to the economists, who call this your opportunity cost.
If you’re considering that final fifteen grand for your senior year, you need to add to that the value of your next best option. Maybe you could work and earn $20,000. In that case, the cost of the final year is really $35,000. Make a difference? You bet.
It’s not just money prices. Value is subjective. Maybe you value experience and mentorship, or travel and new cultures, more than the $20,000 job. You have to give it up to finish school. Is it worth the price?
When you consider sacrificing four or more prime years of your youth, and being bound to one geographical location for most of that time, college starts to cost a lot more than tuition. For half the cost and in half the time, you might be able to visit ten countries, start a business, earn some money, and learn computer programming. That’s just scratching the surface.
Don’t stay in college just because you’re close to the end. Look ahead rather than behind, figure out what fans your flame, weigh the costs and benefits of every alternative, and do what’s best for you.
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