The Impossibility of Sensible Degrees

We’ve all heard the ridiculous college courses like Underwater Basket Weaving, The Sociology of Miley Cyrus, Philosophy and Star Trek and my personal favorite Mythology and Harry Potter.  Doesn’t all that sound like its worth going into debt for? We’ve also become accustomed to (usually older) people complaining about worthless degrees like Women’s, Black, and Hispanic studies that provide no market value for the indebted sheepskin-holding graduate.  What employer is going to look at a graduate with one of these degrees (which basically just teach you to hate white men) and think that the job applicant, with no previous work experience, will come to the job with valuable job skills?  I mean what can you BE with one of those degrees? As Woody Alan’s character in the movie Bananas said when asked what he would have been if he finished college he responded “I don’t know. I was in the Black Studies program… by now, I could’ve been black.”

To a slightly lesser extent degrees in Liberal Art, Education and Social Work also do not have a good returns on investment and this is simultaneously widely known and ignored.  But even STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) graduates are having a harder and harder time finding degree-relevant positions after graduation to the point that the US Census Bureau reports that the MAJORITY of STEM graduates DO NOT work in STEM occupations.  What is happening out there and why are we delving into this here at

In Debt AND Unemployed

BA, MS, but no JOB

Well, this is NOT a blog about politics – in fact our staff members are all politically neutral (meaning we don’t vote and such) and this blog is about helping you – not rallying you up about the latest social cause.  That said you HAVE to understand how “investing” in a college degree is extremely risky if you are expecting a financial ROI.  To get to the point let me make the bold statement that it is IMPOSSIBLE for college graduates, as a group, to graduate with sensible degrees that match up with market demand.  Often time the onus gets put on the enrolling student for choosing a pointless degree but this is a common dynamic in adult-child relations today where the adults are reluctant to take any responsibly for the children failing in the world they’ve set up for them.  What gets characterized as poor decision making is really just students suffering by the physics of the current system.  Why is this the case?  The short answer is that colleges are immune from market signals (as all subsidized industries are).  This is why the costs keep skyrocketing but that is not what this post is really about (especially since that is fully explained here, here, here and here).

We are trying to get across to you how, now more than ever, college should be avoided if you want to succeed because modern degrees are an overpriced product.  The best way to understand this is to not think about how college is paid for now but to think about how it was paid for prior to the government providing funny-money loans (for simplicity lets say prior to WWII) and we will see why degrees used to be more sensible and desired in the marketplace.  Prior to the GI’s returning from WWII if you wanted to pay for college there were basically only three or four sources that money was going to come from but lets put aside scholarships which were not the norm and focus on: Family Members, Employers or Self Funding.  In all three cases the person with the money knew what the money was worth because they had earned it in one way or another.  Take the Family Member option for example, this was usually coming from your parents.  Now there is something about money that you should understand: when you earn money you receive not just the dollars (or abstract numbers in a bank account) but you also receive the information about what it took to earn that specific money.  Your brain stores this information and ties it directly to the money earned.  So even if you’ve spent 10 years working and getting paid (theoretically learning the “value of a dollar” as if they are all the same) if someone just gives you 500 bucks your brain does not associate the work it took you to earn a different 500$ with the newly gifted money.  You may have noticed that you spend money that was gifted to you differently.  I certainly do… my paycheck dollars are meticulously put into a budget and spent according to a plan.  But if someone gives us some cash (which happens occasionally) or an even more abstract gift card that money is spent more frivolously (usually on taking someone out to eat or impulse purchasing junk).

Anyway, imagine going to your father who worked his whole life welding and saving his money and said “dad I want to get a degree in women’s studies and learn about how white males are the source of all evil”.  I don’t think he would be too forthcoming with the money he had earned through blood and sweat as a white male welder for 40 years.  Even if he was sympathetic to that world view he would know more than anyone what it took to earn that specific chunk of change and wouldn’t hand over the dough unless he saw that the degree in question had real market value (preferably in a field at least tangentially connected to his industry which he knows well).  Bottom line here is that a rational decision is likely to be made.

Even more on the pulse of market demand are companies that are experiencing a skills gap in the pool of available job applicants (here I refer you to my blue collar counter-part: Mike Rowe Testifies on Skills Gap).  Putting the sheer absurdity of having a failing to launch generation that has received more higher education than any other generation in history while at the same time having a skills gap among companies eager to find skilled laborers aside and we can all understand that a company that cannot find qualified applicants for an actual position has real world information on what type of education is needed.  Incidentally companies do assist employees with education costs all the time and would probably do so in much greater numbers if the cost of higher education wasn’t run up by the tsunami of student loans crashing into Universities each year.  The last source of college money (prior to magical state-sponsored student loans) was someone who worked their way through college.  This is a difficult thing to do (and again even harder now that tuition costs have become artificially inflated) and if you have ever talked with anyone who has done this you will know that they are usually pretty rational people and are picking degrees that have at least some market demand.

So again I’m not trying to get into the politics of this – I consider that a waste of both of our time – but I’m just trying show you enough of the history of the tuition cost explosion to show you the dynamics behind why it is impossible for degrees to match up (as a whole) to market demand because universities are insulated from market signals.  Now a clueless public school graduate who has never held a job is not able to send a “market signal” when they choose a pointless major and money magically appears to start paying for it.  A consumer is only a market player if they (or someone close to them) has already earned the money being put towards consumption.  The bottom line here is that tuition is inflated way beyond its actual value and choosing a major and going into debt for a degree is a surefire way to waste a huge chunk of your productive life paying for an “education” that you never end up using.  Even if you pay for college with cash you are having to suffer from the inflated price the same as your debt-enslaved counterparts.

The question is NOT if you can succeed WITHOUT college the question is if you can succeed WITH college.  Of course some people do really well going to college, just like certain people make a lot of money day trading highly leveraged options and other derivatives, but this is a highly risky endeavor so consider yourself forewarned.  This is why you need to stay tuned to for college alternatives that will blow your mind.  I’ve tried to explain this simply and directly but you can see a more Austrian-econ style approach to the subject here.

About JordanKaufman

Jordan Kaufman is author of Blender Meets Python (and several other technical volumes) and has been the ghostwriter for multiple other non-technical books. He has spent the last 18 years as a technology consultant holding his first tech job at 14 years of age.