Should You Go To College If You Don’t Know What To Do?
Are you insane?
Sorry. Unbiased and objective.
Let’s try that again.
It can be tough making decisions about college. Many high school students really haven’t tasted much of the working world, and are forced to make weighty life choices with little experience.
If you are unsure what career you want to go into, is committing to college even the right call?
I want to make sure you make these decisions with your eyes open. So I’ve poured through the research, surveyed 118 Americans, and shared my own college experience.
If you read this article till the end, you will know everything that there is to know about whether or not you should go to college.
Everyone’s got an opinion about college
The problem with an issue so polarising is that you will often get wildly different advice depending on who you talk to.
So to get a lay of the land, we surveyed 118 Americans of varying ages and backgrounds. We asked a number of relevant questions about college and young people.
Our data gives mixed messages about college
We sampled people from all walks of life. Participants’ ages are on the left, and their household incomes are on the right.
First, we asked: Which of these statements about college do you consider most accurate?
Next, we asked: If you went to college, do you regret it?
Finally, we asked them straight: Do you think that young people should go to college if they don’t know what they want to do long term?
Below this last question, I asked participants to explain their answers. The bulk of the responses could be grouped into a few specific arguments, which I have summarised below.
Most common arguments for college
College can help people decide what they want to do with their lives
“ Because of a great professor, I discovered in college that I enjoyed studying biology.”
“Colleges offer services to help you figure out what you want to do for a career. I think college pushes critical thinking more than K-12 education in our country”
College is about more than just getting a degree
“School demands you learn how to learn. This is important throughout one’s life. Also, graduating is a sign of commitment – that you can see something through.”
“Social skills are learned, even if relevant work info isn’t”
“Any degree will get you further than no degree”
“education is always better than being uneducated and dumb.”
“Basic high school education is simply not up to preparing young people for an increasingly complex world. Sure, go to trade school too, but there has to be a way to expand one’s vision as well.”
Common arguments against college
College is too expensive/debt is out of control
“Student debt is a crisis”
“It’s a waste of money if you do not know what you want to major in.”
“It’s a large investment that people should be prepared for”
You need to have a plan before you go to college
“If you are very uncertain about a career path you should wait a year or two before entering college after high school.”
“if you don’t know what you want to do you will just end up spending money on college you don’t need to”
College is ineffective preparation for the real world/There are other options
“I know too many people with a college degree that never worked in any related field.”
“Lots of good-paying jobs without (a) degree”
“College is a lot of time and money and doesn’t guarantee you anything afterward.”
Here’s what the science says about going to college
We’ve now got a good sense of the general consensus, but ultimately people’s opinions will only get you so far.
Here are some of the questions that you might have about college, answered with peer-reviewed research.
Do people who go to college make more money?
Plainly, yes. A study for the University of California analyzed the average annual earnings for people of prime working age (30-54) at various levels of education.
The educational levels analyzed were High school, SC diploma, Associates degree, Bachelor’s degree, Masters’s degree, Ph.D., and Professorship.
Their analysis of available data found that for both men and women, Annual earnings rose 20% for each additional educational level attained past high school.
Do people with college degrees find it easier to find jobs?
Generally, yes. Although college graduates are painted to have a hard time getting jobs in the media, data analyzed at the University of California suggested a different reality.
In their study, they found that the least educated prime-age workers were almost four times as likely to experience unemployment during the 2008 recession as college graduates.
Unemployment in 2008
The data is pretty clear. A college degree generally improves employment prospects.
How much of a problem is student debt for college graduates?
Here are some shocking numbers about student debt in America.
Firstly, College is far more expensive than it used to be, even when adjusted for inflation. Educationdata.org found that the average student debt in America, represented in 2021 dollars, has almost tripled since 1980.
Year of graduation
Debt at graduation ($)
Debt in 2021 dollars ($)
Repaying student loans is a very real problem for a large portion of college students today.
Are college graduates more satisfied with their work?
Short answer? No. A report published by the institute of educational sciences surveyed 210 people- 95 college graduates and 115 high school leavers.
Researchers asked questions grouped into categories including Job challenge, pay, the opportunity for promotion, and coworker satisfaction.
Analysis of the data found no statistically significant difference in Job satisfaction between graduates of college and high school leavers.
Does the college data shared above paint a full picture?
As you might imagine, not all college degrees are created equal. A whopping 26.33% of Art and Humanities majors, attending non-selective schools, defaulted on their college loans at some point after graduation.
Students graduating from highly selective schools struggle far less to repay their debts. The three-year default rate at Harvard was 0.8% in 2016, against a national average of 9.3%.
Finally, consider this:
Is it the learnings of a college degree that are valuable, or the selectivity of the college screening process?
Do colleges equip people for higher earnings, or is it that intelligent conscientious people who will go on to do well economically excel at difficult entrance exams and therefore attend prestigious colleges?
Ultimately, the trend between average earnings and level of education is likely a combination of correlation and causation.
My Own Experience – I went to college because I didn’t know what I wanted to do!
There’s a reason why I’m writing this article.
When I was young, I was fortunate enough to get into a good high school (secondary school in the UK).
The kind of school where, if they could get their way, everyone would end up with a college degree.
At that age, to quote Ruth from Ozark,
“I didn’t know Sh*t about F*ck”
So I signed up for a Master’s degree, in Chemistry, at the best University that I could possibly get into. (Top 10 in the country).
Looking back, this was not smart at all. I didn’t really like chemistry, and the jobs chemistry graduates went into didn’t appeal to me in the slightest.
To cut a long story short, I did horribly. I absolutely smashed every exam in high school, but in college, It was the opposite. I remember sitting in a library for 8 hours at a time, failing to focus for even 10 minutes without getting distracted.
I dropped out after the first year.
I eventually went on to find something I really enjoyed, but only after a good year of desperation and feeling like a failure.
Looking back, I don’t really blame myself. Sure it was stupid to just blindly follow the common advice without thinking for myself, but I was a teenager. I didn’t have a whole lot of wisdom!
The percentage of high school graduates attending college directly affects a high school’s performance data.
If you get good grades, get into college, and then drop out of college after the fact, the high school data will be all positive. You got good grades, and you went to college.
This means that schools are incentivized to get as many kids as possible accepted into college, for the sake of their own ranking.
When you’re encouraged to go to elementary school, fair enough. It’s obviously a good idea, and it’s government-funded. No brainer.
When you’re encouraged to go to high school, again. I get it. Obviously a good idea, government-funded. Noone’s getting very far with an eighth-grade education.
In college though, it’s a very different situation. It’s not obviously a good idea for everyone, and it will typically leave you in $30k debt.
And over 70% of students struggle to make their loan payments in some way.
And over 10% of students default on their loans altogether.
This is not such an obvious move to make. It is financially costly and not without risk, and many of us make a choice unaware of that reality.
I can’t make the decision for you.
Hopefully, though, the data in this article can help you to make a more informed decision about the path you take out of high school.
If you’re looking for a quick answer, then just know that 88% of people who attended college told us that they didn’t regret it. And over 60% of people, of all ages and income levels, believe that college is a good idea for people who don’t know what they want to do long term.
I happen to be in the 40%, but I’m no expert.
I appreciate you taking the time to read this. All the best for your future.