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6 Reasons Not to Go Back to School

Thinking about going back to School?
by Sarah Moriarty | Jan 28 2016

You may be looking for a new challenge, you may be bored of your job and want to switch careers, you may want to enhance your job prospects, or you may just want to quench your thirst for knowledge. No doubt, there are many good reasons for going back to school.


But, wait—before you consign yourself to poring over books in dark libraries all day long to churn out abstract essays of questionable value or choose to suffer the pain of reckoning with your intellectual limits, expressed through test scores, and alongside people, what, 10 years younger than you?—consider that, while going back to school might be the conventional choice, it might not actually be the best one.

In fact, there are a number of compelling personal, professional,  and economic reasons not to go back to school, and a number of compelling thinkers and writers ready to tell you why. So as you weigh your options, take a look at these six reasons why not to go back to school.

1. Not only is business school extremely expensive, chances are it won’t pay off.

The Master of Business Administration, or MBA, is a popular schooling-second-rounder’s choice because it’s typically associated with great future job prospects and pay. But is it really your ticket to success?

Well, business school is expensive, that’s for certain. The top 15 MBA programs charge up to $53,208 per year for tuition. That’s not even including fees, loan interest, or living expenses! What if we factor those into the equation, plus the opportunity cost of lost wages too? Turns out there are eight different US business schools where the cost of an MBA exceeds $300,000.

“Wait,” you might think, “surely not all business schools are that pricey!” True, however, any student who holds an MBA has an average debt of $41,687 (again, without accounting for additional expenses).

But aren’t all good things expensive/difficult/arduous to attain? Maybe this what the educational experience is worth? Short answer: nope.

It’s been proven that, in the long term, an MBA does nothing for your career. If it did, a master of business administration degree should correlate with measures of success, like an increased salary, or promotions to higher level positions.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

Researchers from Stanford University and the University of Washington conducted an extensive study into the matter. Analyzing 40 years’ worth of data, they found that there is no correlation between long-term career success and possessing an MBA, whether you graduated with flying colors or just scraped a passing grade.

2. The value of college education is contestable.

It’s not just business school where the investment in future prospects may not pay off. You might think that, if given the choice, no employer in their right mind would choose someone without a college degree. But many employers are not looking for college graduates. What they are looking for instead are the specific skills needed for specific roles, and for people with good experience.

The fact is that college degrees are losing their value, and it’s not always true that people with a degree will have higher lifetime earnings. While college degrees have proven their value since World War II, the trend has shifted. College degrees once guaranteed higher lifetime earnings due to moderate loan debt, easy employability and an annual increase in the value of a college degree. But those times are over: as more people with similar credentials flood the job market and the cost of education rises, higher competition and generally low wages mean that repaying college debt isn’t easy.

What’s more, degrees aren’t the only kind of credential and are even becoming less necessary, while other credentials, such as portfolios and recommendations, are becoming increasingly important. Keeping up with your networking and knowing who’s hiring can help you land a job as much as a degree can.

Of course, anticipated financial payoff isn’t the only reason people go back to school. A degree program imparts valuable knowledge—knowledge that you cannot gain otherwise, you might think. But that’s wrong too.

3. Independent learning is more satisfying than traditional schooling.

When you go to school, teachers issue demands and then reward you with high marks for grades, tests and “correct” answers, and you eventually get a degree. This method can hardly be considered personally rewarding.

In fact, for many, these rewards are demotivating, and cause people to lose their passion and curiosity at school. The rigid structures and expectations, combined with the competition for artificially scarce rewards (grades), stifles and confines our curiosity.

The rewards offered at school are forms of external motivation. Your grades, praise for getting “correct” answers, and a degree are all rewards that come from the outside.

However, we are far more motivated by intrinsic motivation, when we do things because the reward is the task itself. If you’ve ever just felt good admiring your achievement or mastery over something, then you’ve experienced intrinsic motivation.

While the traditional school systems barely offer opportunity for intrinsic motivation, self-organized independent learning initiatives—from online courses do, and the benefits of this learning style are amazing. In fact, learning what you want to learn leads to better and faster achievements as well as a longer period of engagement.

4. Life can teach you better than any other school if you find good mentors and never stop practicing.

Independent learning may be much better for your mind than the traditional structure of a school, but might it get lonely out there? No: because independent learning doesn’t—and shouldn’t—mean flying totally solo.

Almost no one achieves success alone. In fact, the most successful people are those who know how to find good coaches and mentors. Mentors guide them as they get closer to their calling. In fact, every person you meet and every experience you have is a chance to learn something about yourself. Just think about Steve Jobs: He left college to pursue his dream and sneaked into college classes he found interesting or valuable. The rest he learned by working with people in the outside world.

But that’s only part of the job: once you’ve found the people who can help you move toward your goal, it’s time to start practicing. Goins reminds in his book that your practice will do you best if you remember that you’re bound, at some point, to fail—and that’s completely okay. Your mentors and network can help you through it.

If independent learning strikes you as too unregimented and guaranteeless, there’s a practical alternative that’s been around since blacksmiths and barbers were leading tech. As “college for everybody” took over, apprenticeships took a back seat, but learning on-the-job through an apprenticeship can be an exciting way to stretch your wings in a new field (and make some money, too).

5. An apprenticeship can score you an even higher-earning career.

Which group do you think has more dropouts: apprentices or college students? If you thought college students were less likely to quit, you’re mistaken! The reason why has a lot to do with the previous point about mentorship.

The professional relationship between apprentice and mentor can be personal, challenging and inspiring. Apprentices find themselves engaged in a constant back-and-forth exchange that involves solving problems and receiving feedback from the mentor. And, if an apprentice ever feels lost or unable to handle the workload, they’ll always have someone to talk to.

Compare this situation to a college student going it alone with no one to turn to in a crisis, and it’s clear why an apprentice has a better shot of completing their education!

It’s not just high school leavers that can benefit from an apprenticeship. Countries which encourage young people to take apprenticeships are significantly more productive than countries where college is promoted blindly.

When Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel why her country’s economy was so strong, her answer was short and simple: “We still make things.” And behind this confident answer? Apprenticeships.  

6. Building your own business will better support the economy and the future.

Andrew Yang points out that there is one more problem with college or university education. These schools do not prepare their graduates for what is best for the economy: to be builders and founders. Start-ups are the growth engines of the economy. But colleges and universities spawn hordes of graduates who end up in professional services like law or finance consultancy. So here is an altruistic reason for not going back to school. If you want to support the economy, ditch college and start building your own business. Nobody will ask for your college degree when you’re your own boss.

In Yang’s book, it’s start-ups, not professional service companies, that accelerate national economic development. This was clearly demonstrated in one study by the Kauffman Foundation, which showed that new firms accounted for all net job growth in the United States from 1997 to 2005.

Added to this, firms in the United States with fewer than 500 employees account for thirteen times more patents per employee than larger firms.

In contrast, the economic benefits of larger firms, such as those in the financial sector, are less clear.

For example, 63 percent of Goldman Sachs’ 2010 revenue came from trading. But share trading doesn’t necessarily add value to the economy: one party wins, while the other party loses, implying that a great share of their revenue came at the expense of other areas of the economy.

Innovations, on the other hand, are far more beneficial to national economic development. And yet, the American economy is going in the opposite direection.

  • In 1982, companies that had been in business for fewer than five years comprised almost half of all US companies. By 2011, that number had declined to just over one third.
  • In 2008, for the first time in the country’s history, the majority of US workers were at companies with 500 or more employees.

These trends have consequences for everyone: because the most productive areas of the economy have been sidelined, Bloomberg Businessweek has projected a surplus of 176,000 unemployed or underemployed law school graduates by 2020.

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