College? Epic Fail.

I have been exchanging messages recently on Brazen Careerist with Demetra Allen. (Find her website here.) We were both part of a thread about how going to college has helped everyone leverage their talents, and get to where they are today.

When I answered that it had not in any way helped me, she became very curious, because she had not encountered many people who responded in such a manner about their college education. She asked me if I might be willing to expound upon the issue. Not being able to do so within the character limits of a Brazen Careerist post, I opted to post a blog entry about it.

Yet where to start? When something fails to live up to so many expectations, and is so far off of the success curve of so many other people, it can become almost impossible to pinpoint all of the exact reasons. But I will make an effort to illustrate some of them through the use of broad categories. This isn’t a thesis or a study, so the categories are informal. This is just me sharing some observations and thoughts with you, as always.

To begin with, let’s talk about the degree itself. 

The bachelor’s degree in this country as a whole has been quite devalued over the last 30 years. I knew going into college I would never be able to walk up to my dream job, wave a diploma at them, get hired, and become rich and powerful. I was wise enough to avoid that delusion.

Yet I wasn’t wise enough to realize that all of the time, expense, and work to get a degree might not ever open any doors. And it certainly did not for me. I thought that it would at least get my foot in the door of a mail room somewhere. Maybe a small cubicle on the first floor of someplace. Or at least get me some interviews.

I was given no full time job in five years of looking, and was granted only three interviews.

Having gone to a career counselor here and there, I was advised more than once to “hide the college experience.” That when employers in my area see it they assume I am going to want more money than they can pay, and assume that my liberal arts background would make me restless and unwilling to sit down and do “real work”.

As the years passed, the same advice was given because, “employers are going to wonder why someone with a degree has never been able to get a full time job.”

So at first college was a drawback because I looked too smart. Later it was a drawback because I looked not smart enough. Same diploma.

Then of course many jobs advertise a need for people with a diploma. A diploma I did not have. A job I know I was perfectly capable of doing, but for which I was not qualified because I majored in the wrong thing. College graduation is not a reward in and of itself anymore.

So one reason college was a waste of time and money was the empty degree.

Another failure was the weak network.

I made friends in college. You almost have to. But that is just what they are. Friends. I don’t want to get into a discussion of shallow friends and personal betrayals, but let’s just say my friend pool from college was thinner than most. Even when friends bothered at all to keep in contact with me after college, they had no connections to any industry for which I would be qualified. Or they were going through similar post-collegiate employment difficulties. Or they all lived so far away that any connection they would have would prove to be of little use to me. Even if someone knows a guy who knows a guy in Oregon, what good would that do me in Maryland? Especially given that I had never made enough money to even think about moving to another state?

The career center at my college was not much more helpful. I went there once or twice before realizing they were not telling me anything I didn’t already know. They would ask to see my resume, and advise ways to punch it up. They would offer, (though I declined) to give me a mock job interview and critique it. They would suggest things like, “Hmm, maybe if you look in the phone book under your interests and start making cold calls…”

Thanks! As obvious a tactic as that was, it was never going to happen. In other words, they had no personal connections to share with me. Half the point of a career center is to connect you with people that work with the college, or alumni of the same. But the only time the career center really had any thing to offer in that department was if you were looking for the corporate life. The business majors, or the PR people. Those looking to get into computer tech and that sort of thing. Want to get involved in community non-profits?

“Well, we don’t really have anything like that at this time…”

Then there were the wonderful, life changing internships everybody always talks about. Lord how people love their internships. How they put them on the right path, and all that song and dance.

Not so much with mine.

It was a requirement for all political science students to have an internship. I figured I would go to my adviser, see the list of places with whom the college had relationships that led to previous internships before, and pick one that fit my style.

They basically had none. No relationships with businesses in town. My professor didn’t know anybody. There was literally no sense of the college having established any community ties for internships. Nobody my professor could introduce me to. It really felt as though the department had never helped establish an internship before. It was as though students had always been 100% on their own in finding a connection and building an internship. I didn’t know how to do that. I came to college because I didn’t know how to do everything, after all.

It took over a year. A year of looking for internships, with several falling through in my own home town during the summer. (“We really don’t have anything an intern could learn here. We’re such a small town.”) Finally, I went with one of the few connections the college did have, which opened up locally near campus. An internship with the local Congressman’s office.

This sounded exciting. Meet a Congressman maybe. Help people. Maybe get to go to some speeches.

The internship consisted of my sitting at a desk and cutting out newspaper articles that contained certain keywords. I would then fax them to another office where they would do all the interesting stuff with them. I would just cut and fax.

Halfway through the internship, the woman that ran the office started leaving early, letting me lock the place up. Most of the time I interned, I sat alone in an office, cutting newspaper. Never even met the Congressman.

Believe it or not, this didn’t open any doors for me either. I didn’t even bother leaving it on my resume for any more than two years after I graduated. What would be the point? Do you know how embarrassing it is to try to spin that into something worthwhile to a potential employer? I wasn’t even buying it myself.

Alumni Association? There is one for my alma mater. But like the career center it caters to certain types of students. And they, like anybody else, want a proven track record and long resume before they will even touch you. It helps if you already know somebody important that you can leverage within the alumni community, too. In other words, useless for someone like me.

Plus, no professor took any active interest in me. So I lacked the advantage of having a professor for a friend.

So college didn’t exactly grow my network.

College is also not personal enough.

There are a lot of colleges out there, and I can’t of course speak for every one of them. But based on what I have read, and what I have experienced myself, not enough of them are tailored to the specific needs of individual students. Yes, I know that is a favorite bit of copy included in virtually all advertisements put out by all colleges (“tailored to the individual student’s needs“) but in practice, nothing is tailored.

Colleges of any size tend to subscribe to cookie cutter mentalities. They have declared within their insulated sphere what an education is, and those who wish to stay on campus must conform to same. My college certainly did, and it was a disservice to me. I graduated, and did so with good grades, but only because it was the only game in town. That was the system. I bucked it a few times, and predictably only managed to piss off well ensconced and out of touch professors in the process. That “outside the box” thinking they were famous for was never to be applied to the college itself.

A truly personalized experience would allow any given student to form their own approach to what they want to do with their lives, and remain flexible as those goals change. Not free reign to be willy-nilly, but the freedom of a self exploratory education. With faculty that is focused on helping students find who and what they are, not digest the next exam’s answers, promptly to be forgotten during spring break.

My college didn’t make things personal in this manner, and I have realized, in the years since, that despite my dedication to my education, I didn’t belong, and was not served by the standard educational model I just described.

That lack of a personal approach sort of dovetails into the final category. College failed to teach me how it really works.

Again, I wasn’t naive, but I was caught off guard by how different jobs, job hunting,  leveraging my degree, not to mention student loans and debt worked after college, as opposed to how they appeared to work while there. Most colleges, not just mine, offer no training for what to do after college. There are no mandatory classes about networking, or job hunting, or debt control, or how to handle your loans.

Being a business themselves, colleges avoid telling you how it really works, and instead let credit card companies harass you outside of the lunch line. (I didn’t get one!) They have career centers that tell you what you already know, but nothing you will need to know. They laud heaps of praise on the importance of getting an education, and the prestige of getting it with them, but don’t explain that such an advantage truly died off in the 1960’s.

In other words, they are not preparing you for life. They are isolating you from it for four years. And while I knew that for the loftiest, prettiest claims this was true, I didn’t realize it was true even for the most modest, every day, run of the mill claims, such as “this will be useful to you when you get out there.” It wasn’t.

I could go on, but I really think the point is made. And I think that any other reasons I could think of pertaining to college’s failure would basically fall within the four meta categories I laid out here; the weakness of a degree, a failure to make it personal, the lack of a built-in network, and the failure to prepare students for any real life experiences.

Many people will suggest that really all it takes is the right attitude, and hard work to succeed, and that college is what you make of it. That may be true for some people at some colleges. And while I confess I may not have had the highest fire under my ass all the time in college, I will not succumb to the notion that the reason it did nothing for me was because I didn’t want it enough. The fact of the matter is that college, as advertised and explained in this country today is supposedly the place to go to become prepared to go out and do those things. It is the place where that fire is supposed to be set, not the place where you have to already be on fire from the get go in order to succeed on campus.

College isn’t what it used to be. People like me need a place where we can be educated in ways that both suit us, and prepare us for what’s ahead. We don’t care about school spirit, the proximity to historical landmarks, or the famous people that went to this school before us. We care about learning. Learning in a way that will make it worth the time, money and energy in the end. Getting an education that will actually guide us towards success. Not education for the sake of having gone to college.

I don’t know if any college really acts like that anymore, but that is what I needed, and did not get. And if nobody gets that from college anymore, the perception we have in this country of what college is should at least adapt to its reality, so those who can be helped by it can go, and those who are Too XYZ can go elsewhere.


  1. Ty, excellent and ballsy post. I've argued these points relentlessly for 4 years since graduating college. If you lack career/personal direction and knowledge about paying for college if it's not already paid for, the likelyhood of you finding your way by osmosis is a costly and foolish option. Hind-sight is worth 20/20 and worth about $120,000 in my case and I definitely would have circumvented much of the bullshit I felt wasn't worth my money over those 4 years.

    Check out my post on The Huffington Post regarding this… don't mind the ugly mug 😉

  2. Pam

    You made a lot of good points, and I have been disillusioned by people insisting that EVERYONE needs to go to college.

    On your point that college didn't help you network, when i went to college I thought of this as one of my top priorities. I needed alumni. So I picked a college with that sort of reputation – small liberal arts school, but lots of good alumni who are very helpful and spread out across the country/globe. I hope students know this now, if they go in with career expectations.

    I also think college is what you make it, and if someone isn't gaining, they should drop out, and without stigma.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post. I am curious–where did you go to school?

  4. Anonymous

    Wait, do my eyes deceive me? A fellow poli sci grad with a worthless degree trying to make do as a writer while hunting for a real job and ALSO living in Maryland? I'm not entirely sure we aren't the same person. This is creepy, have I developed some sort of split personality?

  5. You sound like a smart guy from the way you write, Ty, but I can't help but believe from your posts that you try to get results with brute force. You say you tried for over a year (in bold) to get an internship, that you've applied to hundreds of craigslist jobs and heard from none of them. It just doesn't all fit together.

    To this post in particular, I completely disagree. College has opened so many doors for me, it's amazing. I'm working a dream job because of the people I've met, and have so many opportunities with startups (albeit unguaranteed) lined up.

    I don't think any of this had anything to do with luck. I spend my time meeting people and connecting on a real level, learning what they like and what their dreams are. How much of that did you do? I make an effort to give before I even think about getting or asking. What did you give to your university that it owes you something special? You paid for your education and got it, but so do thousands of others.

    The opportunities present in college aren't the ones that are available as public services like career centers and classrooms. College is the perfect setting to CREATE opportunities and CREATE connections. Granted that's a flaw in the system, but that's what makes the difference.

  6. Demetra

    Our college experience is very similar, despite the fact that our perception of its value or purpose is very different. Your post forces me to look back on every situation I found myself in and every decision I made in college (a sort of how did I get to this place?) Also I have to agree with JR, “college is what you make it” which is where I was going with my original post.

    Great Stuff!

  7. Thanks, everyone, for the comments.

    -JR- I read your piece on HP. Thanks for pointing it out to me. We seem to agree on those things.

    -Pam-I have to say I didn't specifically think of the strength of a network, or future alumni associations when I was choosing a college. I can see why you did, as it's a legitimate approach. But I personally had no reason to suspect that there would be such a failure in connections being made wherever I went to college.

    -“Anonymous”- I consider writing to be a “real job”. It just takes time to establish one's self. As for the other similarities between us; well, I never thought my situation was a rare one!

    -Mehul- We obviously come at this from a drastically different angle. You think it doesn't add up to YOU??? How do you think I feel? I have only in the last year or two begun to make small inroads in certain places, but I feel I have put in far more than I have gotten back. As little sense as it makes to you that I have spent so much time not catching a break despite my intelligence, triple that for me. I don't mean to be cold about it, but you'd kind of have to have been there to understand just how much wheel spinning has been involved.

    Talent just does NOT get you anything in it's own right, and I am sorry you appear to think so. But even if we does, I am not sure I can agree that nothing you have accomplished is due to luck. You got into your college, met the right people who wanted to help you, etc,. That involves some degree of luck. Anytime we are given a chance, (you) or not given a chance (me) luck has played some role. I just can't conclude, based on my experiences, that all it takes is hard work. It doesn't.

    And as far as what I gave BACK to my college? I find that to be somewhat humorous. 3 years, 35 thousand dollars, constant work, sacrificing the right to eat real food, and live in anything but a prison cell, while not trashing the place, staying out of trouble, and in general playing by the rules, is what I gave to my college. The notion that I should have gone out of my way to give them EVEN MORE so that it would do it's job? Sorry. That's like buying a crappy car, and blaming it on the fact that I never took the dealer out to dinner, or cut his grass for him at home. I may have been a sucker to trust him, and most people don't trust used car dealers. My point is that I was a bit of a sucker for trusting college. I want people to see that for me college was just as much of a racket as used car sales tend to be for most others.

    Just as selling me a car is a dealer's job and I owe him NOTHING for doing it, the purpose of a college is to produce, within a crucible at that, well rounded, educated and marketable individuals that are prepared to succeed in life. Anything else is just a really high priced social club, with lousy food and bad accommodations.

    Good on you that you were fortunate to find some great people at college, but it's a misnomer to claim that “college is perfect setting to CREATE opportunities.” Without some luck, and a willingness on the part of a professor to appreciate you, or a student to kiss serious ass, it really ISN'T the place for that for a very large number of people.

    -Demetra-Thanks. And I agree in principle with the idea that college is what you make of it. But really, there are limitations to that depending on what college you go to, and what you are (and are not) willing to turn yourself into.

  8. Oh and Devin, I won't say exactly where I went here, in case they want to sue me or something. That's something they would do. lol

  9. Dear Ty,

    Thanks for the post! I really appreciated hearing how your college degree really got you nowhere.

    You might like to read John Taylor Gatto's “A Different Kind of Teacher” and “The Underground History of American Education” because these two speak to a lot of the frustration you felt in your post. They sort of explain the rigged system.



  10. Yep- I think you get sold the idea that anyone can do anything with the right education. Not so.

    I do appreciate the intangibles of my degree though. I can write. I can think. I can take a position in an argument. I can teach. I can learn. My degree has made me committed to life long learning. I never expected a high powered job with a magnificent salary. So I wasn't let down. My kids are both enrolled in degrees (business and engineering). I want them to read your post so that they can think about what they really expect from their respective degrees. Unfortunately this usually happens after a lot of time, effort and expense. Thanks for writing your post Ty.

  11. I still disagree Ty. All respect to you and how little you got out of college, but as cliche as it sounds, I still believe that your personal attitude and ability to create is what makes the difference. Nothing is handed to you on a silver platter.

    The deal can sell you the car, but the car is useless if you don't know how to drive it. As I said, you paid for your classes and for the environment. You did not pay to get a job or to have a happier life.

    In all honesty, your reply only strengthened my belief that your alma mater wasn't half as bad as you make it out to be. I'm sure there were people that attended the same institution at the same time as you, studied the same thing, and are much happier with their investment.

    As far as going out of your way to build relationships? Well…I'm sorry if you can't see value in that. It's not all about dollars and cents.

  12. If “knowing a guy in Oregon” didn't help you in Maryland, why didn't you move? If you're truly limited by the size of your town, then why didn't you hit the big cities or at least the midsize ones? You're at a perfect point to be one of those location-independent professionals, especially because you write. Go out and find some adventures!

    My sister wanted to do poli sci [it became one of her many minors] but ended up getting a degree in genetic biology and entrepreneurship. She got a job in private equity in Singapore after graduation.

  13. Well Mehul, I guess you haven't read and understood as much of my writing as I previously thought you did if you still think that this is mostly about one man's attitude. If all of the examples of my deplorable college's failures is not enough to convince you, it seems pretty clear you have it set in your head that it's somehow my fault, and you won't see it any other way.

    The fact is, I don't see anything in the post that indicates anything close to a “silver platter” philosophy. I'll take care of being happy, but when a college, and a bunch of professors don't do their jobs, I have every right to be pissed off.

    Turning my metaphor into something else changes nothing. You made the point that I should have “done something for” my college, and that is the thesis upon which I was operating in my response. I owe a college nothing extra that gave me less than what I was owed.

    Nobody said anything about them doing my work for me, but they didn't even do THEIR work. (And if you read the marketing literature for most colleges, you will see the whole experience in this county is being sold, (and has been sold for decades) as one that is to establish everything that I had expected. I will cop to be suckered by a con artist, but I will not cop to it being my fault that they ARE con artists because I didn't walk up to them on a regular basis and say, “How can I serve you?” Cons are cons, and I was conned, but good.

    Plus, I really wish you would take into account everything I do, and say, and create before you judge my attitude. I think you are very capable of that, but for some reason are not doing so with this issue. You are ignoring the fact that my overall attitude about life is not the same as my attitude about college. And if I have the ability to project creativity and positive thoughts, (through my blogs, my acting, my BC presence) and yet receive nothing from an institution, it is the institution's fault. Period. Sure somebody somewhere probably loved going to my college (not as many as you think). Every school has someone who loves it, or they would not be in business.But I didn't write about their story. I wrote about mine. Their success or their colleges has nothing at all to do with the failure of mine. Not a thing.

    And when it comes to college it is ENTIRELY about dollars and cents. I speculate that MAYBE that will become starkly clearer to you when you get older, and have only the debt left over as a legacy for your college, no matter how great it was in other ways.

    But even if that doesn't happen for you, and you never end up with any debt, it won't change a thing to me. I repeat, the post is about how I was suckered, I was dumb enough to fall for the hype, and that I wasted the money. Wasted, wasted, wasted on going to college to learn nothing useful for the future, and I will be paying for it for at least 25 years, if not more. If it had been an investment from which I gained something, maybe I would have a better attitude, but it was not an investment, it was a sad joke in most ways, and I have explained why. I stand by it 100%. As much as you stand behind that productivity of your own college experience.

    That will probably be my final word on the subject, as I don't think my truth can be elaborated upon further, either here or on BC. I was asked to write about my experience, and I have done so.

  14. To be fair, I forgot to address Mneiae's comment. And here is my response…

    1) I don't want to live in Oregon.
    2) Even if I did, you certainly have to know it requires money to move across the nation. You can't just up and move where you want to go. Wouldn't we all love adventures? But they cost money, and it was money I didn't have. And I still wouldn't have the money, even if I had such an offer today.

    I hope to become location independent someday, but that doesn't happen overnight. I am not there today, and have no way to get there at this time. I certainly did not have that option when I graduated from college.

  15. I'm not saying that you have to move to Oregon. I'm saying that you could move somewhere else to open up opportunities.

    You told me,

    “You can't just up and move where you want to go. Wouldn't we all love adventures? But they cost money, and it was money I didn't have. And I still wouldn't have the money, even if I had such an offer today.”

    Cough EVERETT BOGUE cough. I don't drink his Kool-Aid, but at one point I did. And you have to admit that his story about moving cross-country with $3000 demonstrates that moving with little money is possible. [Also, not relevant without a job offer, but many companies pay relocation expenses. I read IRS publications for fun and it's a nontaxable fringe benefit. If you were to get a job for which you'd have to move, then you should mention it when you are negotiating.]

    “I hope to become location independent someday, but that doesn't happen overnight. I am not there today, and have no way to get there at this time.”

    I totally get that you can't become LI overnight. What I'm not willing to accept is that you have no way to do it. If you don't want to be trapped where you are, then make an escape plan.

  16. I'm afraid I am not familiar with Everett Bogue. Is he an author?

    And to clarify, I meant I have no way to be location independent at this time. Not forever.

  17. Anonymous

    Everett Bogue blogs at Last year he moved to Portland from Brooklyn with $3000. The idea is to downsize your life to fit in a carry on, then your moving costs are only a plane ticket (~$300 anywhere in the country) and deposit on an apartment, and first and last month's rent.

  18. Good post. The real problem is the inherent lack of any value in the vast majority of degrees. Turning up and having fun with friends – sure – that's fun, but is there anything in a liberal arts degree or management or even finance degree that you couldn't learn yourself or with a private study group? That's the question that many are now asking. Prior to this point in our history, it was much harder to organize materials and people – colleges were good at that – but today, we are only an internet connection away from each other. College is so 20th Century.

  19. Ty,

    This is an outstanding post. I agree with you 100%.

    I'm not sure if you are aware, but I posted an idea I had on BC last month (I think) about a project I'm working on that has to do with your post. Essentially I want to help people answer that annoying question: “What do you want to be when you grow up.”

    For me when I went to college I had no idea what people did for work in the real world. I had no direction and no idea what career path I might I consider. Well, now I'm out of college and I'm STARTING to figure it out. This is a shame and I want to build a website/program/whatever that helps students figure out what they want to do after high school or college.

    I'd love to talk with you about this and see if you'd like to get involved. Send me an email with your thoughts:

  20. Look, I agree that I have no way or fair method of judging the relationship between you and your institution. And maybe you're right that I'm not old enough to know anything.

    But I'm still thinking that you approach to your institution is placid and dare I say..selfish?

    It's exactly the problem with the “business world”. Give-get relationships should never be measured solely in dollars and cents. That sort of one-dimensional measurement is EASY, but it's definitely not accurate.

    I know we're just both arguing our points with different reference points, but I'd stick to the belief that my destiny is in my hands. If that's naive, then so be it.

  21. Anonymous

    There are many problems with the way higher education is run these days, but one big problem I have is the idea that every profession needs a degree. If you want to pursue a career in the hard sciences or medicine, then college is a must. I do not want a self-taught engineer designing bridges and IT systems. But has journalism improved with the advent of journalism degrees? Is the art world more daring as a result art programs? Is history more popular as a result of history degrees? No.

    Like you, I got a worthless degree in political science. Graduated with honors from U of Chicago (only one of three in my degree program to do so), and had zero job offers upon graduation.

    My first job out of college was a low-paying gig at a Chicago law firm. After being annoyed with the mind-numbing boredom of the legal profession, I switched to a consulting firm. While I liked the guys I worked with and my boss – I would think that I was more qualified than being an executive assistant.

    Being a slow learner, I pursued an MBA at a well-regarded school on the East Coast. Graduated, and again history repeated itself – no job offers. I wound up working for my uncle's business – his manager left, and I was still looking for work.

    The job is fairly secure, but does not pay a lot, and I certainly did not need to get two degrees to do what I do. If I have kids, I will (hopefully) not pressure them about college unless they want to become a doctor or an engineer. If they want to be writers, I'll buy them a ticket around the world so that they will have some experiences to write about.

    – KXB

  22. KXB–

    Thank you for checking out my post and for your comments. You seem to have suffered the fate I am talking about not once but twice. I really do hope that as the years go on the perception of college begins to change so fewer people make the mistakes we made.

    But that notion of paying for your kids to travel the world if they decide to be a writer instead of going to college is an outstanding attitude to take. I think I'll do the same.

  23. Anonymous


    What I think is increasingly annoying many college graduates, and many families getting ready to send their kids to college, is the inability for colleges to successfully place graduates. When I graduated from Chicago in 1995, the career office consisted of less than a dozen people (full time and part-time). Most of them did nothing more than point me to binders which had jobs that were faxed in. I've had more helpful staff at the DMV and the post office.

    It's funny – when a guy spends $1 on a lottery ticket, it's common to point out the odds of hitting the jackpot are absurd. Yet, American families are led to believe that taking out a second or third mortgage to pay several hundred thousand dollars to a university is the best way to improve a young person's career prospects.

    – KXB

  24. Exactly. It IS a lottery, just like you say. And it is the HYPE that I think needs to change in this country over college more than anything else. This nearly universally accepted idea that it is the key to success.

    Many people who have read this article say that college was never designed to make a person successful. It was designed to “teach them how to think” which in turn will make them successful. I think that point is highly debatable. But the following point is not debatable in my view;

    College is packaged and sold as a vital component to just about everyone's life which will in fact open up doors by virtue of the fact that you attended. I haven't run into the college literature or guidance counselor yet who said, “College is there to help you learn how to think and to give you a chance to network your heart out so that perhaps your own initiative will pay off in the right kind of internship or job with the right kind of people.”

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