I don’t like humble statements. You could probably tell from the title. In fairness, it was mostly to get your attention. But regardless, let’s make another audacious statement: I don’t want a traditional life. I’m sure you feel that way too. But think about the arrogance in that statement. It implies ‘ordinary’ is inadequate. Therefore, the only acceptable life is an extraordinary one. That could be called arrogance.
My definition of a typical path entails, but isn’t limited to: A generic education → a desk jockey career → an overworked family → a decrepit retirement → a heart-attack mowing the lawn at 63.
That’s the typical path. And shockingly, if you take actions that are typical (like attending college) you will most likely end up on that path.
$120k Is A Lot of Money For Jungle Juice
What I’m about to share is a conversation I’ve had many times about how broken the college system is. The details change, but the basics remain the same.
When I was saving money to travel I worked valet at a hotel called The Annapolis Waterfront. While working there I met Colin. Colin is a singer-songwriter who gigs in local bars and releases music on the side.
Colin is 23 and making a serious go of becoming a musician by trade. I listened to some of his work. It was Ed Sheeran-y with some house beats and I digged it. We worked the same valet job, but there was one crucial difference between us. I was working because I was saving money to travel.
Colin was working because he was $120k in debt from the University of Pennsylvania.
His degree was Communications or something, but he didn’t even plan on working in that field. He spent his four years partying, loving Penn, and studying, but graduated with $120k in student loan debt.
Kids who are massively in debt and never make use of their diploma are a way more common occurrence than you’d think.
I’m 19 and torn on the idea of college, so whenever I meet someone from the States who’s graduated, I ask them whether it was worth it. Usually, they say it was worth it for the ‘college life,’ but they had next-to-zero use for the education. You know, the reason you’re at college. I immediately follow up asking whether they work in the field they studied for. Often, the answer is no.
I hear it over and over.
People love ‘college life.’ But they might as well have not even studied. Their major / classes had no applicability to their everyday life.
Let’s Talk Cash, Córdobas, and Colónes
PSA: Colónes are the Costa Rican form of money. Córdobas are the Nicaraguan form. I learned this today, so I was pretty excited to share it.
While we’re talking cash-money let’s talk debt. The student debt situation is getting out of control. At the University of Maryland College Park, the tuition, meal plan, room, transportation, and supplies cost reach $25,742 per year. That’s $25,742 per year minimum if you attend a four year college. Some kids end up paying over $60k per year.
If you’re pursuing a four-year Bachelor’s degree (the minimum acceptable degree nowadays) that would set you back roughly $100k. Dude, you haven’t even entered life yet and you’re at a massive disadvantage. More of a disadvantage than an advantage if we’re being honest.
To put this in perspective, when I left Maryland and flew into Europe / Thailand I had about $6,000. It had taken roughly 6 months of working doubles 3 days a week, and single shifts another two days, to save that. In fact I’ve been traveling abroad for close to a year now and I’ve maybe spent $15k.
That’s about 10k less than I would have spent had I been in school.
Economics 101 Applied To Your College Diploma
‘But I’m investing in my future!’
Okay, let’s take a step back. Let’s shift the focus away from the price-tag and the debt. Let’s talk about whether $100k for a college diploma is a good deal. Really, that’s the more important question here. For example, if I said, “Give me $1 million dollars and I’ll 10x it for you, guaranteed,” and I do it, then it’s a fantastic deal.
So really it’s not about the price-tag it’s about the return-on-investment (ROI). Let’s talk college diplomas and basic economics. You learned about the rule of supply and demand in 3rd grade.
The rule says as supply goes up, demand goes down. And vice versa. It’s the scarcity rule in effect. Now let’s make it relevant.
What if I told you that the supply of college diplomas has been increasing for the past 60+ years. Like, if I said in 1947, 6.2% of the entire U. S. population had a Bachelor’s degree. That number jumped to 33% in 2016.
Or like if I said, according to The New York Times, 65.9% of graduating high schoolers in 2014 enrolled in college. That’s over half of all graduating high schoolers in 2013. Now, back to economics. What happens as supply increases? Say it with me: Demand decreases.
You can probably already see how this affects your life, but I’ll spell it out for you. Bachelor’s degrees are more common. What that means is their value decreases. Ergo, if you’re competing solely on the level of your college education, you’re probably going to need more than a Bachelor’s degree. The Bachelor’s degree is the new high school diploma — it’s expected. Nobody is special if they have it.
Competing like that is like being a dude and trying to pick up 10’s at a sports bar in Texas. It’s possible, sure, but it’s also the dumbest way you could compete. It’s the most crowded medium you could shoot for.
And because Bachelor’s degrees are the new high school diplomas, employers are shifting to other differentiators for hiring. That’s why you see any serious job nowadays requires 5+ years of experience. They don’t care about the diploma, they don’t really care about the experience, what they care about is whether you’re good. And if you’re good, can you prove it?
Proof of competency is the new differentiator in a world flooded with Bachelor’s degrees. And with the internet, competency in programming, marketing, and other fields can be learned in a variety of more cost-effective ways.
In summary, most kids end up $100k in debt for an increasingly devalued product they probably won’t use because employers only care about competency nowadays. Sure, college life is sick. But we can do better.
It’s Not That I’m Against College
By no means do I belittle education. I think it’s a good thing to do. If I have the chance to head to a four-year university and graduate with little or no college debt, I’d probably do it for the college experience.
But Tynan is of the opinion, as am I, that there’s a common fallacy most people fall into when they make this simple statement: It’s better to head to college than to NOT head to college. That’s pretty safe to say, right?
Most people would agree heading to college is preferable over NOT heading to college. What is lacking from that statement is a simple truth — you’re comparing four-years of college with four-years of nothingness. If your backup plan outside of college is four-years of working at Pizza Hut and watching Netflix, then sure, the decision is easy. College is preferable.
But see, we’re NOT comparing four-years of university with four years of nothing.
We’re presenting a different case. We’re saying, what are you giving up to spend those four years at university? What are you trading? And if we want to take the case further, make it more realistic, then I present the following scenario.
Take someone with my high school ‘stats.’
A 3.32 unweighted GPA. An 1870 SAT. A 30 on the ACT. Applications to 7 universities, accepted to all of them, and partial scholarships to 4. Competitive soccer for 4 years, reads 1 or 2 books a week, and has written a short book by 19. In summary: Someone who kind of has their shit together.
Now I present two possible paths for this avatar. We’ll henceforth call him Jerry.
Path one for Jerry: 4 years of college education at his state university. Ends up $100k in student loan debt. But he does receive a piece of paper (that around 65% of graduating high schoolers in 2013 also have) saying he’s pretty decent at Communications. Whatever the hell that means.
Path two for Jerry: We give him that same $100k and those same four years to do whatever he wants. What do you think Jerry could do? Well, to be honest, after twelve years of institutionalization he would probably head to tropical party islands and lose himself in a debaucherous mess for a few months. Get that out of his system. If Jerry had $100k and was shoe-stringing it, he could make that cash last for about 100 months (on average) without additional income. That’s about 8 and a quarter years.
But we don’t want Jerry to shoe-string it. We want him to grow, learn, and become a skilled, contributing, humanitarian member of society. What that means is we’d want Jerry to buy books, courses, volunteer, travel all over, and take certifications of all sorts.
So, with $100k, Jerry could probably:
- Volunteer in Africa and work with the Peace Corps. You’d initially need to pay for the flights over, but once you’re there you’re living low-cost.
- Teach English in Zambia. TEFL certificates (English-teaching certificates) cost around $174.50 and take 120 hours to complete.
- Get his dive certification in Thailand and live as a divemaster for a few months. About $3,500 initial cost to become a divemaster in Koh Tao, Thailand. But from thenceforth, you’d be diving multiple times a day, every day, for free, while being cash-neutral.
- Write a book. Perhaps about travel, adventure, and writing your own script. Just a thought. Zero cost. A lot of time.
- Learn to program. A skillset that’s highly in-demand as the world heads digital. It’s also rewarding. There are loads of free courses out there. Want to up the learning curve? Pay someone to help 1-on-1.
- Build a blog about travel. He’d have the time, resources, and sick adventures. He wouldn’t even have to make money from it — it’d be rewarding as a simple documentation of his adventures. $12 in domain fees. $50 for 1 or 2 years of hosting services. Write away.
- Perfect his photography. That’d go along with the blog. You can use your current phone-camera for this.
- Learn to play guitar. For swooning those dark-haired chicas calientes in Latin America. Buy a guitar for $100, resell it for the same price when you’re done.
- Learn a new language (or two). I’d probably start with French, Spanish, and Italian. Duolingo is free and highly recommended.
- Start a few businesses. Most would be destined for failure, but why the hell not? Cost varies.
- Learn to sail. There are websites that connect you with yacht owners who need a crew to sail from Location X to location Y. You trade work for a bed, sailing experience, and food.
- Read hundreds of books. I’m not talking about the latest and greatest 50 Shades of Rainbow, either. I’m talking Faulkner, Hemingway, Seneca, Cato, Marcus Aurelius, and more. I’ve spent over $1,800 on books and courses since I started traveling 12 months ago.
- Take online courses. I’m sure if you looked hard enough you could find a course on just about anything.
- Hike Aconcagua, The Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, and Kilimanjaro. That’d be a decent starter list. If you book everything on site — rather than online — I’m sure you could do each trek for sub-$1,000.
- Attend world-known festivals. Day of the Dead in Mexico, Running with the Bulls in Pamplona, Burning Man in Nevada, and The Full Moon Party on Koh Pha Ngan in Thailand. Festivals some people only dream of, Jerry would attend before he’s 22.
- Ride a motorcycle from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, Vietnam. Also, learn how to ride a motorcycle.
- Meditate with Buddhist monks in Nepal for a week.
- Work with lions in South Africa (if one were so inclined). I feel like Jerry would be inclined.
- Read philosophy for the hell of it. And also because it’s cool realizing Roman Emperors from 2,000 years ago like Marcus Aurelius had similar problems to Jerry today.
- Work on a farm in New Zealand.
- Learn to spearfish in Nicaragua.
- Spend a few weeks sketching in Italy.
Hell, Jerry’d probably fall in love a few times while he’s at it if he could swing the time commitment.
Now, a few things: (1) this is a fictional scenario and I’d bet you if some 18 year old kid was just handed $100k he’d probably lose it all ridiculously fast, (2) it takes a certain kind of person to use those four years more wisely than if they’d been spent at college — that’s why I qualified the type of person with all those numbers, test scores, and ambitious stuff beforehand. I’m sure some people would lose themselves in a debaucherous mess.
As for me, the debauchery got old pretty fast. As in, 2 / 3 months after I started traveling I basically took a partying hiatus (ZERO alcohol for four or five months) to read, study online courses, and try to figure my shit out.
I’ve since had a 1-month party relapse in San Juan del Sur, but I felt it was well-earned after next to nil partying for six months. I know, I know, “burn the hippocrite.”
Let’s move past it.
Now, Let’s Make A Decision
Of these two paths Jerry could take, which do you think would turn out a more kick-ass, well-developed, ambitious, and prosperous Jerry? I recognize the scenarios aren’t completely realistic — like I said, no one is just going to hand you $100k to do super cool stuff.
But like, no one just hands you $100k to head to university, either. You’re paying for it. You just don’t have the money yet. So really it comes down to: Is spending four-years at university and being $100k in debt before you’ve even started life worth the increasingly devalued diploma?
Compared to what you could do with that time and money, my answer is hell no.
The Value of That Dinero
My opinion: You should travel before college. For a few different reasons. The first of which is recognizing the value of cash. Like I said, I left home with $6k in my bank account.
Notice those words: In my bank account. I traveled with money I had. Money I’d already worked for at shit jobs. Money I knew the value of. You don’t know how much $25k is unless you’ve struggled to save 1/5th of that. I struggled to save 1/5th of that. It was not fun.
I shudder in horror when I hear of kids signing away checks of $25k per year. I don’t want to think of how long it would take to save that. Keep in mind you’re not even saving that money. It’s money you make room for, but automatically disappears for the next 10+ years of your life. I shudder at the10+ years of indentured servitude most kids enter because ‘that’s what everyone else is doing.’
What If I Have Money Set Aside For School?
You should still save money and travel first. I’ll tell you why.
- If you save money, take a year off, and support yourself solo, when you’re in college you’ll have a greater appreciation for the cost-value of the education your parents gave you. Win.
- If you take a year off you’ll have a better understanding what paths are available in the world outside of the bubble that is your hometown. For example, literally an hour ago I met a 28 year old digital nomad living in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. His agency helps Shopify stores drive traffic to their websites and sell more products. Win.
- If you take a year off before college you’ll get a lot of the partying out of your system through 24/7 unrestricted hedonism. Like, I’m talking less restraint than college. You’ll learn partying isn’t everything way faster. Be warned: Traveling may be harmful to your liver. Win.
- You’ll have a break (for the first time in twelve years) from the monotonous academic system. At least for me, this break culminated in me becoming information-starving after a couple months and spending $1,800+ on books, courses, and resources. Note: This was for self-motivated learning on stuff I wanted to know. For the only reason that I wanted to learn it. Win.
Then, you should head back. It would be stupid to not even consider taking advantage of the opportunity your parents are giving you for higher education. And you’ll have the outside experience to realize ‘your work’ isn’t limited to your college education. Your work, even more so, exists outside of the hours you have in class. Your real work happens in side experiments, the things you learn, and the skills you experiment with.
You Done Messed Up
Now, I paint a pretty rosy picture of travel. But I had heaps of setbacks. And honestly, the setbacks were the most educational part of my trip. Let me list off a few things that don’t happen at your friendly neighborhood university:
- You don’t have 13 hour flights across Russia, thinking the whole while, ‘Dude — I totally might have fucked up.’ ~ The day I left.
- You don’t leave your only travel debit card at a convenience store while buying a spicy chicken toastie at 8am. Don’t judge me. ~ 2 weeks into traveling.
- You don’t crash your scooter that costs $6 a day to rent. They probably knew that would happen when I didn’t know how to turn it on. ~ 2 ½ weeks in.
- You don’t contract tonsillitis from poopy elephant water because you had a mud-fight with the elephant caretakers. I laid in a hostel in pain watching Rick and Morty for 7 days. The elephants were sweet, though. ~ 1 month in.
- You don’t run out of money and use your passport for a bed deposit. Thanks for getting me out of that one, Mom.
- You don’t have random typhoons destroy the town you booked a week’s stay in. Queue 7 grungy travelers sleeping at a kind Aussie woman’s house for 3 nights. Thanks again, Anita.
- You don’t have weird mosquito bites that turn into weird skin sores for two weeks. Still have a scar on my ankle.
- You don’t get lonely because everyone you know in the world (literally everyone) is sleeping on the other side of the world. Everybody else you know, you’ve only known for four days and they leave tomorrow. Sigh. C’est la vie du voyage.
- You don’t say goodbye to one of the people you love most in the world on a rainy day in Amsterdam. Still love you, Clouds. Still sorry.
- You don’t get lost in random Thai places because all the street signs are written in squiggly lines.
Woof. Sounds mighty scary, don’t it?
The thing is, I learned from all those unfortunate events. I wouldn’t change a thing. This trip is the best thing I’ve ever done with my life. These experiences developed who I am today.
I created an entirely new life in a Northern Coastal Australian town called Cairns. I wrote a book. #notbraggingjustsaying. I made life-time friends around the world.
I camped on random Thai beaches with friends I’d known for three days, but felt like family. I’ve partied nights and days away. I’ve been obsessed with work (and ignored humans) for weeks, even months, at a time.
Let’s Wrap This Up
Back when college diplomas guaranteed a comfortable life they were an excellent deal. But nowadays with the over-saturation of diplomas, the increasingly low-cost alternatives to college education, and the rising price of a devalued product — and you can be sure a college diploma nowadays is a product — the gamble often doesn’t pay off.
Instead, most kids end up with: $100k in debt, with dreams / aspirations outside of their expensively bought major, and working the same job as that kid who doesn’t have the debt you do. And you know what happens?
They end up with a crappy, dead-end job, indentured to work they hate because they’re desperate to pay off their student loans.
What You’ll Miss Most If You Don’t Attend College
There is an argument for college — that you miss the network of friends, professors, and organizations that you develop. Don’t get me wrong; that’s something you definitely miss. Anyone I talk to whose attended college has said the lifestyle and friends they met were the best part.
But I propose a question. At what cost?
A four-year postponement of pursuing what you want and $100,000 of debt. That’s untenable to me. A time and financial disadvantage.
I’m not saying college doesn’t sound like fun. I’m not saying there’re no redeeming factors. I am saying that college takes time (i.e. a four-year setback), money (i.e. $100k minimum), and isn’t nearly as useful as just setting out and seeing what happens.
But, What’s The Alternative?
The alternative is to do something different.
You don’t have to travel. That’s just what I did. And it was a way for me to exit the herd. The real alternative I present is a head-start. Don’t head to college for four years. At least not right away. Don’t wait until ‘they’ tell you you can start doing what you want.
If your path better lies outside of college, just pursue it now. That’s daunting, isn’t it? Doing what most people don’t. It’s a unique feeling driving against the grain. You’ve heard it before. The biggest mistake you can make is playing it safe. We nod and agree. But how many of us nod, agree, and do the opposite? How many of us scorn Dreamers, Believers, Risk-takers?
Look around. Who risks the roll of the dice on themselves? Who ever looks at themselves and thinks, ‘Yes, there is Skill here. Endurance. Talent, Smarts, and Striving. And I’ll take the cockiest risk of them all: I’ll bet everything on myself and see what happens.’
One of the saddest things I hear is from corporate workers out here traveling. Unanimously they hate their real lives. But once a year they can live in Nicaragua for 12 days. But, and I quote, they ‘love that cheddar.’
That’s failure to me. Living for your weekend to forget the week. Living for those 12 days, that 3.29% of the time when they can explore, live, and do things they love. You could say they’re ‘winning.’ I don’t see it like that.
And if that’s what college leads to I want no part of it.