Skip to navigationSkip to content

The problem with debating whether college is for everyone

College graduates
Reuters/Fabian Bimmer
A meaningful choice.
  • Dustin McKissen
By Dustin McKissen

Vice president, First Resource

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This post originally appeared at LinkedIn. You can follow Dustin here.

“Not every kid is meant for college.” That statement, or some close variation of it, is something I hear and read more and more. It’s usually followed by a comment on the debt associated with a degree, the need for kids to learn a trade, and the role schools should play in identifying and directing those kids toward job training, so they can be equipped to go to work out of high school.

There is no data showing that the average person stands a better chance in the employment market without a degree than with one. There are multiple studies that demonstrate the lifetime value of a bachelor’s degree—or put another way, the cost of not being meant for college.

Who is it for?

Obviously, a college degree isn’t the only path to success. Many people succeed without one. Setting aside the “Gates/Jobs/Zuckerberg” examples cited so frequently, I have known and worked with many successful entrepreneurs in a variety of industries, including information technology, agriculture, manufacturing, and healthcare. Some of the entrepreneurs that I respect the most do not have a college degree.

But every successful entrepreneur or business owner I have known who has kids that are at or near college age has sent their children to get a bachelor’s degree—often at really expensive schools. Some of the people I’ve known also do that while simultaneously stating that “college isn’t for everyone.”

So, who isn’t it for? And how are those kids identified at a young age? And what does it do to a kid to hear that narrative?

The disparity

Statistically, the sorting of who college is and isn’t meant for is increasingly based on household income. According to the Pew Research Center 50.9% of low-income high school graduates were enrolled in 2 or 4 year programs in 2012, down from 58.7% in 2007. In middle-income families the percentage of students in 2 or 4 year programs was 64.7%, and for high-income families it was 80.7%. The same report indicated that while race plays a significant role in high school completion, roughly two-thirds of white, black, and Hispanic high school graduates were enrolled in college.

It’s easy to look at those statistics and say that the cost of college must be the biggest barrier for low-income students. And, without a doubt, how we fund colleges and what students must pay to attend them are in desperate need of reform. But while college is more expensive than ever, students (if they are acting like educational consumers) have more choices and more paths to a degree than ever before.

Speaking from experience, I was one of those kids that just wasn’t meant for college. Many very intelligent people that I care deeply about were placed in that same category. They weren’t put there by a master government sorting mechanism—they were encouraged to find an alternative to higher education by people who cared about their well-being, and looked at a poor kid who might be making some bad decisions (or is just not good at hiding teenage behavior) or getting bad grades, and told that kid that some people just aren’t meant for college.

Emotional arguments

Much of what is written about higher education, including this post, is driven in large part by emotion, past experience, self-image, and family history. But what isn’t driven by emotion is the data that repeatedly shows the tremendous disparity in lifetime incomes between college graduates and non-graduates.

Of course graduating college doesn’t make anyone better than anyone else, but it does give someone a statistically better chance of greater financial success in life. For me, the barrier to my education wasn’t cost. I saved, I starved, and I paid for a bachelor’s degree and two graduate degrees while accumulating less than $25,000 in student loan debt.

The biggest barrier for me was the message I had absorbed growing up. Eventually I realized that what I was meant for wasn’t going to be decided by anyone else, and that I would be better off playing the odds and getting a degree.

It worked out for me, just like it worked out for the PhD economist I heard telling attendees at a recent conference that “college isn’t for everyone”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.