Nick Adams’ argument against college, Class Dismissed, might seem an odd fit for Hillbilly Highways. But, coming from a rural, working class, blue collar background, college was my gateway to the professional and managerial elite. I experienced firsthand some of the class bias embedded in the process. And I saw friends who should have gone to college not go and friends who shouldn’t have gone to college go.
This is in the Hillbilly Highways wheelhouse because the question at the heart of the book is more relevant—and higher stakes—for a people who are disproportionately working class and blue collar and who are more likely to be first generation college students. Adams’ target audience is 17-year-olds trying to decide if they should go to college and their parents. My target audience for this review (or “review”) is roughly the same then, but specifically thinking of the people I know (and I’m of an age that I have a lot of high school friends who are in this boat with their kids).
Of course I have a pretty big vested interest in all this. My college experience is as anecdotal as any of the stories Adams tells. But it did prove hugely beneficial for me personally. I teach at a regional public university (you will see me stick up more than once for regional publics). The amount of money I’m putting into my baby daughter’s college fund every month shows I’m pretty damn confident she will go to college. I am a big proponent of the skilled trades—a large part of the impetus for writing this review—but I also live in a state with a shrinking pool of high school graduates. More money for skilled trades necessarily means less money for four-year universities. But I also feel like I can say what I think because I lack the power to bring the entire system crashing down around me even if I wanted to (and because the First Amendment, tenure protections, a union contract, and a thin veil of anonymity shield me from retaliation).
This is a big issue. Two-thirds of high school graduates go to college, but fewer than 40% graduate in four years. That 60% have a problem. They borrow more money for school. And if they never finish they earn significantly less than the average holder of a bachelor’s degree but significantly less than the average holder of an associate’s degree. And there is a big class divide in that stat. Your parents earn more than $90k per year? You have a 1-in-2 chance of earning a bachelor’s degree by 24. Your parents earn less than $30k? Your chances drop to 1-in-17.
There is a regular cottage industry in running down our higher education system. I have seen too much commentary less interested in seriously engaging with the issues than with scoring cheap points, easy clicks, and book sales. From commentators who probably happily cash the checks and send their kids to Ivy League schools. Adams, at least, doesn’t fall into that group: for one, he doesn’t have kids. And he has the right basic approach to the book. It is a meandering but that left me underwhelmed, nonetheless.
Framing the Question
My biggest gripe is that while Adams tries to break the college-or-bust mentality, he accepts the college material-not college material false dichotomy. People don’t wash out of college for lack of cognitive ability. Sure, you probably don’t have the math chops for an engineering program at Rice. But you aren’t getting into the engineering program at Rice. The days of “look to your right and look to your left” are over (not necessarily for good reasons, but still). Far more likely to end a college career than lack of cognitive ability is lack of money, desire, or maturity. But talking about “college material” assumes many people do lack the ability. And there is a lot of class bias embedded in there. (The number of college graduates has increased, but it has increased the least among the bottom income quintile). The truth is that a lot of high school guidance counselors think less about your transcript than about who your parents and siblings are. (I was pushed toward cow colleges despite a score on the Verbal portion of the SAT well over my Math score because, well, my people are the sort of people that go to colleges derisively labeled as cow colleges.)
So it’s false, for one, because it makes bad assumptions about ability and class. It is also false because it treats the decision as go-to-college v. don’t-go-to-college. College should instead be viewed one of a suite of options, each with their own risks and rewards. And it’s even more complicated than that. You can do a swing through the military as a way to gain maturity, defer committing to an option, and eventually financing a college degree. Or you can start at a community college to build maturity, defer your decision, save money, and facilitate an easy exit if you decide not to go to college. (The community college-to-university pipeline is underappreciated, in part due to class bias against community colleges and in part due to disincentives for universities to promote it given that it takes away students (and their tuition dollars). But it is a very attractive option for a lot of people, especially boys.)
There is also a lot of talk about how risky college is. This is true. It costs money, and you may have to borrow that money, which means not just paying back the principal but paying interest on it. A good paying job—or any job at all—is not guaranteed. You may not finish, leaving you with college debt and high school job prospects. Does this mean you shouldn’t go to college? Maybe.
High school probably didn’t teach you this, because high schools are bad at fulfilling their purpose, but to talk intelligently about risk you need to talk about return, and you need to talk about alternatives. Let’s start with the return. The lifetime earnings premium for college graduates is over $1 million. And it’s going up. That isn’t guaranteed, but it is significant. And you have some control over that. Get a degree in engineering or accounting and your earnings prospects are better than if you get a degree in education or criminal justice.
We have seen a vast increase in the cost of college over the last several decades. (This is mostly because we’ve been flooding federal money into our higher education system, but an increase in cost was inevitable, I think, given the lifetime earnings premium for college grads.) That makes the math worse. But the measure isn’t how college today compares to college 20 years ago, but how college today compares to not-college options today. And the impact of rising tuition is offset by a rising lifetime earnings premium. What rising tuition really does is making starting college and then quitting before graduation an even worse path. So, yeah, you have a pretty important choice in front of you, and now is the time to think long and hard about it.
Adams provides some math, but the less said about it, the better. It’s . . . egregiously bad. He, for example, cites a source in support of a claim that college graduate Millennials make up 40% of the unemployed in the US. But then he turns around and says that 40% of Millennials with college graduates are unemployed. But that is a different statistic. And if you look at his source, it appears to be referring to all Millennials, not just Millennials with college degrees. And, indeed, the unemployment rate for Millennials ages 25-32 is much higher for high school graduates with no college degree than for holders of a bachelor’s degree. Remember what I said about the need to consider the alternative?
Adams arguments, in general, encourage short-term thinking. There is a lot of you-could-be-earning-money-now-instead-of-running-up-debt. There are plenty of people who will rant on the subject of debt (Dave Ramsey deserves another long blog post). As a general matter, sure, saving is better than borrowing. But sometimes we should lump them together—they both can lead to delayed gratification, a very powerful thing. Foregoing earnings and borrowing money now to go to college can be a very wise decision in the long-run.
Entrepreneurship and Trade School
Adams is a big booster for starting your business and for attending a trade school. I am big, big fan of both as well, but I still have my gripes.
Adams gives some dubious advice on entrepreneurship. Sure, you can get someone else to handle the bookkeeping, but you damn well better have the facility with accounting you need to monitor their work. And you probably won’t be able to afford—at least at first—to hire someone to run your social media or pitch your business for you.
He is a little too rah rah entrepreneurship, in an almost Ayn Randian way. Entrepreneurs are great and play a huge role in American exceptionalism, dynamism, and wealth (and not just the Bill Gateses of the world—the mom-and-pops too). But they are not the sole contributors to all that. Cops and teachers and pastors and all sorts of people who work for a wage do too.
There are a couple other problems with encouraging people to start a business instead of going to college. Want to start a law firm or an accounting firm? You’re going to need to go to college. Even if college isn’t strictly necessary, it is a great place to pick up skills that are enormously valuable to entrepreneurs. (I should also disclose that I am involved in my university’s efforts at entrepreneurship education. I should also probably admit that more practically oriented community colleges are even better at teaching these skills.) The other problem is that starting a business tends to require capital. (Capital is an enormously valuable thing. Marx was wrong.) Wings Etc. demands you have $200k in cash and a minimum net worth of $500k if you want to open up a Wings Etc. restaurant.
I won’t be heartbroken if my daughter takes her college fund and uses it to start a business instead. But I didn’t have any capital when I was 17, and my parents didn’t have any capital to give me. But I’ve been able to make far more because I went to college (and professional school) than I would have been able to with just a college degree. Starting a business is more within reach now than it was 20 years ago. (Has it been 20 years since I was 17? Damn.)
Adams provides a long list of enormously successful people who didn’t graduate from college. But virtually everyone on the list is an entrepreneur or entertainer. And most of the people on the list dropped out of college. That is exactly what we want to avoid here. We want high schoolers to make better decisions in the first place so they aren’t in the position of dropping out. If you start a business and it booms before you graduate—a la Zuckerberg or Dell—dropping out is a valid choice. But that is a tiny, tiny sliver of people. And it isn’t the only choice. The founders of theglobe.com decided to stick it out and graduate, which was probably a good idea, considering that you’ve never heard of theglobe.com.
One area where I heartily agree with Adams is on the value of trade schools and the skilled trades. We have a lot of work to do to remove the stigma of the trades (this is a good start). And where Mike Rowe’s influence has me mostly focused on traditional skilled trades like carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work, Adams makes clear that trade school options are far, far broader, listing dozens of trade school options.
There is some dubious information in the list. Adams seems to conflate college- (and pharmacy school-) educated pharmacists with pharmacy techs. We may always need lawyers, but automation and a tight legal market has been very hard on jobs for legal assistants. PR is one of the options, but my wife works in PR and she doesn’t know a single person in PR without a four-year degree (it also took her four internships before she could find a permanent position, and she graduated from a top-flight public university—PR is a tough nut to crack). If you’re thinking about going down one of these roads, you’re going to need to do a lot more research (as Adams himself admits).
Adams gives too many platitudes. “You’ve got to work very hard for as long as it’s going to take, and eventually you’re going to get there”? If you want to just put your head down and work, then college is probably your best bet. Entrepreneurship isn’t. That requires you to work hard, but also to work smart. The decision we’re talking about here isn’t about hard work. You can go to college and work hard or you can forego college and work hard. This is a strategic decision.
Adams raises political correctness on college campuses and rampant bias in the professoriate. These are serious issues, but they aren’t necessarily issues that should change your decision to go to college. They might degrade the aggregate value of college, but that should only change the decision of people at the margins, i.e., people teetering on the edge of go or don’t go. (Admittedly, the people at the margins are Adams’ target audience.)
Keep in mind that both issues can be serious issues but still not significantly affect your college experience. One, they are concentrated on certain campuses. If you are particularly concerned about free speech, you can check universities’ records on speech and due process issues at TheFire.org. If you are particularly concerned about political bias, you can attend Hillsdale or a religious university (in more than name only) or a university with a long history of respecting heterogeneous views like the University of Chicago or George Mason. But business and STEM programs at regional public universities—the programs that add the most valuable and the ones the target audience for this book should be considering most strongly—are the least likely place to find these issues.
Adams makes some other bad arguments. So-and-so didn’t think they got much out of college. So what? One, it’s anecdotal. Two, not getting much out of college isn’t much of an accomplishment. You, too, could achieve the same with relatively little effort. The answer to that isn’t necessarily to skip college; the likely answer is to approach college differently. You pay a (relatively) fixed price to the college; what you get in return is very much up to you.
Adams gives bad information. In America, we do not “tend to choose the college that is the furthest from where you live.” The median distance from home-to-college is just 94 miles.
The Hedgehog Concept
There is a tool I this is useful is figuring out what it is that you want to do with your life: the Hedgehog Concept. It isn’t my idea, exactly. The Venn diagram is pulled from Jim Collins’ work. He uses it for companies, but I think it can be easily repurposed for individuals. The idea is simple: think about which careers meet each of the three conditions (for you, specifically), then pick one that meets all three (i.e., the black area where the circles all overlap).
What Are You Deeply Passionate About?
Adams says your “choice should be guided, in large part, by passion.” This is what everybody talks about. This is all a lot of people talk about. “Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life!” (This is a lie, by the way. Work is toil—worth it, often enormously rewarding—but a thing that is difficult and distinct from play or leisure.) My big point is that you need to worry about more than what you are passionate about.
But even this condition isn’t all that simple. What were you passionate about becoming you were 7? A firefighter? An astronaut? Noble professions, but the product of availability bias. A 17 you surely know of far more options. Guess what? If you do it right, you will know as much more at 27 relative to 17 than you do at 17 relative to 7. You don’t know what you are passionate about. You have an inkling of what you are passionate about. There is still a lot of passion out there for the finding. Plenty of people took a job because they needed one and it was the only one available and found a vocation.
But passion isn’t really something that comes to find you. Or even that you find. It is something you build over time. I love my wife more today than I did the day we were married. I love my daughter more today than I did the day she was born. Because I have been building that love daily ever since.
But, for all that, passion is still a good place to start. If you know that you like/don’t like working outside/working inside and talking to people/not talking to people you should take that into account. You, today, know yourself better than anyone else in the world, excepting only you, tomorrow.
What You Can Be The Best In The World At
Okay maybe not the best in the world. Olympic silver medalists are cool too. (Don’t be Tonya Harding. Appreciate being second-best.) But aptitude matters. Being passionate isn’t enough if you are too incompetent to hold a job in the field. And, believe me, passion is easier to maintain and build when you are good at something.
As Adams admits, better to be a great welder than to slog through college.
You will have the same problem as above here. You don’t know everything you are good at (or bad at). Most of you already have the information you need to conclude that you don’t have the math chops for an engineering program. You should have an idea of how good you are with your hands. You can (and will need to) build skills, but if the guy beside you is working just as hard and has greater aptitude, he will beat you every time. Potential matters.
What Drives Your Economic Engine
A lot of 17-year-olds say things along the lines of “I don’t care about money.” This is because (1) 17-year-olds don’t know their asshole from their earholes, and (2) they have someone else paying for everything. I was taught in my intro economics course that economics is the study of reconciling unlimited wants with limited means. Money matters. You want to feed your kids: you care about money.
But this isn’t a matter of simply asking which jobs pay the most. We wouldn’t be thinking so rigorously about college if that were the case. The lifetime earnings premium would be dispositive. This isn’t about money. It is about those unlimited wants and those limited means. Do you really want to live in SF or NYC? That changes the economic equation. Are you passionate and good at something that you need to go to SF or NYC to do? That changes the economic equation. Do you plan on $200,000 for college? (For undergrad? No. Just no. But for professional school—maybe.) You will need to pay that back. That will affect the professional choices you make.
If you would be happy to live in and can do what you want to do in Houston or, better yet, a small city, you will face less economic pressure. You need to give serious thought to how important a particular standard of living is to you.
For all my gripes, I like this bit of advice at the end a lot:
Consider the investment. Consider the uncertainty. Consider the inflexibility. Consider the inconsistency.
But mostly, consider the children.
This decision—this momentous decision—isn’t about the parents. It’s all about the teenager about to enter the adult world. Check that: it’s all about the teenager entering the adult world in the manner that’s best for them.
It was always abundantly obvious to everyone, dirt under my ancestral fingernails notwithstanding, that I was “college material.” And I could always do basic math. So college was always the assumed path. But my parents were into free-range parenting before it was cool, frankly they weren’t well equipped to advise me, and we were all distracted. My dad spent most of my senior year of high school at M.D. Anderson in Houston. He died a couple months before I graduated. My mom first got diagnosed with MS that same year, and I went a week with both my parents in the hospital.
My mom was smart enough to know that I wasn’t right and to tell me it was okay if I didn’t go to college, starting at the local community college instead. I was smart enough to know that I really needed to get out of my hometown. She was wise enough to accept my decision.
But if she hadn’t? I would have gone anyway. Adulthood means taking agency in your own life.
3 of 5 Stars.