The cost of a college education has risen faster than inflation for so long the discussion can no longer center on what your major is in college, but whether you should even go at all. We have all heard the statistics on how much more you earn with a college degree which begs the question: How much do you need?
Outside medical, education has seen prices skyrocket more than any other category of spending. According to the College Board, tuition and fees for the 2015-16 school year for state residents of public colleges is $9,410. Out-of-state and private colleges are significantly higher. Add room and board and the cost for the school year is $19,548. Now toss in the cost of textbooks and living expenses and the cost of a college education is a major investment.
There are ways to decrease the cost of an education. Starting at a two-year college and living at home or renting your own apartment versus living on campus can lower the total cost. The one nonnegotiable item is the tuition fee. Scholarships and grants can reduce or even eliminate the cost of higher education except for the time investment.
When people hear me speak or watch me work in the office they come to the conclusion I must be highly educated. It is a surprise to them when I admit I have no college degrees. I don’t think I even have enough college credits (if I took the right classes) to qualify for an associate degree.
Education is defined by many people as the education you get in a classroom at a higher education institution. This is wrong! Even if you have a college degree, a large part of your learning came from outside the classroom. My life is no different. When I inform a group I have no college degrees it does not mean I am not educated! I have read more meaningful books in my life than 99% of the people in the country, including the college educated.
I take training courses like a sickness. Enrolled agents are required to have 24 hours of continuing education per years on average: no less than 16 per year and a minimum of 72 hours per three year cycle. This is the minimum to keep your license. I am not a minimum type of guy.
There are plenty of programs to help you prepare for the enrolled agent exam. I used a self-study course to prepare. For one summer I lived in that book. I wanted to learn as much as I could, not only for the exam, but to also help my clients. It went well beyond pride. I wanted to know this stuff. I wanted to digest and incorporate this material into my psyche. I wanted the answers to these tax questions to be automatic.
Am I Educated?
Knowing facts above, do you consider me educated? Let me ask this: If you get an IRS letter who do you think gives you the best chance for a positive outcome? A guy with a college degree or your friendly enrolled agent talking to you right now?
I consider myself educated. Learning never stops. A formal college education is only a foundation to build upon. If you stop pushing your education forward after they hand you your degree you are not educated, I don’t care what the piece of paper says hanging on the wall.
The real question is: Should I go to college? For most people the answer is no. You can start sending your hate mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course doctors and engineers must attend college. But does a plumber or tax guy need a degree? Instead of college, I recommend attending programs designed for your field of work. My experience getting an enrolled agent license is a perfect example. There are few good tax programs in college. Good tax guys don’t come out of university very often. A Master Plumber does not need a master’s degree from UW-Madison! And plumbers can earn a darn nice income. (So do tax guys, but keep that a secret; I don’t need competition.)
The Real Cost of a Formal Education
What more could Steve Jobs have done if he had completed his college degree? He attended classes he enjoyed and left the rest. Some classes he audited. It was about learning, not bragging about a piece of paper some claim means you are smart.
The real cost of an education is time. No matter how smart you are, no matter how many grants or scholarships you earn, you still invest the same amount of time as the schmuck sitting next to you in class paying for the whole thing in cash. And time is where the cost gets really high.
Working your way through college will keep the cost down. Putting living expenses on student loans is insane! I see it all the time. Education debt takes time to work off. It is time again. First you invest four years or more to earn a degree, then you need to find a job, then you need to make up lost ground while you were sitting in school. My biggest advantage attaining financial independence early was an early start. I had a job in high school (farming) and a job immediately after high school (working in my dad’s business and my nascent tax practice). Between life I found time for a handful of college classes. I had the college experience, kind of. I missed the parties and drinking part.
By the time all my high school buddies were finishing college I had a net worth of six figures and growing fast. They had student loans to pay and a job to find. I already had a job and an established business. I had a head start and made the most of it. The key was ambition. I am a self starter. Nobody holds a gun to my head to write the amount of material I do here. I do it because I want to. The same applied to my early days in business. I was always up to something, trying ideas, building my client list, learning how the real world works in business.
Necessary Formal Education
All this said I refuse to look down my nose at college educated colleagues. (Okay, there was that one time.) Some people need a formal education to help them decide a path in life. Some people learn better in a formal setting. And then there is all the self-serving BS required to get a BS. CPAs need 150 credit hours before they can sit for the CPA exam. (I might be off with this. I am pulling from the top of my head and since I am not a CPA I am light on the requirements. Feel free to correct me in the comments section below.)
Many professionals are required to have a minimum level of formal education to gain access to the herd. Attorneys, doctors, CPAs, and teachers fall into this group. If your career choice is in a field requiring a long education time investment you have no choice. A car mechanic is better served by attending a technical college or program geared toward their craft. By focusing your education on your trade you have an added risk. Additional knowledge is needed to function properly in any field. I recommend either self-study or short and intense seminars to build these additional skills. Example: I am attending a one-day grammar and proofreading seminar later this fall. Bet you are glad to hear that.
Some education is unavailable in a formal setting. Financial independence, early retirement, and intelligent investing are rarely part of the curriculum, but absolutely necessary to live your life well. By reading this blog you are gaining an education. No degrees when you finish, just a head full of knowledge shared by a tax guy with decades of experience. And isn’t that what education really is?
We learn by sharing knowledge. Once in a while a member of the herd discovers something new. Not often, but it happens. Then the knowledge is transmitted to peers for review. The whole group learns, becomes smarter.
My oldest daughter has struggled with college. She wanted to attend college all over the world on dad’s dime. She had no grants and not a single penny of scholarship money. The first test of college is getting there. Having someone else foot the bill teaches you nothing. You need to figure some things out for yourself. We all get there in time. The college classes I attended were paid for by the First National of Wallet.
Now my oldest is working. She is discovering what she really likes and wants from a career. In the end she will probably go to college; she wants to be a teacher; an honorable profession.
I come across strong against jumping right into college. That isn’t true. I am against a formal and expensive education until the student is ready. When the student is ready they will actually get an education along with that bill.
Whether you attend college or not, your education starts at birth and never stops until your last breath. Only a small fraction of your education will come from a classroom. Learning is a journey, not a destination.
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Saturday 26th of January 2019
[…] The first test of going to college is getting there. Putting it on the credit card is not earning the right to attend. Scholarships would qualify. […]
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Monday 30th of April 2018
[…] My opinion on college has been published before. Education is the most important thing you can do to improve your life. Most education happens outside the classroom! That doesn’t take anything away from a formal education. College is about learning and making contacts. […]
Monday 24th of October 2016
Have you found that your daughter's chance of getting a scholarship or grant is hurt by your own income? I've got younger friends dealing with that, where they have to include Mom or Dad's income on their forms and it prevents them from getting anything regardless of whether the parents are helping or not. I've got one friend who was able to get away from negligent parents only to find out he couldn't afford college cause his parents income is included in his eligibility for grants.
Monday 24th of October 2016
Grants are sometimes an issue. Many scholarships are based on merit. Not every education takes place in a university.
Thursday 13th of October 2016
Interesting take. I have several somewhat random thoughts. I would say one of the strongest contributions of this blog is that it shares your story of trememdous success without a college degree. It shows what is possible and should be an inspiration to many. You've worked hard and you are self made. Many young people fail to properly consider the true costs and benefits of a college education. They seem to treat college as 13th grade, as in "welp, I'm about to finish 12th grade, what should I do next? I guess I'll try 13th grade." An accounting degree is an excellent degree from a cost/benefit perspective. As a graduate in the top half or your accounting class at the the typical large state university you will give a direct pipeline to a job at one of the Big4 accounting firms. You will be able to land two separate internships that pay $25+ per hour. These lucrative internship positions should help offset a good portion of your in-state tuition costs. It is common to lock in a full time job offer 2 years prior to graduation. Employment at a Big4 accounting firm opens up endless opportunities in the business world. A couple of important nuances. Are you a strong test taker? Many students claim "I'm smart, I work hard, I understand, it's just that I'm not a good test taker." Unfortunately college=test taking and CPA=test taking. If you are not a good test taker it does not mean you are not smart, but it may mean that college is not for you. Do you want to be an entrepreneur or an employee? If you know you want to be an entrepreneur college may be a waste of time and money as it would have been for Keith. But not everyone is well suited for running their own business. And as MMM has shown us, working as employee in a cubicle can still put you on the fast track to financial independence. If you want to be an employee then a college degree (at least in accounting) will make it much much easier to land a job. Despite his tremendous success, someone like Keith who has no degree would have a hard time getting the typical public accounting firm to even look at his resume(not that he'd need a job anyway). They only want college graduates that are CPA eligible. "There are few good tax programs in college. Good tax guys don’t come out of university very often." With all due respect, I'm gonna have to call you out on this one. This statement is not true and it seems to reveal a serious case of big fish/small pond syndrome. The are 100s of tax partners at the Big4 accounting firms that have an incredible amount of tax knowledge. I'm not trying argue that they're better than you or you're better than them. That would be foolish. But, they all have college degrees and "come out of university". They provide services to the biggest/best companies in the world. I don't know your definition of "good" but they can command 7 figure salaries for the services they provide. Even your typical Big4 tax manager with 5+ years at the firm will have such tremendous knowledge and experience that headhunters and clients will be chomping at the bit to lure them away from public accounting. So all that to say, just because you haven't met them walking around rural Wisconsin, don't assume they're not out there.
Monday 24th of October 2016
I am a good test taker, Scott. On your next points: My income is over $300 per hour, many times it exceeds $1000 per hour. I work part-time and pull six figures. As for accounting, I agree you need a degree to land a job at an accounting firm, even mine. I'm the guy you will meet to get that job. Crazy, I know. The guy without a degree hiring attorneys and CPAs. Finally, you bring up a good point; there are good tax guys coming out of university and they don't wander NE Wisconsin. I find it odd so many Fortune 500 companies keep hiring me for tax work and to train their people when I live in the backwoods. Real world experience trumps education. Education only provides building blocks. Good tax guys don't come out of accounting; they come out of finance from my experience. Think Warren Buffett. Well thought out comment, Scott. Much appreciated.
Thursday 13th of October 2016
I agree 100%. I am a dental Hygienist and got my degree at a community college. I make close to 100K/yr because I work my A off and have found a great employer who knows how to use me to the best of ability. I tell all my patients they should take advantage of our little college here and get an education that is job specific or a trade. I tell them to be careful getting into debt for a general education degree that has no guarantee of employment or income to support the debt. Thanks for all the great perspective I have really enjoyed your blog.
Thursday 13th of October 2016
Focusing on the important is key, Steven. The value of an education is not measured by how deep in debt you dig. Glad you enjoyed and appreciate your support.