A lot of people argue that college isn’t worth the cost. They point to rising tuition as a societal problem and demand government subsidies or free tuition. While they fixate on the financial cost of college, they overlook the real reason college is too expensive.
To understand if college is a good investment, you need to consider the alternatives.
It’s easy to think about the financial alternative. What you could do if you didn’t have to take on student loans, but what about the time cost of college?
What about the alternative to four years of classroom lectures and frat party beer pong?
Consider what you could do with that time instead.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized research by Anders Ericsson, a Swedish performance researcher who studied the history of elite performers across many disciplines.
If you look into the rise of these elite performers, you find that they all broke through around the point they reached 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.
Without exception, the greats became great after a massive amount of practice.
10,000 hours is a lot of time. But so is college.
Four (or five) years spent in a Bachelor of Arts degree takes away time you could have dedicated to approaching mastery at a skill.
If you work nine to five, five days a week, fifty weeks a year, you hit 2000 hours per year. This is an easy estimate of the time you could spend if you were not a full-time college student.
Choosing a four-year degree is a decision about how to spend around 8000 hours.
Mastery vs. Masters Degree
Mastery by Robert Greene is an effective instruction manual for the 10,000-hour rule.
Greene follows the learning journeys of historical and contemporary great artists and business people and breaks down the common path they followed from beginners to transcendent masters.
Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, and others.
What you find is not a well-credentialled group, but a well practiced one.
Each of these great people followed a similar path to the peak of their disciplines. They locked onto a particular interest or skill; they found a way to apprentice in that area, then after massive amounts of practice, they broke out on their own, expressed their originality, and revolutionized their fields.
And then they invested thousands of hours directly into practice and study of their chosen skill, not into getting certified in the correct prerequisite, and not into becoming generalists.
As a college student, you spend very little time actually practicing skills. You invest in prerequisite and unrelated subjects, in partying, in watching TV, but very rarely in active practice.
Meanwhile, it has never been easier to learn and practice skills outside of academia.
A Better Investment
The lesson from Mastery and the 10,000-hour rule is that it will take time and dedicated practice to reach a high level in any field.
College graduates realize this after college. They face the reality of being at the beginning of a path to mastery. College has shown them only a few different directions they can walk in, and it hasn’t helped them to start their journey.
A degree may make it easier to get into a learning role. It may help you get an entry-level job in many professions, but think about how you could have invested the time instead.
As an aspiring writer, an English degree distracts you from the practice of writing. You spend your year writing ten essays for your English classes when you could have been at home writing daily and self-publishing two novels instead.
For the aspiring programmer, the computer science major keeps you wrapped up in theory and history when you could be making commits on Github and building a career as a freelancer on Upwork.
If you simply decided to pursue a skill on your own, to work at it like a job for the four years of a college degree, you will be nearing 10,000 hours by the time your peers are wrapping up classes. While they are receiving their degrees, you could be at a professional level in programming, writing, language learning, or any skill of your choice.
In almost every area, college is not a step on the pathway to mastery, but a distraction from it. It is a massive investment of time with a very low return.
The time cost of college is sacrificing one skill that you could have been well on your way to mastering. 8000 hours spent on college means 8000 hours less in the practice of your chosen skill.
Four years in lecture halls means four years not spent on the road to mastery.
The price of college is too high, even if it’s free. 8,000 hours is a massive investment, so spend it wisely.