What are we going to do about the BA?

I was discussing with someone last night about the uselessness of the basic university degree. I compared it to an arms race– when one group has a BA, the other needs the BA to compete with them in the job marketplace, but when both sides have them, they no longer provide any employment advantage whatsoever.

Despite this, the price for university degrees remain absurdly high, and their ubiquity means people still ask for them before you’re allowed a job.

I’m not a big conspiracy theorist, but putting students into $100,000’s of debt before their 25th birthday (and inciting them with “no interest until graduation!!!!!”) sure is a great way of keeping them subservient, isn’t it?

Anyway, I don’t think university is useless for everyone, but there has got to be a better way to do things for most people. Wipe out 2 years of college + 3 years of university and you can make it from the mailroom to a level you would be proud to get straight out of university– likely with a better salary. This, assuming you’re decently smart.

Actually, there’s the real problem. The BA is a credential, used to fog people into believing in your competence, despite the real world having very little to do with how well you do in school. I’m sure this is one of the reasons the Peter Principle is true.

For those of us that don’t need degrees, or whose children don’t, what alternative do we have? School still provides you with the contacts you need, and the credentials can occasionally be useful (art school comes to mind). Where can we go from here, what are the options?

I just can’t figure out why we should waste so much to achieve so little.



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29 responses to “What are we going to do about the BA?”

  1. Kenny Silva Avatar

    From someone with two college degrees and an entrepreneurial job that requires neither of them, I feel like college is a necessary life experience. But, when it comes down to specific performance, it doesn’t really serve a purpose. I’m not sure what the options are, but I totally agree that giving a 22 year old a mortgage payment with no house is an alarming social norm. Luckily, I sacrificed sleep for a full-time job while I was in college, so I’ve only got a Mercedes payment (still, no car to show for it) as opposed to a house note.

  2. Rob McDougall Avatar

    It’s all very annoying.

    I’ve got a BSc, and getting a job anywhere in the VFX industry that’s above entry-level requires you to either work up through various companies or go away and get a Masters… All to do a job that I could do standing on my head…

    University was fun, and I really did buckle down and learn some useful things towards the end of my time there, but I feel that most people (myself included, for a time) are there to delay the inevitability of getting a job…

    Talk about becoming subservient… I now work for less than £20k, most of which goes on bills + rent so I can afford to live somewhere near my central London (UK – the good one) office…

  3. Dave Doolin Avatar

    Samuel Johnson discussed this with Boswell 250 years ago, when the topic was basic literacy.

    His conclusion: it leads to what we now know as an “arms race,” but it doesn’t matter. When the lower classes learn to read, it won’t make the indolent any more productive.

    Funny how that is.

    ps: I have PhD, but no debt on that degree. As a result, I also never traveled, never enjoyed any “good living” that some of my peers enjoyed. Often, I regret my decision to stay out of debt. Because when 30, 40, 60+ million people decide they’ve had enough, they will simply pressure congress to force student debt forgiveness. Watch and see.

  4. Dave Doolin Avatar

    One more thing (wish I could edit previous), education is in a bubble, just like housing was (still is actually).

  5. Ricardo Nunez Avatar

    I learned over the years that college doesn’t give that much, it actually takes from you. During that time you can gain experience in the field, make some money, and learn by yourself what you really think is important for yourself. I know this type of “lifestyle” is not for everyone, but a lot of people out there can be doing much better without loosing their time in college. I wasted four years of my life, thank god I got no loan.

  6. John McLachlan Avatar

    I have no degree myself. The part I regret about not attending an academic college or university is the focus and ability to “think” that many studies can encourage. Having said that, I have many friends with degrees who don’t focus or think very well.

    So, I guess my answer to Julien’s question is that for some people, it’s worth it, for some it’s not. Gosh, how decisive and critical is that statement — if I had a BA I’d be more decisive. ha ha.

    The problem we have is that schools want to teach everybody as if they will work in a factory. For most people, this is not the scenario. I could see going to school again but I’d go to learn for learning’s sake.

    I’m all for having a better educated population and for making it easier for people to pursue studies. It’s just not for everyone, nor should those who have a BA, an MA, or a PhD get so much credit over those who learned in a different way. They just proved they could study and possibly be smart.

  7. Fanie Avatar

    Hi Julien,

    First time posting here. I heard you on Sylvain’s podcast a little while ago.

    I guess it all depends on what your goals are. But, of course, most of us don’t know what it is until we gain enough confidence and/or experience.

    By my experience, I always wanted to get a BA but, for many reasons, didn’t. I’m a little older now and am thinking that it’s never too late and should still get it because it’s something I always wanted to do. Why? To learn, of course, and also to get an official “recognition” from my peers.

    It’s a shame because I’ve seen many jobs which asked for a BA but, franckly, didn’t really required it for the competences needed. :-/ It’s shame because I am sure it stops many people from doing something they love and could be great at. In this way of thinking, yes, there could be some kind of “conspiration”.

  8. Bernard Dahl Avatar

    Such a good subject; you might like Sir Ken Robinson’s take on “Academic Inflation”, here is the clip : http://blog.rjccq.com/2009/12/pourquoi-le-systeme-academique-decourage-la-creativite/

  9. CT Moore Avatar

    It’s about the journey, not the destination.

    I’m still in debt from my undergrad, and what I do for a living has nothing to do with what I studied. But I will still encourage my son to pursue a Bachelor of Arts, and preferably in something as useless as English Lit. or Philosophy.

    Oh, and the Peter Principle is bullshit…

  10. Dustin Taylor Avatar

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve been saying this over and over and over for a long time. It’s amazing how some people even think they have to get one to make any sort of “real” money and that it will set them apart in this world… I’m personally pursuing one over a longer period of time (to avoid any debt) while working in the fields that I love. I’m pursuing one mainly because of the relationships formed while in school, not because I want to recognition from other people and have the right to hang a piece of paper on my wall that means nothing when compared to experience.

  11. Eric Avatar

    Great thought here. I have been thinking about this a lot recently as well. Universities no longer have any leverage in terms of the information and services they provide. They are simply ways of legitimizing your personal brand. But there are many other ways to accomplish this. It’s certainly a flaw in our society, and there needs to be a fundamental shift in our standards. We need to find another way to legitimize the professional value of someone.

  12. Scot Robinson Avatar

    The arms race is escalating. Used to be you needed a high school diploma, then the BA, now you have to have a Master’s degree or higher to compete for the top jobs or even middle management. So more debt and more time post-poning an actual job. And this while here in the States, they’re encouraging more to go to community colleges that under-prepare and have proven less successful in seeing students through to the Bachelor’s

  13. Chris Lorenz Avatar

    Not going to college turned out very well for me. I had always been one of those kids who questioned school and pursued my own interests. Luckily my interests fell in line with the backbone of today’s business; the web and technology(don’t worry I know people are truly the backbone of business, but you catch the drift.)

    Starting my own consulting business when I was out of high school taught me more than I probably could of gleaned from any 4 year education. When you fail in school, you get removed from the system. When you fail in life then you have the opportunity to learn from the mistake and turn it into success.

    I can’t say that I am better off without a 4 year degree. What I can say is that when I chase something that I want, it hasn’t been the thing keeping me from catching it.

    Great post!

    New Media Developer
    Pacific Dental Services

  14. Amanda Tinney Avatar

    YES! Great post! J…are you reading my mind?

    I am a college grad with a BA. My husband had zero college. When I met him in the late 90’s he was self-employed and making GOOD money. I felt as though I had been hoodwinked by the public school system and my advisers into thinking that college was the ONLY option.

    Boy was I wrong. I have learned more about money and free thinking from seminars and books that I purchased from Amazon than I could have ever learned in my 4 years of college. What a waste of moolah!

    I will not be encouraging my daughter to go to college to learn how to be an employee.

  15. whitney Avatar

    You know I have an expensive education, and I interview kids applying to go to that same expensive brand name school. so I have a bias, to be sure.

    What I can tell you is that college is probably the best place for someone to be between 18 and 22. You have the freedom to learn what interests you, often without immediate constraints for it to be 100% useful. You learn about learning. You learn about yourself. You learn about meeting deadlines, and expectations, and living in groups. You learn about social norms, time management, and the like, with graduated real world consequences- very few people manage to get kicked out of dorms as compared to being evicted from apartments. Given that the brain is still developing, especially those critical frontal lobes devoted to executive tasks like, judgment and reasoning, for example, the phrase “God isn’t through with them yet” is largely true.

    My undergraduate degree is in developmental biology. I have a law degree. And to be honest, I use aspects of the way I learned to think through the course of study of both almost every day. Sure, it’s rare that someone asks me about differential placentation in mammals or to do an enzyme assay, but the ability to think like a scientist and problem solve is critical to everything I do. I may not be suing people every day as an attorney, but the ability to build a case, fact upon fact, to argue a position- those are skills that I use in business daily.
    For people who are self-directed learners and intellectually curious- what professors call the “autodidactic” folks, formal schooling may not give them anything more than what they would naturally do on their own. But you have to admit tons of people need time to develop as adults, and require more external direction towards their learning to get to the end and have anything meaningful gleaned out of it to share and apply in any real way. I see kids every day at eighteen who lack enough maturity to really find their way into a meaningful niche where they can thrive.

    Formal education may not be for everyone. But it does show that people have proven they can begin something and end it- They Ship, as Seth Godin would say in Linchpin.

    It’s difficult because none of us here can do an apples to apples comparison- if you went to college, you tend to be biased towards that, and can’t compare what would have happened to you if you didn’t go. Statistics in the US indicate clearly that on average, people with advanced ed earn more over their lifetime than those that don’t, so does this make college a really big insurance policy? Maybe.
    But I can tell you this- I sure don’t want a surgeon working on me who went to twitter med school.

    1. Julian Avatar

      Great post. Hit the nail on the head.

  16. Avi H Avatar

    I think depending on the society, degrees are very important and near essential for professional advancement. I can tell you here in Trinidad, undergrad degrees are like nothing now…you must go on to get your postgrad or your experience tends to count for nothing which is really scary and unfortunate. I see a lot of people here doing MBAs which they have no right doing at this stage of their careers just because it ups the ante for them professionally. I myself feel increasingly pressured to start a postgrad programme — any postgrad programme, to keep ahead of the game. If these programmes gave real insight and skills for the jobs we do daily, then fab…but most times, it’s lip service or in this case, paper service. I want something that I feel really and truly benefits me in a real world scenario.

  17. Mary Churchill Avatar

    Hi Julien,

    Thanks for writing this! I believe that higher education is at a real crisis point – particularly in the U.S. and the U.K. Non-elite institutions (the majority) are scrambling to increase revenue, increase rankings, and treat their students as customers. Apart from a focus on staying in business, there is very little focus on radically redefining education for the 21st century. Institutions need to think beyond their bottom line and what individual students say they want and think about what society and the world may need.

    Mary Churchill, PhD
    University of Venus

  18. Ray Martin Avatar

    This issue of financial slavery has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. It seems like a lot of degrees these days are pretty worthless. 10 years after almost finishing my bachelors in music composition, I’m thinking about taking the 4 credit hours I have left just so that I can have the satisfaction of finishing what I started. The thing is, that not having the completed B.M. hasn’t held me back at all! Since I’m in media sales, your level of experience and your performance are more important than your background. It seems like a lot of jobs are that way these days. It also seems more important to have referrals for a job interview than credentials.

    I don’t regret the 4 years I spent in college and I do probably use some of the creativity I cultivated during that time when I write ad copy, but when I was ready to look for a job there wasn’t any guidance or practical things you could go out and do. I thought I’d wait tables the rest of my life!

    Education isn’t the only thing enslaving our youth today. The mortgage and automotive industries did a pretty good job of that over the past decade too. Finish school, go get a job, so that we can loan you an aggressive mortgage on a house that you’ll never pay off, and a lease on a car that you’ll never own. Keep working the rest of your life and never get ahead. That seems to be modern slavery if you ask me!

  19. Kama Avatar

    Your post is quite timely, thank you. One of the respondents stated college is about the journey, not the destination. I agree to a degree 😉  Part of it’s appeal is making a fine crown out of knowledge “pearls” gathered through life thus far. I’ve held various roles in IT for 15 years, without a BA, BS or other initials after my name. Increasingly, it’s impossible to even get an interview for the most basic of positions without a degree.

    Is the degree absolutely necessary? No, not always. Some of the most brlliant people I know are not formally educated and do quite well for themselves while friends with doctorates are hitting the want ads. I’ve made it a goal for myself to get that piece of paper in the hopes it will balance out my skillset and make me attractive to employers. To me it feels a necessary evil that I will likely pass on to my children. 

  20. John Meadows Avatar

    It used to be that universities were not seen as job training centres, but places where people went to learn things.

    If we view universities simply as job training centres, then yes, the typical B.A. might not be “worth anything”.

    This is a very shallow, and unfortunately all too common view of things, driven by dollar signs.

  21. Dave Doolin Avatar

    This thread would blow up with threaded comments.

  22. Martine Howell Avatar

    I have worked with people who have had a college degree when I didn’t. Just because you have a piece of paper saying, “You passed a bunch a tests and we have determined that you are smart. Congratulations!,” it doesn’t mean that you have common sense.

    I was looked over for a management position because I lacked the degree the other person had. This other person had to ask me how to do her job. She couldn’t even perform the simplest tasks without constant direction. How could they make her a manager?

    When I asked why I was bypassed for the position I was told she received the management job because she had a degree and that shows commitment to finishing tasks. I had a good laugh when she flaked on them and quit after six months.

  23. Eryk Gabriel Avatar
    Eryk Gabriel

    While a degree might not be essential for gaining employment, for me going to uni and college have been very worthwhile experiences. Here’s why:

    – I learned to think critically and gained confidence in my ability accurately analyze a situation
    – My social skills improved tremendously from all the presentations I was forced to give, participating in class, and of course going to parties 🙂
    – I made tonnes of friends and potential future partners/customers

    Really the best thing for me has been gaining “soft skills” as opposed to any concrete knowledge or skills.

    That said, the experience is only as good as you make it. I know plenty of people who graduated school without knowing how to really think, write, or speak. The opportunities are definitely there though for those who wish to pursue them.

  24. Jake LaCaze Avatar
    Jake LaCaze

    This is an issue (along with other aspects) that needs to be discussed more frequently. I got my BS in marketing and was lucky to graduate with only $10,000 in student loan debt (a number of factors played into that). Sometimes I wonder if I might have had better luck in my past job searches if I had bought a bigger brand. I love my school and it’s fully accredited, but it’s not Harvarf or Yale or Columbia.

    When I see blog posts like this, I ask myself, Has it ever been riskier to go to college? And has it ever been riskier to pass up college completely? It is definitely an economic issue, and it seems that enough people are not considering.

    And as you pointed out, the price of tuition is rising while the VALUE is declining. College is a great experience, but is it worth $100,000? I’m lucky that I don’t have to ask myself that.

    1. Julien Avatar

      Yeah Jake, you are. I don’t know where you live, but even here in Quebec where school is very affordable, most people I know have higher student loans than that. $10k is “easy” to pay off (notice the quotation marks) and can be compensated for by a good year, say, but $50k needs to be compensated for by a good *lifetime*. And let’s keep in mind that these are post-tax amounts.

  25. Livia Avatar


    Great post!

    I have a BA and an MSc both on scholarships.

    I enjoyed school and learning, really did. But I was thrilled and eager when it was over. To get down to some practicalities that is.

    Definitely we’re witnessing a change here, a big one in the way we view education. When I will have my own kids I will think well and hard before sending them off to school, and the type of school, if any. Actually now is the time for some breakthrough educational businesses in this domain.

    I get freaked out when you mention those amounts of money – thankfully there are not so many schools in Europe charging those kind of fees.

    This being said, having graduated my masters a year ago I look back frightened: 16 years of my life, went on school, on studying, on absorbing information. I don’t regret it, but if I had to do it all over again, starting today, I wouldn’t do it. Of course, when you’re 7 years old… you don’t know much about anything…

  26. Howard Stein Avatar

    I went to one of the best art schools in the world and yes, my skills improved and I made friends who are friends today. However many great designers came out of schools no-one had heard of and many had dropped out. Some mourn the loss of breadth in not graduating. Nevertheless, I believe there is a better way. Mentoring. If we could begin our twenties, and be guided, sent to this teacher for that skill, another teacher for that other skill, we could add a teacher for how to move forward in the world of business, a teacher for the spirit, a guide to ensure one gets connected to a network of great people and learns how to best function in the network as it reaches higher altitudes …. this type of learning could be accomplished in much the same time, four years perhaps, and set a wider richer path for us than any university could ever hope to do.

  27. Deanna Ogle Avatar

    This subject is awkward for me to talk about. Firstly, I work in web development. So, I know just about as much as one of my coworkers who spent four years in college to do the same thing I do. I self-learned what I need to know for my job, but that’s something you can do because unlike in other fields, web development is all based on what you have built and whether or not it looks good and works. It’s all concrete evidence.

    I’m four classes from my Associate degree which I will finish, but I struggle with the idea of stacking up at least $10,000 to spend another two years in school to get the piece of paper that proves to someone (I’m not sure who) that I know what I’m talking about. I’m 22 and I’ve taken my time with school but I don’t care because I’ve stayed out of debt.

    My sister went a different direction and my parents sent her to school. In one night they went from owing nothing to have a loan that should have bought them a very nice sedan. That idea scares me.

    The one nice thing about the field I work in is that there are certificates to show what you know. They are about $100 a pop and from there you will always have something that shows you know that particular skill. Perhaps this might be a way forward.

    The other sad thing is that I actually really love school. It’s brain candy for me. I love listening to lectures and interacting with brilliant professors who will say things that change everything for me. If money and futility weren’t a problem, I’d go for a very long time.

    I’ve seen people succeed very well with a degree and very well without them, so I barely know what to think about college degrees anymore. All I know is that I will continue on very cautiously. I can’t afford to waste my time or money, and neither can anyone else.

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