Is College a Scam?

From Ep. 21 College is a Scam

With just a five percent acceptance rate and a policy of only admitting the best and the brightest, getting into Harvard (or any Ivy League school) signals to employers that the applicant has above average to genius level intellect; no diploma is necessary to prove his or her intellectual worthiness. A high SAT or IQ score will also suffice. Then it’s not surprising that someone such as Bill Gates that goes to Harvard but doesn’t finish would be as successful – if not more – than someone with a degree by virtue of being smart enough to get into Harvard. Let’s cut to the chase: James Altucher is a genius, having scored high enough on the SAT at the age of 13 to be admitted to a special program as well as in 1995 learning Perl in just a single afternoon to set up a website for a client. For someone without his level of giftedness, college may be necessary to distinguish oneself from other applicants in what has become a permanently hyper-competitive economic environment.

James repeatedly mentions a $200-300 thousand figure for individual student loan debt when, in fact, the actual number is on average just $24,000. That’s still a lot – or enough to buy a decent car- but unlike a car, the value of of a degree only appreciates due to inflation. It’s slightly disingenuous that he doesn’t cite the more typical numbers, but chooses only the highest possible tuition to make his point more valid.

There’s evidence that an expensive STEM degree – in particular computer science – from an elite college is worth the money. However, James mentions that his computer science degree didn’t help at HBO, but did he consider that being accepted to Cornell and then the equally prestigious Carnegie Mellon computer science program was a contributing factor in getting the job? Getting into Cornell was no small feat and signaled to HBO that James had superior learning abilities, even if his coding wasn’t yet up to par. Being smart – as James obviously is – isn’t about what you know, but how you learn. Smart people learn faster and more efficiently than everyone else, retaining more of what they read and applying it to quickly draw abstract relations between disparate pieces of data.

The problem is James believes his success story is within reach of anyone that forgoes college when, in actuality, intellect is a bigger contributing factor for success than whether or not one has four extra years by not going to college. We would like to see the story of someone with only average intelligence not going to college and becoming as successful as James. They’re probably many instances, but not as high of a percentage as those with James’ level of intelligence. Maybe James is subtly implying that if you’re smart enough to get into a top college then reconsider if you should attend, which is a possibly good idea, but this is only applicable to the very small percentage of students that are smart and determined enough to get into a prestigious college. But for everyone else, the outcome is probably murkier.