It’s Time To Be Realistic About College Alternatives

Freddie deBoer discusses how the debate about college makes unrealistic assumptions as to the viability of alternatives to college. This is why despite Freddie being a Marxist, I still follow him. I disagree with him politically, but he still talks sense on many things. I would rather follow someone who talks sense on many things even if I disagree on politics, than someone who I agree with but spouts a lot of nonsense or whose views are poorly aligned with empirical reality.

I have found that the strongest opposition to college comes from people, usually in tech, with comfy 6-figure jobs. Which is a bit of a head-scratcher for me. I’m like, then why not quit your nice job and get a job that is commensurate with not having a degree. Maybe Chipotle or Starbucks. Let’s see how well that goes. Perhaps it’s because technology is about trying to make things more efficient, but credentialism is seen as an unnecessary roadblock or economic friction.

Whether it’s wokeness or academic fraud/misconduct, higher ed needs major reform. And I dislike credentialism on principle, which like affirmative action seems like a suboptimal use of human capital and unfair. But conservatives are too inclined to blame the government for companies requiring degrees, when the evidence suggests that credentialism reflects a voluntary and mutually beneficial economic transaction between the degree holder and the employer. But at the same time, let’s not pretend that the college wage premium is not real and that college does not confer major lifelong benefits. One can oppose the system of higher ed, yet still consider college a prudent financial decision and investment.

Freddie is correct also that unless you’re smart and or come from a wealthy family, your options in life are rather limited. And even if you’re smart and ambitious, forgoing college doesn’t suddenly open the door to opportunities unless your family has money, in which case college is not needed anyway. It’s not like 20-year-olds of middle-class upbringings have tens of thousands of dollars to ‘travel the world’, or to start businesses. Becoming an unpaid contributor to The Huffington Post or interning at the NYTs are not exactly viable or realistic career paths either. Sure, you can hike the Pacific Crest or Appalachian trails, which doesn’t cost much money, but this does not answer the question of what to do afterwards or how to make money.

The problem , also, as I alluded to in earlier articles, is that alternatives to college generally suck. Coding bootcamps are expensive, there is no financial aid, and the lack of transparency makes it hard to know if it’s worth it or not in terms of job market success or coding competency. Apprentice/vocational school tuition is almost as expensive as college and also is time consuming, but much lower wages and no financial aid. It’s not that bootcamps cannot work, but the incentives are aligned to favor quantity (enrolling more applicants) over quality (creating better coders, or being a better signifier of competence). Harvard is reversed, being very picky, which means the credential is much more valuable and signifies competence. Jobs that don’t require college tend to lag inflation no matter how high or low CPI is, which means living paycheck to paycheck and home ownership always being out of reach and having to rent instead of building wealth.

In 2021, cryptocurrencies, NFTs, and ‘meme stocks’ were touted as shortcuts to wealth for people without degrees, yet the value of those has plunged considerably over the past 2 years as the crypto and meme stock bubbles burst, and CPI-based inflation has surged 15% in the interim. NFTs are down 90% or more from their 2021 peaks, and most are now worthless–that is assuming the money wasn’t lost to scams/fraud, like the collapse of FTX and others. A college degree, as it turns out, is a better hedge against inflation than nearly-bankrupt video games stores or movie theatre chains or digital tokens in the likeness of cartoon primates.

As for tech start-ups, this is not like the mid 90s when you could pick up a book on HTML and retire a millionaire a few years later. Apps and AI are complicated, expensive endeavors requiring considerable VC funding and time, not something that can be picked up in a weekend on a shoestring budget like during the 90s dotcom boom. There is too much competition and decent-sized VC funding is harder than ever to obtain. Somehow the expectation is that $10,000 is enough to start a successful AI company or an app company…in what universe…not this one. [0]

I call it the ‘suddenly dried-up’ phenomenon. Lucrative, money-making opportunities in which the intellectual barriers to entry are low, tend to evaporate suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving a lot of latecomers holding the bag, whether it’s crypto/NFTs, Beanie Babies, reselling shoes on Shopify, home flipping, fracking jobs, self-publishing on Amazon, etc. High-IQ wealth, such as Substack writing, tech jobs and other white-collar work tends to be much more sustainable over the long run and does not suddenly become saturated. Despite the rise of AI, consulting, lawyer, and doctor salaries and jobs are not going anywhere.

Two-thirds of adult Americans–or about 130 million people–do not have a 4-year degree…you can be sure they are looking for any edge or opportunity to supplement their likely meager incomes. Hence things get saturated fast. The Covid stimulus checks are often blamed for the worst inflation since the 70s, and that amounted to only around a thousand dollars per recipient–hardly a life-changing amount of money. For all 330 million or so Americans to become rich means that money ceases to mean anything.

Owing to the winner-take-all nature of today’s economy, fat creative-class salaries for elite college grads, and the dearth of good college alternatives, the demand and prestige of top-tier colleges has only grown, even despite wokeness, Covid and the rise of online learning, a growing public awareness of a higher ed bubble, and academic misconduct scandals. ‘Clown world’ and viral videos of looting and shoplifting hasn’t put any dent in the insular world of the elite in finance, academia, government, tech, etc. in which it’s business as usual. Every few months we’re told by the media how college has peaked or how dysfunctional it is, yet admissions are more cutthroat than ever, and the social and economic benefits more lucrative than ever before.

[0] Unlike having clients who will pay thousands of dollars for a simple html website, in today’s economy you give away your product in the hope of achieving a sort of ‘critical mass’ that allows the company to either be sold for a lot of money, sell advertising, or sell a premium plan to some tiny percentage of users. A bigger website or app with more users means more employees and expenses, compared to a one-man DIY operation.


  1. You are describing the situation in the US and probably Canada now. In Europe, especially the Nordic countries the competition is international, not intranational. Yes, the rich are less rich, but the poor are also less poor.

  2. It is more like the price of admission. somewhat like the Chinese Imperial Exam system which was decided by who you know, not what you know.

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