College: Is It a Complete Waste of Time?

College graduation. Source: a higher education worth pursuing?

I’ve been reading a lot of stories about higher education around the blogosphere lately. There’s a lot of debate over the impact of student debt and the merits and drawbacks of pursuing a higher education.

My personal feelings on the matter are mixed. I believe that higher education is important, but I don’t believe that the school system is the only way to get a higher education. In fact, I feel that large parts of the school system today from K-12 and beyond are doing a horrible job and are not only teaching outdated and irrelevant knowledge, but are simply nothing more than welfare schemes for teachers and labour suppression and control schemes for students.

However, I don’t believe this is true of the university level in my opinion. At the university level, many of the teachers are motivated in providing their students with a high quality education. The environment is much less authoritarian than the K-12 system and much more open, and with an atmosphere of actual learning instead of “do your homework or go to detention.”

Where I live, college and university are the equivalent of colleges in the U.S., and you get your bachelor’s after completing your 3 to 4 year program at the university level.

Why do we have this system? Our high school is one year shorter, and this is replaced by the opportunity to take either a two year pre-university degree, or a three to four year technical program. At the university level, it is very similar to the States except that many universities here do not have dorms or as much of a “college life”. It’s not as much of an “all-in” thing.

My experiences at the college level

When I first entered college, I was very ignorant of the options open and available to me, and I did not even consider going to university in the beginning. After speaking with some advisors, I was pretty convinced that a four-year technical program in computer science would be appropriate for me.

That decision led to possibly one of the biggest wastes of time in my life. Not only was the program horribly old and outdated, but the teachers were not particularly motivated. I had some teachers that had open-book exams in class, and others that would take “coffee breaks” in the middle of an exam! Some of my teachers were good and helped the students out, but the quality and level of education overall was a complete joke and a waste of time.

To add insult to injury, it turned out that most employers didn’t really place much value at all on a college degree, and I could have gotten a much better wage by entering a trade!

If you look at the social aspect of college, this was more beneficial for me. When I entered college I was a withdrawn and reserved person, and I found it difficult to socialize and communicate with other people. This was in part due to experiences earlier in my life and in part due to the normal angst of being a teenager.

The long time I spent in college gave me some buffer time to start breaking down these walls somewhat, and by the last year I was already more comfortable. I made some friends, met my girlfriend of now nearly 7 years, and I had a good time. Our class was very small and cohesive over the years, and therefore we all formed some bonds with each other over time.

How much did it all cost?

The costs of my college education can be evaluated in a few ways:

  • Tuition and books
  • Living expenses
  • Opportunity costs of not working full time or spending the time doing something else.

It is hard to quantify the opportunity costs, but as I did use my college degree to pursue higher education, let’s say the opportunity cost was two years of full-time work. That would be quite substantial… but on the other hand, I did meet my girlfriend during the last year. That’s something I can’t put a monetary basis on, but it is certainly worth a lot.

As I would have to pay my living expenses if I were working, I will also leave those out of the equation. College is highly subsidized, so I estimate my total direct costs for the four years to be less than $5,000. Of course, I can’t quantify the time lost spent taking courses that were useless.

My experiences at the university level

I ended up going to university since I felt that my college diploma was worth little more than the paper it was written on. Apparently the marketplace felt the same way I did about the quality of the education, and that was reflected in the wages that they were willing to pay.

I was quite disenchanted with higher education at this point, but my girlfriend encouraged me to push forward. I was quite dismayed at the expenses I would have to dish out: Another four years of living on my own. In addition to the tuition costs, this would mean brute costs of over $100,000.

I had no support from my parents, but because their income was beyond a certain level, I was also not eligible for student loans or bursaries. My grades were not stellar and scholarships were rare, so that was also out of the question. I felt a lot of pressure, but my grandmother supported me a lot both morally and financially during this time. I still had to come up with most of the money for my living expenses, but she helped me a great deal with the tuition expenses.

My first year of university was definitely an eye-opening experience. Immediately I felt that the quality of the education was much higher, and for the first time in my life, not only did I feel compelled to put more effort into studying, but I actually enjoyed doing so.

I entered into the co-operative program which provided me with many opportunities to further my education with practical work experience, as well as income to help cover my expenses. I covered my expenses with these work terms, and I also supplemented my income by working part-time while taking classes full-time, and for a few semesters I even worked on the weekends.

All of this working was beneficial to a certain extent, but unfortunately, my grades did suffer. While I did end up graduating with honors, I think I could have done even better. I could have applied myself more fully during the first year or so, and I could have trimmed my expenses in order to reduce the amount of working hours required.

I also entered into an international exchange program. As my girlfriend is Asian and I had never been to Asia, we were both interested in going to Singapore. Unfortunately they only accepted one of us, so we would have had to split up. I received advice from a friend that I should place more emphasis on the education and go anyways. This friend ended up being a hypocrite because he is now super-whipped, but that’s besides the point. I ignored his advice and went to our second choice, South Korea, together.

While I will never know what I gave up in Singapore, I had the time of my life in South Korea. It was an amazing cultural experience, and experiencing life in another culture really broadened my horizons and ways of thinking in a way that nothing else has. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and it really changed my life.

I could write on and on, but suffice it so say, university was a great experience for me. The teachers were all more or less outstanding, I learned a lot about thinking critically, working in groups as well as on your own, being responsible for one’s own efforts and results, and I had a lot of great experiences that really helped shape my life. My degree happened to be worth a lot more in the marketplace, so that helped, too. :)

How much did it all cost?

The costs of my university education can be evaluated in a few ways:

  • Tuition and books
  • Living expenses
  • Opportunity costs of not working full time or spending the time doing something else.

I will leave out the opportunity costs since I don’t see anything else that I could have been doing that would have been better. I therefore cannot quantify what I don’t know.

If you look at the brute expenses of my university education, it is probably around $100,000, of which about 75% I covered myself. This includes tuition, rent, food, transportation, etc…. On the other hand, my direct costs for the university degree are probably more around $25,000 to $30,000. University is also subsidized, though to a lesser degree than college. As I did not even have the option of taking a student loan, I graduated with no debt, except for the huge debt that I owe my grandmother for supporting me through the years. The help that she gave me over the years is invaluable.


Benefits of college:
  • Met my girlfriend during the last year + met a few friends.
Drawbacks of college:
  • About 80%+ of the education was entirely useless. Education-wise I would have been fine with the standard two-year pre-university program. IMO, one year between high school and university would have been more than enough.

Social aspect: PASS

Educational aspect: FAIL

Time & money aspect: FAIL

Benefits of university:
  • Learned a lot of different and interesting subjects and material.
  • Participated in the co-operative educational program which allowed me to gain work experience and income every other semester. I don’t need to rely on participating in paid market research or things like that for income.
  • Had a really great experience in the international exchange program when I went to South Korea for four months.
Drawbacks of university:
  • Another 3-4 years spent studying and taking exams!

Social aspect: PASS

Educational aspect: PASS

Time & money aspect: PASS


I believe that university is worth it if you can find something to follow your passions in. I don’t think that you have to go to university, and there are plenty of successful people who haven’t. Nonetheless, the experiences you can have during these 3 to 4 years can really broaden your horizons and change your life.

Further Reading

So, reader, what do you think about higher education, and what were your personal experiences?

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  1. says

    Kevin, May be I am slow today (waiting for the weekend), I don’t get the difference between college and university?

    >>>Where I live, college and university are the equivalent of colleges in the U.S., and you get your bachelor’s after completing your 3 to 4 year program at the university level.

    So you have to go to high school, then college and then university? how long is the college, if the high school is just one yr shorter than the US equivalent and you get your BS in the university? Do you “have” to go to college before the univ?

    • says

      Hi Suba,

      It’s a little confusing, I agree. :) We have one year less of high school, but we must go to college for at least 2 years if we also want to go to university. The B.A. from university is equivalent to the B.A. from the States. Therefore the min. time in higher education will be about 6 years, and 5 years if you consider that we have one year less of high school.

      If you do a technical program at the college level too (which is a complete waste of time if you want to go to university, and probably a complete waste of time anyways) then you are looking at about 8 years of higher education to get the bachelor’s, and 7 if you consider the one year less of high school. I’m still a bit bitter about that wasted time… cause I could have shaved 2 years of that off. 😉

  2. says

    I went to a large State university, and the quality of education I received varied, depending on the class. One math class had 440 students for lecture 3 days a week, and 2 days were taught by someone who could barely speak English in a classroom setting of around 25. I skipped a lot of math class as I could learn just as well from a book.

    I had a chemistry class that was taught via cassette tape. Another waste. I had computer classes taught via tv. It was shocking to me that I paid the same amount of money to learn through recycled audio cassettes versus an actual professor.

    Once I got accepted into the business school, it got much better. The classroom sizes were smaller, and you could actually go to office hours without waiting an hour because there was so many kids. I will say that Graduate school was perfect. Almost every class was less than 20 people, and you could have real discussion. I learned a ton in grad school, and I wish my entire college experience could have been like that.

    My oldest child is now a junior, and is looking at colleges. As much as I would financially like a public university, I honestly believe he will get a better education in a smaller setting. However, it comes at double the cost. It is a lot to think and worry about!

    • says

      I think over the next 10-15 years we’re going to see a real revolution in education, as more and more people say “what the hell am I paying thousands of dollars for; I can learn a lot of this stuff for free on the net!” + $150 textbooks that you use once and then there’s a “new edition” every year that changes words here and there… it’s ridiculous. I’ll be happy when education deflates a bit and becomes more about learning rather than just getting a piece of paper. There’ll always be a place for teachers and universities, but they will have to justify themselves a little more down the road.

  3. Mark says

    I think that the difference between a college and university in the U.S. is the number of degree programs offered. It’s interesting how they mean two completely different things there.

    • says

      Maybe that could be it. I think Nicole below said that universities have graduate programs and colleges don’t? In any case the colleges here don’t even have “undergrad” programs so maybe a more apt term would be “pre-university/technical college”… I don’t know. The degree is only somewhat better than a high school diploma, but not by much.

  4. says

    I liked the post but I think you underplayed the importance of college’s social aspects. For many people, this is the first time they’re out “on their own”. If you do it right, you build not only friendships but lifelong business and professional connections. You learn how to interact with people from different backgrounds, especially if you’re going to a diverse school and coming from a homogeneous community. You also learn to manage your own affairs and act like an adult, taking responsibility for what you do without running to mom and dad.

    Being in the military and in a field with a relatively high percentage of former college students/grads, I can more or less break down new soldiers into two groups: people coming straight from mom and dad’s house who need to have their hand held through everything, and people who have been on their own in college and can be trusted to act like adults. Just my two cents.

    • says

      For me personally, the strongest social experiences and connections were built through the co-op program and international program, so that is why I value these experiences so much. You’re right though, there is a lot to learn in dealing with people through team projects and such, and for many people, this is the first time they will truly have to apply themselves before they go into the workforce.

      That’s cool; now I know why you had that military post the other day. :) What kind of job do you have there?

  5. says


    I don’t think going to a university is a waste of time either. While not required, it does provide value in several areas personally, professionally, and academically. As long as you are mindful of the costs, they can be contained. Personally, I have gone to both private and public schools; fortunately, I didn’t have quite the difference in quality that Kris experienced though.

    I loved hearing about your academic experience. The predicament you were is in quite unfortunate: no access to funding from the school or your parents. I’m glad your grandmother was there to support you through that period.

    • says

      I’m really glad that she was there to support me, too. When I look back at it the financial help is probably not as significant as the moral support. I was a little lost back in those days and I was discouraged after seeing how useless college was. The fact that you know that someone cares is a big boost. Like Andrew said below, some pressure in life is important, and you don’t want to “free” the caterpillar before it’s ready, but stomping on the cocoon would not be very helpful, either.

  6. says

    I went to a highly rated engineering school. I will tell you that the majority of my professors cared more about they’re research that they did teaching. In fact, I’d say most of them disliked teaching. That was a bummer.

    In my eyes:

    Pros- the network I created, the relationships.
    -learning time management (too much homework with too little time while working)
    -learning critical + problem solving skills.
    -co-op program
    -international experience
    -the ability to get an engineering job at the end

    Cons – not learning anything that I actually used in real life. The most useful class I ever took was typing in high school. Nothing else even comes close to that class’s usefulness. I can’t think of an example where I actually used my engineering degree in any meaningful way. Part of it was that 99% of my professors haven’t had a single day in the real world. They spent they’re entire lives in academia and were horrible at correlating theory into practical examples.

    My 2 cents. In general, there was more good than bad, but I wish the professors had more real life experience to base they’re teaching on.

    • says

      That’s unfortunate. I’m glad that it all worked out for you in the end but it sure does sound like the quality of the material could be improved. I’m with you on co-op and international experience as being highly valuable, though.

  7. says

    I think the fact that Kevin had no assistance with educational funding led to his blog—and it will lead to his earlier financial freedom. There’s a fine line between getting buried in debt, and being given the opportunity to suffer a bit in order to grow strong. If I want to learn to run fast, I have to suffer. If I want to be able to do pushups, I have to suffer. If I want to grow rich, I have to suffer. “Suffer” becomes very relative, of course, but if you break a caterpillar out of its cocoon, denying it the right to suffer (which builds its strength) then it will die. Can you sense Kevin’s fighting spirit in this post? I can.

    I’m going to make myself very unpopular with my American readers when saying this, but here goes: the majority who get free financial rides through college are financially weakened. Those who struggled at least a bit, tend to be more responsible with money today. It’s not a direct correlation, but I’ve counseled enough people financially to see that those given “breaks” are often poorer because of them.

    Kevin, this history of yours was like boot camp for you, financially. I really believe that.

    And I got a kick out of this:

    ” This friend ended up being a hypocrite because he is now super-whipped, but that’s besides the point”

    Now get under that chinup bar today and do some suffering!


    • says

      Haha, I’m glad you liked that line, Andrew.

      I think you are very right. We all need some pressure to move us in the right direction… enough to get us moving but not so much as to crush us. There is danger in becoming too comfortable in life. Thanks for reminding me of that… time to go back on that chinup bar. 😛

  8. says

    Sounds like a great experience (South Korea and Singapore), but I agree that conventional education (that doesn’t lead to a professional degree or something useful) isn’t very useful. Everyone is over educated nowadays, so in order to be “competitive” people are going further and further into debt and getting masters, MBA, and being even more over educated!

    • says

      I do find it retarded when people are required to get a degree simply to have the paper. This sort of “education bubble” doesn’t help anyone if it’s only providing a paper and not real, useful education!

  9. says

    I have to agree with you Kevin that college is a huge waste of time, i demand that the socialist government compensate me for wasting those years of my life.

    University is a nice to have paper even though the material is not always useful.

    • says

      Haha, I’d be happy if the socialist government would return my money and time too, but the mantra “education is important” is what people hear, so the more the better, right? Who cares about the quality, it’s all about the quantity!

  10. says

    In the US, I thought university meant there was at least one graduate program.

    I went to a small liberal arts college and got a fantastic education there. I weep at how badly many of our graduate students are prepared prior to coming to our program, despite high grades and high GREs. Obviously the quality of education is not the same at all schools. We learn them good once they get here, but it is often painful for them to make the switch to thinking instead of memorizing.

    • says

      I went through some of that pain myself when going from college –> university. You couldn’t get away with not showing up to class for a month and studying the day before the exam there! 😛

      (Ok, I might be exaggerating just a little bit. ;))

  11. says

    A college degree is important if you want to work for someone else and earn a decent salary. If you plan on working for yourself, most of the time it isn’t necessary.

    • says

      I think it depends. Some geniuses and other smart people can certainly get by without it, but for others, it does help to teach critical thinking skills. Still, to be a young entrepreneur who gets to take part in Thiel’s challenge… now that would be sweet.

  12. says

    For me college was worth it, I also hold a Bachelor degree in Computer Science, and I was very devoted during that 4 years – now I earn very high salary, which approximately twice the average salary in the country + bonuses. That makes me really happy. My personal example is that higher education *does* pay off, if you are willing to devote yourself.

    • says

      I agree, it can pay off if you are willing to put the time and effort into it. It is not necessary, but if you are willing to get some benefit out of it by putting effort into it, then it can be very useful.

  13. says

    I don’t actually think College or Uni are any different in USA, I use either of them when talking and never had a problem.

    In the UK it’s pretty much the same as Canada but I heard you have to stay on until 18 now, so you have to go to college no choice.

    Kevin it looks like you made the right decision for you in the end and I have better faith in the level of education from the Canadian University system then I do that of USA.

    • says

      The quality of education at the university level seemed to be pretty good, but the college was a complete joke. I now understand why employers don’t value that diploma much at all, and when you consider all the time spent in those courses,… what a waste 😉 I’m glad that I decided to continue on to the university level.

  14. says

    When I moved to the states I already had a Master’s Degree in Library Science. It was useless back home and it was useless in the states because I didn’t speak any English. I went to a small town university to learn English and fell in love with accounting. So, I got my second Master’s. I was outraged (I still am) by the cost of education in the states. I came from the former Soviet Union where education was free! So this fact shaped my opinion about the cost of education. In the states, I graduated loaded with debt. But I do not regret anything. At the end it was all worth it.

    • says

      I’m glad that everything was worth it in the end! I believe that having to pay for education in some form or another is fine, since there is a hidden cost to “free”, but it should always be accessible to anyone with the willingness and drive to learn, no matter how little money they have. This doesn’t mean that school should be subsidized but rather that scholarships, bursaries, and loans should be easily available. I believe that higher education is important but only to those people seeking to get something out of it. If they are just getting a degree because it’s “expected” of them then it can be a problem, especially in societies that practice that to an extreme.

  15. Mike says

    I think college can be overrated if the assumption that college is required for success. That assumption is simply not true.

    In terms of higher learning, I think we can only get out of college what we put into it. When I was 18-22, I was more concerned about getting an A or a B versus learning, mastering a subject. Not to say that I didn’t learn a lot, because I did. But there wasn’t a lot of depth – for I wanted to “do good on the test”

    College was a great time of my life and I wouldn’t change those four ears. I really did learn the art of discipline and how to manage my time.

    I really think college and it’s value depends on the person and how they approach their experience. Again, 18-25 year olds are typically more concerned with their social life and “the grade” versus depth of learning. I’d approach college a bit differently now, only because I am more interested in learning. And, I would probably like it for different reasons.

    • says

      See, 18-22 I just didn’t have that pressure because college was such a joke. 22-25 in university was a much better experience because not only was I motivated and challenged, but everything about the institution was more geared to learning rather than just passing and getting a piece of paper. I don’t regret those years at all! :)

    • says

      Depends on how you define “dirt cheap”. Salaries are lower, taxes are significantly higher once you get out of school, and if you don’t stay home with the parents (an option for some but not for everyone) then you will still need to pay rent, food, transportation which will add up to nearly a thousand each month if not more.

  16. says

    “In fact, I feel that large parts of the school system today from K-12 and beyond are doing a horrible job and are not only teaching outdated and irrelevant knowledge, but are simply nothing more than welfare schemes for teachers and labour suppression and control schemes for students.”

    I couldn’t agree more with this statement! I honestly think that we should figure out a way to wean this nation off of public education, and put it back in the hands of parents!

    I think that people should only go to college/university if they have set, established goals, and they have calculated the costs of doing so!

    But, because most people don’t, I expect higher education to be a “bursting bubble” in the years to come.

    • says

      It might very well might be! I think it’s becoming harder to justify spending so much time in school and spending so much money for a sub-par education. Education is important, but surely we can be more effective in how we deliver education. The only way there is through increased competition and increased choice.

      Check this video if you want to see a critique of the US public school system and have a laugh at the same time (the facts are sad, but the video is funny!

  17. Sustainable PF says

    I found university was a total waste of time, and resources. I got a 3 yr BA. Perhaps the experience taught me how to “think” and communicate – it also landed me a super-duper call centre job. After a few years on the phones I decided to go to college and get some practical skills as a programmer (which I should have focused on after HS as I was a bit of a PC nerd having played MUDs on uni servers since the late 80s). 2.5 yrs of college afforded myself marketable skills.

    My guess is that the combination of business experience, the degree and the diploma helped me land a coveted I&IT OIP position. Without the diploma however I might be maiing $15 an hour as a call centre supervisor. Instead I just celebrated my 8 yr anniversary in the OPS, still working in IT.

    College was not a waste of time for myself. It enabled me to live a pretty comfortable life.

    • says

      That’s interesting in how we had the opposite experience regarding university & college. I think we can trace it into how much of an impact each had on our personal lives, and how useful the degree & skills are on our actual lives. In your case, it seems like college is what ultimately was the most useful.

      P.S. I remember many hours burned away in playing those MUDs… 😛

  18. Stephan says

    I disagree that college will waste my time. College is great option when I want to add my knowledge, enhance my skills, and many others. Having higher education in the college is as important as having course.


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