People Need Less (Not More) Formal Education Today

There is a whole world telling us that we need more education today. They say the jobs today require more education. But they don’t. Jobs today may require more credentials, but they do not require more education.

A college degree is actually worth LESS, not MORE than it was in the past in terms of what you learn and its importance. And you don’t actually need a college degree for most jobs that say you do.

Do you really need to go to college to do most jobs that require a college degree?  Absolutely not.  You can be a banker, high-tech sales person, teacher, administration, army officer, and more without a college degree.  

One needs a lot more formal education to be a plumber or electrician than to do business development at a tech company. 

And it is not just four-year college degrees that are declining in value. A Master’s degree is even less needed than it was in the past. And an MBA (Master’s in Business Administration), while a powerful credential, rarely beats the learning one can do on their own or on the job. 

You learn what matters on the job, not in school.

University and college teach general knowledge to everyone … and they don’t teach it all that well.  If you really want to learn something, you will likely not learn it well in a lecture hall setting.  Most people do most of their intellectual learning outside of school.  And most people get vocational education on the job. 

Yes, those who do go to college “learn” calculus and Shakespeare, but they learn more about the core job skills working the actual job. Or, they just teach themselves what they need to know using the internet. 

There is actually no reason you need to go to college for most jobs that require a college degree. Some jobs do start training in college (computer science, petroleum engineering, etc.), but many History majors in college end up going into investment banking, marketing, and sales. They learned most of their skills on the job.

Jobs require college credentials because everyone has them.

The biggest reason that more jobs require credentials is that there are now so many people with credentials. It is just an easy way to sort through candidates. Even a super high-earning job like enterprise software sales should not require a four-year college degree (I have hired very successful people who never completed college).

Here’s a graph that shows the percentage of the U.S. population who have completed four years of college or more from 1940 – 2019. 


This percentage has more than doubled for men and more than quadrupled for women over the last 50-years. When this many people have degrees, companies start to sort candidates through a college filter. It’s the laziest thing you can do! 

Many smart people don’t have university degrees and don’t need them. And further, using college and university as a filter can do a disservice to your company. Unfortunately, that’s how the traditional system of searching and filtering for candidates works – the first filter is college. This makes it hard to hire people without degrees for “white collar” jobs. 

Computers and the internet level the playing field between those who attend university and those who don’t. 

There was a time when technology was so expensive that only massive institutions (like colleges, universities, governments, etc.) had access to it.

If you wanted to work with computers, you had to go to a “research institution” to access one. This was a major competitive advantage for universities. Techies from far and wide would compete for access to computers that were big (taking up an entire floor), slow, and expensive. The “winners” were admitted and handed Bachelor degrees after four years. The “losers” were left behind.

The first time I accessed the Internet was in college.  I went to the engineering lab because they had fast Internet.  I learned to code on a NeXT machine — not because it was beautiful (it was amazing) but because I really couldn’t do it at home.   

Today, the reality is different because the barrier to entry for working with tech is much lower. Technology is far cheaper and easier to access than it was 25 years ago. In fact, you are holding more computing power in your pocket than NASA had when they sent Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969.

Falling costs mean you no longer need to go to college or university to learn how to use a computer or connect to the internet. You can buy a laptop and get up and running for about $500. A great University costs around $50,000 / year or 100x that price. Access to this cheap technology allows those who don’t attend college to compete with those who do.

Yes, there are still some super expensive resources that only colleges can provide (like some of the well-funded life sciences labs), but most university students do not need to take advantage of these.  

Even more important than access to cheap hardware is access to really great and affordable software. Software that lets you build a permissionless, credential-less portfolio of work. So someone may choose to build first instead of going to university as proof of competence. And they may end up getting the job over a college graduate if they have a quality portfolio.

It is not like universities are going away.

Oxford University and University of Bologna have been around (and thriving) for almost 1000 years!   The top universities will be around forever.

But we have a situation where we have too many universities and they are actually not really competing with each other on how to best educate students.  So it is a weird situation where the landscape looks like we have LOTS of competition (no one university has more than 1% market share) but instead of competing to get better, the universities are actually colluding.  

College is mostly a bridge to grow up (but there are other bridges) 

The biggest thing most people get from college is a bridge to learn how to grow up. It is an excellent path to learning to be on your own and become an adult. It’s one of the most popular forms of socialization that we use. 

I went to college and had a fantastic time.  I learned about myself.  I learned to socialize.  I found other fellow nerds. It was great to not be around my parents and people I grew up with — so I could learn to be me and not another person’s version of me. 

But, there are many other ways to get socialized. University isn’t the only option. Millions of people use the military service to the same end – to build a cohort to lean on for the rest of their lives. Many others learn that on their first job away from home.  Others can find this working for a social or political cause.

Many more find their cohort online first, and then meet up in person later. 

In college, I learned more through my involvement in student government than I ultimately did in my classes.  The only classes that have stuck with me 20 years later are statistics, probability, and software development.  Most of the other classes, while good intentioned, could have been taught ten-times better if the college truly cared about my education.  But my college, like so many others, cared mainly about research dollars and sports dollars.  

Student learning is not in the top-ten things that most colleges focus on.  They give it lip service but learning is often crowded out by many other missions.  The problem is, student learning truly should be the most important thing (at least top 3) that colleges focus on.  And while there are a few extraordinary higher-education institutions actually focused on education (Minerva is a good example), the vast majority of schools discount undergraduate learning.

College has also become a way to delay growing up.

We should not be in a rush to grow up.  Having a child-like wonder is under-rated.

But at the same time, too many people delay finding meaning in life. 100+ years ago, people started working much earlier.  They would be doing hard work on the farm from an early age.  They would also marry and have kids much earlier — which came with more personal responsibility … but also a faster path to finding meaning.

College delays work, life, and ultimately meaning.

Automation means less formal education is needed.

Fifty years ago, people who worked in manufacturing had to be incredibly smart. Things would go wrong all the time, and the people at the company were responsible for fixing them.  Many of them could fix everything in their house. 

These workers weren’t less educated than people doing manufacturing today. While they may have had less formal education (some of them did not even finish high-school) than today’s workers, they were often real polymaths. They knew a great deal about how things work.

People who work in manufacturing today are smart, but they don’t have to be as smart or educated as those 50 years ago because of automation. Automation has lowered the barrier for entry for the average worker, not raised it. Of course, there are still incredibly smart workers in manufacturing today … but it is not a requirement.

The same goes for those who work in an office today. It’s easier than it was 50-years ago, and you don’t really need to go to college to work at a high-tech start-up. In fact, the first thing you do when you join a company for the first time is to unlearn much of what you “learned” in college. Most of your education is on the job anyway, and college is just the credential that got you the interview (more on that later). 

You don’t need a college or university education to change the world. Just build something great.

The world is transitioning from one driven by credentials to one driven by proof of work. The future belongs to the builders. 

So if you’re wondering about college or university, maybe try building something of your own first before you drop $400K (including lost wages) on a four-year degree. Reading Shakespeare is fun, but it’s not that fun. 

Special thanks to Thomas Waschenfelder for his help and edits.

2 thoughts on “People Need Less (Not More) Formal Education Today

  1. slathropmsw

    Love this article and definitely agree that there is a lot to learn outside of formal education. We learn most of what we need to know outside of school.

  2. writingfortheweird

    I’ve learned more from reading and listening to Charlie Munger than I did during my undergrad at USC (but I still had a blast)!

    I think you go to university to connect socially, not learn the skills you’ll need for a great career.


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