Luis Cuende


The uncomfortable truth of college

There are many uncomfortable truths in society. Most of them are uncomfortable because they are so rooted in the common imaginary that revealing them would probably mean that a lot of people, even our close ones, would be all wrong.

However, realizing those uncomfortable truths has immense returns for the individuals who discover them. Things that once made sense, but don’t do anymore. Facts that were facts during the Industrial Era, but are not more than unsubstantiated claims today.

I’ll argue why, as of 2018, most formal education is a scam, and why the opportunity cost of college is too high for most smart and driven individuals.

College: Expectations and costs

Today, college is supposed to provide:

  • Structured education on a particular set of topics
  • Professors that are experts on those topics
  • A network of peers interested in some shared areas of knowledge
  • A diploma that puts you in an advantageous position in the job market
  • And college is supposed to request:

  • Money. Either collected via taxes on some countries, or via loans. Student loan debt has been labeled a **generational catastrophe** for good reasons.
  • Full-time occupation, at least part-time occupation during at least 4 years (~5.5% of your entire life, ~10% of your working life).
  • Why it made sense in the Industrial Era

    Knowledge scarcity

    In the Industrial Era, before the Internet was born, knowledge was scarce.

    Since it was scarce, it made sense to pull together those who had it (professors, experts) with students, in order for the former to pass knowledge along to the latter. This was made via institutions, which are colleges.

    Job compartmentalization

    productivity > creativity was a fact during the Industrial Era. That’s why specialization in particular areas, only possible narrowing knowledge’s scope, was important.

    Since new knowledge was being created but still retained by those institutions, it incremented knowledge scarcity and created a feedback loop.

    Inexistent hiring automation

    During the Industrial Era it was important for companies to be able to amass huge workloads in order to increase production output.

    Doing deep hard skill interviews to all candidates didn’t scale at all, so that’s why offloading that work to institutions who could assess candidates’ hard skills made sense. As more advanced hard skills were required, this incremented job compartmentalization, also creating a feedback loop.

    Why it doesn’t make sense anymore

    Knowledge is not scarce anymore

    Thanks to the Internet, knowledge is abundant. You can learn most knowledge that humankind has created if you know how to search and discern.

    The issue, of course, that college doesn’t teach you how to search and discern content. They’re not incentivized to do so, as it undermines their own business proposition.

    The greatest inventions will be born from mixing disciplines

    I remember being at a friend’s thesis presentation at college. He was talking about an exciting use case of blockchains. The professor that was evaluating it considered that the topic was too broad.

    I stepped in and told her about Bitcoin. Bitcoin is not innovative technology. Bitcoin was built upon distributed computing, cryptography, game theory and even philosophy that already existed prior to it.

    What set Bitcoin apart was the new usage that it made out of those existing technologies. Satoshi had a holistic view of how they would all fit together. It wouldn’t be possible if Satoshi was narrowly thinking.

    Imagine Satoshi presenting Bitcoin at college, and the professor telling him that the topic is too broad. Or telling him that the whitepaper was just 9 pages long and not 100. This is one of the things that are wrong with college today, and why most of the next innovators and leaders will likely not come out of it. This is already happening and has been happening during the last decades, mainly with computer engineers.

    Hiring can be efficient

    Thanks to hiring software that streamline application processes for candidates, online reputation systems and machine learning, you can automate the heaviest steps of hiring.

    The most extreme example is probably programmers. A machine can go through GitHub, check the code quality and the Git etiquette, then check the candidate’s Twitter and see if the candidate would be a fit from both a hard skills and soft skills perspective. Then bump it to the human resources person, who will just check 100 candidates and not 10,000.

    Everyone has a degree

    Knowledge was scarce, and therefore parents everywhere take that past reality as if it was today’s, and they want to make sure that their children are “educated”. The issue is that past realities don’t represent current one — education doesn’t mean the same thing 200 years ago than today.

    A side effect of parents and society giving such importance to college education is that in many job markets, everyone has a college degree.

    So if there’s a growing supply of people with degrees and the job market is stable or even shrinking, degrees are meaningless as a differentiation factor.

    So, should I drop out?

    The question you should ask yourself is: Will I end up with better hard and soft skills taking an alternate path and not attending college?

    The answer can be no, and that’s fine. There are multiple areas of knowledge that still resemble the Industrial Era. Those in which you need expensive resources in order to learn, and usually education institutions provide you with that. An example would be a physicist that wants to study something that can only be studied at CERN. As of today, simulation software is not that advanced as to replicate the multi-billion dollar beast that CERN is.

    However, if you want to learn stuff that doesn’t need expensive resources and you are a smart and driven individual, the answer is probably yes.

    Being smart and driven are key. I hear this argument sometimes:

    College forces you to learn stuff you don’t necessarily want to learn, but that could be useful in the future.

    I find this argument laughable, as there’s no difference with the following variation of this statement.

    A dictatorship forces you to do stuff you don’t necessarily want to do, but that could be useful in the future.

    Hiding in caves so you don’t get bombed could be useful knowledge for some hypothetical future. Therefore, we should totally live under a very oppressive dictatorship, since what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! Obviously I am just kidding. This doesn’t make any sort of sense.

    For the smart and driven individual, they don’t need someone to occupy valuable brain space with some knowledge they’re putting down their throat.

    A smart individual would learn how to learn. To discern content and knowledge, and build a judgment in order to know what deserves brain space and what not.

    After learning how to learn, the smart individual would look for resources that are of interest in order to figure out what to do for a living, and then learn those hard skills.

    Since you would be teaching yourself, you would learn faster and better. This assumes you know yourself, which is usually not the case. Therefore self learning makes you learn about yourself first. And once you learn about yourself, you become your best teacher.

    If you properly learn how to learn, you will need no mentors, because humankind will be your mentor. You will plug to the Internet and absorb information like a sponge, re-balance your learning process and repeat.

    Having this feedback cycle sets you apart from all traditional students, who haven’t made the hard effort to learn how to learn. Instead, they have been taught. When the world evolves at the pace it does today, those who can learn by themselves are in a superior evolutionary position.

    Of course, this requires driven individuals. Not having a preset path requires to self-manage yourself. While supporters of dictatorships don’t need to think too much, because everything is thought of for them, the driven individual needs to renounce to that easy path in order to regain thought freedom.

    Value your opportunity cost

    If you are a smart and driven individual and you made it to this point, then next step is to assess your situation to make a decision.

    College is always there, so you can always go back to it.

    If you drop out, you can either learn full-time, work full-time (which is also learning) or do both part-time.

    If you want to work, you need to estimate the returns you could make. You can probably start working with a small or nonexistent compensation. Then after a year or two years of experience, you can move on to a position with an average pay. At the forth year, you will be experienced enough to access wider opportunities. And you would have 4 years of experience already, while your college peers would have just graduated with 0 years of experience.

    But probably not the best route if you’re still undecided on what to work on.

    80% of the success of your career is picking the right area to work on, with the right people, and the right time. The other 20% is just working your ass off to make sure to take advantage of the opportunity.

    This means that you need to think carefully about the career you want to take, the people you want to work with or learn from, and the timing. People rarely think about this, as it is somehow given for granted that you’ll just magically know what to do for a lifetime when you are 16. This is also inherited from the Industrial system, where you would just pick the least disgusting job from a set of totally predefined ones.

    So you can dedicate a full year to try stuff out, work with different people and explore different areas of knowledge. You can get to know yourself.

    Once you know what motivates you and what you are good at, then it’s the matter of finding the right people. Those people can gather around a subreddit, a cryptoasset, a forum… and the good thing about being free, is that you don’t have to blindly commit to an education institution and its community, but you can belong to multiple communities.

    This all without actually keeping in mind that technological revolutions are scarce. Something like the crypto revolution only happens once in a century, probably even a millennium. Similar for smaller revolutions, like the Internet or microprocessor revolution.

    You don’t necessarily need to drop out in order to be a part of those revolutions. But it’s something to keep in mind, as you could be a part of them and do extremely well career-wise.

    Some revolutions cannot wait for you to complete college. In the 21st century, 4 years are a lot of time.

    If you’re a smart and driven individual, the opportunity cost of attending college is huge.

    So don’t be scammed!