The Value of an Undergraduate Degree

When I was finishing up with high school, I found myself wondering what my next steps should be. I knew I wanted to go into tech, one of the least credential-focused industries around. I also knew I was good at teaching material to myself - I'd self-studied seven Advanced Placement (AP) exams the previous year. In fact, I enjoyed the self-study process a lot more than I enjoyed slow lectures and tedious homework.

It was the mid-2010s and "college dropout" was the mark of an up-and-coming genius. Headlines were questioning the need for degrees at all and billionaire Peter Thiel was awarding high school graduates $100,000 not to attend college and become entrepreneurs instead. "Not long ago, dropping out of school to start a company was considered risky," wrote the Wall Street Journal. "For this generation, it is a badge of honor, evidence of ambition and focus."

But in the end I decided to go to college anyway. Here are some of the reasons I made that decision.

You've surely had the experience of speaking to someone who is passionate about something in your field, and then realizing after a while that they have no history or context for their ideas - and that that has caused them to overlook major problems with their argument.

So you're going to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Are you aware that Israel has considered trading land for peace many times, and it has only worked twice? Do you know when those times were? What factors do you think contributed to those successes, and all the other failures? What does your solution include to address those factors?

Knowing your background and addressing potential criticism in advance grounds your argument and makes you much more credible. On Dr. Sean Carroll's alternative science respectability checklist for getting scientists to take your revelation seriously, the first requirement is to "acquiring basic competency in whatever field of science your discovery belongs to."

People are surprisingly consistent throughout time and space, and whatever you've thought of, someone else has almost certainly thought it before. Examining what those before you thought is a powerful cheat code to be able to skip a lot of thinking yourself; instead of figuring everything out from first principles, you can instead see what other people thought, and what criticisms were leveled against them, and what happened when their ideas were put into practice. This saves you a lot of energy and allows you to build on the shoulders of those before you, anchoring your ideas into a long tradition of people trying to solve the same problem.

Furthermore, college exposes you to current ideas across your field, even the areas you wouldn't normally be exposed to. Yes, perhaps 90% of programmers will write CRUD applications their entire career. But that one time they see an operating systems problem, they'll know immediately it's an operating systems problem, instead of being confused, rewriting the wheel, or writing crazy maneuvers to avoid the problem. And there's also a chance that they'll encounter operating systems in college and fall in love, and realize that this is what they're meant to be doing. Or maybe they'll be able to use their knowledge of operating system paradigms to write a blazingly fast web framework. Either way, they'll have a comprehensive contextual framework of what's going on above and beneath the layer they're working on.

Map of Computer Science by Dominic Walliman

Steve Yegge, for example, famously argues that "If you don't know how compilers work, then you don't know how computers work. If you're not 100% sure whether you know how compilers work, then you don't know how they work."

When people don't recognize the territory they're in,
they can contort it in horrifying ways to make it familiar. (xkcd)

Intellectual context gives you a vocabulary with which to express your ideas. You know how to program, but what are "polymorphism" and "memoization" and "idempotence"? Are they words you'd know to google if you'd never heard of them before? Similarly, learning about Rostow's five stages of country growth or rentier state theory can deeply enhance your understanding of international economics, but you wouldn't know to look for them.

Having background and context for your ideas gives you an authoritative, confident "feel" for your field that goes beyond mere facts. You recognize the shapes of different approaches to solutions, and your ideas become more subtle, resonant, and defensible. You know what to be skeptical about, and what to take a second look at. And as a result you're more likely to be right with your ideas, and to be able to solve real problems with them.

When I was in college, I had to enroll in a course called "Structured Systems Analysis" for my computer science major. It remains, to this day, the most boring course I have ever taken. It was essentially a crash course in business for software developers: we discussed topics like software estimates, methods of team management, and company mission statements. It was slow, stultifying, mind-numbingly-boring information. The professor was actually great, but there was only so much he could do with the material. I fell asleep studying for the final - literally. And I was the kind of student who read textbooks for fun.

The course turned out to be one of the most useful courses I took in college. In the real world, it turned out that the non-rigorous, soft business topics the course covered actually mattered - a lot. But I would never have taken that course out of my own free will.

Some things are fun to learn and give you instant gratification: getting your code to execute correctly, seeing chemical reactions work, watching the math problem reduce itself beautifully. But when you don't get any gratification out of producing your eighth class using the Factory Pattern or normalizing database schemas, it's useful to have an outside force that forces you to do it anyway.

Putting database schemas into Third Normal Form (3NF): a scintillating activity.

When I took undergraduate math courses, I never understood what I was doing until the next course. Calculus 1 made no sense to me, until I started calculus 2 and began using the calculus 1 math for other things and realized, "Ah! That's what I was doing!" But at the same time, calculus 2 was incomprehensible until calculus 3. I could not understand why I was expanding a Taylor series until I saw how they were used in differential equations. But I just memorized it, and took my professors' word for it that it would make sense later, and usually it did.

That isn't fun, and few people will put in the requisite effort to master things that are uninteresting to them or hard to understand. But without college forcing you to do it, you'll never reach the higher level that requires that knowledge as a prerequisite.

In the same vein, for a business major, stock market manipulation techniques may be fun to study, while accounting and law are tedious and boring. But they are powerful tools to have in one's arsenal that unlock countless other opportunities and insights. By being forced to learn the things you wouldn't have pushed through to the other side of comprehension on your own, you gain valuable skills that you wouldn't have access to otherwise.

You can often tell when someone with ideas has never learned to write. They definitely seem to be saying something interesting, but it's all over the place, and it takes so much effort to detangle their main idea that you've got to be very dedicated to figuring out what in the world they're trying to get across to get to the end of it.

There are lots of geniuses out there with raw talent and interesting ideas, but college teaches you how to channel it: how to put together, organize, and propose your ideas in a clear progression. In the words of historian David McCullough, "Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard."

College will teach you to write, and ideally, to speak as well. Even just simple frameworks like the five paragraph essay or thesis-antithesis-synthesis work wonders for idea organization. It's critical to be able to organize your thoughts into a loose structure of "introduction", "what people have previously thought", "what I think", "reasons others might disagree and why they're wrong," and "conclusion."

College teaches you how to find, read, and organize information sources as well. The average high school graduate is unaware of the concept of a "journal paper," and it’s invaluable to understand the process by which knowledge comes to be considered authoritative.

Without the ability to present your ideas you come off as at best an amateur, and at worst, a crazy-eyed kook.

This applies to fields that have a practical or applied part.

When CEO Erik Dietrich learned to bowl, he found his own way rather than learn formal bowling theory.

Most people who bowl put a thumb and two fingers in the ball and carefully cultivate tossing the bowling ball in a pattern that causes the ball to start wide and hook into the middle. With no patience for learning that, I discovered I could do a pretty good job faking it by putting no fingers and thumbs in the ball and kind of twisting my elbow and chucking the ball down the lane. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

But at some point, he hit a ceiling in what he could do.

But then a strange thing happened. I stopped improving. Right at about 160, I topped out.

I asked my old manager what I could do to get back on track with improvement, and he said something very interesting to me. Paraphrased, he said something like this:

There’s nothing you can do to improve as long as you keep bowling like that. You’ve maxed out. If you want to get better, you’re going to have to learn to bowl properly.

You need a different ball, a different style of throwing it, and you need to put your fingers in it like a big boy. And the worst part is that you’re going to get way worse before you get better, and it will be a good bit of time before you get back to and surpass your current average.

Learning the theory first ensures that your practice is targeted. In the words of a popular saying, "Practice doesn't make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect." Practicing without feedback can only do you so much.

Imagine learning to play music by fooling around with a piano and discovering that some keys sound good together. Even if after a while you begin to structure music that sounds halfway decent, if you ever want to get good and collaborate with other musicians, you're going to have to start from the beginning and learn theory, chords, and musical notation.

You don't want to become experienced at writing software in your unique, bespoke way, only to realize that you've been doing things inefficiently and/or differently than everyone else in the field and have to start over from first principles.

In college you are forced to become good, efficiently, because very simply you otherwise get a bad grade, and so you are motivated to work hard to improve your technique. Once you get to the Real World, you realize that feedback is a gift that not everyone will give you. Once you're out of school, it's possible to stagnate for a long, long time. And because you're only as competent as your level, it's hard to know where you're stagnating without someone better than you pointing it out.

By being able to practice optimally from the start, you gain an invaluable advantage that saves you a lot of time of trial and error.

There are also great side benefits of attending college.

But these are the reasons I went to college: to get context and ideas for my field, to learn things that I wouldn't push through to master on my own, to learn to write and present my ideas, and to learn best practices.

This essay is not a statement on the general state of university education or the cost of college in the United States. I went to a wonderful but inexpensive city college where I gained all of these things, but not everyone has that experience. It's also not an argument that everyone should attend college - despite all of the arguments presented here, there are also good reasons not to attend as well.

That being said, college is an intellectual transformation for many, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to go.

Thank you to Robert Heaton and FL for reading drafts of this post.

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