[How to] Hack College, Get a Great Education, and Stay Out of Debt While Doing It

Fellow Riskologist,

Here’s the long-held and mostly uncontested conventional wisdom about college:

“You should go.” That’s about it.

There are all kinds of arguments based on both statistics and emotions we use every day to convince ourselves and others that college is, and always will be, a smart choice.

  • A bachelor’s degree, on average, earns 84% more  over a lifetime than a high school diploma.
  • College is where you need to go to “learn how to learn.”
  • College is the best place to go to “find yourself.”
  • When you have a degree, you’re statistically less likely to be unemployed.

The problem is that averages lie, and anecdotes don’t really tell you much besides someone’s opinions which are often useless. For instance:

  • 84% better earning potential sounds nice but fails to account for the debt and time cost required to achieve it. The actual figure can be quite lower.
  • There are at least 1 million places you can “find yourself” and “learn how to learn” quite well without spending nearly $20k a year to do so.
  • The changing economy has all but wiped away any guarantee of avoiding unemployment with a bachelor’s degree.

Fortunately, we’re all starting to see the light and accept today’s reality for what it is: College is stupid expensive, a degree is increasingly useless, and 90% of the “college experience” you pay handsomely for can be had many ways for free (or at least very cheap).

But there’s good news! This is really only the case for the majority of college students who don’t spend much energy planning their studies and thinking about the reality of their lives after college.

There’s a small group of students who enter and exit the university system every year for whom all the amazing benefits of college that you hear about all the time really are true.

  • They earn tons more money than people without degrees (and even many of their colleagues with them).
  • They are never unemployed and likely never will be.
  • They graduate without crippling debt to pay back for a lifetime.

How do they do it? By asking themselves a series of questions before they ever start college that set them up for a successful experience during and afterwards.

I was lucky enough to be raised with the sense to ask these questions of myself as I navigated my college experience, and these are the questions all my friends with high-paying careers, low or no debt, and truly happy and fulfilling lives asked themselves as they went through their own college experiences.

And it all starts by questioning the conventional wisdom:

Should I really go to college?

The idea that college is always a good idea has been jammed down our throats so long you can hardly blame anyone for doing whatever it takes to get in regardless the circumstances.

But the intelligent college student questions this wisdom. Before she accepts that college is a good idea, she knows she needs to answer “yes” to the following three questions:

1. Do I know what I want to study?

The answer to this question must be an emphatic “yes.” Not only must you have an idea of what you want to study, you must be absolutely sure of it.

If you’re not sure, that’s okay! It just means that it is not time to go to college yet. Instead, take a year off to immerse yourself in new things and see if something really catches you.

Yes, you can do that in college as well, but it’s an expensive and risky undertaking. Do this on your own time, and save your money while you’re at it.

2. Will it lead to a high paying career?

Once you know exactly what it is that you want to study, you should be able to easily draw a path from where you are now into a well-established career that pays the kind of money you’ll want.

You should be able to identify at least five businesses that you could potentially work for and talk to the people doing exactly the job you’ll be doing when you graduate. And these people should be able to confirm for you that they took the same path you’re about to take.

This is the second biggest mistake unhappy, unemployed graduates make during their college careers. They pick something to study they’re either on the fence about (no passion) and/or leads to incredibly low paying careers post-graduation.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a low-paying career doing something you love, but with the staggering cost of college education, it would be a mistake to get a degree you can’t afford to have that career. You’re creative. Find another way in that doesn’t cost a fortune.

Remember: Tuition at any given school is the same price regardless what you study, so—sure—study something that’s going to make you happy, but make sure it will also pay you a lot of money.

Here’s a nice chart of which degrees lead to the highest and lowest paying careers:

Image courtesy of NPR

There’s a plethora of jobs in the engineering fields that pay incredibly well. The only reason so many college grads are unemployed today is because we spent so long believing all bachelor’s degrees were created equal. As a result, we have an abundance of grads that studied underwater basket-weaving instead of engineering and science.

This is not a judgment on the value of any given degree except in the financial sense. If you want to pay off your student loans, you need think about money.

3. Is a degree required?

The final question a smart college-goer should ask himself before plopping down his life savings (and often future life-savings) on a degree is:

“Do I absolutely have to get a degree to do this job?”

Sometimes, the answer is strictly “yes.” If you want to be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, an architect, or work any other profession where your actions directly and acutely affect the outcomes of other people’s’ lives, you have to prove that you know what you’re doing. A college degree is often just the first step of proof that you have to provide.

Other times, the answer is yes, but for practical reasons. Could you get to a higher paying managerial job in a big company by starting in the mail room? Absolutely, but unless you already know how to run the company and are willing to take some big career risks to move up,  you’re going to spend a long time and a lot of frustration getting where you want to go.

A degree may be a faster way to go by allowing you to start many more rungs up the company ladder and prevent you from capping out earlier.

But many times, the answer is just “no,” a degree is not required. This is the case in almost every artistic oriented career. Applied arts like graphic design, web design, etc. are good examples.

Few people who would be interested in hiring you care at all about your formal education. What they want to see is a solid work ethic and a body of work that fits well in their firm. You can create this for yourself for free simply by doing it on your own and building a portfolio for yourself.

In a career field like this where the skill set itself is the barrier to entry more than the piece of paper that says you went to college, a smart student would skip the expensive degree and find a cheaper, more efficient way to learn the skills.

Until you can answer yes to those three questions…

  1. Do I know what I want to study?
  2. Will it lead to a high paying career?
  3. Is a degree required?

…you should seriously think twice about going to college.

What’s the Best Value School for Me?

After, “Should I go to college?,” the next most important question that a Smart Riskologist must ask herself is, “Where should I go?” The reason this is so important is because your choice of school will have an enormous impact on your long-term success… but probably not the way you think.

For the longest time, the smartest choice for any student entering college was to go to the best school they could. But here we are again with conventional wisdom that no longer applies the way it used to.

In decades past, this was relatively sound advice. College wasn’t crippling expensive and the cost difference (with a few certain exceptions) between run-of-the-mill state schools and ivy league universities wasn’t as vast.

But today, it’s a different story. College, almost anywhere you go, is more expensive than it ought to be and, in some places, will leave you paying for it for the rest of your life.

And here’s another fascinating new statistic that goes against much of what we’ve all believed in the past:

Hiring managers from the biggest companies in the world care more about the specific degree that you have than the college you went to. This game-changing nugget was found by Dan Schawbel in his new book “Promote Yourself” by interviewing hundreds of Fortune 500 managers (I recently interviewed Dan about the book).

This means you can stop worrying so much about buying your way into a prestigious school and just focus on excelling at a local, affordable one.

If you know you want to do web development, most people who are going to hire you would rather see that you got the computer science degree they’re looking for than that you went to an ivy league university.

With the exceedingly expensive cost of college, a smart way to structure your schooling would be to spend a year or two getting all the general education credits you’d need at any school at your local community college, and then transferring those credits to an in-state 4-year university to complete your degree where you get a good tuition rate for being a resident.

This would, far-and-away, be the cheapest way to get a high value degree.

Important side note: An ivy league education is still a valuable thing if you can get it for the right price. The smartest of Smart Riskologists would apply to a number of prestigious schools so that they have options when it comes time to choose where to go. Private schools often have better financial aid packages than public schools and—if you meet certain income requirements—may even be less expensive than public school. Investigate carefully!

How Can I Do This For As Cheap As Possible?

This is the final question every highly paid and happy person I know asked themselves before they went to school. If your answer to this question is, “Get student loans and figure it out later,” you are already—and pardon my language—completely ****ed.

When I got to school, I was shocked to learn how many people around me were not only paying for school with money they didn’t (and never would) have, but actually maxing out the student loans they got to pay for decidedly non-educational things.

It was unbelievable. I lived in the dorms with kids who had no job besides being a student (newsflash: “student” is NOT an occupation), and were using their “extra” financial aid to buy new clothes and party on the weekends (and weekdays).

One kid I lived next to liked to brag about the drum kit he bought with all the student loans he got. That was almost 10 years ago. I wonder if he’s still satisfied with that purchase every month when he gets his loan statement.

So what do you do? Here are a few things that are going to make your college experience much cheaper:

Save Loads of Cash by Living Off Campus

Except in rare cases, you will pay way too much to live on campus at your school, especially if you’re required to buy a meal plan and other useless amenities along with your dorm room.

Colleges—and everyone who’s ever lived on a college campus—will tell you that there’s no comparison. You have to live on campus if you want to get the best college experience. Hogwash! Here’s what you do instead. You get a cheap apartment just off campus, you cram as many people into it as you can to make it as cheap as possible, and you spend as little time there as possible.

In your first month of school, you hang out exclusively on campus and make five friends who live there. Ta da! You now have a place to stay on campus any night of the week and access to any social scene you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Can’t go to the cafeteria and eat your university issued slop every night without living on campus? Too bad! Being a student does not exempt you from cooking your own meals. Learn to cook a decent meal. It’s a valuable grown up skill.

Sidenote: The one exception to living off campus would be if you had a job on-campus that covered your room and board.

Earn an Extra $10,000 by Mastering the Art of Job Arbitrage.

When I tell people I had three jobs in college and took the maximum course load every term, they either don’t believe me or think I’m some kind of super-human.

This is probably because most college students don’t even have one job. The bar isn’t exactly set high.

But almost everyone I know who made it out of school without any debt and now has a high-paying career was just like me: they had at least two jobs.

The trick, though, is that—at least in college—you don’t actually have to work three jobs in order to have three jobs you get paid for. Early on in my college career, I accidentally stumbled onto what I now call “job arbitrage.”

I found one high paying job that required me to be present to earn money (I was a commercial roofer). Then, I found two jobs on campus that required minimal face-to-face hours (resident assistant and computer lab tech) that paid a monthly stipend.

When it was possible, I would work my required shifts at the campus jobs to keep up appearances. But when my high-paying job interfered—often for overtime that commanded $35 or more per hour—I would simply call one of my co-workers from the other jobs to cover for me for an hour or two.

Usually, paying them an hour or two of my wages at the lower-paying jobs (~$20 and a beer after work) would allow me to work the maximum hours at the high paying job, netting me tens of thousands of extra dollars of the course of my college career. It was always easy to find someone to cover for me because I paid more than the standard hourly rate my college friends were used to.

That extra money helped me graduate completely debt free, and I am not the only one I know who accomplished the same.

Go to School for Free With a Stack of Scholarships

Unfortunately, I can’t offer a lot of personal advice about scholarship because I did a poor job applying for them myself. In four years, I think I got just one scholarship that was worth maybe a few thousand bucks.

And that makes me a sucker! Looking back on it, I should have put in the little effort it takes to search and apply for every scholarship I might have been eligible for.

Some of my friends who were much smarter about this than I was got enough free money right out of high school to pay for their entire college career. And it didn’t even take them that much effort. Amazing! If I could do it again, I’d probably do it like this.

Here’s to Your Low-Cost, High Paying Degree

Today, college is out of control. It’s unbelievably expensive (I’ll explain why in a future article), many people go when they shouldn’t, and even more end up with unbearable debt.

But this is not going to be you or anyone you know. You can avoid all this mess and navigate college like a Smart Riskologist by asking yourself the three critical questions every successful college grad asks themselves before enrolling:

  1. Should I really go to college?
  2. What’s the best value school for me?
  3.  How can I do this for as cheap as possible?

If anyone you know is starting or going back to college soon, please—for the love of all things holy—forward them this article before they make an enormous mistake they end up regretting!

Yours in risk-taking,
Founder, Riskology.co