A College Degree Doesn’t Equal Success — It Takes a Lot More Than That

The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago raised some eyebrows when he said during a recent speech that the skyrocketing costs associated with earning a college degree may be too risky for some young people.

“With over $1.5 trillion in outstanding student debt,” said Chicago Fed President Charles Evans, “knowing how to help young adults better recognize and manage their risks related to higher education is an important input into my assessment of our economy.”

“My interpretation of the research is that disadvantaged students in particular experience significant risks associated with their choice of institution, likelihood of graduating, earnings potential after college, and ability to repay student loans. So, for these students, it is not always obvious that college is an investment that pays off,” Evans added.

As Evans noted in his speech, Americans face $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. Some Democratic presidential hopefuls want to forgive student loan debt or offer free college as a response to the high costs of going to college. Of course, this is the wrong approach. As is the case in healthcare, and virtually anything else, when the government subsidizes something, the associated costs necessarily rise.

America needs to re-think its approach to post-secondary education. Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University, has warned that we’re devaluing education by pushing more people to pursue traditional collegiate post-secondary education.

“Civilized societies revolve around education now, but there is a better—indeed, more civilized—way. If everyone had a college degree, the result would be not great jobs for all, but runaway credential inflation,” Caplan explains. “Trying to spread success with education spreads education but not success.”

My take on this is a little different. A college degree is not always necessary for a successful career, but a person choosing that route must be prepared to work incredibly hard and expect to not achieve success until well into adulthood. Even then, success may be elusive, but a college degree does not guarantee a successful career, either.

I come from a lower-middle class background. My father passed away when I was 12 years old. My mother largely raised me while working a full-time job, and occasionally a second job to help make ends meet. I attended an inexpensive private school for part of middle school and early high school. By the end of my freshman year, I was helping pay my part of my tuition.

In 1999, I graduated from Eagle’s Landing High School in McDonough, Ga., a small city in metro Atlanta. I didn’t apply myself, so I didn’t have the best grades. I took the year after high school to work. I pulled the morning shift at a Chick-fil-A in nearby Stockbridge and played in a band with some high school friends. I enrolled in a local college for two semesters before weighing some personal circumstances that I faced. I dropped out and never went back. I continued playing music while jumping from job to job, such as waiting tables, selling cell phones, and doing customer service.

In my downtime, I would listen to a nationally syndicated talk radio show hosted by Neal Boortz, who had a mostly libertarian perspective on politics, and I would read books on philosophy, economics, and religion. I volunteered on local political campaigns, dabbled in the Republican and Libertarian parties, and started a blog focused on local and state politics. I met a guy by the name of Erick Erickson, who invited me to join a Georgia political blog, Peach Pundit, to offer a philosophically libertarian perspective on what was happening around the state.

Over time, I began getting paid to write as a part-time job. At one point, I had a full-time job completely unrelated to politics and two part-time jobs that allowed me to write about politics and policy. I would wake up at 4 a.m. and work for a few hours for a part-time job before I began my day job. I would go home and work for three more hours on another part-time job.

The way I look at it is, 40 hours is the bare minimum. If you want to pursue something, one has to have the drive to do it. I was nearly 32 years old before I began working full-time in politics. I was 33 when I started working for FreedomWorks. Since then, I’ve managed the organization’s criminal justice reform program and run the communications department.

Today, I run FreedomWorks’ legislative affairs shop. In this role, I’ve worked on a number of legislative issues from tax policy to regulatory issues to criminal justice reform. In December, I was invited to attend the ceremony at which President Trump signed the First Step Act into law. This was a long-overdue legislative initiative that reformed some federal prison sentences, and, as long as it’s implemented properly, will bring evidence-based recidivism reduction programming to federal prisons.

The avenues that I took to get where I am today were unorthodox, and I don’t want to be perceived as telling young people to skip college. In fact, I’ve encouraged constitutional conservative and libertarian interns who have come through our doors to stay in school, learn as much as possible, and get their degrees. That’s because the lack of a college degree was an obstacle in my path.

Every young person’s path looks different. For most of these interns, their paths would be aided by having a college degree. For many others, their passions don’t reflect the same reality. As the free market dictates in any other space, any type of post-secondary education should be pursued if it is advantageous for an individual. By imposing one-size-fits-all regulations on education, and especially by forgiving student debt and offering “free” college, the federal government worsens the problem. Instead, it should stay out of the issue and allow the market to work its will.