May 10, 2011

Is High School Worth It?

It seems that one of the topics du jour lately is to ask "is college worth it?".    If you're going to question whether or not college is worth it then why not question if High School is worth it.    I think the same logic applies generally.  If you're going to rationalize why college is a waste of time and money then can't you also rationalize yourself out of wasting 4 years in High School?

It seems that the prevailing opinion nowadays is that high school is so watered down and lax on standards that it is useless.   We bemoan  that our kids can't read or write and the USA lags every nation in the world on every kind of academic test.    Ok thats an exaggeration but it seems to be the kind of attitude people have about the quality of K-12 school in the USA nowadays.   But it begs the question : If we all agree that HS is horrible then why even bother going?

If you look at the statistics it is clear that people with high school diplomas make more money and have lower unemployment on average compared to people with out a diploma.    But those are just averages and everyone can come up with anecdotal evidence to counter such averages.    Doesn't everyone know someone without a HS diploma who has done well for themselves?    I know at least a couple people who never officially finished HS but who are doing fine financially and have higher incomes than average college grads.

I bet you that we can also find a super rich millionaire or billionaire who didn't finish high school.   Just a little research and I find an old Forbes article that cites two billionaires who never finished high school.   J R Simplot who made a fortune on potatoes and Micron and Alan Gerry who made his money off his company Cablevision.   Both dropped out of high school and ended up billionaires.

So here are the main points against a high school education:

  • The education isn't really valuable.
  • You can learn that stuff easily on your own elsewhere.
  • If you don't do HS then you can get get a 4 year head start in the workforce and get paid to work that whole time which puts you 4 years ahead.
  • Everyone knows someone without a HS diploma who is doing fine.
  • There are even billionaires which act as evidence that you don't really 'need' a HS diploma.
There you go.  Everyone should drop out of high school, right?

Before you answer that let me assure you that I'm not serious.   I'm making this argument to try and illustrate why I think the 'is college worth it' argument is sometimes irrational.    Look at the bullet points above.   All these arguments are made about why people shouldn't go to college.   If you're going to ignore higher wages and lower unemployment as the key benefits of a college degree then why not argue that HS should be avoided as well?    I mean if the argument applies to college then why doesn't it also apply equally to high school?

If you are a poor student and don't put in effort, if you are a super talented one in a million entrepreneur or if you choose to study a field that nobody wants to pay well for or that has excessive supply of aspiring employees then further education may not be your best choice.   But for most people further education is absolutely worth while.

Here are the key reasons why high school and college are both worth it :

Education is what you make of it.    Yes you could fail to learn anything in high school or college and walk away with a meaningless diploma or degree.  But if you apply yourself then you can gain a valuable education.

Higher income and higher employment levels make college and high school better value in the long run for most people.   Making significantly higher income over the bulk of your working career will make up for spending an extra 4 years getting the education.

Anecdotal evidence of people who buck the trends or the exception to the rule billionaire isn't a good argument against something.   There are always exceptions but we don't run our lives based on rare exceptions.

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