Yesterday night I read a post from Brain Pickings on why you don’t need to go back to school.  Of course, I did go back to school at the University of Minnesota for a business degree, and before that a degree at St. Cloud State University, so what I’m about to say is probably self contradictory.

I don’t think most people benefit all that much from going to school.  I should say, I think you can learn everything outside of school without being there.

Without a doubt in my mind, I’ve learned more about philosophy, writing, marketing, finance, economics, public policy, business as a whole, and a myriad of other subjects outside of school than in.

The argumentative among you may quickly point out that you needed school for the building blocks to go out and learn those things.  To a certain extent that is true.  I think most people, myself included, need some instruction in learning how to read, write and especially do mathematics.  Yet those things aren’t life long pursuits, they are taught in elementary and at higher degrees throughout high school.  After that, depending on the intricacy and expectation of your chosen vocation, you will get further and further down the paths of those subjects.

The key is getting people excited about learning.  And that’s the rub, you can’t get people excited about learning.  They have to BE excited about learning.  That comes from within.  You can certainly help people along by *almost* connecting a few dots for them, then letting them finish the job and understand the general elation that comes from figuring things out. But overall I think it’s more of a personality trait than an education system flaw.

Still, teachers that can foster those with the predisposition to learning on their own are far too few.  I’ve had a handful at best.  The power of an inspiring teacher who EMPOWERS people to use their own ability is worth their weight in Californium 252.  They are just too scarce.

So why did I go back to school if I was already learning so much on my own?  Multiple reasons, but the main is that as a society we haven’t evolved to the point where we can objectively critique peoples’ skill sets without the lowest common denominator comparisons (degrees, experience.)  The LCDs aren’t bad either, but they are the only real way to evaluate for some institutions.

There’s a problem there, however.  We are very quickly moving toward a society that values formal education less and less due to the costs of higher education and the less than encouraging prospects of paying off that debt with a more financially rewarding position.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met with a graduate degree who can’t make it work for them.  The problem there is that getting a degree isn’t a ticket you give to an employer that they recompense you for your time.  It’s a table stake of many higher level positions, but table stakes don’t mean you win the hand.

I do think we are in a bubble period for education.  I don’t have kids at this point, but I have already thought about their best path moving forward.  The best path that I can see for most people involves figuring out, as quickly as possible mind you, what you want to do.  That’s what kills most people in terms of jobs, they don’t know what they want and wait too long.  It’s never TOO late to do something, but realistically knowing what you want will help you focus.

After figuring out what you want there are a few choices dependent on your vocation prerogative.  If it’s a doctor or lawyer (hint: not a good time for this) or other higher end degree, the best thing to do is get into community college where you can transfer credits to a state college or similar institution and finalize your BS with extremely high grades.  You should be actively trying to keep costs low until this point, because the next part is expensive.  At that point, depending on vocation, get into the best school you can with some thought about final salary and where you want to work.  Pay the money for the best school, it’s worth it.  But that’s only half the battle.  The key here is to not focus on education only.  Go find people doing what you want to do simultaneously and interview them for information, volunteer for work with similar types of work, take advantage of extracurriculars corresponding to the work type, join the school organizations supporting that work or start your own.  DO.  Make your story so you can sell it later.

On the other hand, for other types of jobs, there is a much easier path.  Skilled trades to me seem like a great way to live your life, knowing what I know now.  The path to get the role is much faster and you can use the amount of time and opportunity capital to build a portfolio that will see you comfortable the rest of your life.  The key here is knowing to do it early.  If you start working at 15 like I did (McDonald’s, before that it was actually mowing lawns at 13) and start saving $1oo or $200 per month and putting it in a Roth IRA or other retirement account, steadily increasing it as your income grows with professional experience, you will undoubtedly be a millionaire by retirement.  It’s pretty basic math, and not all that difficult in terms of actual contributions, but it works.

I’ve oversimplified this into a two path ideal, there are many more options of course.  I’ve also looked at it from a financial standpoint in the vein that whatever you WANT to do, you should do so in a way that you and your family are secure.

I started this post in hopes of discussing learning on your own, but it morphed into thoughts on education.  I’ll dive into learning on your own more in the future as this post is getting long.