Going To College – Or Not

by Mark Rippetoe and Nicholas Racculia, PhD, SSC | September 20, 2022

mindless conformist college fodder

Back in the '70s, going to college was what people who wanted to be successful did, because a high school education had eroded in rigor and value since the days of our parents' education. The erosion has continued, engulfing “higher education” as well. At this point, the majority of 4-year degrees are meaningless, expensive intellectual masturbation, and any time spent outside the science building should be spent at work, learning to do something useful while getting paid. As it is now, the vast majority of time spent in a college or university is precisely the opposite: paying somebody to teach you useless things.

A long time ago, state governments were heavily involved in subsidizing higher education, with some states paying for about 80% of a university's overhead, the remaining 20% coming from tuition, and private gifts and endowments. School was cheaper back then. For example, I remember paying $450-500 a semester for tuition for 16 hours, fees, and books. I never heard of anybody borrowing money to go to school, although I'm sure some of them did. A little help from your parents and your own job(s) paid for the semester, and nobody really accumulated any debt unless you were taking a pre-Med major with lots of labs in a 20-hour semester, and you couldn't work.

Since then, state participation in the cost of education has fallen to below 10% nationwide. According to the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI), from 1982 to 2021 the cost of a university education has increased 3.5% on average versus the Consumer Price Index (CPI) annualized increase of 2.7% over the same period. This 0.8% difference per year may seem insignificant, but over time the effects are impressive. A $100 market basket of 1982 goods costs $280 at the end of 2021, but $100 of education now costs universities $386. While neither index does a perfect job accounting for the changing quality of constituent goods and services, it is obvious that televisions and cars improved immensely since 1982.

It is doubtful the quality of education has risen since 1982. Even if you believe it has, these numbers do not tell the complete story. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average total cost per year has risen from $9,757 in 1982 to $25,910 in 2021; these costs are net of inflation. The difference between HEPI and CPI cannot alone explain this rise; it is likely a combination of the costly and bloated administrative state in education, as well as the fact that service jobs’ (like professors) salaries must rise to compete with increasingly productive manufacturing jobs while showing no indication of improved productivity themselves.

Now a single semester is significantly more, meaning that most people who are not from wealthy families have to borrow some of this. The nominal price has increased 10-fold over what it was in the '70s. It's not uncommon for Sociology majors to graduate with $80K of debt, and a degree that gets you a job at Starbucks.

And I know that a university education is not intended as a vocational program. I was frequently reminded of this before I declared my geology major. But the practical aspects cannot be ignored by families of average means – how does a sociology major satisfy an $80,000 debt to the government, a debt that cannot be bankrupted or written off (the portion shifted to us via “forgiveness” by corrupt politicians notwithstanding)? The realist views a university education as a question of return on investment.

The best thing to do is to choose a major with real-world applications, like accounting, finance, or nursing, or a pre-professional degree like law or medical, something with the potential for gainful employment using the information and experience obtained from the degree. A social sciences, PE, English, or philosophy degree, a history or “grievance studies” degree – really, anything without a calculus requirement is a waste of time, money, and opportunity. And approach it in a way that does not render you a chattel slave to the Federal Student Aid program. Don't borrow money to eat and party when you can work part-time.

But there are some things that college is good for, that do not require graduation with a 4-year degree. A fundamental education in the sciences – since this not provided in the government schools – is hard to obtain outside a classroom setting, because the nature of the material favors some structure in its presentation, and exposure to laboratory work. This doesn't require 4 years, but rather a few part-time semesters to obtain basic literacy in general science topics, which can then be applied to a wide variety of profitable professional endeavors. History and philosophy you can learn yourself, chemistry needs a good teacher.

In my opinion, here are the fundamentals of the coursework you need for a basic science education:

Calculus I and II and the pre-reqs for it. Make sure your instructor knows how to actually teach this material, since faculty members hired for their mathematical ability probably can't explain it to people who don't already know it, in precisely the same way natural athletes make terrible coaches. You will probably never use calculus – the purpose is to teach you to think logically and mathematically; differentials and integrals are loaded cerebral movement patterns that develop these thinking skills.

General (freshman) Chemistry, both semesters (the courses that require labs). These also require good instructors that can explain things to people who don't know the material. Mediocre instructors depend on the textbook, while good instructors merely use it.

General Physics, both semesters (again, the lab courses). These cover mechanics, heat, electricity, magnetism, and maybe optics. This is very basic science information.

Human Biology (if your background is weak), Anatomy and Physiology, and General Physiology. If you're reading this article, you're interested in coaching. This and the physics are what separate you from high school coaches.

A semester of freshman Geology and Astronomy. This teaches you about time scales longer than your own lifespan, which gives you the perspective to sort through the current climate bullshit. And I would also suggest at least one semester of economics – probably Macroeconomics – so you'll know when you're being lied to by politicians about current events. You can learn about economics on your own, but the class will be fun with the right instructor.

Take a Personal Financial Planning course, particularly if taught by a competent instructor with at least some real-world financial planning background. The principles aren’t difficult, but the mindset and framework will pay dividends (literal and figurative) in the future. And while you're there, take a few other courses you're interested in, just to make you a more interesting person, someone other people like to hire and spend time around.

This amount of coursework will total about 50 hours, and can be taken on a part-time basis for 2-4 years, depending on your schedule. Remember: you're just there for the information, not the Dean's List, and if you make Bs you're still getting what you need from the material.

If you have a PE degree of any type – undergraduate or PhD – it will not qualify you for employment at Starting Strength Gyms. A degree is not experience, or even adequate academic preparation, and it usually comes with too much bullshit to unlearn. A recreational lifter with a 500 deadlift, the basic coursework described above, and a genuine interest in training is a far better prospective employee than a guy who has a publishing history and nothing else. I have asked masters-degree students who stopped by the gym to tell me what was wrong with a deadlift being performed 30 feet away, and their reaction indicated that they had no idea anything could possibly be wrong with a deadlift.

The profession of Barbell Coaching is an emerging field. It is applied mechanics, anatomy, physiology, and psychology. It helps to be of above-average intelligence, you absolutely have to be personally training the lifts you're going to coach, and you have to have a communicative personality to interact in real time with another person who is depending on you to correct a heavily-loaded movement pattern. A 4-year degree does not prevent you from being an excellent coach, but it is certainly not necessary, if you have carefully chosen the parts you need, and are prepared to learn the rest on your own.

Today's higher education environment does not appeal to many productive people, and the apprenticeship model of professional preparation is making a rapid comeback in the marketplace. Barbell strength coaching is a perfect example of this, but it requires far more from the prospective coach than Starbucks requires from their sociologists. Go to school, but realize it's limitations, and don't stay there any longer than you have to.

My thanks to Dr. Jesse Rogers and Dr. Zachary Davis for their help with this article.

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