University - The Greatest Marketing Ploy of the 21st Century

University - The Greatest Marketing Ploy of the 21st Century

40 is the new 20, and Bachelors degrees are the new GED. But have you ever stopped to ask yourself why modern society puts such great emphasis on post-secondary education?

Why, in a world where knowledge is more decentralized and free than ever, are you and I (and everyone we know) happy shell out tens of thousands of dollars per year to enroll in highly centralized, bureaucratic “accredited” institutions?

Why is our culture convinced that spending three to four hours per day sitting in archaic lecture halls, listening to professors parrot the same class content they’ve been regurgitating verbatim for the last twenty years is the best way to learn?

I’ll tell you why.


Put simply, post secondary education is one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all time. Right up there with DeBeers, Marlboro, and the rest of history’s advertising giants.

Important facts (in light of the following discussion):

  • Post-secondary institutions in the US raked in over $564 billion in 2015 alone
  • 35% (over one third) of all US citizens aged 18–24 are currently enrolled in college or university
  • On average, a post-secondary degree will cost an in-state student $8,900 per year. Since an average bachelor’s degree is 4 years, that comes out to approximately $35,600 per 4-year degree.

Clearly, the notion that a post-secondary education is necessary is well ingrained in modern society. Most of us agree education is important, and mankind as a whole prides itself on always learning and growing. This isn’t a bad thing. However, what is potentially a bad thing is our overwhelming tendency to go with the flow just because rather than stop and ask “how does school benefit me?”

I don’t know about you, but I certainly wasn’t in any position to make a $35,600 commitment when I was 18. Hell, I could barely afford a slice of pizza back then.

I was young and immature — for starters, I cared orders of magnitude more about who’s house I’d be partying at Friday night than about what my tangible market value would be in five years (given the value-add of a bachelor’s degree). And my inability to even remotely begin assessing the impact school would have on my career led me to make academic decisions that, in hindsight, probably weren’t the right ones for me.

Consider as well that the brain isn’t even fully developed at age 18. Important neuronal growth processes (like synaptic pruning) continue until approximately age 25, making our already contentious decision to enroll that much shakier.

This is bad as-is, but take into account that the decision to apply happens even earlier (around age 17), since applications typically take several months for processing. So 17 year old high school seniors are pushed into making huge, potentially life-changing decisions years before they’re “mature” enough to even buy a drink at the bar!

Sure, some people have attentive parents that help steer them in the “right” direction when they’re young. However, many unfortunate high school seniors are left to fend for themselves in an academic world that increasingly puts their bank account in front of the best interests of their students.

“But Nick”, you say, “there’s no rule that you have to go to school right away. Why not just take a gap year and figure things out?”

The children remind me of little orange ducklings

Because, increasingly, society is pushing the notion that that if you don’t apply right away, you’re wasting your time. Or that you’re missing your shot at life. It’s right up there with the hilarious notion that you need five to ten years experience to work entry level jobs! Schools, careers, and more generally, opportunities are getting more competitive thanks to globalization and a surplus of academics.

It’s so pervasive that we don’t even bat an eye at the concept of a ‘general degree’ anymore — it’s been legitimized into a viable option through marketing. “Don’t worry if you have no idea what you want to do with your life yet”, says the college counselor. “Just take general studies and find out what you want to do”. What she doesn’t tell you is that a year of those general studies will net the college nearly $10,000 per person.

It’s like when a salesperson pushes you to sign a contract, even if you’re not fully committed to the deal. “No problem!” they say, “we can figure out the details later. Let’s just get started today!”

In any other context, it would be laughable. Yet we’re so bought into the marketing scheme that a significant portion of students who have no idea what they want to do with their life are now pursuing college for college’s sake.

Look, not to burst your bubble here, but most people shouldn’t be pursuing college for college’s sake. It’s an incredibly expensive decision, and with student loan debt quadrupling in the last ten years, there are cheaper and more fulfilling things to do with that money than spending your afternoons teaching your professors how to use YouTube.

Post-secondary is by no means bad. Knowledge is power. But many people don’t choose it based on a logical evaluation of the consequences & alternatives — they drifted into it as a result of societal inertia. And society drifted into it as a result of marketing. Remember, unconscious, shallow decisions don’t get people closer to their dreams. If anything, they pull people further away.

Before signing up for four expensive years of classes that you may not have any interest in, first ask yourself why you need a degree anyway.

  • Does your aspired profession require a mountain of technical or historical knowledge? (lawyer, engineer, doctor, etc)
  • Do you need specific certifications to work in your field?
  • Does a degree represent a sound financial investment?

That last one is kind of important.

Unfortunately, with Medium’s demographics touting 95% college graduation rates, it’s unlikely that many 17 year old high school seniors will be reading this. If I had a time machine, I know I sure as hell wouldn’t (I’d probably have been skateboarding in traffic, or making other smart decisions).

But for those of you that are faced with that critical junction, remember — despite what your family, your friends, the media, and the Internet may tell you, at the end of the day going to school is your decision. It impacts your life, and (most of the time, anyway) it involves your money. Nobody is going to be more “right” about this decision then you, and nobody has more right to pick and choose the next five to ten years of their life.

Don’t let marketing make your decisions for you. Think for yourself. Going with the flow is easy but overrated — it’s harder (but more rewarding) to pick up a paddle and get to work.

After all, critical thinking is an important part of a well-rounded education… right?

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