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The barriers that keep you in college

I just read an article in The Atlantic which said (for the first time ever) a majority of unemployed people HAVE attended college. This appears to disprove the notion that college is important for career success…but fascinatingly, that’s not what this article found.

The problem isn’t that the value of a degree is falling. (Although it probably is.) It’s that increasingly, students are not even FINISHING their degrees.


What’s going on here? Here’s how The Atlantic describes the trend:

“The chart above isn’t a story about a college degree no longer paying off. The chart above is a story about more people going to college, but not nearly as many more people finishing college. As my colleague Jordan Weissmann recently pointed out, only 56 percent of those who start on a bachelor’s degree finish within six years. Only 29 percent of those who start on a associate’s degree finish within three years.

And consider that this is happening while college enrollment is at an all-time high. Too many students are getting the worst of both worlds: debt without a degree. Their finances get worse, but their job prospects don’t get much better. That’s how we get a world where most of the unemployed have attended at least some college.”

Why does this happen? Having attended college very recently, I can tell you exactly what some of the reasons are:


  • Hilariously confusing degree plans that leave students with no clear roadmap to follow.
  • The paradox of choice, where the massive number of classes a student “could” take distracts them from the ones they NEED to take.
  • Students who put the “what should I major in” question on such a high pedestal that they change their minds every semester. Meanwhile, tuition and enrollment fees rack up the entire time.
  • Inconvenient schedules that make required classes unavailable for months or years at at a time.
  • Financial aid forms that take hours to understand or fill out.

All of these obstacles create barriers that make laziness easier than progress. When the required next steps are not directly in front of you (or require arduous mental work to figure out) you are more likely to say “oh well, whatever, I’ll take that class/figure out that financial aid form/track down that professor next semester”…instead of buckling down and doing it today.

This is no accident. Higher education is a business, and the longer they can “keep you in the store” with confusion, stall tactics, and guessing games, the more money you end up paying. I struggled with all of these barriers. I know how crippling they can be, even to someone who sincerely wants to graduate. That’s why I made the DIY Degree all about simplicity.

I cannot overstate how important this is if you actually want to graduate quickly. As human beings, we are what Ramit Sethi calls “cognitive misers.” We have extremely limited willpower, our motivation comes and goes, and it can be really tough to keep moving toward a distant, far-off goal when simpler pleasures are in front of us right now. If every semester at college is like hacking through jungle brush with a machete (carving out your own perpetually uncertain path) you’ve already lost. It’s simply not sustainable.

Instead, I challenge you to start thinking about motivation and goal setting in terms of the old saying “strike while the iron is hot.” If you’re fired up today, GREAT! But don’t assume it’ll last forever, because it probably wont. Instead, use this precious and fleeting motivation to plan ahead. Lay out a path that will be mindless and easy to follow when your motivation fades away.

Using psychology and systems against yourself to graduate faster

This is the #1 reason I started providing DIY Degree Gameplans to my students, by the way. Before they take a single exam (which many are understandably eager to start doing) I force them to lay out their entire degree schedule on a single sheet of paper, so the next steps are always spelled out and pre-decided for them.

I also exhort students to schedule their exams in batches, so there’s always an upcoming test to study for. This is actually a very subtle and powerful technique. We all hate making commitments. If you need to call up a testing center and individually schedule each exam one by one, there is going to be DEEP procrastination. You will need to consciously confront what those commitments mean (study time, delayed gratification, fees, etc.) and overcome it each time. But when you schedule five exams at once, you batch those psychologically painful commitments into a single action…and completely solidify your priorities for the next few months.

Compare this to what most college students do, which is enroll when they’re pumped up, take a semester or two, and stop going until their motivation comes back. There’s no schedule or system or commitment batching to keep them going when they tire out. That’s the “hot and cold, on again/off again” mentality that keeps people stuck in college instead of launching their careers.

If you still haven’t graduated, ask yourself which side of the fence you’re on. Are you using psychology and systems to graduate faster (like my DIY Degree students do) or relying on futile willpower, like so many of today’s unemployed did?

Graduate faster and spend less money with DIY Degree’s “Cost-Per-Credit” Calculator

As I wrote in one of my earliest blog posts, too many students are focused on the cost of their entire degree rather than drilling down to the most meaningful number: the cost per credit. Just like the human body is made up of cells (not just limbs), degrees are made up of credits. Read More

Scott Young talks self-education and the DIY Degree at TEDx

Last month, my fellow self-education blogger Scott H. Young spoke at TEDxEastsidePrep, an independently organized TED event in Seattle. I highly recommend listening to the entire 12-minute talk. Scott covers a wealth of topics, including: Read More