Being a fan of Aaron Clarey’s (aka Captain Capitalism) YouTube channel, I’ve heard of this book for some time (he self-promotes at every opportunity). I didn’t really look into it when I first heard of it a few years ago, mainly because I was pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering at the time. I wasn’t pursuing a worthless degree, so the subject matter didn’t apply to me. Nonetheless though, I decided to buy and read the book for Christmas. The book is 172 pages, small pages, medium-size type; I was able to read it in a few hours in one sitting.
The Gist of the Book
Pursuing a college degree is a big choice in life. It involves a great amount of time (at least 4 years of one’s prime youth), and tens of thousands of dollars (without scholarship support). Too often, high school students are urged by either clueless or dishonest adults to attend college and choose a major on emotional grounds. Clarey dispels this nonsense. College should be viewed as an investment, just like choosing the assets in one’s portfolio. And investments need to pay off. Clarey enumerates the various worthless degrees, as well as the various worthwhile ones. He briefly also discusses the merits of trade/vocational school, the earnings of which often exceed many 4-year degrees.
A Thought Exercise
Clarey starts off the book with a useful thought exercise, actually given to his students when he was teaching classes. What products and services are you likely to buy in the near future? Now what is your college major? Repeatedly Clarey observed a vast disconnect between what people wanted to buy and what they wanted to study. You will probably buy gasoline in the future, but you’re not studying petroleum engineering. You will probably buy a video game system in the future, but you’re not studying computer engineering. And so on and so forth.
The best way to identify where high-paying jobs are is to ask “Are they involved in the production of goods and services that people want to buy?”
Worthless vs. Worthwhile Degrees
What makes a degree “worthless” anyways? Clarey breaks the concept down using basic supply-and-demand arguments from Economics 101. The argument is as follows:
- If the supply of people with a given skill set is low, and demand for this skill set is high, wages will be high.
- If supply of people with a given skill set is high, and demand for this skill set is low, wages will be low.
To channel Thomas Sowell, there is no centralized authority arbitrarily deciding which degrees will be paid well and which will be below-subsistence. The wages are determined by what the market will bear.
The list of worthless degrees won’t really surprised anyone. Typically, when one reads articles about new grads unable to get jobs, these are the kinds of degrees buried in the story:
- International studies (e.g. Middle Eastern studies)
- Hyphenated-American studies (e.g African-American Studies)
- Gender Studies
- Social work
- Some type of nonprofit-related degree
- English/Literature/Creative Writing
- Make-your-own-degree Degrees (“Frankenstein degrees”)
- Foreign Languages
- Mass Communications
- Art degrees
- Puppetry (yes… as covered in the book, it is possible to major in puppetry)
Foreign languages, while a useful skill to have, will likely be increasingly obsolete as a skill as automatic translation software improves. It is far better to have mastery of a foreign language in addition to a high-demand skill, e.g. being a chemical engineer that can read and speak Mandarin Chinese, or a medical doctor that can speak Spanish. Economics, while an interesting subject, simply has little demand for its skill set. Journalism (at least, in the print media) is being made obsolete by bloggers and artificial intelligence, and it is unlikely a 22-year old recent grad can produce any op-eds worth paying money to read. The rest of these majors do not produce any product or service of value to an advanced First World economy.
As I have discussed previously on this blog, the worthwhile degrees are almost totally confined to the STEM fields. Engineering is the big winner here, with petroleum and chemical engineers out-earning all other engineering majors. Supply is low because there is a very small number of people with the work ethic and high-IQ necessary to obtain the degree. Demand is high because our advanced First World civilization needs engineers to keep running smoothly. The following graph is instructive (from NPR):
Other worthwhile majors include actuarial studies, medicine, pharmacy, accounting, and (unmentioned by Clarey) operations research. A word of caution though. Since this book was written, serious gains have been made in the development of AI for replacing pharmacists and certain diagnostic medicine specialties. Radiologists used to be set for life within their specialty; now image processing software is poised to overtake human accuracy.
Another decent path is the trades. No one ever wants to call the plumber, because the plumber charges an arm and a leg. Likewise with auto mechanics, and other repairmen. Skilled trades often require only 2 years (or less) of education, and their pay well-exceeds that of the worthless 4-year degrees listed above.
The Stupidity of Philosophy, Foreign Language, and Literature Degrees
These degrees in particular seem like poor choices, simply from the standpoint of alternative investment.
Why pay money to study philosophy? The entire Great Books of the Western World set can be bought for about $300 bucks off Amazon, giving you a huge source of reading material for probably the next decade. I visit used book stores whenever I get the chance, and they are always overflowing with classical philosophy texts, all of which can be had for a song.
Foreign language software, e.g. from Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone, can be had for a few thousand dollars. Additionally, one could simply take the money one would have used to study a foreign language at school, and go live in a country that speaks it for a few months. Why pay money to study Spanish in college, when instead you could tour Spain for six months, at a fraction of the cost? Or even better, major in a real degree (like engineering), and sign up for a study abroad program. I never did that, but there was plenty of opportunity (if you have the money) to study abroad in China, Germany, Japan, and Spain. Furthermore, the earnings of translators are simply unjustifiably low compared to the cost and trouble of the degree. An associate of mine majored in Japanese languages in college; he was happy to get an assistant manager’s position at Five Guys.
The arguments against a literature degree parallel those against a philosophy degree. The local library has all of the classical literature one could want available for free. Why pay money to study it?
The Stupidity of Business and Entrepreneurship Degrees
Like Clarey, I myself have often been puzzled by the existence of these degrees. Instead of going to school for business or entrepreneurship… why not just use the money to actually start a business? Running a business is mostly common sense anyways – make a profit, don’t piss off the customers, and pay your taxes. The rest is “learn as you go.” The basics can be covered in a few books on the subject.
Hell, one story from my own experience springs to mind. An associate of mine (a recent immigrant from Turkey), came to America after marrying his wife (an American). He never went to college, and didn’t have any money to spend on a degree. So what did he do? He borrowed $50,000 from his wife to start his own internet business. Now he makes $8,000-$10,000 a month in sales – all self taught, with himself as sole proprietor. Once he pays off his wife, he’ll be rolling in profits. What the hell would he have gotten had he sunk $50,000 into a business degree? A piece of paper!
I’ve often thought the same way about film school. With the amount of money a film school will charge you for an “education”, you could bankroll an indie film. Do it all yourself – write the screenplay, do the casting, do the special effects, the sound, the editing, and the marketing. Its a lot of hard work – just ask Lloyd Kaufman. If the film is a flop, big deal! You still have all of the capital invested in the project, and can still put the film on your resume as proof you can at least bring a project to completion. And who knows? Maybe it will generate a cult following, leading to bigger and better things.
Further arguments abound. The Millionaire Next Door is an excellent book I strongly recommend to everyone reading this. As I distinctly remember from the book, the most millionaires were created by starting their own businesses (though most did have college degrees as well).
Clarey’s writing is generally good (and sometimes humorous), though there are some misspellings (and incorrectly used words) in a few spots. My main complaint though, is that I feel more research could have been done, and a bibliography provided. Clarey provides a pie chart of worthless degree recipients for the Minnesota legislature, but I would have loved to see one for the U.S. Congress. Perhaps three pie charts for them: one for worthless bachelor’s degrees, one for worthless graduate degrees, and one for which branch of the military they served in (if they served at all).
Clarey has mentioned the importance of IQ elsewhere in his writings and videos, but he strangely did not mention it here. I think a discussion of the subject, and how it correlates with occupation, would have been informative. Furthermore, I would advise any young person before going to college to pay the money needed for a professionally-done IQ test. If your IQ is below 100, I think college is likely to be a frustrating waste of time and money. If your IQ is 120 or higher, majoring in a hard subject is probably the way to go for you. It may also have been worthwhile to note that IQ scores can be accurately estimated from SAT scores.
I think more discussion of the trades and vocations would have been appropriate as well. What are the high-earning trades? What are their job prospects? How long and how expensive is the education? What are the pros and cons of various trades?
Bottom line? This was a pretty good book; I give it 4 out of 5 stars. I of course, strongly recommend it for any kid who is about to enter college, and needs an honest appraisal of what to major in.