This piece was originally published by Dustin Siggins at USA TODAY on August 22, 2023.
An emerging scandal involving accusations that many of the nation’s elite universities conspired to keep financial aid packages artificially low seems like a steel door slamming in the face of middle America.
The University of Chicago agreed last week to pay $13.5 million to settle allegations that it, along with 15 other top schools, illegally price fixed financial aid to deny poorer students admission. Coming just four years after the admission bribery schemes uncovered by Operation Varsity Blues, the education-to-career game certainly seems fixed.
But all hope isn’t lost. After all, it’s the University of Wisconsin − not Harvard, Princeton or Yale − that boasts more current Fortune 500 CEOs than any other school in America. The world’s top companies don’t care where their CEOs went to school, and you shouldn’t either.
Despite what the higher education industrial complex says, where you go has a lot less to do with your future success than what you do during and after college. That’s the opinion of billionaire entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who graduated from Indiana University. In an e-mail, he told me that it’s most important to find an education students can “afford without debt.”
“Every college,” Cuban wrote in the email, “has strong programs that can educate you.” But “nothing will hinder your ability to use your college education (more) than debt,” because “debt pushes you to take a job that pays your loans rather than picking a job you love.”
Community colleges are good alternative to high-priced universities
The big-name schools claim that their prestige will lead to great jobs. Yet, community colleges and four-year state schools can get you to the same career, quality of life and retirement destinations.
One reason for this is that they are affordable for those without vacation homes in the Bahamas. The think tank Just Facts found that community colleges cost about 70% less, and state schools cost about 25% less, than private nonprofit universities.
In Virginia, where I live, the State Council of Higher Education reports that the average cost for an in-state student attending a state college or university is $26,484 a year; and earning an associate degree from a community college and then transferring to a four-year institution takes the price of a bachelor’s degree down by $20,065.
Those thousands of dollars in short-term savings could set up today’s high school seniors for hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement income decades down the road instead of spending years paying off student loan debt.
Another reason to choose community colleges and other state schools is that they often work together for student success. At least 31 states have automatic transfer programs from community colleges to four-year state schools. This means that for two years, students can save money on tuition and often room and board by attending a school close to home.
Bank executive Todd Rowley facilitated a dual enrollment agreement between Virginia Tech and Northern Virginia Community College. He told me that it was “wasteful” for students to pay room, board and Tech’s higher tuition instead of “staying at home for free and getting the same education at community college rates.”
The agreement went into place in 2021, and hundreds of students are now earning cybersecurity degrees that will land them high-paying jobs with area employers such as Amazon, defense contractors and the federal government.
Employers increasingly focus on skills rather than degrees
Most employers don’t care where you went to school. Fortune 1000 employee experience consultant Joey Coleman told me that “the employers of choice in almost every industry are increasingly deprioritizing degrees to focus on a prospective employee’s skill sets, attitude and work ethic.”
That is true with traditional degrees such as business and the fine arts to technical degrees such as cybersecurity − and from small companies like mine to major employers like Google, IBM and Bank of America.
I know this from personal experience. I graduated from PSU in 2008 − not Penn State but Plymouth State. I got a generic business degree from an institution that became a university only the year before I started. But none of that mattered to the people who ended up hiring me, and my clients certainly don’t care. They care far more about the high quality of education I received from professors with real-world experience in their fields.
The scandals plaguing big-name institutions of higher education shouldn’t be an occasion for gloating among those of us who were locked out of those schools. But the latest news does reinforce an important lesson: Although they might work out fine for those who can afford them, nobody needs a gold-plated diploma from Harvard or Yale to make a successful life.
Let the big guys worry about prestige, and go take over the world at a community college and a state school.