I was recently asked on Quora to answer a question relating to entrepreneurship and school:

“Given the diverse and unique challenges faced by a startup, is it really worth it for an entrepreneur to invest heavily in an MBA, especially when this investment has two facets: 1) finances and  2) valuable time which can alternatively be utilized to grow a startup through real life learning experience?”

I love this question. And I love the thought process behind the question. It’s one I’ve struggled with many times myself. Here’s a link to my answer, if you’d like to read it. However, this question has really sparked in me the desire to finally write the blog post I’ve wanted to for several months: a post about my going back to college after taking a few years off. So here it is… I’ve finally gotten around to writing down my thoughts.

As I outlined in my answer on Quora, I am not a college graduate. It took me six years of night school to get my AA from Pikes Peak Community College because I got married right after my 20th birthday and we had five kids right away. In addition, I’ve always been the sole breadwinner in my family so I really can’t afford to “go to school” in the classic sense. However, I did finally get my AA. After that, I took a few years off from school… just because I could!

Last year I started going back to college, this time at Colorado State University—Pueblo. It’s been a very interesting experience to say the least. Since I took a break of several years, and since I’m going to a new school in a new program, it really feels like I’m a first-time student all over again, but this time, I’m not 18… I’m almost 28. It’s a very strange feeling. There are several things I’ve been mulling over in my mind since I’ve started, and below are just a few of them.

I don’t like school at all. I never have.

When I first went to school back in 2003, I was doing it because my parents told me I had to. That’s it. I hated every single miserable second of it, and would never have gone to school on my own. I’ve never liked school ever since the first grade when I realized after a month or two that memorizing “2 + 2” flashcards is only fun for a little while, but then it becomes work… and hard work, at that. Just ask my Mom: the American educational system would have classified me as “a poor student” because I could never sit down and pay attention. I was extremely fidgety and hated sitting still, and I really didn’t want to learn things I didn’t care about (like math and history). But I wasn’t dumb by any means… I just wasn’t the “textbook smart” kind of kid who got straight A’s in school. And I didn’t like those kids anyway.

Instead, here’s how I learned: I’d find a subject I was interested in (say, the process of winemaking, or how to breed snakes, or the history of progressive rock in the 1960s). Then I would ride my bike to the library that was only a mile or two away from our house, and take my backpack with me. I’d borrow every single book I could find on the topic (that would still fit in my backpack) and take them home and read every single one of them, cover to cover. If I wasn’t satisfied with my level of knowledge on a topic, I’d go back to the library and do it again. Most days at the library I would wince as I checked out, hoping that the clerk wouldn’t say “you have too many books—you need to put some back,” but they never did.

Why am I still going to school? I don’t know.

This is one I’ve been stewing on a lot recently, and I’m still not sure of an answer. My wife asked me this question the other day, and it kind of blew my mind. Seeing as how I don’t like it, and now I’m a grown adult who can make my own decisions, I don’t have a good answer for why I’m still going, 10 years later. Honestly, I think I’m only working towards completing it now because I don’t want the thousands of dollars I paid for my education thus far to be a sunk cost that I can never recover. It was too dear a price to walk away from it now, and half a college degree is worth exactly zero. Since I didn’t qualify for any financial aid when I first started, I had to pay for every single penny of my education, and that was no small cost. Yes, Pikes Peak Community College is one of the most affordable colleges around, but to a single 18-year old guy with only a part-time job and zero savings, it was very expensive.

Aside from the financial reasons, I also don’t want to have spent all those nights studying into the wee hours of the morning and countless weekends away from my family writing (and re-writing, and re-writing) papers, all for nothing. I want to be able to tell my children that those times I told them “I can’t play with you tonight; I have school” were worth it in the end. In my final semester at PPCC, I spent at least 25 hours per weekend in addition to my fulltime job preparing for my tests. I did NOT want to have to take any more classes. I almost lived at Panera Bread—showing up in the morning, and studying all day long until they kicked me out each night because it was closing time. When I finally passed my very last math class (College Algebra) with a 73.6%, I cried. I was so relieved. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I had taken that stupid class three times in a row: the first time, I withdrew; the second time, I failed; the third time, I passed by the slimmest of margins. When I went home that night, I actually burned my texbook because I hated it so much and was so excited to be done forever.

I’ve certainly not gotten my money’s worth out of the classes that I’ve taken by themselves, so I’m hoping (and betting) that it will be worth it when it’s all finally over and I have that magical piece of paper that says “Bachelor of Science in Business Administration” on it.

I wish I knew “what I wanted to do” much sooner.

That was a very serious challenge. I was almost paralyzed by it since I needed to choose what my career would be before I could choose which classes I needed. But I just couldn’t figure it out, so I stalled for time by getting an AA in “General Studies,” so I could apply it to whatever I ended up choosing later. And in the meantime, I hoped I could figure it out… but I never did.

I even took tests to tell me what kind of skills and interests I might have. I went to UCCS (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs), and met with some guidance counselors, more than once, to help me figure out what I should do. They were extremely unhelpful, but they did recommend that I take a test to learn more. So I paid to take the “Strong’s Interest Inventory Assessment” in their testing center. I answered hundreds of questions, then met with a counselor to help me decipher the results. They gave me a “top five” list of things of potential careers that would be most satisfying for me. I don’t remember all five of them, but I certainly remember the top two. The number one career they recommended for me was “medical records technician.” Ugh. Really? I thought the test results had to be wrong, since I didn’t think that sounded interesting at all. The number two career they said I should look into was “restaurant manager.” Now that one didn’t surprise me at all! I like fast-paced work, I like working with people, and I love food… so I figured the test wasn’t a total loss.

Incidentally, the very next job I worked was at a restaurant. While I didn’t find my calling there, I did find Rachel, the woman who became my wife, and we were married. And it was discussed by my managers that I may be a good fit for a manager in training, so I thought I might have found my future, except for three major problems:

  1. Being a restaurant manager didn’t require any schooling so all the school I’d done up to that point would have been a waste of time.
  2. The job didn’t make nearly enough money (low 40k/year, generally, which isn’t worth it).
  3. The hours required were horrible for having a family (nights and weekends generally, and usually six days a week).

In the end, I worked in the restaurant industry for three different companies, and I decided, for sure, that being a restaurant manager wasn’t in the cards for me. The only way I finally found out what I wanted to do was by accidentally stumbling into marketing a few years later. But that was a slow, gradual process, and, as I mentioned, almost a total accident. I wish it had been easier to find.

If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t go to school at all.

I think if I had it to do all over again, I would have been more bold and simply told my parents that I wasn’t going to go to school, even though they wanted me to. It would have caused a rift in the family, I’m sure, but since they weren’t paying for it anyway, I don’t see how that would have mattered.

I’ve never understood society’s obsession with school.

One of the reasons I’ve continued to work on schooling despite my distaste for it, is that for my entire life, I’ve had to look at employment ads with an inferiority complex, feeling like I am less than human, since nearly every job I’ve ever been interested in or had an aptitude for has had a notice in big bold letters screaming “BACHELORS DEGREE REQUIRED,” which may as well say “if your name is Ron Stauffer, don’t bother applying.” Why do businesses require degrees when they hire people? It’s discriminatory. I have never heard a business owner give a compelling reason for requiring a degree except for the lone answer that “having a degree proves that you can stick something out for a few years.” This is an obviously false statement, since it’s supposed to prove that a person with a degree is more dependable or will be a safer bet to hire, when in fact people change jobs, stab their employers in the back, and quit without notice regardless of whether they have a degree or not.

Over the years, I’ve worked with people who have degrees, and people who don’t. I have never been able to predict with any accuracy which ones did have schooling and which didn’t. I’ve only noticed that some people in life have business sense, and some don’t. And schooling is never one of the determining factors for people who do have sense. On the contrary, I’ve met plenty of college graduates who think that graduating from college makes them an instant genius who should be hired right away, when in fact, graduating from college is only the beginning of starting a career. It’s the first step. It certainly does not give you job skills.

A question I’ve asked friends and acquaintances many times is whether or not they felt that school has prepared them for the workplace. The answer has been always been a resounding “no,” and in fact, I’ve spoken with many people who felt that their college did them a disservice by giving them the false hope that they would be well prepared, then showing up to their first day of work feeling totally lost and not knowing a thing about the job they were hired to do. One could argue that the main benefit of school is that having a degree may allow you to qualify to get hired for a job… but it certainly does not teach you how to do your job. I’ve written about this before  in the past, and I still believe it.

School is really and truly an optional experience.

Unless you’re going to be an attorney or a doctor, I think college is optional. Even with the employment section of the paper telling me I’m not good enough because I don’t have a degree, you know what’s funny? I’ve had a great job at two separate companies where my job description stated that a bachelor’s degree was required. In both cases, I was very open and honest about how I did not fulfill that requirement, but was hired anyway. Why? Well, it could me a myriad of reasons, but ultimately, I was probably hired because I was the right person for the job, and I think good hiring managers understand that most job requirements are really just “suggestions.”

Having said that, life without a degree is much harder. I’ve been in meetings and conversations many, many times where the subject of college degrees was brought up where I’ve had to tell people “I don’t have a degree.” That’s embarrassing. I feel socially shamed when I give that answer, because that’s our culture’s expectation: you simply must have a degree to do anything except flip hamburgers at McDonald’s. And that is just not true, but the perception is still there. Many times, I’ve smiled and nodded awkwardly—and painfully—as people make flippant remarks like “I didn’t study very much in college… I was too distracted by all the ‘fun’ that was available.” Maybe this is just me being a bad sport, but I’ve hated every moment I sat in class. And I’ve always hated that so many of my friends has this legendary, enjoyable, mindless experience where they could screw off for four years, get drunk and party, and still somehow magically earn society’s stamp of approval. It blows my mind.

School only now makes sense to me because I’ve been in business.

When I was 18, I didn’t know a damn thing about business. I couldn’t have; I had nothing to compare it to. What’s funny though, is I recently took Marketing 340 at CSU… it was a breeze. I understood nearly every concept that was discussed, and I found the class to be almost stimulating and pleasant. Why? For one simple reason: because I had the experience that gave me the answers. If I had taken the same class when I was 21—when I should have—I wouldn’t have had the foggiest idea what anyone was talking about.

Concepts that I think are pretty darn advanced, such as: Supply and Demand; Price Elasticity; Market Segments; Business Cycles; Forecasting Methods; Product Development Cycles; Logistics, etc: these all would have blown my mind as a young adult. Up to that point, the most business experience I’d had was mopping floors as a church janitor—hardly preparation for understanding the complex and dynamic world of the global economy.

But these days, I actually understand it. And this point, which is not insignificant, is one that colleges never seem to mention: since I’ve worked in the marketing field, I have many times analyzed a company’s product mix to help them categorize their goods and services into a hierarchy which tells them how they should treat (and market) each one of them. That’s not a foreign concept to me. But when I was reading through our marketing textbook and saw the diagram on page 309 that showed the Boston Consulting Group’s Growth-Share Matrix (BCG Matrix) with four quadrants on a graph showing Cash Cows, Dogs, Question Marks, and Stars, I almost jumped out of my chair and yelled “THERE’S A NAME FOR THIS??” …I was stunned—there was actually a chart and model to describe what I’ve been doing without even realizing for a few years. I couldn’t believe it!

There are several other examples of things I’ve learned that served to solidify my understanding of basic concepts, or to reinforce things I was already doing or knew about (SWOT Analyses and the 4 P’s of Marketing, for example), so I think these classes are helping my understanding now, but I was certainly able to get by without them before. Whereas when I was 18, I might have said something like “I don’t like my job” and leave it at that, now I might say “I don’t like my job” and understand that it’s because I haven’t moved past the second step in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, for example. (Note: that’s just an example… I actually like my job a lot).

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In the end, I don’t have any solid conclusions aside from these unfinished thoughts, but I figured I’d get them off my chest. This is where I’m at: stuck awkwardly with slightly more than an Associate’s Degree, and a lot less than a Bachelor’s Degree, with a Master’s Degree in real-life skills. …or so I’d like to think. 😉

It will be interesting to see what the future brings. I’ll post an update someday if I ever do get that degree. And I’ll apply to as many degree-requiring jobs as I possible can, just so I can get phone calls from people saying they’d like to interview me.