Higher Education Alternatives

A Radical Question

Allow me to give you permission to ask a radical question.

What if you didn’t go to college?

Or, if you’re a parent, what if you didn’t send your young adult to college?

Hold on, hold on, stay with me!

I know it’s crazy, but let’s just ask the question and see where it takes us.

Studies Show…

Actually, according to the data, you’re probably already asking this question, you’re just scared to admit it in public.

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According to Populace (a non-partisan think tank that does very accurate, and very expensive, social surveys) when Americans are given 57 priorities for their children, enrolling in a college or university ranked 47th! However, they believed college was other people’s third highest priority.

This shows that most of us are pretty skeptical about college, but we’re afraid to admit it to each other. 

So, let’s be brave together.

What if attending college wasn’t the default post high school option?

After all, college is seriously expensive.

The Cost of a College Degree

dollar, dollars, money

The least expensive option (attending a public college or university in state) averages $100,000. Earning a degree from a private college or university on average will cost you $224,760.

After sifting through lots of websites the general agreement is that, after financial aid, a typical student will spend $77,000 – $131,000 out of pocket for a college degree.

For our purposes let’s take the middle and say most people after financial aid end up paying something like $100,000 to go to college.  

For that eye-watering amount of money, you get the opportunity to live in a campus bubble and get indoctrinated by tenured professors who probably have never, and will never, have to earn a living outside of that bubble.

The Result of a College Degree

At the end of four or more years living in an environment that you will never experience in the real world (lots of free time, everyone around you is the same age, meals are provided and dishes washed for you) the experts say you will have a credential that is worth $1.2 to $1.7 million over the course of your working career!

Sounds great, right? 

Well, since we’re being brave, let’s think about that critically.

What if You Did Things Differently?

What if you didn’t go to college and instead worked 30-40 hours a week at your local Chick-Fil-A? At typical wages, you would earn $90,000-$116,000 during the time you would have been in college.

That brings up an interesting point.

The real cost of a college degree

The real cost of college isn’t just what you spend, it’s also what you failed to earn, since instead of working and making money you’re going to class and spending money.

That makes the real cost of college $216,000. That’s the $100,000 you spent plus the $116,000 you could have earned working full-time at Chick-fil-A.

Let’s set aside the fact that if you commit to working full-time for four years you will almost certainly get a job that pays more than Chick-fil-A.

It gets worse.

Most people don’t have $100,000 ready to spend out of pocket for college.

That means a loan.

Let’s say you had $50,000, but you needed to borrow the rest.

At 5.5% interest over ten years, you’re now looking at the degree costing $115,116 ($50,000 paid out of pocket, $50,000 borrowed and paid back with interest at $543 a month).

That means total cost factoring in your lost wages would be $231,116.

The real cost of going to a traditional college is getting close to a quarter of a million dollars.

Is it worth it?

You’re probably thinking, “Sure, that’s a lot of money, but with a college degree being worth $1.2-$1.7 million over my career isn’t that worth it?”

A faulty comparison

First, the studies that make that comparison derive their million-dollar-plus number by comparing all of the jobs where people have a degree against all of the jobs where people don’t have degrees.

That includes fast food workers and entry-level jobs in every industry.

That’s not a fair or reasonable comparison.

A better comparison

If you compared the salaries of everyone with a degree against the salaries of everyone in the skilled trades you wouldn’t see a million-dollar gap.

You might see a gap the other way, with the average salary in the skilled trades being higher!

And instead of paying almost $250,000 for their credentials, people in the trades get paid to earn their experience and credentials! 

That being said, for the sake of our argument let’s believe the million-dollar bonus for degree holders.

Erasing the Earning Gap

What if we made it our goal to erase that earning gap? 

The scenario

You don’t go to college. You work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for $17 an hour and you never get a raise.

That’s $34,000 a year, $136,000 over four years.

A few assumptions

In our example, we will assume our young adult is living at home, which minimizes expenses such as rent and food. Still, there are transportation, taxes, and other expenses to consider.

Our young adult is working specifically to beat the college degree earning gap, so he sets goals, keeps a tight budget, and manages to save half of his gross earnings: $68,000. 

Potential results

At the end of that four years he takes that $68,000 and invests it in stock market index funds. The average historical return on the stock market is 10%.

In forty years (the length of a career) that investment will pay $3,077,629.77.

That’s almost twice as much as the best projection of what a college degree is worth

Are there variables that could impact this result?


There’s no guarantee of a 10% market return.

It may be difficult to save half of gross earnings.

On the other hand, a hard worker isn’t likely to get zero raises over four years, and if the intention was to make money it’s highly likely that you could earn more than $17 an hour. 

Comparing the risks

What do you think is a safer risk:

  1. The risk that you make less on your investments over 40 years (money that you actually have)?
  2. Or the risk that your degree ends up not being as effective as you thought and doesn’t deliver a $1.7 million return?

Bottom line? If you think you have to go to college because if you don’t you won’t make enough money you need to think again.

Reality check

Unless you can earn a degree in a way that costs far less than average, or you are earning a degree you are certain will enable you to work in a field that pays far more than average, between costs, loans, and lost earnings, college is likely to cost you far more than not earning a degree. 

What about the non-monetary reasons to go to college?

I hear you.

You’re saying going to college isn’t all about the money. There are other, very important reasons to go to college.

I agree.

There are important things to learn and accomplish during early young adulthood (ages 18-25).

It’s also worth asking, “If the math looks so great why aren’t there a lot of young people doing this?”

That’s a solid question.

The answer is, “Because it’s hard.” 

Taking college classes, studying for tests, writing papers, attending lectures and labs can be hard, but going to college isn’t hard. It’s what everybody does and the system is optimized to help anyone who wants to sign up, borrow, and pay.

Doing something different is hard.

It’s not only hard to start, it’s hard to keep doing it.

Get Uncomfortable

Doing something different from everyone else, like working and saving money, takes adult level skills.

Rightly or wrongly we assume that college will teach those adult level skills.

So how do you learn those skills without going to college?

First, let’s get specific about what skills we’re talking about. 

What Does a Young Adult Need to Learn to Become a Thriving Adult?

What does a young adult need to learn to become a thriving adult?

There are probably thousands of ways to answer this, but based on my experience working with thousands of young adults and their parents here are the things that are almost universal. 


viewpoint, telescope, distance

A child and a young adult has an imagination for the future that is largely shaped by his or her parents and immediate surroundings.

You do your schoolwork and chores as dictated by your parents, and play games and participate in activities as dictated by your immediate environment and peers.

Becoming an adult means developing your own vision of your future. Deciding what kind of life you want to live, what to spend your time on. Making your own decisions about your faith and the big questions in life. 

More specifically, self-discipline.

The ability to take full responsibility for your life.

The willpower and strength to do things that have to be done, even if the things that need to be done are hard and not very fun. 


The ability to work to realize your vision. Effective adults are able to self motivate.

Motivation is the ability to imagine the future vision, and make a solid decision about what needs to be done next to get there, combined with the discipline to take that next action and move forward. 


adult, artisan, tools

Becoming an adult requires gaining the skills necessary to live independently and create value in the world.

By “live independently” I mean the ability to support yourself and a family. To do that will mean building skills in creating value, doing work that benefits others, and in return earning compensation.   


team, friendship, group

Being a young adult is an intense time in your life. Intensity forges deep and lasting relationships. The kind of relationships that are often formative in your life and lead to critical professional development, lifelong friendships and often marriage.

You want to be part of a community, or communities, that connect you to good people and good relationships.  

Can’t I Do That on My Own?

Can you figure all of this out on your own and make it happen?


Will you?

In most cases my experience says…


Not because you’re not smart or motivated, but because you are already expending a lot of energy and thought on doing something different in the first place! It takes even more time and energy to figure out how to optimize the thing you are doing differently.

How Unbound Trains Young Adults to Thrive 

If I may be so bold, here is where I would suggest that Unbound, through our Ascend program, can help. 

Ascend is designed to help students develop a vision to not only live but to thrive.

Participating in the program and earning each year’s certificates teaches discipline.

The program and the community provide and teach motivation.

Every aspect of Ascend is designed to teach the skills necessary for students to thrive. And everything happens in the context of a community

First, and most importantly, students stay embedded in their local community.

You can do Ascend anywhere you have an internet connection and our suggestion is to choose to do it from home.

Which do you think makes the most sense in terms of building relationships with people older than you?

  1. Going to college where most of the adults you meet are professors who earn their living working in the campus bubble with tenure?
  2. Or building relationships with people in your community who are the leaders and employers who can show you how to serve your neighbors and can offer you a job?

Second, Ascend connects students to a national community of elite students who are their peers.

Four live events take place every 12 weeks throughout the year, bringing that community together. Each event is designed to be intense, teach practical, relevant skills, and forge relationships.

Three years and 12 events will result in lifelong friendships, an ever-growing elite professional network, and the opportunity to attend a lot of weddings. 

What is the cost?

Ascend does cost money, so let’s take a look at our math again. 

You work 30 hours a week, $17 an hour, 46 weeks a year (that’s two weeks of vacation and four weeks off for Ascend events) for three years.

That’s $23,460 a year.

You save half of that each year ($11,730) and spend $9,735 of what you saved for Ascend.

That leaves you with $1,995 in savings a year.

After three years you have $5,985 in the bank, plus you have a high-level Ascend certificate, a national network of friends and connections, and lots of training and experience in the skills every employer is looking for. 

For your fourth year, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that you can earn a little more than $17 an hour.

How about $25 an hour? Sound reasonable?

Now you can work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, resulting in $50,000.

You spent three years living on $11,730, so do that again and you can add $38,270 to the $5,985 you already had in the bank.

Invest that for 40 years and based on historic market returns from the last 40 years you get $2,262,962,78.

Still far more than even our most optimistic hypothetical (and hard to believe) “degree bonus.”

And you can do all of this while connecting to your local community, building a national network of deep relationships, and learning and practicing the skills you really need, as you live and work in the real world. 

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