Is it worth going to a private college?  Recently, when I was attending the Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders’ meeting, one future college student asked Warren Buffett about the value of going to a private business school. The student indicated that private school tuition now (2015) is around 60K per year.  Buffett quickly answered without any hesitation and a strong tone in his voice that there is no education in the world worth 60K per year. “But private schools keep doing it because they still have people who are willing to pay,” he said. Charlie Munger quickly capped the answer with a humorous comment by saying that he never went to a business school [although he is one of the most successful people in business].

Can anybody afford private schooling anymore - Image courtesy of criminalatt at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Can anybody afford private schooling anymore – Image courtesy of criminalatt at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Sadly, I was one of these parents who paid the price to send my son to a private school – 60K per year.  I usually don’t regret much in my life , but I honestly regret paying this amount of money for a private education.  Although my son had a good education which he could have gotten at a state school, he did not graduate.

Several months ago my son called me telling me that he was not going to finish school.  I was surprised and scared (I asked myself “How about the thousands of dollars we spent in school tuition, two years private and one year public, in the last three years?”)  I asked him with hesitation, “What is your plan?” He answered, “I am going to look for a job in New York City.” I seriously was skeptical of this. “How on earth will you find a good job in computer programming  without a degree?” I said.  He was very confident “I am going to find a job very quickly.”  I told him that his mom and I would be happy to help proofread his resume.

Do we need a college degree Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Do we need a college degree – Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My fear of my son’s leaving school was getting bigger and bigger in my mind.  I decided to ask people on Quora: My son is an excellent programmer. He decided to not finish his college degree. Is this a good decision? What should I do?  Most people were surprisingly supportive of the decision as they recounted their own personal stories.

Within two days, he sent us his resume.  When I opened the attachment, I was horrified. He placed the picture of his tattoo on his right arm in the resume saying “I love … functional programming so much I even have a lambda tattoo and a Haskell monad tattoo! My love of functional programming goes more than skin deep!”  I asked him, knowing that he would not listen to me, if he would allow me to forward his resume to a friend of mine a senior programmer to get his opinion.  After he agreed, I sent it to my friend, and within five  minutes I received his response “If I saw that in a resume, or someone even  mentions that they have a tatoo or that they painted it on their car because they “love it so much ” the resume is deleted or in the trash bin — as a hiring manager, I want technical creds not expressions of love :-)” He continued, “He may get in some uber-hip programmer clique with the picture – but those are rare.”

Luckily my son listened to my friend by removing the picture of his tattoo. Within four weeks, he had 12 job interviews and one job offer. I am still amazed until now that he had all of these interviews and that he was offered a job as if he had his degree.

Being curious about how many people did not finish their degrees in high school or college but had good jobs, I did some digging. I was pleasantly surprised with many examples; in addition to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg,  none of whom finished college, I discovered that  Dr. Alvin Roth a professor at Stanford University is a Nobel prize winner who did not finish high school.  Dan Gilbert, a professor in psychology at Harvard University and spokesman for Prudential Life Insurance,  did not finish his high school.

In fact, Peter Theil, the founder of PayPal, established the Theil Foundation for students not to go to college but to build their own startups by writing on his website. “Two years. $100,000. Some ideas just can’t wait.”  What was amazing about Mr. Theil was that he was turned down to serve as clerk in the Supreme Court by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy twenty years ago. This trend of not going to college spread like wildfire in the programming community. To counter this,  a professor of Stanford said on 60 minutes that students should stay away from this misguided campaign.

What do you think? Is private college education worth it? Is it OK to not finish your college or high school degrees?

This blog is published every week on Saturday before 10:00 pm. US Eastern time. Thank you for reading my blog. I would love to hear from you.

4 thoughts on “What do you think? Is private college education worth it? Warren Buffett says: No! by Suf Alkhaldi

  1. I believe that certain colleges manage to create a climate that opens its students’ minds and hearts to intensive learning. High cost of attending is no guarantee of such a climate; I point to the typical bright but under-motivated students as the “drag” that keeps a college or university from greatness. But, indeed, there are some amazing liberal arts colleges, where the climate of high expectations drives students to unembarrassed hard study. My son attends such a place and I consider the money well spent. For the same reason that we invest in early, primary, and secondary schooling, we should seek wise investment in our children’s higher education.

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  2. Hi Charles,

    I totally agree with you, but private schools is really a heavy ticket for parents. My fear is growing higher becasue private schools are getting better in presenting themselves like a fantasy dream, helped with big data and marketing firms which mastered the game. Some private schools, as the one your son went to, is worth the money. Some, like the one my son went to, is not worth it.
    My message is that parents have to be mindful of the high fees of private school education, and the amount of commitment comes from the families and students.Thank you for reading my blog.

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  3. Hi Suf – I recently received an email linking back to your web site and was puzzled for a while as to how we were connected. After reading a couple of your posts (interesting, by the way) I clicked on this topic and realized that, without being specific about institutional names, you must be the father of someone my son was friends with at S*** R***, and we must have exchanged email in the past. The comments about functional programming nailed it, as my son was part of that religion also.

    I agree with the questions raised about the intrinsic value of higher education. However, I think that Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, etc. are statistical outliers and you can’t use them to determine some general truth about the population as a whole.

    As much as none of us like to admit it, most of the opportunities come from organizations that use the degree as a screening filter. Although a self-taught, passionate programmer could well outperform someone with a BS in Computer Science from MIT, the fact that the MIT grad has already cleared a couple of hurdles by being accepted by MIT and graduating reduces the hiring risk for the company.

    Unfortunately, I think there’s a crash in the future for most colleges without large endowments or minimal operating costs. The costs for educating the most recent generation of students were paid for by a combination of the savings of the previous (our) generation and student loans. Both the savings and the ability to borrow will disappear as the demographics advance to the next generation.

    It will be interesting to see what the educational landscape looks like in 5 to 10 years – my guess is that institutions in the middle start disappearing, with top-tier colleges and community colleges surviving.

    –Doug

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    1. Hi Doug,

      It is really nice to see your comment. I totally agree with everything you wrote. I do feel that spending too much money in private education is almost a gamble. Public schools do a good job as well in educating people without making them or their parents on debts for next 10 years. Saying that and as someone who hold three degrees (graduate and undergraduate) in molecular biology, computer science is a very unique discipline. Many people can get jobs without a degree. This fact really puzzled me. I recently offered a job to someone who does not have a degree as a part time with a salary around 100K and he turned down. I think that to be hired as programmer, you need to pass programming exam which this is not true for so many fields.
      Any way, I am really very grateful for this comment, and I hope your son is doing well. Please keep in touch.
      Suf

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