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Some say bypassing a higher education is smarter than paying for a degree

Georgetown's estimated expenses for incoming freshmen is $56,660 for 2010-11.
Georgetown's estimated expenses for incoming freshmen is $56,660 for 2010-11. (Astrid Riecken - For The Washington Post)

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By Sarah Kaufman
Friday, September 10, 2010

Across the region and around the country, parents are kissing their college-bound kids -- and potentially up to $200,000 in tuition, room and board -- goodbye.

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Especially in the supremely well-educated Washington area, this is expected. It's a rite of passage, part of an orderly progression toward success.

Or is it . . . herd mentality?

Hear this, high achievers: If you crunch the numbers, some experts say, college is a bad investment.

"You've been fooled into thinking there's no other way for my kid to get a job . . . or learn critical thinking or make social connections," hedge fund manager James Altucher says.

Altucher, president of Formula Capital, says he sees people making bad investment decisions all the time -- and one of them is paying for college.

College is overrated, he says: In most cases, what you get out of it is not worth the money, and there are cheaper and better ways to get an education. Altucher says he's not planning to send his two daughters to college.

"My plan is to encourage them to pursue a dream, at least initially," Altucher, 42, says. "Travel or do something creative or start a business. . . . Whether they succeed or fail, it'll be an interesting life experience. They'll meet people, they'll learn the value of money."

Certainly, you'd be forgiven for thinking this argument reeks of elitism. After all, Altucher is an Ivy Leaguer. He's rolling in dough. Easy for him to pooh-pooh the status quo.

But, it turns out, his anti-college ideas stem from personal experience. After his first year at Cornell University, Altucher says his parents lost money and couldn't afford tuition. So he paid his own way, working 60 hours a week delivering pizza and tutoring, on top of his course load.

He left Cornell thousands of dollars in debt. He also left with a degree in computer science. But it took failing at several investment schemes, losing large sums of money and then studying the stock market on his own -- analyzing Warren Buffett's decisions so closely he ended up writing a book about him -- for Altucher to learn enough about the financial world to survive in it. He thinks he would have been better off getting the real-world lessons earlier, rather than thrashing himself to pay for school and shouldering so much debt.

It's cold comfort, but the loans put him in good company: Hundreds of billions of dollars of national student-loan debt has now overtaken American credit-card debt, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, using numbers compiled by FinAid.org, a Web site for college financial aid information.


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