In this TED talk, a woman with an MBA from Harvard addresses her own, and others’, financial insecurities as she approaches retirement age. Among other points: the need to “get off one’s throne” and accept work which one might find undignified or inappropriate to one’s educational and professional achievements. Still think a famous name and a $200K diploma will protect you?


When I attended Duke back in 2002, a typical Ivy(ish) education ran about $200,000. As of 2015, it has breached $250,000 at some schools, and continues to rise:


Some of those who comment or write to me still don’t seem to understand the implications of taking out a quarter-million dollars in debt… nor do they see why I set such high standards for an education with such a superfluous price tag. Is it unreasonable to expect an extortionate experience to be anything less than golden opportunity on a silver platter?

Let’s consider the alternatives abroad.

Oxford or Cambridge, while among the most expensive in Europe, have costs that pale in comparison to their American counterparts. I’ll leave you to do your own analysis, but suffice it to say, it’s a lot less money for no less value or name recognition:


But of course, there are plenty of other choices around the globe, from Europe to Canada to Singapore. If I were to pursue another university degree, I’d either do it at a public institution (if I stayed in the US), or I’d do it abroad: the private American system simply doesn’t make good financial sense anymore. The costs are absolutely crippling if you can’t qualify for a scholarship, so unless you have an extremely compelling reason to attend a particular institution, it’s hard to see why it would make sense to bite off more than you can (probably) chew.

Maybe you wish to pursue a career in subatomic physics, and having researched your options carefully, one university stands out above all others. But unless you have such a justification for choosing a private American education above the alternatives, little will justify the sacrifice of two limbs and half your soul to attain a scrap of paper from a “coveted” educational institution whose only real gift to you may be a lifetime of debt to one or more financial institutions.

Let’s take consider some other foreign offerings for comparison. In France, the most expensive university is the École Polytechnique, with a tuition of just €12,000. In Germany and Sweden, the costs are even lower… even for foreign students. These are not Third-World countries with substandard educational systems… quite the contrary. Yet their fees do not result in decades of debt.

As borrowings mount, it’s worth asking: what’s an education worth to you? If you have to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars, just think how much more you’ll have to earn professionally to put your ROI in the black. While a select swathe of degrees may be worthwhile… are you sure that yours will be?

Am I Too Hard on Duke?

Below is an email I received which makes some interesting assertions, among others that I’ve judged my alma mater too harshly, since it is but a part of a broader American problem of churning out high-dollar, useless degrees. My responses (in bold) follow each section.

“Dear Clayton,

Your blog is a great revelation, and I agree with much of what you wrote. However, you are being unduly harsh on Duke. The biggest problem with Duke is the exorbitant cost, which was explicitly stated and accepted by you. Duke is known as a school for rich kids. If the price puts a financial strain on your family, then you shouldn’t go there. This is certainly not unique to Duke, and unremarkable private universities charge a similar amount for a vastly inferior education. It appears that Duke gave you what it promised—a great education. Furthermore, many other universities provide an awful, unpleasant, difficult undergraduate experience.”

I agree with you on the financial side of things – the trouble with private education in general is the enormous cost and potential debt incurred. In hindsight, it wasn’t a good choice for a middle-class family like mine, but my parents encouraged it. And since there are an awful lot of Americans willing to gamble $200,000+ on an education these days, I didn’t think to question this. I didn’t have an appreciation for the value of these assets at the time, either. Now that I’ve worked in industry for a while, to spend such an amount on a degree is almost unthinkable.

I’m not sure what you mean by “a great education.” Neither was my degree marketable, nor were my 4 years at Duke particularly pleasant. I’ve yet to attend any of the reunions or yearly events as a result. I did make some good friends, though. I suppose that’s the silver lining to an otherwise depressing educational experience.

There are definitely far worse schools, and I don’t dedicate enough time on the blog to these lesser private schools, which provide even less value for money than their top-rated counterparts. But the reason I focus my frustrations on top-tier universities is that they hold the promise of something better than 4 years of mundane study just to attain a bachelor’s degree, and everyone seems to believe in this promise. It almost goes without saying that a little-known school with poor ratings won’t offer much. If one chooses to attend such a school even though it’s expensive, then it begs the question, what motivated that decision? But if a student opts to attend Yale or Stanford, no one questions their logic – they just assume it will be a positive and worthwhile experience with a great ROI… but this isn’t really a safe assumption. I’ve tried to bring this to light by sharing stories of hardship from graduates of these top universities.

“A better target for your ire would be Biology. Of all the worthless majors, Biology requires the greatest amount of time and effort. The other natural sciences provide a modicum of market value, but a bachelor’s degree in Bio is as useless as most of the other liberal arts. Bio is especially painful when you compare it to other worthless majors that are less demanding and allow for some enjoyment and sanity. I am curious whether your horrible experience with Bio was due to the fact that you were a bad match for the curriculum in Biology. Most of the material in Biology requires rote memorization by brute force. Even in courses such as organic chemistry or biochemistry that come from other departments, the amount of memorization is overwhelming. Are you bad at memorization, or is memorization your weakest ability? The fact that you could readily switch to computer science indicates that your abilities lie elsewhere, not in memorization.”

In hindsight (and hindsight’s 20/20, as they say), Biology is indeed a worthless degree. I get the impression that pure chemistry and physics degrees also aren’t much good, and also require a lot of effort to complete. Virtually any core science requires a graduate degree (and likely a PhD) to be put to productive use, but my advisors never bothered to share that detail with me, so I learned this lesson the hard way.

Was I a bad match for bio? Yes, but I think not for the reasons you suggested. My memory is actually quite good, and learning to program requires plenty of memorization as well. I also study a lot of foreign languages, which is largely memorization of vocabulary, declensions, verb conjugations, etc. once you’ve mastered the grammar.

The problem for me was that I lacked passion for the material, and I couldn’t really see the point in what I was learning. I voiced this complaint to both my parents and advisers, but was basically told by both, “Don’t worry, this is how it is. You just need to complete the work and then things will be fine.” In hindsight, my gut feeling unfortunately proved to be correct: I was spinning my wheels, memorizing huge volumes of information that had almost no applicability outside the classes for which I was learning it. Oh, if only I could get that time back to spend on virtually anything else…

“Finally, Duke is somewhat innocent because much larger forces are playing a role. In the U.S., the entire university system and society are putting graduates into a terrible situation. For much of the last century, your situation would have never occurred. At that time, college was only for smart, talented, studious kids that were serious about education. A bachelor’s degree virtually guaranteed good employment because there weren’t many graduates, and a degree symbolized intelligence, perseverance, and the ability to learn. That entire framework has been utterly destroyed. All of society and every family push kids into college, regardless of ability or desire. Feckless idiots go to college because some school will accept them, and some organization will lend the money. The bachelor’s degree has lost its value. Far too many people have a degree, and a degree does not guarantee competence or intelligence. It is hard to blame Duke for modern, pervasive forces that Duke does not control.”

I totally agree with you that there are larger forces at work, and Duke is only a participant in this problem. And the problem is by no means confined to Duke – far from it – which is why I’ve made an effort to document the pattern at other universities as well.

But should we not hold schools accountable for the problems of which they are a part? To give a different example: If a society has a culture which encourages or tolerates criminal behavior, that will likely lead to more individuals committing crimes… but does that mean the individuals aren’t culpable? Should we not still judge the individuals committing those crimes, and hold them responsible for their actions? Or do we let them off the hook, and say, “It’s not their fault – their culture is to blame”? How do we fix the culture if we don’t fix the individuals who contribute to that culture?

In the case of universities, I think it’s the same thing. To address this phenomenon of expensive, useless degrees requires actions by the individual universities. It seems to me that the logical first step in this process is to hold universities accountable for the educations they provide.

Not long ago, the Duke Trinity Class of 2006 held its 10-year reunion. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long since I graduated. I wasn’t able to attend the event, since I was working abroad, but I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on where life has taken me in this decade, and particularly on the ROI of my Duke education.

So where am I, ten years on? Here’s a breakdown of what I invested in my Duke degree, and what I earned as a result of it.

Educational investment: approx. $200,000 (4 years * $50,000 / year)

Total pre-tax earnings from first lab job (summer job while attending Duke): $4160 (13 weeks * 40 hours/week * $8/hour)

Second lab job (a summer job at Duke, which got extended): $23,400 (1.5 years * 52 weeks = 78 weeks * 30 hrs. / week (avg.) * $10/hour avg.)

Third lab job (also while still an undergrad) – Jan-Apr 2005: $2720 (17 weeks * 20 hours/week * $8/hour)

Fourth lab job (the only research position I was ever able to find after graduating): $19,829 (8 / 12 months * $29,744 annual salary)

Total pre-tax income earned: $50,109

Approximate after-tax income, assuming 20% tax: $40,087

Total ROI (after-tax income minus cost of education): -$159,913

ROI per year: -$39,978 (-$159,913 / 4 years in industry)

That’s one hell of a figure, and sadly, it’s unlikely it will ever change. Mind you, these are not my total earnings over that period, but I’ve excluded jobs which had nothing to do with my degree, like waiting tables and delivering pizzas. In fact, pizza delivery paid about as much as my highest-paying lab position, and constituted a very large part of my income for a couple of years.

Fortunately, I decided to change industries back in 2010, following an extended bout of unemployment. I went back to school, got a 2-year Associate’s Degree in Computer science from a community college, and I now work as a software consultant. Here’s what my ROI looks like for my second degree:

Educational investment: approx. $5000 (2 years * $2500 / year)

First programming job: $6,667 (2 / 12 months * $40,000 / year)

Second job: $23,025 (6 / 12 months * $46,050 / year)

Third job (current job): $400,000 (4 years * approx. $100,000 / year)

Total income earned (pre-tax): $429,692

Approx. after-tax income, assuming 30% tax: $300,784

Total ROI (after-tax income minus cost of education): +$295,784

ROI per year: +$59,156 ($295,784 / 5 years in industry thus far).

Now, that’s more like it.

As of now, I’ve spent roughly equal amounts of time working as a genetics researcher and a software developer. In the research industry, I had the advantage of getting started professionally while I was still an undergrad, and had three summer jobs under my belt by the time I graduated from Duke. At the time, I figured this would ensure I’d land a good job post-graduation, but in reality, it did little for my employment opportunities. From 2006, when I graduated, to 2010, when I formally abandoned the research industry, I spent most of my time unemployed, underemployed, and working side jobs (like pizza delivery) to supplement my income.

In computer science, by contrast, I attended a school with little name recognition, and didn’t have the benefit of summer jobs to pad my resume before graduating. I also had only a 2-year degree in CS, compared to a 4-year degree in biology. I figured I’d be up against some serious challenges, and I was fully expecting that I’d need to re-enroll to finish a second bachelor’s degree in CS before I’d find a decent position. Fortunately, this was a non-issue: I was hired straightaway, and although the first couple jobs were fairly short-lived and didn’t pay particularly well, I soon landed a position at a Silicon Valley firm with high pay scales, good benefits, and ample job security, and I’ve remained there to this day.

So what’s to take away from all this? That what matters most is what you study, not where you study it. I realize this is hardly a new message on this blog, but it helps to put some hard figures on the table as proof of what works and what doesn’t. For me, at least, a minimal investment in the right field paid for itself many times over, while a much larger investment in the wrong field never paid off, and ten years on, still remains a huge loss.

As I see it, I’m not only $160,000 poorer for having attended a private university; I’ve actually lost an additional $100,000 per year by not getting into the right industry earlier on. In hind sight, had I studied CS at a state school as my first degree, I not only would have reduced my educational costs by at least $150,000, but I would also would have entered into the software industry in 2006, rather than 2011. Had I done that, I’d probably be around $600K wealthier, and I wouldn’t have the trail of bitter memories, either.

Then again, what’s done is done. Today, I’m grateful that I’ve finally found a good line of work, but still, no thanks to my private education.

The following series by the Harvard Crimson sheds light on the university’s issues with depression and suicide.

“Harvard students do not suffer from mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder at a rate higher than the general population, according to Carney, but a “high prevalence” of anxiety and depression is linked to achievement.”

“Mackenzie left Harvard after her junior year. Living at home, she was able to hold a job and receive counseling. “I met people who didn’t think less of me away from Harvard,” she says. “I actually realized that life outside of here is a lot easier. For the first time I thought, ‘Maybe life won’t actually get harder. Maybe some things will be easier outside of Harvard.’”

“For Christine, life away from Harvard was not easier at all. She took a year off after her second hospitalization in the spring of her sophomore year, but she had no money and no ties to her family to fall back on. No longer living in a dorm, she moved into an abandoned building in Central Square.”

You can read the full text at the following links.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

“Hello Clayton,
It was a huge relief to come across your WordPress and see that there are other unemployed Ivy grads out there.

I just turned 23. I graduated from Brown a few weeks ago, and I am terrified of the future. None of my job applications have gone through (I only have a B.S. in biology, so I cannot compete with PhDs). Whenever I see a job posting, I see a wide variety of skills that I have explored at least once (e.g., Stem cell culturing, eastern blots, Java programming), but my skill set is spread too thin and unspecialized.

Due to depression, I was on sick leave for a year. For part of that time, I tried to turn one of my synthetic biology projects into a company (it failed spectacularly). When I got back I was effectively a second-semester sophmore that hadn’t received any of the advising that students go through before that time. Combined with my mistake of only taking the advanced biology and biochemistry classes, my GPA sunk to a 3.2 (which is not good when you’re at a school with a reputation for grade inflation). All my companies have failed. There is only one lab I have spent more than one year in, and for most of that I was just doing data analysis. I cannot even get a letter of recommendation from my PI (my thesis project of over a year lost all of its data in a catastrophic computer failure). Since I ended up collapsing from exhaustion during the last GRE I could take and still get my scores in on time, my dreams of grad school have been at the very least postponed for 1.5 years. I doubt I’d even be able to get into one researching Aging.

I am reaching out to people I know at a few labs and trying to ask them if I can work as an unpaid intern. At the moment, I don’t know of any other way of getting back into biological research. I cannot think of anything else in my life that makes me feel complete. I neglected fostering friendships during my time a Brown (I was so focused on school). I see all my classmates going off to well paying jobs, jobs that fill them with fulfillment, and jobs that are well paying and fulfilling. I don’t have any of those opportunities. I’m still mooching off of my parents, whom I still owe tens of thousands of dollars. I am trying to avoid relapsing into depression, but I am scared.

I am trying to get online certifications in machine learning and genomic data science. I’m also working with two nonprofits, one of which I am helping to design a probiotic that would produce anti-aging molecules. Neither of these are paid, I just need something on my resume. Despite this progress, I estimate that I have about 4 months left before I will no longer be able to live on my own.

I would very much like to talk to you about your experiences. Are you open to an informal Skype interview sometime?


[I penned the following post several years ago on my computer, but apparently forgot to publish it online with the rest of the “Reason #X” articles, so I’m doing so now. Thanks to the commenter who highlighted that this was missing.]

No, really, they don’t care. Not in the professional world, anyway. Or at least, not often, and not enough to land you an offer where you’d have gotten a rejection letter instead. I’m sure there are exceptions – feel free to comment if you’ve experienced otherwise – but I’ve never encountered anyone who backflipped over my degree, and I’ve read plenty of stories from other graduates of top-tier schools who have experienced the same lack of recognition. If you’re applying to graduate school, it’s a different story altogether – in that case, your grades and your alma mater will be scrutinized – but that is a separate discussion.

Since I graduated from Duke in 2006, I’ve had probably a hundred job interviews, for positions ranging from biology lab technician to software engineer to pizza delivery driver to drapery installer to commercial truck driver. In all of those interviews, I’ve never been asked about Duke’s degrees or the types of courses they offer, or the courses I took (other than to confirm what degree I have), or my GPA. My choice of school was never a make-or-break factor in deciding whether I got a job offer. No one ever said to me, “Wow, Duke’s a really good school. You know, you’re a bit short of the skill set we’re looking for, but I’ll let it slide on account of your education and grades, and hire you anyway.” On rare occasion, an interviewer made a passing comment along the lines of, “So, Duke’s a really good school. Did you enjoy the experience?” Or else they asked me how much I loved Duke Basketball and whether I thought they’d make the Final Four this year… but never anything which connected my diploma to my ability to be successful at the company.

In virtually all cases, the interview questions focused on practical skills relating directly to the job that I would be performing, or else addressed general aspects of personal character, such as work ethic, honesty, etc. By and large, the focus has always been: Can you do the job that you’re applying for well, and without a lot of hand-holding – yes or no? The question was not, “Did you go to Harvard?” but rather, do you have the skills necessary to be a productive part of our company? And the reality is, just because a person attended an elite university does not imply that they possess any particular set of skills – technical, social, or otherwise. My Duke degree certainly didn’t equip me with much.

When I first graduated and couldn’t find work, I was frustrated with the pragmatic attitude exhibited by companies where I applied. Here I was, having devoted so much of my adolescence and early 20s to my education, not to mention having spent $200,000 on college, and having accumulated an incredible amount of stress and burnout, just to attain the diploma that I have. And that wasn’t good enough? How dare they? It was infuriating. But after dozens of rejections which hinged on a lack of applicable skills (usually the rejection went something like, “You’re obviously a bright and well-educated young man, but you just don’t have the skill set or experience we need”), I took a step back and considered that maybe I was wrong.

And you know what? When I let go of my ego and my assumptions about the value of my degree, their perspective did make more sense than mine. I mean, let’s be honest: if you are hiring manager, who would you rather bring onto your team? Someone with a degree from Brown or Princeton who has nothing but theoretical knowledge and could take months if not years of training to become a productive member of your company, or someone with a more modest academic background who nonetheless already has most of the skills necessary to perform his role successfully, and will be able to hit the ground running?

Maybe you’re thinking: but this Princeton guy is probably smarter, and has a lot more long-term potential. Down the road, he could do something revolutionary for the company, whereas the other applicant – let’s call him the “vocational skills” guy, the “regular applicant” – may do his job adequately, but in the long-term he could just be a grunt, a worker bee.

Unfortunately, intelligence and potential are only part of the applicant package. Especially in a job market where turnover is high, even in technical fields, it’s important for companies to hire people who can become productive quickly, so vocational experience does count, potentially a lot more than theoretical knowledge. Yes, the Harvard grad might have more potential, but how does the company know he’ll stick around? Ultimately, it’s a huge gamble if it requires a major investment of time and money on their part. Some large companies with a lot of resources may be able to pull this off, or may be able to provide their own internal supplemental training programs to augment the theoretical knowledge gained at a private university. But for smaller outfits, it may not be realistic at all. And if you went to a top university, you may even find that you’re judged as “overqualified,” which is really a company’s way of saying they don’t trust that you’ll stay, since they assume you’ll find a better opportunity soon and then leave (even though this may not be the case). I’ve battled to convince a few companies that I genuinely wanted and needed the job, that I wasn’t going to quit, and that there weren’t any other prospects out there, but it has yet to work. Whenever I heard the word “overqualified” in an interview, it was game over.

There are plenty of articles out there which highlight (quite rightly, in my opinion) that too few companies provide training for their staff, and thus are at least partly culpable for the shortages of skilled labor that exist in many technical fields. It certainly seems that corporations used to show a stronger commitment to training – and retaining – their staff. I don’t think it’s right that there is such a paucity of training available in many companies today, but unfortunately, that is the reality that applicants face. And turnover is indeed higher than it used to be, and fewer people commit to single-company careers the way they once did, so companies’ skepticism of applicants’ commitment is understandable, if unfortunate. In the face of this difficult reality, it is practical, industry-relevant knowledge (which public schools, especially community colleges, are more oriented toward than their far more theoretical “elite” counterparts) that counts. What doesn’t count is the name on your diploma, so you might reconsider whether all the additional sacrifices required of a private school are really worth it.

An Ivy grad in a dead-end job asked for some advice. This is the second part of the email thread (you can view the first part here):

“Hey Clayton,
Thank you so much for your answer. I had the impression that you were much to busy to answer me so in depth, so I really appreciate that.

As for further questions… I’m assuming you’ve experienced this as well.

It’s the crushing guilt that comes with seeing what other ivy leaguers have accomplished only a couple of years after graduation, and feeling so so far behind. I have a sense of inferiority and put so much pressure on myself. Now that I feel like I’m not learning any real transferrable skills at my current job I’ve been itching to get out. If you’ve dealt with this, how do you cope? I want to drop the job and pursue skills that are in high demand and that will lead to a comfortable pay. Since I’m still living at home with my parents, rent cost isn’t an issue. But at the same time, if I don’t hold a job I’ll feel like a failure, and I won’t have the courage to face anyone and say that I don’t have a job. So I’m basically questioning every decision I’ve made in the past few years so far.  I feel like I should be much farther ahead than where I am right now.

Again, any advice would be appreciated!


My response:

“Hey [redacted],
I know exactly what you mean – the guilt and sense of failure can be really painful, especially since you attended a prestigious school. Friends, family, advisers, and society in general set the expectation that an Ivy League degree must lead to success, and that if you fail, it must be your fault. But this expectation is fundamentally unreasonable, and reflects a profound disconnect between academia and the “real world.” In the end, what matters most in industry (i.e. when you apply for a job) is what you studied, not where you studied it. Contrary to what your academic advisers might have said, if there are no jobs available in the field you studied, then you’re not going to find a job, end of story. A Harvard diploma is not a “get out of jail free” card and it won’t cause job openings to materialize out of thin air. In the ten years since I graduated from Duke, I’ve been through dozens if not hundreds of job interviews for various types of positions, and the prestige of my alma mater has almost never come up, and it certainly never landed me a job where I wouldn’t have been hired otherwise. Most people simply don’t care, or at least don’t care enough to mention it. I’m guessing that your peers who have been successful post-graduation studied a more marketable degree like computer science. All of my classmates at Duke who studied CS found good jobs and are well off today; some are now running their own companies. But many others who studied less practical subjects have been left to wallow in unemployment, disappointment, and debt.

I coped with the same frustration and sense of failure for years, but the best thing you can do is let it go. Try not to obsess over your current circumstances (a mistake that I made) because it will only stand in the way of making a change. I struggled for a long time to find work in biology research, not because I was passionate about the work (it’s tedious and pays about as much as delivering pizzas), but because it’s about the only thing you can do with a biology degree and I was bent on making use of my education. It took me years to accept that this was a dead-end career path, and I wish I had changed gears sooner.

It’s also important not to blame yourself for circumstances which are out of your control. As a student, you presumably tried to make responsible decisions about your future, and the reason it hasn’t gone according to plan is probably that you didn’t have enough information when you made these decisions. You didn’t really know what to expect in the long run (and no one told you), and now you’re being punished for your ignorance. In my view, universities have a responsibility to make their students aware of the reality that lies ahead, and to help them make decisions that they won’t regret later. This advice could be relatively simple details that anyone who’s worked in industry would know – what sorts of jobs you’ll be able to apply for with a given degree, what they pay, and how stiff the competition is. But in my experience, this sort of information typically isn’t provided to students. Instead, graduates are simply thrown to the wolves and forced to figure everything out the hard way. By this point, many grads have exhausted their financial resources (and may be afraid of borrowing more money) and have no easy way to recover. And after investing a lot of time and effort in a line of study, it can be difficult to bring oneself to abandon it.

In my case, I chose my degree based on personal interests, family pressures, and a notion of how I would apply the knowledge I gained in a future career. My academic advisers always encouraged my decisions and told me biology was a good field of study. They never suggested that a biology degree was impractical or that it might lead to financial difficulties later. The issue of career was rarely mentioned, and I wasn’t encouraged to think about it, but instead was told to focus on choosing courses I thought I’d enjoy, on getting good grades, and on organizing my schedule so that I would finish all required courses and graduate on time. Throughout this whole experience, I had no idea that I was standing on the precipice of a total disaster as soon as I left the university. When I graduated, the reality suddenly hit me, and I felt helpless and totally unprepared. In the midst of unemployment, I went back to my academic and career advisers, and asked what I was doing wrong. Why I couldn’t find a job with a degree from a prestigious school? Were there were other positions or lines of work that I had overlooked which could make use of my knowledge of biology? The most irksome response that I received was simply that “Duke is not a vocational school” – which I interpreted to mean, “We take no responsibility for the professional success of our students or the utility of their degrees.”

This sickening reality is the essence of the “Ivy Lie” and the fundamental reason why I created the blog. In my view, it is the responsibility of universities to equip their students with knowledge and skills which will enable their success not only in the classroom, but for a lifetime. People who have worked in industry know the realities of the adult world and have a responsibility to pass this information onto students, who having spent their lives in the classroom and being supported by their parents can’t possibly know on their own what to expect of life as an independent professional. (And working outside academia should be a prerequisite for career advisers, although I have a feeling it isn’t.) Those who know what lies beyond college ought to communicate this information to students and ought to include considerations of employment when advising students what to study, but in my experience, they don’t. Instead, students are unfairly expected to make major life decisions in a vacuum, and are then held responsible for the consequences later, even though there was no way for them to know that their choices would end in disappointment or even disaster.

This problem is not unique to highly ranked private schools, but in my view they are particularly culpable because they typically require their students to make far greater sacrifices, both financial and personal, than their public university counterparts. If you invest a few thousand dollars in a community college degree and it doesn’t pan out, it’s not the end of the world. But if you’ve had to borrow $200,000 and spent 4 years working your ass off to get your diploma (not to mention potentially another several years of dedicated preparation in high school for the SAT, AP exams, college applications, extracurriculars, etc.) then the sting of failure is far more acute, and it’s much more difficult to come to terms with the reality of post-graduation hardship.

I spent years wallowing in denial, stubbornly insisting that my Duke degree must be worth something, and pointlessly applying for job after job with the expectation that there must be something available, and the sense that I was entitled to a taste of success in exchange for all my efforts. In hindsight, this expectation was stupid, it was arrogant, but it was established externally by my parents, my professors and advisers, my peers, and by general social perceptions of what elite education looks like and of how successful top-tier graduates should be. When the reality finally set in, I felt violated, lied to, let down, and abandoned by a supposedly prestigious institution, and it struck me that the entire draw of elite education – and the competitive mania it induces in many students and their families – was based on a misguided collective assumption that certain universities form a sort of Holy Grail of education, and come with a promise of success. They don’t: they’re just universities, with all the flaws and shortcomings one might expect of a run-of-the-mill public school… but they come with a much higher price tag, and they inspire unreasonable expectations.

The best advice I can give to you is to be proactive and move forward. Try to accept the reality of where you are (without judging yourself for it), and let go of the past as best you can. I can tell you from first-hand experience that the software industry is good, and that you should have no trouble finding a job with a community college degree in computer science. If holding down a job gives you a sense of satisfaction (which is totally understandable), then consider staying in your current position while going back to school in the evenings. Most community colleges have night-time schedules which cater specifically to people working 9-to-5 jobs who aren’t in a position to quit and become full-time students. Once you get your degree, you can even apply for a new job while still doing your old one. When you get an offer – which shouldn’t take more than a couple weeks – you can submit your resignation and start fresh with no gap in employment.

Anyway, best of luck to you, and stay positive.


An Ivy grad wrote in, asking for advice after not finding a satisfying job that fit with his degree. The first part of the email thread is as follows. This is part of a two-part post; the second part can be read here.

“Hey Clayton,

Thank you for writing that blog. I went through a similar period of doubt and depression and feelings of worthlessness a few years back after I finished my engineering degree at an ivy league school (arguably not the best place for an engineering degree) and couldn’t find employment.

So I figured more education would get me going. After 60k put back into the ivy league for a Master’s, I can say I’m fully employed. But I still feel a sense of worthlessness and still have my debt clinging on to me like a ball and chain.

I sit at a desk all day and punch numbers away in a spreadsheet. Not even doing any fancy cool stuff with it, just punching it in and sending it off. At first I was so insulted that I didn’t even get 50k salary, but now I realize that it’s probably way more than what someone doing these mundane tasks should be paid.

I probably sound like I’m complaining, which I am to some extent. I envisioned a much more meaningful and exciting future. Ah well.

Which brings me to my next point, the inspiration your blog set off in me.

Yes, I have a job and I’m grateful I get a steady paycheck, but it doesn’t do away with the fact that this desk job and its menial tasks are making me feel more empty than ever before.

I spent a couple of weeks learning programming about 2-3 hours/day and challenging myself. I spent a week or two reading (very enthusiastically) about how computer hardware works.

I want to be where you’re at now. I’m looking at a community college for computer science classes and going from there in the hopes that I’d be able to make a good living (six figures isn’t necessary) while being able to travel and having freedom. I feel that software engineering and development will allow me that freedom. I might as well do it soon, while I’m 24, rather than later when I’ll have much more responsibility.

Do you think this is a good idea? I’m just having a lot of trouble accepting that I’m braindead at this job, and an investment now in computer science and programming will pay off tremendously in the end, I would hope.

All advice appreciated!



My response:

“Hi [redacted],

Thanks for writing in, and I’m glad the blog resonates with your experiences.

As for your computer science idea, I say go for it. It’s still a vibrant industry with a lot of demand and a lot of high-paying positions that companies struggle to fill. I still get daily emails from recruiters asking if I’d be interested in a new position. If you have an interest in programming, then I don’t think you’ll regret making the change. And having another engineering degree certainly can’t hurt your prospects, either.

If your current job is unfulfilling, then don’t force yourself to keep doing it. Software development is a pretty safe bet so I wouldn’t be worried about losing out financially if you change careers. Depending on where you live, you can probably expect to make $40-60K in an entry-level job, and if you’re motivated and do good work, you can probably expect to break $100K within 2-3 years (virtually anything with “senior” or “architect” in the title will be six figures plus bonus and other benefits). And for future reference, don’t be afraid to jump ship if a better opportunity presents itself – there is surprisingly high turnover in the software industry.

A community college is definitely the most cost-efficient way to get a degree, and I’d venture to say you’ll be able to find a job after getting an associate’s degree in CS, especially since you’ve already got a master’s in something else. If you can continue working in your current position while going back to school, then that may ease the transition; I was mostly unemployed when I re-enrolled and it was a challenge not having much money to spare.

If you’re interested in traveling with work, then the key word is consulting (or consultant). The basic principle of consulting firms is that they provide specialized expertise which isn’t easy learn on the fly, making it impractical to recruit new people locally for new projects. Instead, consulting firms train their staff to be experts in a specific subject area, then fly them to clients around the country (or globe) as temporary contractors, which is costly for clients but often worthwhile for projects that don’t last that long. This is what I do, and it’s nice in the sense that you can continue living wherever you are and travel back and forth to client sites, rather than having to relocate permanently (although you can volunteer to relocate as well). On the flip side, weekly travel can become quite tiring and tedious; some of my coworkers say they feel like they’re living at the airport. If you don’t see yourself as a road warrior but you’re still interested in seeing other parts of the country, you can certainly apply for jobs nationwide and express your willingness to relocate in your application. Many companies recruit nationally, since they may not be able to find enough local talent, and I get emails from recruiters in all parts of the US. Bear in mind that (from what I’ve observed, at least) most companies will expect you to relocate on your own tab, but some do offer reimbursement for relocation expenses (as a taxable benefit).

If you’re looking to live abroad (highly recommended if you’ve not done it before), then I’d suggest looking at major consulting firms as a starting point (Accenture, Ernst & Young, etc.) or else companies with a global market presence (e.g. SAP, IBM, or my company, Guidewire). If you speak another language, that’s helpful as well. In my case, I was surprised when my company offered to send me overseas almost immediately after I joined. As it turned out, many of the older consultants with families didn’t want to move that far away, let alone uproot the wife and kids, so the company had difficulty filling openings with foreign clients. But for me, it was the perfect opportunity, and since the flights, work visas, etc. are all reimbursed as business expenses, I’ve been able to move around without having to make huge financial sacrifices. And thanks to all this business travel, I’ve racked up tons of frequent flyer miles and hotel points at no cost to myself. Over the course of 3.5 years, I’ve lived in four foreign countries (Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and currently, Great Britain), and so far, I haven’t looked back.

Anyway, I hope this info is helpful to you. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any other questions.



I thought I should take a moment to address a few emails I’ve received, along the lines of “stop complaining” or “you picked the wrong degree, suck it up.”

For what it’s worth, I’m no longer poor, and I no longer live with my mother. I have zero debt. I now make six figures as a software consultant and I have a six-figure bank balance. And I’ve been happily living abroad and traveling the world for more than three years (I’m working in Europe at the moment). So no, I’m not sour grapes. No, I’m not a failure. I made a catastrophically bad decision, but I eventually dusted myself off and found a better path.

Yet I still maintain and post to this blog – why? Because the purpose of this site is not to voice petty personal complaints (of which I have few these days) – it’s to highlight a wider cultural phenomenon which continues to threaten the economic future, not to mention the mental health, of a generation of Americans. Tuitions are still rising rapidly and millions of students every year take out massive loans that they probably won’t be able to pay back. Some remain saddled with debt for decades, never able to attain the proper independence that every adult craves. I think no greater blow can be dealt to one’s self-esteem than to invest many years of one’s life in something, only to find that it never pays off. This needs to be talked about, as much as when I launched this site. It needs to be shouted from the rooftops: look before you leap!

If all you see in this site is personal gripes, then you need to look a bit harder, because this is far bigger than me. This site is here to help you, your peers, your children, avoid making a terrible decision that could haunt you for the rest of your lives. It is a chronicle of mistakes and bad judgment calls made by me and by others like me; it is, hopefully, a collection of examples of what not to do if you want to be a success. Take my advice or leave it, but rest assured, this site isn’t about me – it’s about what’s happening in American private education.