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.