Guaranteed Returns From College Education?!

Published: April 7, 2016 at 8:36 am

Last Updated on

As an academic it is natural that students and their parent think of me as someone who can provide reasonable counsel on higher education and career planning. However, as a hopeless romantic I am utterly incompetent  (among other things) when it comes ‘guiding’ students on ‘what to do next’.

I cannot help being baffled by questions like, “which course is better to take”? or “which line of study has better prospects”. Hopeless romantic because  I respond with stupid questions like, “what do you (or your kid) really want to do? Which activity gives you joy?”

I can only answer one type of question effectively, which unfortunately is rarely asked – “I would like to pursue XYZ career, please let me know how best I can go about it”?

I can think of three  interrelated problems when it comes to college education. Some are related to how investors behave.

1. Most children do not know what to do with themselves after school. Most parents are not willing to give their kids some time off after school to think in peace. Just like many investors they do not have a goal. At least with investing the counsellor can point out goals like retirement and children’s education which are obvious. This is not possible with career counselling. In both cases, time lost, is time lost.

2. Just like investors who do not understand the instrument, but want ‘good returns’, parents want to know if the prospects are ‘good’ without understanding the nitty gritty involved. The kid has to like the course to start with. Even then, they may not like it later. The institute maybe good, but as luck would turn out, the teachers involved maybe crappy. The kid has to work  hard, evolve into an individual capable of impressive potential employers. Simply too many unknowns. Just like I cannot start a SIP and hope it will turn out well in the end, I cannot a enroll a child in a ‘good’ college and expect guaranteed returns!

An education counsellor cannot guarantee success (= high paying job before graduation) just like a financial counsellor/advisor/coach cannot guarantee ‘high returns’.

To most parents good = strict/disciplined! How on Earth will dress code, avoiding contact with the opposite sex help the child at college level in any way! Beats me.

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Would you believe if I told you that many parents are not comfortable with their child choosing unconventional career path?! Perhaps you would! Which is why the ‘good prospect’ question comes up!

Now would you believe that many parents are not comfortable with their child ‘studying further’ after a PG degree? In particular a Phd. I find this baffling. Kids are told to become engineers. No one asks anyone to do a Phd! Almost all the time it is self-driven. If I had kid who will do that, I will pat myself on the back for a job well done. Yet there are many parents – financial well off, with no compulsion for the kid to work – who are against their children doing a Phd. They are sacred that this would make them unemployable! They have a kid who does not want to become an employee working ‘under’ a chain of bosses and wants to follow his/her passion, but they think it is a bad career move. I don’t know how to react to this!

3.  Individuality is stamped out by our society. You are considered a freak if you have independent thoughts, spend time on your own and do not hang out with friends. Our society as a whole does not have the maturity to handle people who do not conform. To me this is the root of all evil in our system. This is the reason we rarely do well in individual sports, the reason we have not produced pathbreaking scientific work in India. The sad truth is, Indians need to go out to spread their wings.

I admire a student who says, “I want to dropout of college so that I pursue XYZ”. If I see a strong enough individual, I will and have recommended that they follow their heart. I think we need more individuals to drop out of college or perhaps even school to follow their passion. We (the educational system and parents) need to provide them with the necessary support (say, with a pass to explore for a year and comeback to continue their degree).

Let us leave out those who are economically poor and are dependent on the kids to work. The rest ought not to treat college as ‘just in case’ insurance. The main reason that prevents parents from supporting unconventional career path.

To be unconventional should not be so unconventional. Our future depends on it.

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About the Author M Pattabiraman author of freefincal.comM. Pattabiraman(PhD) is the author and owner of  He is an associate professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras since Aug 2006. Pattu” as he is popularly known, has co-authored two print-books, You can be rich too with goal based investing (CNBC TV18) and Gamechanger and seven other free e-books on various topics of money management.  He is a patron and co-founder of “Fee-only India” an organisation to promote unbiased, commission-free investment advice. Pattu publishes unbiased, promotion-free research, analysis and holistic money management advice. Freefincal serves more than one million readers a year (2.5 million page views) with numbers based analysis on topical issues and has more than a 100 free calculators on different aspects of insurance and investment analysis. He conducts free money management sessions for corporates  and associations(see details below). Previous engagements include World Bank, RBI, BHEL, Asian Paints, TamilNadu Investors Association etc. Contact information: freefincal {at} Gmail {dot} com (sponsored posts or paid collaborations will not be entertained)
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  1. dronacharya and kripacharya first assessed what pandavas and kauravas are good at and then decided to teach them what they are suited to apart from common syllabus of horse riding etc basic for kshatriya princes.

    yudhishtra was taught scriptures, bhima wrestling arjuna archery nakula sword fight and sahadeva astrology

    they didnt call kunti everytime for parent teacher meeting when bhima failed in archery every time and told him he is a genius he can do many things if he attended tuition daily at 4 am

  2. Most parents are worldly wise when they insist that their children choose careers with ‘good prospects’. The fact is that in fields such as acting, singing and sports, winners take all. Dhoni and Kohli might have made crores following their passion, but the #1000 ranked cricket player does not make as much money as a #2000 ranked software engineer. Encouraging children to study English Literature without thinking of job prospects is reckless. And in a country without social safety nets, bankruptcy protection etc., having a job with decent pay trumps ‘following your passion’ [whatever that means].

    Talking of passion, Scott Adams [of Dilbert fame] says that passion is over-rated. Success brings passion and not the other way around. And even the most passionate job you take up has its good parts, bad parts and sheer drudgery.

  3. My view as a parent is that you need to help your child find the intersection of 3 things – what they love to do, what they are good at and thirdly a product or service that is valuable enough to someone else that they will pay you for it.

    At the end of the day, you need to PRODUCE something that others will pay for! IF you are good at it and love to do it, success and satisfaction comes easier than in other situations.

  4. Our society as a whole does not have the maturity to handle people who do not conform.

    Could not agree more – very well put.

  5. Excellent post Sirji,

    It’s all boils down to competition aka rat race with other kids..
    How many of us are ready to send the kids to a year of backpacking trip before he starts the college?The fear of missing out on one year is nightmare chasing us.
    Our society doesnt shuns “failures”.. they fail to respect the effort.
    Partly our economic scenario isto be blamed for that.

    point number 3 is absolute gem.I could personally relate to.If you spend time on your own, you are considered nerd and something wrong with you.. going by the crowd is more popular..

  6. Brilliant article. In fact our education system should be tweaked to meet the requirements of these kids who need a “Degree” to get a job. We should create a intermediatory layer between college and school (Post+2) which will mass produce such candidates for jobs. Only those interested in pursuing education should set foot into a college. And those kind will definitely look beyond a PhD, in my view

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