For Me, College Wasn’t the Answer

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Rackspace servers. Courtesy photo.

Rackspace servers. Courtesy photo.

Omar QuimbayaMy grandfather strongly believed in getting an education and encouraged me to go to college. In his generation, an education meant having the means to be successful in the world.

It was not just my grandfather; everyone told me that a college degree was the way to establish a successful future. I followed their advice. However, things did not turn out as promised.

After receiving my degree from UTSA in English with honors, I have struggled to find a career that matters. Similarly, I see many in my well-educated generation stuck in dead-end jobs in retail, call centers, or slinging lattes. Our degrees did not equate to a future.

I'm not singling out UTSA. They are doing what all other universities are doing to try and stay competitive and recruit students, but nationwide, higher-ed is getting it all wrong.

In retrospect, college was not student first; it was institution first. We were required to take classes that were irrelevant to possible future careers.  We were told this was to make students more “well-rounded.” We borrowed massive amounts of money in order to pay a rising tuition rate to support fancy campuses, athletics, salaries and other fees. We bought a degree that has been dumbed down over time in order to push more paying students through the system, yet our degrees didn’t provide skills needed to perform in the adult world.

The generation of my grandfather and mine are very different. It is still important to get an education, but the university may not be the right answer for everyone. This realization has made many people like me very angry, especially when my alma mater continues to call me night after night asking for donations.

What’s next for me, though, is not to continue trying to make use of the degree I received but to learn new skills for a meaningful career.

Through the network at Geekdom, I have begun to teach myself how to be a computer programmer and recently received a scholarship to attend the nine-week Codeup programming bootcamp in February. Through these avenues, I'm confident that I will find the job that I want to do earning a great salary. That being said, becoming a programmer is not all about the money; it’s about gaining a new literacy in order to stay relevant in the job market.

It’s also about building things that matter because they make life easier for others.  I want to do things so I can sit back and say, “I did that. I built that.”

In the end, the same leg up that an education would have given my grandfather is the one I will get by learning a skills outside of the conventional education institutions.


Omar Quimbaya is a native of San Antonio, Texas, and a graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio. He currently freelances as a social media consultant, writing blogs, newsletters, and social posts for different companies. He is teaching himself how to be a computer programmer.  Omar received a scholarship to attend the Codeup programming bootcamp in February and counts it and others as clients for his social media consulting.  He is currently on a plane to China to get married (this time in a Chinese ceremony) and visit his in-laws.


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Part One: Disruption in Higher Ed and the $10,000 Degree


17 thoughts on “For Me, College Wasn’t the Answer

  1. So happy we’ll be building fantastic things together during and after Codeup, Omar Leonardo Quimbaya! Lovely piece.

  2. I graduated from UTSA – The University of Texas at San Antonio with a bachelor’s in English emphasizing in professional writing. I’m truly fortunate to have a career that I love and believe in, though it did take some time to find my true passion. I do tell people that college isn’t for everyone, because it’s not.

  3. I agree with Nicole. I also graduated from UTSA with a BA in English and a concentration in Professional Writing. I took advantage of every scholarship available to me and came out debt free and am currently in a career that I love. English is a versatile degree that can mean whatever you want it to. I would like to see a counter argument to this article. It is important to be proactive rather than playing victim.

  4. This is sheer insanity. While I agree that college isn’t for everyone, well neither is a middle to upper class life. If you have the means and intelligence to major in something like science, engineering, or mathematics (like me) America needs more people like you. We are in desperate need of people with these skills and if you only pursue training certificates, these will not get you in the door to most workplaces.

  5. I would point out that the unemployment rate for a college graduate is 4% much lower than the national average. Many people forget with inflation your loans lose value, for example at one point not too long ago Incarnate Word costed $4k a semester, 20 years from now those loans will lose value. Another reason to stay educated is with an increase in minimum wages jobs may not hire people without degrees, or high school diplomas, so it’s a big gamble. And truthfully the culture will never change that much, who would want a doctor who didn’t go to school? If you had a building budget of $500k and needed to find an IT manager to manage the other IT people would you turn down someone with a degree and the same experience? What if you wanted to work for NASA? San Antonio has one of the lowest degrees per square mile in the country (less than 500), in Texas we import about 130,000 college grads a month from other sates. I really hope this isn’t a movement that takes off in our state because we already have enough higher education problems.

  6. College is institution first because the primary thing it is structured to teach you is how to conform to the structure. Nonetheless, going to college puts you in an environment where knowledge is archived, and smart people interact. Learn more than they are teaching you, or you will learn nothing worth using.

  7. I would argue that the problem isn’t the degree, but the expectation of what it provides. Education is indeed a path to a better future, but a university degree is not, nor has it ever been, a technical, training degree. It’s not a ticket to a better job. It opens minds, it opens doors. If anything, our problem is that we are not clearly conveying that to young people when we encourage education.

    We need to reconsider the value of technical training schools. These are a great option for those looking for a job training degree. We need to not confuse this need with university education.

    Had I not gone to college (the first generation in my family to do so, though 3 of 6 older siblings preceded me), my life and knowledge would have been very very different. Though a political science and biology major, I took courses in Brazilian poetry (Portugese and English), Asian literature, South American politics, philosophy, economics, cultural anthropology, music appreciation, art history. Did any of these lead to a specific job? Not directly, but they did open my mind to the world. Ultimately I earned two graduate degrees which were more training-oriented and did lead to specific jobs, yet I continually draw on the experiences I had as a college student in each professional path I’ve taken, and these enhance my life as well as my teaching of current college students.

    You’re right that a university education isn’t for everyone, particularly if it means substantial debt. Instead, university should be financially available to all who have the desire and inclination to get a university education. At the same time, there should be financially available options for technical training for those less interested in what a university can offer.

    But it did teach you something invaluable – how to write. You do it well, and that is something beyond measure. The ability to communicate effectively in writing is critical. You will use that regardless of your career, whether you realize it or not. My science university students groan every time I give them a writing assignment, but I hope one day, they will appreciate it.

    • Cherise

      We wish you would write a stand-alone article for the Rivard Report extolling the virtues of your university experience. Your Comment is so thoughtful and well rounded, obviously written by a thoughtful, well-rounded (and educated) individual.

  8. While I agree with those who say English is a very versatile degree (as is mine in anthropology) and also those who note how much lower the unemployment rates are for folks with a 4-year-degree, I do think Omar is making some super important points about the way in which college advising works today and the inflexibility of colleges that often fail to encourage more well-rounded offerings that might blend computer coding and English for a person like Omar who actually is interested in social media or another career that connects his ability to write with computer science and technology.

  9. While I would be remiss if I were to suggest that higher education be written off wholesale, I will say that my own experience has mirrored that of the author’s to some degree (no pun intended). What I will say to those pursuing a college degree, be aware that, for many professions, a college degree will be, at best, a ticket for *entry* to a career. It will not (usually) be a ticket straight to a senior/management position with the salary and benefits to match. That expectation is simply not realistic. Doctors, Lawyers, and others with very specific degrees and certifications will have different experiences, of course, but also have the time and monetary investment to match.

    In my case, I graduated with a B.A. in history from UT Austin in 2000. Career prospects were rather bleak then; I was looking to go into teaching, but history teachers were not in demand. I decided to stay with company I have been working for since high school, and now I am the manager of a team of analysts doing heavy database work, reporting, etc. – certainly not history. While I have achieved a fair amount of success, it was not a direct result of my education. While I do find value in my experiences in college and I value my education, it was definitely not the lottery ticket to a great career many would make it out to be.

  10. The author’s attitude is clear from his statement “We bought a degree…” You don’t “buy” a degree. You pay tuition, of course, but you earn a degree.

  11. Both Cherise and Omar make good points. Both are correct. People choose one of the two paths with either great or limited success. It’s on the individual to make the best decision but you can find success either way.

    I think community college is perfect to use as a base and the individual can add on knowledge and skills from there.

    Maybe it would be better to develop resource institutions. Institutions people can go to and develop themselves with the help from aides (professional teachers, advisors) using the Internet and community resources. It would be an improved version of a library. Here, you can sign up for classes at your leisure. A place like Geekdom with education as a priority. You can get a certificates for every class and they would be certified by an agency.

  12. I disagree with the currently fashionable idea that you go to college to get a good job. When I was in college, working was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, among the people I called my friends, work was something we considered base and demeaning and only a means to acquire money to buy books, food, or beer. We considered the person who could go longest without work as the person to emulate. The world my friends and I occupied was filled with long discussions of philosophy, poetry, aesthetics, and metaphysics. My friends were post-punk rockers, frustrated poets, anarchists, nihilists, occasional college-students, hangers-on, and groupies. The filmmaker Richard Linklater captured part of this world in his classic film, Slacker.

    Of course, we were all completely out of touch with the real world and oblivious to the hypocrisy at the center of our lives: it was our parent’s money that allowed us the luxury of living our poetry-studying and work-despising existence. Some of us had to take out student loans and others had Pell grants, but I and my circle of friends were mostly middle-class kids whose parents wanted to give them the education that they had never been able to afford. So they footed the bill for the dorm room or the tiny duplex a block from campus, and paid for the food we ate.

    We didn’t think about getting a job, and we weren’t supposed to. Our parent’s wanted us to get an education. Getting a job would come later.

    When I look back, I realize that my years at the university were the only years in my adult life when I had the luxury to really learn. They were the only years when I could take a break from working and the pursuit of money to discuss Milton, read Bertrand Russell, and try to wrap my head around Algebra and Anthropology. They were the years when I realized that this world is made up of billions of people who don’t think like I do and don’t look like I do. They were years when I was transformed from a boy who grew up in a small, almost all white Texas Hill Country town to a man who could speak two languages and who had the self-confidence to travel half way around the world and find a job and a career.

    When I read Mr. Quimbaya’s article it made me very sad. What Mr. Quimbaya does not realize, I suspect, is that he will spend the next forty years worrying about making money. It will influence and inform every decision he makes and will be the motivation behind every action he takes. Hopefully, Mr. Quimbaya will be able to save enough money, so that his last years on this planet can be filled with concerns other than money.

    My advice to him would be not to confuse getting a skill with getting an education. They are not the same thing. Skills can be learned quickly and with practice. Getting an education is slow and requires teachers who constantly challenge you with tasks at the limits of your abilities. Getting an education is frustrating because it involves a lot of failure and learning from mistakes.

    Mr. Quimbaya, if you want a skill, enroll in a two-year program in a community college. There are plenty of graduates from technical programs who make more than people with bachelor’s degrees. But if you want an education, go to a university. Learn poetry, physics, nuclear engineering, or whatever you want, but do it for the pursuit of knowledge, not the pursuit of money. There is plenty of time for that in the rest of your life.

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