Think different. Apple made the phrase famous. To me, it means to be skeptical; to not accept information at face value. FIRE itself is based on rejecting normalcy for something different.
One part of life that we all should question is attending college. I’ve had people sneer at me in disgust when they ask me about plans for my own children and I say this:
I don’t have a 529 plan. Heck, I may not even pay for my children to go to college.
Higher-level education is a good decision for most, but certainly not all. How many people do you know who are buried in debt from a useless degree? Why not consider a trade or a coding school or even entrepreneurism?
I admit that I’m biased. I earned a degree in biology and chemistry and graduated magna cum laude. Despite graduating at the top of my class in rigorous fields, I worked as a computer programmer. I had not written a line of code prior to age 24, but here I am, retired. Because of a computer language I taught myself in a couple of weeks. Thanks, Java!
But this post isn’t about me. It’s about Tyler, an amazing individual I met at UK Chautauqua. Tyler was all set to go to school, but then he didn’t. And he’s better for it.
Thank you to my amazing friend Elisabeth for this fascinating interview. And just for fun, it’s worth noting that while Tyler skipped college altogether, Elisabeth went to Stanford. Ahh, the contrast! Take it away Elisabeth and Tyler!
Is college really necessary? Does it make financial sense?
It’s a hot topic in the FIRE community, prompting widespread speculation on would happen if a promising young individual who could get into college chose instead to begin a career immediately. The numbers suggest that such a person could readily come out ahead.
This summer, at Chautauqua, Mr. 1500 and I met someone who has tested this theory, and provides evidence for its accuracy – though, as with anything in life, there are tradeoffs.
Meet the Uneducated Professional, Tyler Kemp.
He just turned 23, has zero debt, a growing index fund portfolio, and an enviable sales position with a global transportation corporation that takes him around the country to meet with clients and deliver presentations. It’s a stark contrast to his friends from high school, most of whom are now graduating with major student loan debt and little to no work experience.
I was determined to learn more about his story.
Elisabeth Andrews: When did you decide you wouldn’t go to college? What were your parents’ thoughts about that decision? Did they have college degrees?
Tyler Kemp: Actually, my parents didn’t attend college, but most of my family did. My parents were sort of the misfits of their families, in contrast to their siblings, who were very pro-college. But they expected me to attend college, and I expected it, too. The message was everywhere that you’ve got to go to college or you’ll be a loser. I was a good student. I got As and Bs. The thought was that I was smart so I should go.
I grew up in Plainfield, Illinois, and my plan was to go to Columbia College in Chicago to study film. I was accepted, but when I visited I was certain that I didn’t fit in. It was too artistic. Everyone had gauges and purple hair and piercings. I didn’t think I could be myself, and it wouldn’t be worth $40K a year and taking out loans for that. I’d been working and saving money since I was 15 and I couldn’t stand the thought of spending all my savings and owing even more money for something I wasn’t sure I wanted or needed.
My alternative plan was to start in junior college and take some time to figure things out, since art school didn’t seem to be the right choice. Most of my friends took off for 4-year colleges, and there I was going to the local junior college, even though I was one of the “smart kids.”
EA: How soon into attending junior college did you decide it wasn’t worth it?
TK: You mean how soon was I thinking, “I hate this and it sucks?” Immediately.
It was an absolute joke. It was like high school all over again. Maybe worse. People were cheating. I wasn’t learning anything of value.
I stayed for a semester because I didn’t know what else to do. But then my father, who is in the trucking business, suggested that I join him in North Dakota, where there was a sudden oil boom and they needed dispatchers to work out delivery schedules and manage the drivers there. The operation at that time was like the Wild West, trucks and trailers everywhere with no organization.
EA: So, you had an in through your father?
TK: Yes, I was definitely lucky to have that. But for what it’s worth, he just got me the interview. I had to convince the company I was a good bet, which I did with my track record from working at Lifetime Fitness all through my junior and senior years of high school. My dad didn’t even stay out there. I was completely on my own. And given the circumstances of the economy in ND, there were many other high-paying jobs for non-college-educated people. Walmart was paying people $20 an hour up there. The question was whether you were willing to work or not — you didn’t need to know somebody.
And really, no one wanted to go up to Williston, North Dakota to work the night shift dispatching tanker trucks. It was not glamorous. Nothing but oil fracking sites, the whole place smells like gas, and the ratio of men to women was 40 to 1. I didn’t meet many single people my own age. You can literally go a little nutty up there if you stay too long.
EA: You could have been partying at college with your friends and instead you’re working the night shift in the middle of nowhere.
TK: I spent a lot of time second-guessing myself. I’m seeing all my friends posting about the amazing time they’re having at college, and I’m sitting up in the oil fields in 30-degree-below weather with a bunch of truck drivers thinking, “What the fuck am I doing?”
I was still clinging to the college idea at that point. At first, I thought I’d keep going to junior college during the day and work at night. When I realized that wasn’t possible, I thought I could work just long enough to save up money for college so I wouldn’t have to go into debt.
But the more money I saved, the more I couldn’t stand the thought of losing it all to college. That was reinforced when I went home in the summer.
EA: You weren’t convinced after talking to your high school buddies who’d gone to four-year universities?
TK: It was so strange. It was like I had aged ten years in six months. And nothing had changed for them. I had been spending all my time with these guys in their 60s and 70s, learning about their lives, hearing about their problems, and figuring out how to earn their trust and run the logistics effectively. The maturity came quickly. Talking to my friends it was like I had been in the Matrix and gotten unplugged, and they were still in it.
Honestly, that first six months in North Dakota was the greatest education I could ever have gotten. It took a while to come around, because I really worried that I was missing out, and there was still pressure from some of my family members, but I started to appreciate how much I was gaining from that job.
EA: Are you comfortable sharing how much you were earning?
TK: I started at $45K, when I was 18. And they provided an apartment and a car and a flight home every 6 weeks. If you had more experience, you could make significantly more in the job I had – as high as $100K. Some people who had the role before me were making that much, so I was a bargain for the owner.
A year in, things had started to slow down in the oil fields and, due to my good performance, the company was comfortable moving me back to their Midwest terminal to dispatch out of the corporate office. Surprisingly, though, even though I was back home with my family, the job was still very isolating. I had to commute an hour to Gary, Indiana, and then sit at a desk all day, solving the same problems over and over – the load is late, the shipment was canceled, the driver’s pissed. Dealing with problems every day.
By then I was ready to move on, I had established a few relationships in the industry, and I was able to get an interview with a billion-dollar global logistics company for a sales position out of Chicago. I later found out that when one of the senior vice presidents first learned I was 21, he had no interest in hiring me, but there I was with four years of experience in liquid truckload and a significant amount of knowledge in logistics. With the bulk of that experience taking place in the oilfields of North Dakota, it gave me credibility. The company was especially impressed with the trips I took to Houston, Texas to meet with the oil giant Halliburton. And with all that money saved up, I was walking in with a ton of confidence.
He hired me right there. And that’s where I’ve been the past year and a half.
EA: Ok, that’s amazing. But I have to ask, how was your social life through this whole experience? Were you dating up in North Dakota?
TK: Right. So. That’s the thing. I absolutely was not. I still haven’t had a serious relationship. And it’s not just the romance part. I don’t act like a typical 23-year-old. At times I don’t know how to relate to people my own age. That is the part of the college experience I have definitely missed out on.
I’m still really into fitness, so I have good friends that I work out with, but we don’t do much else together.
That’s why I was so excited to go to Chautauqua and meet other people who relate to the journey I’ve been on! Finally, I’ve found people I click with. It was really encouraging that people you like you were so interested in my story and think others might get something out of it.
EA: Frankly, I’m fascinated. It’s obviously too late for me to go back and do things differently but I’m thinking about my daughter and hoping she might have the courage and awareness to consider alternatives the way you did.
TK: It’s great to hear that, because I do still deal with some doubts about whether I can ever prove myself without a college degree. You used the term “imposter syndrome” when we were talking at Chautauqua, and I’m so glad because I didn’t know that other people have some of those feelings, even if they did get the credentials.
On the whole, though, I’m feeling really good about the future. For one thing, I know that the success I’ve had is something I can repeat, because if I can move up the ladder in this industry without a degree, there’s no reason I can’t do that elsewhere if I want to try something different.
And imagine if the right opportunity comes along to start a business. I’ve got the money to do it.
I really do want to share this message, that you can be an uneducated professional. I don’t have life all figured out by any means, but I have figured out what’s really necessary to succeed in a professional setting, and college doesn’t have to be part of it.
Thank you Tyler and Elisabeth!
- To learn more about Elisabeth’s amazing work as a writer, please see her site. She also guest posted here on 1500 Days late last year: A Thanksgiving Pilgrimage to the Land of FI.
- Listen to Tyler’s new podcast: The Uneducated Professional
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