Do you feel like everyone is telling you to go to college, but you’re not sure if college is right for you? It’s OK to choose another path. In this post Tim Patterson, Director of Admission, shares three totally legitimate reasons NOT to go to college.
These days, it seems like everyone is telling high-school seniors the same thing: you need to go to college. The chorus of voices encouraging college enrollment is relentless, and so is the college marketing blitz. Students are inundated with fancy brochures and letters from college deans, with email marketing campaigns, with carefully designed ads on social media platforms, and even with text messages and phone calls from college sales representatives (ahem, I mean admission counselors).
As Director of Admission at Sterling College in Vermont, I obviously believe in the value of a college education, and am eager to connect with students who are the right fit for Sterling. We offer Bachelor’s of Arts degrees in Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems, Ecology, Environmental Humanities, and Outdoor Education and right-fit students need to be passionate about environmental stewardship and excited about attending a college where enrollment is capped at 150 undergraduate students. I often say that Sterling is not the right college for 99 out of 100 students, and that’s OK – it’s the 1 student in 100 who I want to get to know.
But what about students who aren’t the right fit for Sterling College, and who also aren’t sure whether ANY college is right for them?
I worry that the constant barrage of college marketing, peer pressure, and “go to college” messaging from adults can create an atmosphere that pushes students into college classrooms regardless of whether or not that’s the best choice for them. I also worry that in some cases the push to get students into college is motivated not by what’s best for the student, but by other factors: the need for colleges to hit their enrollment numbers, the need for college counselors to “place” students, and the need for parents to feel like their child is on the path that society deems most appropriate for young adults.
I’m writing this post to to humbly offer some reassurance to high-school seniors who might be feeling a little angsty about college. It’s OK not to go to college. In fact, not going to college right now might be the best choice you can make. Here are 3 reasons NOT to go to college:
1. You Can’t Afford It
It’s no secret that the cost of attending college is way too high for many students and families, and that there is a student loan debt crisis on the horizon.
One of the biggest problems that frustrates students and families actually has less to do with the cost of college than with the difficulty of figuring out how much college will cost for them. Between widespread practices of differential pricing, merit scholarship discounting that is motivated more by colleges competing to yield students than by actual merit, and need-based aid that relies on arcane financial aid formulas, it’s no wonder that students are confused right up until the moment they graduate from college, when the amount of student loan debt they’ve accrued suddenly becomes very, very real.
This is the reality for many students at public and private non-profit colleges – don’t even get me started on the for-profit higher education industry.
Sure, it’s possible to get an affordable college education, but there’s no guarantee. Please, please, pay close attention to your financial aid packages, be certain that you understand how much debt you are taking on, and don’t be afraid to seek out advice and advocate for yourself throughout the process. Get guarantees in writing. If you find yourself reviewing financial aid packages and wondering how on earth you will ever pay off the loans, just stop. Take a deep breath. It’s OK to say “no thank you” and to look for a more affordable opportunity to arise, even if that means taking one or more gap years.
By the way, even though almost everyone acknowledges the crisis of affordability in higher education, one of the most powerful arguments you’ll encounter for going to college is financial, and boils down to the fact that on average, people with college degrees make more money over the course of their lifetime than people who don’t. This is true, but doesn’t change the fact that the less student loan debt you incur, the more financial freedom you’ll enjoy in the future. Bottom line is that there’s nothing wrong with being patient and persistent about finding an affordable pathway to your degree.
2. You’re Not Ready
Well now, this is a tricky one. The idea that a student might not be ready for college after graduating from high-school can seem disrespectful. But I mean no disrespect by suggesting that some students would benefit from extra time and extra experience before pursuing higher education. After all, college is a huge investment of time and money, and if you aren’t ready to make the most of your time on campus, you’re better off waiting until you have a little more life experience under your belt.
In the Office of Admission here at Sterling College, we look for attributes like a strong work ethic, personal maturity, and a clear sense of purpose when evaluating applications from prospective students. It’s impossible to get a sense of these attributes from an SAT score, but we feel that they are among the most important predictors of student success. Often, but not always, students who have worked, traveled, served in the military, or engaged in independent study between high school and college are better prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that are available to them in college.
3. You Have Something Better To Do
If you have a clear sense of purpose and a plan that doesn’t involve going to college right away, then I congratulate you! There are plenty of honorable and lucrative career paths that don’t require a degree. For example, there are many jobs in the building trades that are in high demand. Just last week I tried to make an appointment for a plumber to come to my house and do some work at an hourly rate that’s way higher than my own salary, and she didn’t have any availability until over a month from now.
There are also examples of entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Rachael Ray, and Russell Simmons who either dropped out of college or didn’t go in the first place so that they could focus on their business.
However, you don’t need to be the next tech executive or hip-hop mogul to benefit from doing something other than college after high-school. By now it’s probably obvious that I’m a big fan of gap years, especially gap years that involve travel and exposure to other cultures. For some people, serving in the military might be a good option, especially if you’re sure to lock in tuition benefits that will help make college more affordable down the road.
One Final Note
This post is geared towards high school students who are on the college track, but who are feeling some uncertainty about whether or not college is actually the right choice for them.
I recognize that there are many students, including students who would be the first in their family to go to college, who aren’t at risk of getting swept into college before they are ready to attend. In fact, these students face quite the opposite problem – they think that college isn’t possible for them, when in fact there are colleges out there that would love to accept them, and that have the financial resources to support their education. This is a huge problem, particularly when it involves undermatching of students of color and other examples of institutionalized racism. I don’t have space to address this problem at length in this post, but you can learn more here, here, and here.
Ultimately, the message I hope you take away from reading this post is that you have options. Some of your options involve college, and some don’t. What matters is choosing the path that is right for you, and approaching that decision armed with information, clarity, and the courage to go your own way.