11 Great Reasons to Skip College (and Build Your Own Alternative)

Why in the world would you purposefully skip college? Isn’t the value of higher education the one that we can all agree upon, regardless of politics, race, class, gender, shoe size, or whatever? How could everyone be wrong?

College today sells itself on a large number of myths and assumptions. Let’s hold these to the light of reality and see how many evaporate faster than a puddle in the sunlight.

Here are the big reasons to consider jumping ship from sinking hull of college in America.

College grad photo by Pamhule http://www.flickr.com/photos/pamhule/

1) Higher education is important. College is optional.

In our oft-heralded “modern age”—with its global competition and ever-shifting technological landscape—higher education is unquestionably important. It gives you the perspective and tools to deal with rapid change. But assuming that higher education comes only from college is like assuming that all delicious meals come only from restaurants.

College is a convenient package deal. It offers dorms, classes, counselors, professors, and a ready-made social life, all bundled together—for a steep price. Restaurants also offer a convenient package deal: when you go out to dinner, someone else does the shopping, prepares the food, refills the water, wipes the table, and washes the dishes. All you have to do is chew the food, enjoy yourself, and foot the bill.

But no one assumes that all delicious meals come from a restaurant. With preparation, dedication, mentorship, and a few good recipes, most people could cook a delicious meal.

In the same vein, the real ingredients of a higher education—competency, exposure, critical reading ability, independence, interpersonal skills, and more—are available to the curious seeker through hundreds of non-college challenges and adventures. With preparation, persistence, a few good suggestions, and solid mentorship, you can craft your own higher education.

(If you want to enter a licensed profession, some amount of traditional college will be necessary; but don’t confuse certification with higher education.)

2) College is incredibly expensive and becoming more so.

The average college family pays $15,000 to $30,000 per year in tuition and living expenses—after potential grants, scholarships, and family gifts are added into the equation. That’s a ton of money. But let’s not forget about the debt!

Today the average student graduates with $20,000 to $30,000 in debt. That’s a big burden to shoulder as a 23-year-old when the world is supposed to be your oyster. (Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s take.) And unlike a home mortgage, you can’t run away from student loans. Those loan officers will track you and your family down, dock future wages, and do anything else in their power to get back what’s rightfully theirs.

If you think that there’s no way these crazy prices can continue, you must recognize that this isn’t a short-term trend. Since the 1980s college tuition has risen faster than inflation. Elite colleges won’t drop their prices in fear of seeming less elite. Formerly low-cost public universities are increasingly unaffordable due to recession-inspired budget cuts.

Unless you can score a big scholarship or find your way into one of the Ivy League’s full-ride programs for low-income families, the incredible cost of college is a strong reason to jump ship.

3) College degree holders earn more money over their lifetime…if they’re engineers.

Perhaps you’ve heard the stories of master’s graduates competing for barista jobs; recent B.A.’s scrambling for unpaid internships; and countless 22- to 28-year-olds moving back in with their parents thanks to student debt. These stories reveal the frailty of the assumption that a college degree is a sure-fire ticket to financial security. But let’s forget about anecdotes for a moment and talk cold hard cash.

When you hear that “college graduates make more money,” $800,000 is the figure usually touted. This is the College Board’s widely circulated “lifetime earnings gap” between high school graduates and college graduates. But this number is highly suspect and, based on more recent data, may be closer to $280,000.

The lifetime earnings gap also doesn’t express the huge variations in average income based on the major and college that you choose.

If you’re a Petroleum or Chemical Engineering major, for example, you have a good chance of earning $100,000-150,000 mid-way through your career. But as a Child and Family Studies or Social Work major, it’s more like $39,000-45,000. (Here’s the full list.)  Additionally, the top earners overwhelmingly come from the Ivy Leagues and engineering colleges. An MIT graduate earns roughly $120,000 in mid-career salary; a Portland State University graduate earns  $71,000. (Here’s that list.)

What does this mean for you? Firstly, if your goal is make a ton of money, then don’t assume that any old college degree will do it. The lifetime earning gap is highly skewed by all those Ivy League engineers and financiers. Secondly, don’t be so quick to believe statistics; no one wants to think that they’re on the wrong side of the average. Thirdly, consider some of the highest earners today—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg—and ask yourself whether their (aborted) college educations were more important than their entrepreneurship and passionate dedication to the up-and-coming tech industry. There are a million ways to make a buck in this world; college is not the only path to financial stability.

4) College is a bubble.

After decades of promoting the political panacea of “college for all” and providing easy college loans to anyone who wants one, we’re finally wising up.

Replace the words “college” in the previous sentence with the phrase “home ownership”—and then ask yourself about the root causes of the 2008-2009 recession. The parallels are obvious and alarming (though not all believe so).

5) A hardcore academic experience is increasingly difficult to find.

As documented by a flurry of recent books (with such titles as Academically Adrift, The Five-Year Party, Crisis on Campus, and No Sucker Left Behind), your chances of finding an intensive academic experience are dwindling.

What we tell ourselves about college is that it’s a place where ideas are taken seriously, where knowledge is revered for its own sake, and where people come together to learn. But the reality for many students is starkly different. Excessive partying, grade inflation, and the army of online “degree mills” each herald a departure from our classic vision of the rigorous college experience.

6) You can find great mentorship without college.

Without college, where will young adults find the guidance necessary to make smart life decisions? How will they design an alternative to college with so little experience? How will they take the right steps toward the career of their dreams?

These are important questions, but the answers aren’t only found in college. In fact, the life guidance that a college provides is often self-perpetuating. (Want to get ahead? Get a Master’s!) And while colleges are filled with smart professors and other potential mentors, few students make the proactive decisions to ask for their guidance.

Young people who purposefully skip college have the chance to get involved in business teams, internships, apprenticeships, and innovative projects where mentors with real-world experience are a stone’s throw away. They can also purposefully seek out mentors to help guide their non-traditional education. Zero Tuition College offers a directory of MAGEs (Mentors, Advisors, Guides, and Experts) geared specifically for the challenge of skipping college.

Finding great mentorship is not a choice between college life or gang life; it’s a choice between purposefully seeking out a variety of experienced mentors or taking what life gives you.

7) Few colleges offer lessons in entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is one obvious choice for college graduates facing a tough job market. Young people always have the option of starting their own small businesses, non-profits, creative gigs, or becoming freelancers. But few do, settling for low-paid employment instead. Why? Because you’re unlikely to get lessons in entrepreneurship from college.

The word “entrepreneur” was coined by the 18th-century Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon who divided society into two general classes: those with a “fixed income” (wage-earners) and those with a “non-fixed income”. This second group—the entrepreneurs—earned uncertain incomes due to an unknown demand for their product.

Today, we still talk about workers as Cantillon did 250 years ago. We imagine that employees make a “fixed income” while business owners, artists, freelancers, and other entrepreneurs make an uncertain “non-fixed income.”

But anyone who had their eyes open in the 2008-9 recession must ask: Where are the people with so-called “fixed incomes?” Does it help the laid-off construction worker or office manager with a halved 401k fund to say, “Don’t worry, you’re a wage-earner, so your income is reliable?” Of course not.

We must admit the economic truth of our globalized age: that everyone, employed or not, has a non-fixed, unreliable income. Everyone is an entrepreneur. No one—tenured professors, well-schooled professionals, and government employees included—can escape this fate.

Most colleges don’t—and largely can’t—teach entrepreneurism. (Stanford is a notable exception.) This is because entrepreneurs must create a product of real value to real people and they must have real possibility of failure.

College assignments, of course, don’t involve actual risks (get an F in sociology, and dinner will still be on the table). They don’t require you to create value for other people (how many people will read that sociology paper, anyways?). And the final product—the paper or presentation or homework assignment—typically goes straight into the waste bin.

To teach entrepreneurism, a college would need to support students in crafting big, real-life ventures, taking actual risks, and highlighting their success (and failures too). But most of the time, you have to craft such opportunities for yourself.

8) The internet offers a huge (and ever-increasing) number of free, college-level learning resources.

Wikipedia. TED talks. Academic Earth. Peer2Peer University. YouTube. Blogs. Open-source articles, journalism, books, and research papers. The list goes on and on.

Between these resources and everything else on the Web, you can give yourself an introduction to virtually any subject on earth. You can find free courses by top professors and local geniuses. You can access the same cutting-edge data that college students uses. And you can collaborate with learners across the world.

The trend toward ever-widening access to college-level learning resources is only moving in one direction: up.

9) Social networking makes it easier to find friends without college.

The “social experience” is an important part of the “college experience” that few want to miss. But you don’t need to enroll in college just to meet other people. Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, and other social networking technologies open the doors to peer community when college isn’t in the picture.

Here’s one way to use these technologies if you’re hungry for the college social experience: Relocate to a neat-looking college town, find an off-campus rental with other college students (using Craigslist), and then cruise the campus (taking advantage of ubiquitous Facebook and Twitter links) to find out about parties, events, and activity groups. There, now you’ve got a Zero Tuition Social Life.

Of course, social websites are only a means to an end. The best way to make friends is a friendly smile, a warm handshake, and willingness to strike up conversations.  This method works everywhere in life.

Also, as a college-skipper, the internships, jobs, projects, and groups that you’ll get involved with provide dozens of new social opportunities. And once you get dialed into a group of dynamic individuals, more opportunities quickly flower.

10) There are excellent ways to document and certify your accomplishments in lieu of a college degree.

There are good minds working on this problem. But you don’t need wait for some official “alternative credential” to prove yourself as a non-college-graduate. Here’s the basic recipe for replacing the college degree:

  1. Do hard stuff
  2. Create evidence of the stuff that you’ve done (such as blog posts, photographs, videos, short essays, websites, prototypes, etc.)
  3. Publish that evidence in an online portfolio
  4. Network and market the hell out of yourself

That’s the entrepreneur’s path to finding—or creating—good work.

11) DIY is exciting and meaningful.

The DIY (do-it-yourself) path to higher education is more fun, challenging, and exciting than traditional college.

Today, many students graduate with the sinking feeling that they’ve jumped through many hoops—but accomplished little. They wonder how a string of homework sessions, classroom lectures, and keg-stands turned into $20,000 of debt. And they begin to realize, often with bitterness, how unprepared for the actual world of work they are.

Traditional college might be “fun,” but it often fails to give students what they’re secretly looking for: a challenging peak experience that builds real community, real self-knowledge, and real skills.

When thoughtfully pursued, the DIY college path has a better chance of delivering such a peak experience—at a much lower price. And such an exciting and meaningful adventure won’t quickly be forgotten.

So what can you do instead of college?

Here are a few ideas, and here are a few more. You can also take inspiration from the rest of the world’s college skippers & drop-outs.

Figuring out what to do instead of college need not be complicated. I like to start with a piece of advice that John Taylor Gatto gave to a group of graduating homeschoolers:

The only thing serious you face at the moment, regardless of what you’ve been told, is deciding what quests you will choose for yourself.

Choose your quests. Figure out your biggest dreams. And then pursue them doggedly, with an eye toward building economic self-sufficiency. There’s a recipe for skipping college.

But going it alone is tough. It helps to have friends, accomplices, and great mentors. That’s why I launched ZTC. ZTC is a place where college-level self-directed learners can meet, connect, get inspired, and get support for their DIY higher education. The price to join our “free college for self-directed learners” is, of course, zero.

Whether you skip college or not, we’re all searching for the same thing: a high-quality higher education at a reasonable price. I wish you the best of luck in this journey.


Copyright 2011 Blake Boles

Top photo: Pamhule



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