When I was 16, I started to research and apply to colleges, just like everyone else I knew.
The pressure to pursue that next step is real. It doesn’t just feel like more people are going to college these days; people are, in fact, going to college in greater numbers. This fall, more than 20 million students enrolled in college. What’s more, the number of people enrolled has grown by about a third in the last 15 years alone. That jump is not solely the result of population growth; it also reflects the fact that a greater proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds are enrolling in higher education.
The admissions frenzy at highly selective colleges — Stanford now admits just five percent of applicants — can heighten the sense that potentially getting into a top school is an opportunity not to be passed up.
And so, like millions of peers across the country, I assumed that college was the best (and most obvious) next step for me after high school.
It wasn’t until after I attended a college-prep program at the University of Pennsylvania the summer after my junior year that I realized that I was neither ready nor excited to file into a university lecture hall.
I immediately started thinking of more palatable alternatives. First, I thought, “Perhaps I could go to a college that was committed to a very unconventional experience, like Reed. “ Then, I asked myself, “Can I test out of my college classes and get a bachelor’s degree without ever going to school?”
Then I took my thinking a step further: “What if I just forgo college, and a bachelor’s degree, entirely?”
I didn’t leap right into skipping college, though. Instead, I discovered UnCollege, an organization that encourages students to take control of their own educations. This community gave me the confidence and the intellectual resources to take a gap year, during which I explored my interests on both a personal and a professional level.
Even this decision brought challenges. After all, taking and committing to an alternate path is hard. It’s difficult to maintain confidence that the path you’re taking is right when people around you – people you trust and care about — insist that you’re wrong. It’s particularly hard to maintain faith in that path when a shiny opportunity (in my case, admission to Stanford), falls into your lap.
It was so hard, in fact, that I went to college (for a full year!) after my gap year — or as I like to call it, my year “on” in the real world — knowing all the while that college wasn’t right for me.
If you are going through a similar process, here are four questions you need to explore:
There are various signs that can indicate your ideal fit may be a path beyond university:
You feel stunted in school, even if you are learning. When I was at Stanford, for example, I noticed that there were many philosophical questions that I wanted to ask. But there seemed to be no room for this kind of questioning (even when I was taking philosophy classes!), and it made me realize that school wasn’t allowing me to grow in the ways I wanted to be growing.
You feel motivated to learn on your own, and you do it. A good litmus test here: Do you read? If yes, great. You can get very far just by reading a lot. If you don’t read, is there another concrete way in which you understand and apply information?
You feel capable of creating your own structure; in fact, you prefer it. I’m constantly thinking about how to structure my learning, and how to challenge myself to do better work. If you decide to leave school, this is something that you have to do: You must create your own structure, because you will be both the teacher and the student.
You feel primarily compelled to go to school for reasons other than learning. Are you in school because you want a degree? Because you want to get a high-paying job? Because you want your parents or your friends to perceive you in a certain way? There are ways to capture these benefits outside of school, by unbundling your education.” (For even more signs, , check out this article.)
If the descriptions above fit you, then great! It’s likely that college can (and should) be your plan B, because you already have the ability and the desire to learn on your own. To get started on your plan A, take comfort in knowing that you have lots of options:
You can take a gap year from school. Especially if you think that you might prefer a different path, but you’re not sure yet, a gap year is the way to go. By giving yourself this time, you can see whether you’re comfortable making college your plan B. Consider it a trial run.
You can leave school, or not go to school at all. If after doing some self-evaluation you’ve realized that you’re the kind of person that has the ability to succeed outside of the traditional school system, then you can take the road less traveled: forgoing school altogether.
If you do opt to postpone or forgo college, know that you have several appealing options:
You can participate in an alternative education program. There are a number of alternative education programs that have been cropping up, in part because it’s become so clear that the current education system is broken. If you’ve left school or are taking time off, but you still desire structure in your learning (that is, structure you don’t create yourself), then checking out alternative education programs might be a good bet.
You can work, or find an apprenticeship. This is how I spent my gap year, and what I’m doing now! I highly recommend this option — I find the structure and pressure of trying to perform at work to be one of the most effective motivators for learning.
You can pursue personal projects. Is there a project that you’ve been wanting to work on, but haven’t found time to do it? Are there questions that you want to explore? Time away from school — which can distract with its constant, seemingly arbitrary deadlines — offers a great opportunity to pursue these inquiries. And much, much more.
Perhaps you’ve just started thinking about whether or not college is right for you. Perhaps you already recognize that it’s not your best option, and you’re trying to figure out what to do. Or perhaps you’ve already taken a different path, and you’re checking to see whether you’ve made the right decision.
The thing is, it’s impossible to tell whether you’ve made the “right” decision. We don’t have the ability to look into the future, nor do we have the ability to lead many trial lives. This is it.
But do you know what you can do? You can always aim to be learning. And you can decide to learn from everything you do. By doing this, you can’t go wrong — even if some of your plans fail, or you make mistakes. Because you will. We all do. And it’ll be fine — you’ll just do better next time.
Are you considering alternative learning opportunities? Check out the Noodle classes search tool, which will help you find exciting online and in-person courses in subjects that matter to you.
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