Why It’s Totally Cool If My Kids Skip College

I have a B.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, despite myself.

I mean, there was never a question I would go to college. After all, it never occurred to me that any other path was available.

But I started out studying journalism at the College of New Jersey. I became disenchanted and discouraged by my choice of major. I fell into a depression after both the death of my grandmother and the end of an abusive relationship. I dropped out of college with the certainty that I didn’t need it to be a writer.

Which was true, but I wasn’t sure how to go about making money. I ended up in a crappy retail job, at which I lasted for two months. Is this all I’m capable of without a degree? I asked myself, horrified. It wasn’t, but I didn’t know that. I ended up at Emerson.

After graduating, I was lucky enough to get a job within two months (though not in my field). I was miserable there, and felt relief when I was laid off after six months. A year later, I had my feet planted firmly within the publishing industry. Finally. I was content… for awhile. But I soon realized I had no interest in working my way up the corporate ladder. I wanted to create. I wanted to be my own boss.

And so I made my circuitous way to the here and now, where I’m a happy, and pretty well-balanced, business owner. I’m lucky enough to be one of the few people out there who has ended up making money in the field they studied in college. But I could have gotten here quicker. I could have gotten here without incurring debt. I just didn’t know.

Last weekend, I toted my copy of Michael Ellsberg’s The Education of Millionaires to my yoga/cooking retreat up in VT, where I devoured it during the free time I had between yoga and cooking classes. As I read, I found myself giving a silent hells yeah as Ellsberg gave voice to something I had always felt when it comes to academia.

“Despite sixteen years or more of schooling,” he writes, “most of what you’ll need to learn to be successful you’ll have to learn on your own, outside of school, whether you go to college or not.” He goes on to describe a scene that’s decidedly familiar these days:

“We now live in an age when it is likely that the person pouring you your coffee at the cafe in the morning has spent four years studying literature, or even business and marketing, in a degree-granting institution. That person is likely to be carrying tens of thousands of dollars in student debt, and more in credit card debt accrued in college, for the privilege of having studied to pour you your coffee with such literary and business acumen.”

I thought of my time on unemployment. A full year. I thought of how humiliated I had been to stoop to temp work, handing out food samples at donut shops and supermarkets. I thought of how my life might have been different if I’d aimed for entrepreneurship rather than employment. But the possibility had never occurred to me. That only came later.

Ellsberg goes on to advocate self-education over academia — a pursuit I’ve come to advocate heavily in the past five or so years –providing readers with a resource-heavy curriculum in the areas of networking, marketing, sales, and entrepreneurship. At the end, he describes the “education bubble,” exploring further why a single-minded reliance on academia may cause the bubble to eventually burst.

At the end, I’m both inspired and introspective. I feel validated. I think to myself: College and the corporate ladder aren’t the only options. and my future children will know that, and will be supported in whichever path they choose.

I enjoyed my time at Emerson. I developed as a person, and met people there who are still incredibly important to me.

But did college hold me back? Would I be even more successful now if I’d gotten an earlier start on the entrepreneurial path?

I’ve learned more in the past five years than I ever learned in the previous 26. This much is true.

What will you tell your children?

Related: Forget Grad School. Is Your B.A. Worth It?Coffee Break: Home Ec for Entrepreneurs, Passive/Aggressive: Finding Work as a Freelancer

Comments

  1. You make some interesting points. I’ve always felt that my college experience helped me learn to think logically and gave my resume some letters that would be ignored as soon as they are seen. Was it worth it to me? Yes.

    But I have three different kinds of kids and my thoughts for them are different. My daughter just graduated with an Art degree. She uses it to inform her work as a teacher in Korea, a basis from which to teach ESL without words. My second child must go to college. He is far too linear to be an entrepreneur and has his sights set on engineering. No option there. My third is a free-thinker who struggles in school. Why on earth would I force him into a four-year degree? We are looking at enhancing his talents with a tech school education that will expose him to the finer details of things he loves. From there, he can be entrepreneurial or work for a company.

    There are a million ways to get to where we are going. Incidentally, I am married to an entrepreneur without a college degree. It’s worked out okay. Mostly, life requires that we use our noggins to make informed decisions.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I’ll bet you get lots of comments on this one!

    • Oh I love this reply. This is better than my comment.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Carrie! As down as I get on academia with this post, I agree with you. The best path for one may not be the best path for another. College may have temporarily wrapped me up in the traditional path, but I still learned something from it. And from those traditional jobs. I try to learn something from every experience I have.

      Then there’s my brother, who I always suspected shouldn’t have gone to a traditional, four-year-college. But that was the path he was pushed toward. And so he spent years dropping and failing classes until he eventually failed out entirely, with thousands of dollars in debt. And then he moved back home, where he was pushed to take classes at a local university. He dropped that, too, with only a few credits shy of a degree. Then, the other year, he finally earned his certification in IT work through a technical school. It should have been the thing he did first (well, perhaps after some soul searching and real-world experience).

      I don’t hope for the collapse of higher education. I just wish we didn’t push people down this one-size-fits-all path when, obviously, it doesn’t.

      • Exactly. We’ve become so enamored with four year education–and rightfully so in many cases. But, like your brother, like you maybe, and like my third child, it’s practically cruel to say it’s the only choice if one hopes to be a functioning adult.

        With tuition on such a steep incline and economy forcing entrepreneurship, perhaps more are rethinking the traditional route. I think you or someone else pointed out that kids often expect that a college education means a sure job and security. If there is one thing we’ve learned in recent years, it is that there ain’t nuthin secure about nuthin. 🙂

        Again. Great post. Something we all need to be talking about.

  2. Oh Steph, I love you, but imma have to disagree. I don’t think the problem is necessarily college (although tuition is bloated and colleges need a good knocking about). But I think that the promise of a degree is not the promise of a job, but the promise of an opportunity you wouldn’t otherwise have without that degree. Whether you capitalize on that opportunity or forge your own opportunities (like you are so bravely doing ). And for that, college is a necessary step in a transition toward independent and self-sufficient living and thinking and a foundation for a career. NOW all that said, if pressed, I’ll agree, college isn’t for everyone. I have a sister who dropped out of college to go to the Aveda institute and she’s super happy and doing what she loves. But would I be happy if my kid decided to eschew college? Not on your life. I want her to have college, because I want her to have every opportunity and I want her to have a chance to think and explore before being thrust into a world of taking whatever job you need to survive. Am I wrong? Probably. *crap*

    • Ha. Thanks for the comment, Lyz. You’ll see more about how I feel in my comment to Carrie above (basically, college is for some people… but not everyone. So we do agree, to some extent).

      Maybe I’d be more pro-college if young adults had the chance to think about all their options before being pushed down that taken-for-granted-that-it’s-right path. Like a real-world internship. I always had the suspicion that I was wasting my time at college. I just didn’t know I was allowed to do anything else. And I think that’s the real problem.

  3. College includes plenty of courses that seem just…silly, nothing to do with my field, but I’m with Lyz that part of college learning isn’t what happens in the classroom. That said, it seems like college students need to include more relevant classes in their line-up, not just the courses required for graduation. I created my own minor so I had the skills I needed once I was out of school.

    I do want my kids to go to college–and they’re already saving their pennies toward tuition. Maybe if kids are more involved with saving for college that might help them focus their time once in school? I haven’t read Ellsberg’s book, but it does sound interesting

    • I like that idea. A better-focused curriculum. It’s why I enjoyed continuing education classes so much. I took some non-credit classes when I was already immersed in the professional world, and they were great because they were exactly what I needed… and I didn’t need to pad them with classes that were less helpful just to achieve a certain number of credits.

      As for getting kids involved in saving for their education so that they’re motivated to better focus their time… what happens if they’re not sure what they’re working toward? When I was in college, I had a general idea of what I wanted (something within the publishing industry… preferably with opportunities to write), but it wasn’t until I was thrust into the professional world that I really learned what I wanted out of a career… and what I didn’t.

      And I know I was better focused than most. So many college students are undeclared for a good amount of college, or end up working jobs that have nothing to do with their major. Where’s the value in that?

  4. I don’t think college is for everyone, either, but I think it’s not entirely accurate to correlate not going to college with a higher chance of success (though of course it all depends on how you label success as you mention here). Sure, there are many college grads who are unemployed or underemployed, but there are many jobs available only to those with a higher education, so I don’t find anecdotal evidence of the sort mentioned here convincing.
    Why can’t you have both? Why can’t you both self-educate and go to college? They are not completely mutually exclusive at all. I feel like that’s what I did and I feel very happy about my winding career path.

    • Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest that not going to college guaranteed a higher chance of success. And it’s true. Many career paths do require that higher education. I just wish people were willing to question whether college is the right path for everyone.

  5. I think all of us who have been successful at owning our businesses, be it freelance writing or something else, have asked, “If I had done this earlier, could I be farther ahead now?” Through a major tragedy in my life, my writing career was derailed for one in business. I spent 16 YEARS on that corporate ladder I knew I was not built for before listening to my inner truth and embarking on my freelance career (and only then it was after my company discontinued my job and department and I was given a severance package). It’s a waste for me to think, “If I had gotten to go to journalism school, would have I realized my dream of being a music journalist or a foreign correspondent?” I, instead, believe it was that tragedy that led me to the path I ended up on, that helped me finally succeed at what I really wanted in life. In other words, I look at it that I might have not succeeded without that business degree and experience the corporate world lent me.

    • Thanks for sharing your story! And you’re right. As much as I wonder how much further along I might be had I taken a different path, I did learn something from every experience I had. I learned more about what I wanted. I learned even more about what I didn’t want. I learned the ins and outs of the publishing industry. I made many valuable contacts. It’s added a dimension to my experience that has allowed me to diversify even further.

      I do wish, however, that I’d had the courage to leave that conventional path sooner.

  6. I have come to understand that no one path is going to work for everyone. Some people are perpetual students, others work diligently without getting a higher education. And those are not all the grey areas in between and around.

  7. What right for ne is ot necessarily right for another. I do agree, though, that so much learning happens outside the classroom.

    • So true, Sheryl. In my comment to Carrie, above, I explain the differences between myself and my brother, which have only solidified my feelings about higher education, and about the idea that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all career path.

  8. I can totally relate to this as a homeschooling parent. My kids’ education has been sculpted by their interests – not the schools or state board. And I feel 100% confident in their ability to head out into the world and be successful doing something they love. If they end up going to college, more power to them! (The irony? My 19 year old was decidedly against spending time and money in exchange for credits – until he found a program that seems like it was made for him. Now, he awaits word on whether or not he’s been accepted!)

  9. I agree with you, Steph. There shouldn’t be so much emphasis placed on a college degree. I loved many of the classes I took in college and am grateful for the experience, but I don’t think the academic world prepares you for the challenges you face in the working world. College is a cozy, protective shelter for young adults. It can give students a sense of accomplishment and meaning, but there are still a ton of tough, important lessons that you can only learn once you leave that bubble.

    I would argue that some of the most important lessons you can ever learn happen when you aren’t at school. I think it would be hugely beneficial for more students to take a year off between high school and college to work, travel, and explore their own interests in some constructive way. These kind of experiences can really help you find your own sense of purpose and understand why (or if) you want to be in school in the first place. They can also expose you to many different kinds of people and help you get a sense of what is possible.

  10. Such a timely and thoughtful post. With the skyrocketing cost of higher education, it’s making more and more sense to self-educate. Whenever I read about bloggers taking their young children around the world for a year or more, it makes me think that formal schooling isn’t the only way to become educated.

  11. I’m pro-college here. I made some pretty great contacts there that I still benefit from today. Yes, it’s not for everyone, but it did help me fine tune my aspirations. I am, however, not a huge supporter of grad school. Unless you require that higher degree to break into a field that covers the debt, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

  12. I love this post, because I’ve got kids coming up into the college age. My 17-yo son wants to go to college, which I’m a little leery of, considering he hasn’t really *liked school up to this point. I’m thinking, would it be better for him to figure out what he wants to do and jump into the career or self-employment path?

    But here’s a happy medium – he’s going to our local community college here in town next year, and taking their entrepreneur class. Best of both worlds – and it won’t cost a fortune like going away to a big university (and not knowing what you want to do).

  13. I agree that not everyone is meant for college. It was painful, watching a friend push his kid to go to college when the kid should have been in some type of vocational school. Of course the kid’s college career was not a successful one, which meant he had to deal with failure and starting all over again in a field that did suit him.

    Jane’s suggestions about going to a local community college is a smart one.

    However, I do think college is important but it doesn’t necessarily prepare you for a career.

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