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Why I Chose Not To Go To College (And What I Did Instead)

Maybe it's time we reframed the education system to focus on helping the individual succeed, instead of the system.

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

Welcome to our new section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus.) We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” — Albert Einstein

Education is one of those seemingly simple but very complex situations. At the root, education is supposed to teach us something.

Nowhere in its definition does it specify a place, a style, or a specific way that education is to be facilitated. The education system falls short when we attempt to take a vague definition and impress a closed system upon it.

Like most people, I grew up in a broken education system. I was hurt at an early age by a system that told me I was too young to be that smart. It was a system that wanted to dictate my success based on my age, not my ability.

It was a system that wanted this fish to climb a tree, not swim the ocean.

The education system that I grew up in wasn’t a fan of me. To be successful, I was required to become a people pleaser. I was forced to think inside the box, to move at the speed of the class; I had to become something I wasn’t. This education system robbed me of my passion to learn. It stole my love of reading, and most of all it told me that I didn’t have options. Thankfully for me, I was never good at being told what to do.

So, I learned how to operate outside of the box.

As my time in high school was coming to a close, I began exploring post-secondary education options. I was terribly uncomfortable with the thought of going to college. I knew that I wouldn’t fit in the system, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to be miserable. So I made a bold choice.

I decided to take a gap year.

If you’re interested in learning more about gap years and why you should consider them, click here.

For me, I was already open to exploring other options because of my experience with the education system. I really only had to ask myself one question before I decided to pursue it.

What did I have to lose?

Nothing. I was 16, I wasn’t losing anything by taking time off. Check out this article if you’re wondering what you have to lose.

After I decided that I wanted to go for it, I needed to make the time useful. I followed up by asking myself these questions which allowed me to really get the most out of it.

What was something in life that I wanted to pursue?

For me, it was community involvement. So I got an internship under a lady that handled community involvement and relations at the church I was attending at the time.

What was something I needed to improve on?

If we’re being honest, people are hard to handle; but interacting with them is critical in almost every career path, so I got a job that made me interact with people. In classic Randi style, I was looking for a challenge. So, instead of just interacting with them, I got a job as a lifeguard where my responsibilities included learning how to enforce and convey rules to keep people safe.

How was I going to practice creating value?

I loved social media, so I also got a job managing social media for a local small business. Not only did it give me a chance to get some great experience, but it also allowed me to take something off the business owner’s plate; it was a win win scenario.

I’m sure most of you haven’t had as terrible of an experience with the school system as I did, in which case a gap year could be intimidating. If you want a more in-depth resource, here is an article that gives you a bunch of FAQs about a gap year. To me, a gap year quickly became less about a period in time and more about a lifestyle. After my “year” I made another bold choice.

I decided to opt out of college.

In this article, Derek Magill states that the future of education is heading towards human-centric learning instead of programs. I couldn’t agree more. Humans are unique. We are created differently, and serving the same system to millions of people is just setting some of them up for failure.

The challenge is learning to love yourself enough to be willing to find your ocean, not your tree.

Now you may be thinking, “How is this chick doing anything with her life? She needs a degree!” The reality is, college has become such a norm that we have over-engineered the system. I don’t want to be a lawyer, a doctor, or an accountant, career paths which all require a degree. I just want to do work that is purposeful to me. This article really touches on the concept that college isn’t for everyone, and that’s totally okay!

Did you know that a lot of very reputable companies no longer require degrees to be considered for employment? We’re not talking small potatoes; we’re talking Google, Apple, Whole Foods, IBM, Nordstrom and a few other big names you’ve probably heard of!

I’m sure you’re wondering about whether you can be successful or be taken seriously without a degree. I really recommend checking out this blog post. It expands on five really common misconceptions about not going to college. I mean, who wouldn’t want to know how much you can make, or if you can actually find yourself without going to college?!

Maybe a salary goal isn’t what’s holding you back. It’s really the fact that the arguments people in your life make for college are really compelling. Well, this video series breaks some of the most popular arguments and gives you some solid points as to why not going can be more valuable for some people.

So I think we can agree: College isn’t for everyone, right?

But, what’s the big deal about doing something else before going to college versus after going? This article talks about how ages 18-25 can be the largest kickstart to your career if you spend that time learning how to create value. Waiting until after you go to college means you have likely spent the majority of these years too busy to do something else. Imagine how many blog posts you could write if you started today and wrote three times a week until the year you were supposed to graduate college. (That’s a lot of content! Personally, I’d write 169 blog posts in that time.) If you spend a few of these early years starting a podcast, or running paid advertising for a small company, you have learned how to create value. Being able to create value can be so much more valuable to companies than a degree.

If you went to college, you may want to consider learning about what your degree signals. In this article Isaac Morehouse talks about how college degrees are perceived in certain circles like the venture capital world.

He says, “Some of the most interesting people and opportunities in the world want an answer to the question, ‘Why did you go to college?’ rather than why didn’t you. If you’ve got drive, creativity and smarts above average, why did you choose the relatively easy, prevailing path? Why did you wait four years to get started on the really good stuff?”

But what’s the really good stuff?

It could be something like:

  • Actually taking that passion and starting a side hustle. (Check out this post from ALV Co-Founder Katie for six tips on starting a side hustle.)
  • Finding a program that allows you to apprentice. (There are quite a few of these programs, but I personally chose Praxis, and it’s been an incredible experience.)
  • Checking out your local trade schools. (“The job security of trade jobs is presently at a premium because many baby boomers are retiring, leaving a critical shortage of qualified applicants to fill vacated positions.” If you’re interested in reading all five reasons why trade school might be right for you, check out this article.)
  • The good old internship is a tried and true method to get your foot in the door and show the upper level employees that you can create value. I’d recommend studying the company and providing a value proposition about how you plan on creating value for them. (Not only does it make you stand out from the other people interested in interning there, but if you already have a game plan that makes their life easier, they probably won’t tell you no.)

The moral of the story isn’t to avoid college. It’s to show you that there are other options. I was a fish, attempting to climb a tree and as you could guess, I didn’t get very far. Now, I’m a fish that’s been set free in the ocean. I chose an education path that fulfilled me; it gave me purpose and allowed me to create value.

So what are you waiting for? Go find your ocean!

Subscribe here for all the latest news on how you can keep Thriving.

More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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