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The UnCollege Blog

If I Drop Out of School, Can I Go Back to School?

It is interesting that in today’s society, where everything from our smartphones to our take-out orders can be customized, we’re still uncertain of how learning can be personalized--or even if it should be. So many people and institutions operate under the belief that if you go to college, you will be there for a consecutive four years, or that you won’t go at all. To me, this speaks to the systemization of learning that starts when we’re young: We hop on the bus with our lunchboxes in hand when they tell us to, and get off when the driver calls “last stop! It’s the real world – everyone out.” We see learning as an extraordinarily black and white thing, and the reality is that the grey area within learning, and how we learn, is large. We should embrace that.

I left college thinking I would never go back. It had been a year that was thoroughly disenchanting, and I know many students experience that feeling much earlier, in high school, when they typically have far less control over their decisions to stay in or drop out. Over the course of my two years out of school, I found the missing pieces of what I felt to be my education:

I was challenged personally and professionally, and was forced to push myself in a way I hadn’t before.

It necessitated being organized, thoughtful, and prepared rather than just following instructions, and learning through experience meant that, often, I had to do things and seize opportunities before I was “ready,” without the comfort of studying theories or hypotheticals. It also gave me a chance to put academic skills and lessons into practice in the real world, to see how they translated. For example, while I’ve yet to write a paper in MLA format for any job, the ability to research quickly and effectively while citing sources is absolutely a skill that’s been put to good use. Of course, I wasn’t didn’t have to do assignments I didn’t like...but I certainly had to do work projects I personally found ridiculous, and follow the instructions of whoever the project manager was.

So, at the end of my first year away from school, I realized that my learning didn’t have to be just one thing, or occur in just one way. Ultimately, the understanding that I could learn in so many different ways was perhaps the greatest lesson I’ve learned in my life, because it informs all the others. Unfortunately, it is also the one most commonly overlooked, because we’re so busy trying to stay on track with whatever we’re doing, we accidentally pigeonhole ourselves: If we’re students, we’re trying to be good students, and focus on that. If we’ve left school, we’re often so committed to making that work we feel we have to reject the notion of organized (i.e.: occurring within a traditionally academic setting) education entirely. Here’s the fact I wish someone had emphasized to me when I was grappling with the decision to leave school: You don’t have to choose. Leaving school doesn’t mean you’ll never go back. Not loving the entirety of higher education doesn’t mean you won’t learn interesting things there, just like learning out of school doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally miss learning in a more structured way.

I decided that my career would be better served if I finished my degree, and to be honest, there are days I regret going to back to school, mostly when I am exhausted or want to devote time to something other than homework. On the whole, the decision to go back to college was the right one for me, because I did it in a way that worked for my own goals and preferences. I wouldn’t have known anything about that if I hadn’t discovered them out of school. Because I dropped out, I was able to return to school in a way that accommodated my work schedule, so I felt I was making progress professionally, too, and I found a program that was willing to give me credit for every experience I had out of school. That significantly lowered my cost, and made me feel that this university, in particular, valued kinds of learning that happened beyond the classroom.

Simply, it is all about finding what works for you. Maybe you will leave school and decide to return within a semester. Maybe it will happen much farther down the road, or not at all. I will say, though, leaving school stands to help your academic education: A recent study from Middlebury study that showed students who take a gap year not only outperform peers in academics, but are 75% more likely to be happy with their careers following graduation.

When you left school, you probably considered the pros and cons. You thought about what you wanted for your life and education, and decided maybe school wasn’t the best path to achieve that. The same is true if you go back to school: How do you think returning to school will you help you? What’s the motivation behind it? How can you combine your different kinds of learning and experiences to take what you need from each?

Remember, it is your learning, and there are no rules. Drop out, go back to school, do what moves you forward--but mostly, remember that when it comes to learning, you can’t get it wrong, as long as you’re learning in as many ways as you can.

Not all educational paths begin and end on a college campus. Need resources? Check out our College 2.0 guide:

Explore our free college 2.0 guide

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