At UnCollege, our goal is this: to get people to take control of their education in whatever way works best for them. For many people in our community, this means forgoing the traditional route and completely designing their own education, perhaps while working or traveling. For some people, it means participating in a program other than a four-year university, and getting the support they need to develop new skills and mindsets. For those who do not fall into either of the groups above, it means going to college and approaching the process with the mindset of a hackademic could be the best route.
But if you’re on the edge, how do you decide what’s right for you? This is a guide for high school juniors and seniors (or the unschooling/homeschooling equivalent) who are facing that tough decision themselves.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I discovered the UnCollege website and absolutely devoured its content. I spent a weekend in bed and read every single one of the blog posts. By the end of it, I was no longer sure about a part of my future that I had long taken for granted: whether or not I wanted to go to go to college after high school.
At first, I didn’t know what to do. There wasn’t anyone I could talk to about this new revelation I had: I was a top student, and everyone around me was resolute on going to a good university. What I can I do? I asked myself. There was a lot that I had to think through, because this was such an important decision, and one that required planning months in advance.
I decided to discuss my path with... myself. Because I had no one to turn to, I asked myself a series of questions to clarify where I wanted to be, and what the best way was to get there. Below are just a few of the questions I asked myself.
What do I want?
Do I want something that a college degree can reliably get me?
My answer: No. As a top student, I saw that I had the ability to get into a good school, and do well in it. And I recognized that people who got into and graduated from “top” schools got some pretty impressive things: cushy jobs at large companies, the respect of their parents and the admiration of their peers, and a clear path to a stable (if boring) life. What I also recognized was that this was repulsive to me. I grew anxious at the idea of knowing what my life was going to look like five or ten years from now. I wanted risk! Adventure! The unknown! I wanted a shot of doing something more than living an easy life… and I realized that college might not be the best place for that.
Your answer: Depending on your academic situation, what a future degree can get you will vary -- dramatically. A degree from a “brand-name” school like Harvard or Stanford will often yield much higher returns than a degree from a lesser known school. Getting a degree from a lesser known school can likely just put you in crushing debt… without increasing your ability to get a decently-paying job. Dale cites this statistic a lot, but it’s worth repeating here: more than 44% of college graduates under 25 who were area studies majors were unemployed in 2009 or working in a job that did not require their degree. When answering this question, it’s important to be realistic about your situation.
Do I want something beyond what a college degree can get me?
My answer: Yes. Yes! YES! I’m by nature a very ambitious person, and I realized that the kind of success that I longed for was not something that I could rely on a college degree to get me. It was something that I had to create for myself.
Your answer: Yes? No? Maybe? There’s no right answer to this question. People want different kinds of success, and different amounts of it. It is worth noting, however, that most of the “good” things in life can be obtained without a college degree… like fame and fortune, power and prestige.
What’s the best way to get it?
Am I willing to be told repeatedly that I’m making the ‘wrong’ choice, and still make it? (This is unfortunately a situation that many people who opt out of college will experience.)
My answer: Yes. It sucks, but yes.
Your answer: If yes, then great. If no, that’s okay too. Being strong in this way is hard (and can be harder depending on your circumstance). But this is an important skill, one that you might want to consider developing regardless of your choice in this situation.
Am I willing to work very hard? (This is required if you want to succeed as a hackademic).
My answer: Yes, absolutely.
Your answer: Not everyone wants to be obsessed with work. I’ve been told that it’s a distinctly American thing. How much effort you’re willing to put in, especially in the short term, matters a lot. In the beginning, as a hackademic, you will have to work quite hard to build up experience and expertise. You don’t have a college degree to fall back on… and may find yourself putting in longer hours than many of your peers who have chosen to go to school -- especially while they’re in school.
Do I want to apply for college, regardless of whether I choose to go?
My answer: Yes. I want to keep my options open, because I haven’t experienced what college is like yet, and it may be the case that it is something that I enjoy and get a lot out of.
Your answer: If you have the time and the money, I would recommend taking the time to apply. In addition to being a great chance to reflect on what you’ve done so far, it’s also very practical. In the event where you can’t find a way to support yourself without going to school (and you’re offered significant financial aid by a school), for example, you have an option you can fall back on.
How valuable do I think a degree is?
My answer: My answer to this has changed significantly through the years -- from extremely useful to pretty useful to “it would be a nice decorative object, I guess.” Personally, I think the value people get from college is more about what they learn and how they grow, as well as who they meet. A fancy degree might get you in the door at some places, but it’s easily replaced by actual abilities.
Your answer: It’s worth doing your research here. The value of a degree, like I mentioned before, varies depending on what major you’ve chosen and what school you’ve graduated from.
Will I be able to motivate myself to learn, even without the structure of school?
My answer: Yes.
Your answer: I hope it’s a “yes.” If not, this is something to work on regardless of what your choice here is.
Should I consider a gap year, to test what the best option is for me?
My answer: Yes. (I took a gap year in 2013-2014, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.)
Your answer: If you have or can set up the finances for it (e.g. by getting a job), taking a gap year can be a great way to test whether you trust yourself to succeed outside of the structured college environment -- regardless of whether you work, travel, or just do self-directed learning. There’s little downside, as long as you don’t go into debt while doing it.
What is my financial situation, and what is feasible?
My answer: I am very fortunate that my parents have the money to send me to college, and are willing to use it on me. I was also very lucky to be able to fall back on them for support during my gap year. When deciding to take my gap year, however, my parents made it very clear that they would not be subsidizing a year of travel and “fun.” That was perfectly fine with me -- I wanted to work.
Your answer: How much money do your parents have? Are you willing to work to pay off student loans? Are you willing to take a gap year and work (not travel, which seems to be the norm)? Your financial situation may seem like it’s out of your control, but upon further examination you do have a say in “what’s feasible” -- you just have to put in the effort.
What You Choose
Regardless of what you choose -- college or UnCollege or something in between -- know that this isn’t an irreversible decision. If you choose to take time off, you can still apply to college afterwards (in fact, this may actually give you a better shot at admissions). If you choose to go to college, you can still leave if it’s not right for you (although you should figure this out fast, if you’re going into student debt). The point is this: there is room for detours. The most interesting paths are often those that don’t lead straight to society’s definition of success.