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The UnCollege Blog

Is College Outdated? How to Break Away From Institutional Learning


Today’s college students have a lot on their plate. Some would argue too much. Forty years ago, students were asked to complete standard course loads in exchange for a bachelor’s degree signed by the dean at the end of a four-year commitment. At that time, a degree wasn’t even necessarily required to land a secure job with opportunities for advancement. But today it’s much different.

In addition to a full course load, which can often stretch from 17-20 hours a week plus homework, today’s average college student is expected to invest their remaining time in activities and independent study outside of the classroom in order to bolster their chances of landing a secure job come graduation season. Today most universities and places of higher education require their students to complete internships, traveling stints coupled with related coursework, and independent research projects in order to earn a degree. When these super students somehow manage to vault themselves over this incredibly high bar, the other side isn’t all sunshine and roses, either.

Today’s freshly graduated college students are in significant debt. The average student ends up owing upwards of $30,000 in student loans at the end of their college career. That number 30 is important to remember. It’s also the average age when students finally reach financial independence. As a result of the incredible demands college puts on student’s time and wallet, more and more young people are having to pass up on opportunities or refrain from looking for them all together when they graduate because their debt restricts their ability to travel or relocate for work.

In addition to spending their twenties in a money hole and likely their parent’s spare bedrooms, today’s college grads are surrounded by working conditions that often have nothing to do with the degree they just broke their backs (and their bank accounts!) to earn. In 2014, 44% of recent college graduates reported being significantly underemployed. This 44% is still scrambling for work in trades where less than half of the positions require a bachelor’s degree. Among the most common of these jobs are roles such as baristas, cashiers, bartenders, administrative assistants, business support, and information processing. While reports claim the commensurate wages for college degree holders is $78,500, these low-skilled jobs pay in the $23,000-$59,000 range and do not require employees to access the knowledge and training they earned in their designated field.

Debt is bad. Understimulation is every worse. But don’t think these are all the ways today’s journey through college is negatively impacting students. On top of being financially unstable and intellectually stifled, today’s college student is teetering on the edge of mental health concerns. A study done on mental health in college students in 2008 showed that 80% of scholars experienced moderate to high levels of stress in their daily lives. This survey showed a 20% increase from a study done on the same topic just five years before. The more we pack onto the docket for college students to get done, the more we limit their possibilities to gain wisdom and use their gained knowledge after graduation.

We’ve begun to treat college students like sponges. Each year we ring them tighter in order to soak up additional material and stimuli. The stress, debt, and sense of un-accomplishment that comes along with graduation day has caused many people, not just students, to view for profit institutions of higher education with a glaringly critical eye. And rightfully so. If the college system isn’t ready to change, it’s time we started looking into alternative modes of education like self-directed learning, gap years, and other educational alternatives.

Gap year programs have been primarily consumed by the open-minded market for the past fifty years. When Malia Obama’s very public decision to take a gap year hit the media in May of 2016, the institution of self-directed learning gained the attention of a much wider audience. Each platform is different, but every gap year program has one thing in common. They all champion flexible, self-directed learning, not gridlocked institutional checkpoints.

UnCollege makes a strong push for self-advocacy and personal development in all its members. Participants, called fellows, spend a year developing their professional goals in San Francisco, gaining work experience, and traveling to a new destination in order to broaden their understanding of the world and follow their interests. Better yet, they never have to register for classes. Not once. Everything in the program is accomplished through independent work, hands on activities, and collaborative workshops led by dedicated, accessible mentors and coaches.

As we continue to put the strain on the college student’s back, gap years are becoming more and more of a mainstream option for young professionals looking to escape the consequences of earning a high priced degree. And who can blame them?

To learn more about gap year and the other resources UnCollege offers, check out the program here.