One year ago today, I was unpacking my belongings in a dorm room at Meredith College, a women’s school in Raleigh, North Carolina with a student body of a little over 2000. I was in the top 10% at my high school, and was awarded merit and artistic talent scholarships that covered about half of my tuition and fees. The remainder of my tuition would be covered, supposedly, by financial aid provided by my father’s employer. I had a free ride for a graphic design program at a private school, and, excluding my roommate’s collection of religious paraphernalia, everything seemed just peachy. My life, I believed, was finally about to begin.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was very, very mistaken.
Within the first few days of my classes, my disillusionment with college became imminent. Even the “honors” classes I was enrolled in were no more stimulating (possibly less so) than classes I had taken in high school. The “honors students” were no brighter than any other teenage females I had encountered, and certainly no less sheltered and naive. The emphasis on sisterhood and female empowerment was vomit-inducingly apparent, and the students seemed far more concerned with social traditions than with learning. After a semester of drawing charcoal still-lifes of vases and reading the works only of female authors, I knew that this was no place for me. When I was later informed that I would not be receiving financial aid, as I had previously been led to believe, it became obvious that I had made a mistake. Because my parents were not paying for my education, I knew I could not afford to stay at Meredith, and began the application process to the highly regarded design program at NCSU, which would be significantly less expensive and, I believed, slightly more enlightening. It was not an easy process, but I was ultimately accepted into the program. My parents, and others that heard of my admission, seemed thoroughly impressed and pleased with my supposed accomplishment. I, however, was dubious.
Over the months, I had become increasingly conflicted in regards to college. For the past 19 years of my life, it had been drilled into my skull that college is what you do to be successful. I had been (unsuccessfully) molded from an early age to believe that the “high school-college-cubicle-marriage-children-rinse and repeat” lifestyle was the way to go; anything other than that was for the stupid and the foolish. Upon examining the reality of college, as well as its opportunity costs and monetary consequences, it became clear to me that these ideas I had been spoon-fed since childhood were inherently flawed, and that my distaste for this “traditional” sort of lifestyle was deeply ingrained in the fiber of my being. By continuing to pursue a degree in graphic design, I would almost certainly be making a mistake that would affect me for the rest of my life.
I do not expect you to, and, in fact, encourage you not to, accept the validity of my judgment without first presenting you with the realities behind my reasoning. Thus, I make my case.
College is not for learning and sharing ideas, as it may have been in the past. The nature of higher education is highly social, and places much emphasis on networking and “getting your foot in the door.” For those of you set on a career embroiled in office drama, limited vacation days, dress code, and $0.25 pay raises, by all means take your enormous student debt and go for it.
Speaking of student debt, it motherfucking sucks. The average student loan debt is now upwards of $20,000, an amount that will increase as interest accrues while the student is unable to pay off the loan (and hardly capable of affording his fast food-laden diet) with his itty-bitty entry-level salary. Employers are not looking to hire recent college graduates because they are more intelligent (they're not), they're hiring grads because they've shown they can follow orders blindly and, most importantly, will accept an unbelievably low salary.
If you're fortunate enough to have a full scholarship or your parents' financial support, good for you. You're probably still wasting your time and/or someone else’s money. Most students are just biding time by going to school. They like the structure, the safe environment, the availability of booze and casual sex. Students feel free to do absolutely nothing of real value or merit for (at least) four years, living at the expense of someone else, and are showered with admiration when they exit into the real world with a very expensive piece of paper and no real skills or knowledge. School is for people with money to burn and nothing better to do with their lives, particularly if you intend on entering a field that doesn’t require a college degree.
I know, I know. The economy is bad! There are no jobs! It’s so hard to get a job in this economy, especially without a degree!
To that I say, bullshit.
Many occupations, in reality, do not require a degree. Particularly in creative fields, such as graphic design, experience and skill are emphasized over anything else. Frequently, formal education is not even mentioned in design job listings; otherwise, it is nothing more than a very expensive gold star on your application. If you have no real talents and/or intend on working for a large corporation, you might need a degree to get a job. However, if you are skilled and have an impressive portfolio, you will be able to get a job or, even better, work for yourself and receive 100% of the profit from the fruits of your labor.
Of course, certain professions are more difficult to break into without a college degree. It takes a very exceptional person to succeed in certain fields where the majority of jobs do require a degree, especially when it is required by law. However, it is not impossible.
Many, many famous and successful individuals, of every profession, did not receive a college degree. Chances are, you aren’t even aware of the fact, for going to college has become the norm; doing otherwise is, to many people, unacceptable. In fact, eight U.S. presidents did not have a college degree. Thomas Edison quit formal schooling, as did James Cameron, Ray Bradbury, John Carmack, Wolfgang Puck, Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Ford, Lada Gaga, David Karp, the Wright brothers, Thomas Kinkade, George Orwell, Walt Whitman, as well as countless others. Many college dropouts, including Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, went on to become billionaires.
Of the reasons to go to college, many of them are invalid. I would argue that the most common, although perhaps not the most frequently cited, reason for going to college is simply because that is the expectation of young people in this day and age. It’s just what you do, what everyone does. Your parents probably want you to do it, either to follow in their footsteps or do what they could not. In many situations, college is the path of least resistance. Go to school, and nobody will get upset. You can figure out what you want to do with your life and how you're going to pay for the debt later. (Spoiler alert: not really.)
However, dropping out of college merely because you don’t like it, or you believe yourself to be a freethinking revolutionary (you're not), is just as foolish as enrolling in college without considering the implications. Consider the costs, monetary and otherwise. Consider your career intentions. Consider your intelligence and skill levels. Consider the fact that you will, most likely, not learn anything of any use or relevance in college. Consider the fact that you are probably not an exceptional person.
In my case, continuing college would be a huge monetary burden on myself, one that would likely make my life unpleasant well into the future. A college degree is not necessary for my intended career, and there are much better, much less expensive ways to gain experience and knowledge. I have better things to do with my time, and absolutely no desire to sit among farts and draw vases for another three years. I dare disturb the universe, and I assure you that it has not been easy. However, I am convinced that the pain my decision has caused now will be far outweighed by the long-term benefits. If I do not take responsibility for my life now, I will surely never be able to. Thus I leave you with the words of John Green, from his novel Paper Towns:
“It is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world.”