Are There Alternatives to the College Experience?

Image by Patricia Drury via Flickr

Over the last twenty years, societal attitudes have fostered an expectation that all students should go to college.

Currently, 71% of graduating high school students in the United States go directly from high school to college. And while financial aid has made college accessible for nearly everyone, not all students are ready for college (or the college experience).

Right now over 50% of incoming first-year students require some kind of remediation to help retroactively prepare them for college-level work.

So I am wondering: Are we putting too much emphasis on going to college? Is it possible that the pressure and increasing “requirement” that everyone go to college is an unjust expectation? Is it really necessary that everyone have a college degree? To get entry-level work? Or tradesman status? Because it seems like that’s where we are today. People are paying extraordinary amounts of money to attend college, only to find that upon graduation there are very few well-paying jobs.

Should everyone be expected go to college right out of high school? What else could kids who aren’t hard-wired to continue with formal education do rather than menial labor? Or do you believe that college is the only way to a better life?

47 thoughts on “Are There Alternatives to the College Experience?

  1. The way teaching from kindergarden onwards is going (I now speak for Europe), the “clever” ones will have no choice but to opt for alternative ways to acquire academic knowledge, “the not so wired” can stop worrying about a degree as long as they remember to develop “a passion” for whatever it is they are good at. Both categories will succeed where formal education would have failed most of them.

  2. At the mortgage company I used to work for, there were plenty of positions that hired straight from high school. But nothing that allowed for advancement without a degree. There were several employees that made plenty enough money, but only if they were there for the long haul.

    On the flip side, there was a huge turnover rate amongst those who had degrees; the entry-level base was wide, but they only had so many positions one could be promoted to, and most of the college kids there expect a much quicker rate of return.

    So…all that’s to say…I don’t have any idea. I know I would be pretty bummed if my kids decide NOT to go ro college.

    1. Jess: I think things are really different now.

      People are clinging to their entry-level jobs.

      There isn’t as much upward mobility compared to five years ago.

      I know many employers that are looking for qualified candidates — and the degree isn’t always a deal-breaker.

  3. You raised a great point, Renee. We need to change society’s attitude and make trade schools “desirable.” Currently, we make kids feel bad about being mechanics or plumbers or whatever. They should “get a college education.” So we set them up for failures and deprive society of much-needed tradesmen. How stupid are we?

    1. There is an enormous stigma attached to these programs right now.

      Students in NYS can enter BOCES programs and com out with all kinds of diverse training.

      But these kids are often at-risk in the first place, and they have to be tough to take the teasing.

      Why do we do that?

      My hairstylist is making more than I am these days!

  4. My feel is that there is not enough emphasis on the trades like plumbing. Not all kids are good at traditional school. We have limited the number of paths to success. As long as my kids have some sort of marketable skill, i’m ok if they don’t go to college.

    1. Beth:

      I couldn’t agree with you more. I want kids to be able to think broadly. I had a Liberal Arts education and that was wonderful — for me. But it is NOT for everyone. With so many of our untrained laborers’ jobs having gone overseas, we need to make sure our children know that there are options for them and that they aren’t failures if they don’t LOVE school.

      I don’t understand why a college degree is required for a lot of jobs. Seems like a big scam sometimes.

  5. As one who worked around a university for 18 years, I can tell you that there are students that probably shouldn’t be there… definitely shouldn’t be there. This is a tough one… my wife and I both have degrees, so my kids will go to college, they don’t really have any choice. I think it’s important and opens up numerous doors. But as David said, and I agree wholeheartedly, , we need to be emphasizing trades as equally important. Those are stable, well paying, honest careers, that are somewhat recession proof and will not be eliminated by internet competition. And think how many college educated people we all know who are working in trades anyhow, just because they choose to.

    1. I hope that my son will seek a college education because he loves to learn and because he is dedicated to the life of the mind.

      But we are filling our classrooms with bodies, not minds.

      I’d love to see some kind of National Civil Service Corps where students ho are not going on to college can either join the military or do something to give back to our country: help repair bridges and roads, etc.

      Maybe after a little life experience, young adults might be ready to go back to school.

  6. Yes, Yes, yes!! Society is prepping these students to feel like failures. We tell them they have to go to college, but what happens when reality sets in and these students can’t cut it? They fail. They drop out. They bounce around from major to major, never graduating. They incur humongous amounts of debt from which they will not recover. Their self-esteem plummets. They feel like failures, when many of them could have skipped college, gotten a pretty good job, and felt like successes.

    One problem is there are a lot of jobs which currently require a degree which didn’t require a degree years ago. So, when we hear the empty words that tell us that we need a college degree to get a job, we are buying into the myth that a college degree is necessary for every job. These students are having to pay a lot of money to get a degree for a job which really shouldn’t require a degree. It is a money-making scheme, and these students pay a high price.

    It saddens me that while America touts itself as a nation which accepts and encourages differences, we want to force college on everyone. When will we wake up and realize that we are not all created the same. Some people do not have the intellectual capability to go to college and succeed, and that is ok! Some people do not have the desire to continue to go to college, and that is ok! Suceess does not have to include college.

    1. Schools are making a lot of money off of these kids who bop in for one semester and then drop out.

      I am with you that success does not have to include college.

      But how do we get our country to really get on board with radical educational reform? This is big!

  7. 71% ! That’s astonishing. About 5 % were going to college at my high school when I retired. They have everyone on the college track and the education leadership just doesn’t get it. They are increasing the drop out rate. More vocational training and vocational diploma should be available. I have proposed in Florida (to the then governor Jeb Bush), its legislature, the Miami Dade schools and to the current Secretary of Education, A. Duncan, to no avail , to make book keeping and accounting math credits.

    1. That is the latest statistic that I got from somewhere. I should have linked to it when I read the article.

      In all likelihood far fewer should go to college.

      And you are right, the drop-out rate has been increasing.

      We shouldn’t be surprised when we are pushing kids down the same chute.

      My son reported that his teachers began starting sentences with “This will be very important one day when you are in college.” He is in 7th grade. That’s a lot of pressure. How can they even think of another option if that is what teachers are saying to them every day?

  8. College isn’t for everyone. There does seem to be a lot of pressure on children to go whether they are ready or not. So many can contribute to society in other ways; learning a trade or in the arts….

      1. I for one would love to hear them and can’t imagine being freaked out. I LOVED college–and not just for the parties. 🙂 I truly enjoyed going to class and learning about different things and discussing everything under the sun. That being said, we have somehow made VOTECH into a four letter and it is not. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with not being college bound (or ‘college material’). I am saddened by the push because it deflates what learning is really all about–expanding our horizons and challenging ourselves. Who said that had to happen in a university setting???

        1. I also LOVED college, and I promise I’ll get back to you with my ideas. Writing them out now. But it is big. And requires radical change.

          If you are a teacher, you know, people don’t always like change very readily. 😉

  9. Unfortunately over the past 2 generations college has become “something you just do,” and not having a degree carries with it a stigma. But the reality is that many people can do better (financially and otherwise) using those four years to get a head start on a career. I know that I got pretty much nothing out of college but a useless diploma, the ability to go days without sleeping, and a massively increased capacity for beer.

    There are certainly people who need college for one reason or another, but for some it’s completely unecessary. One need only look at a list of some of the most successful dropouts in the world:

    It’s not a huge exxageration to say that THE most successful people in history never went to, or never finished college.

    1. Michael:

      The coolest thing about this list is that I dated like four guys on it.


      These people are the exceptions, and they would have likely succeeded even if they had been forced to sit through years of college. But your point is well taken that many people waste their time in college when they could have been doing something more productive.

      Are you saying if you could do it all over again you wouldn’t have gone to college?

      1. Unfortunately it’s just too big a question, and too many variables to consider in answering.

        I’ll say that as someone who has spent a good amount of time out of the country over the past 20 years, I am keenly aware of the scary and worsening “education deficit” that will increasingly threaten our position in the world.

        That said, as things stand now, beyond the formality of getting the diploma, for a great many people, the time and money spent on college(obviously excepting preparation for medical, engineering and other professions) are very questionable investments, and the opportunity cost is high. Even more so for post-graduate degrees.

        But again, it’s way to big and compex a topic to properly delve into here.

  10. There are two issues here. One is whether college should be the goal for most people. And as lots of your replies indicate, there are other ways towards worthwhile jobs and careers, and it’s time we started to value them. Tradeskills are every bit as important as academic ones.

    The other is, when it best to go to college? And of course it’s different for everyone. But I am glad that I deferred entry for a year or more, as did 2 of my 3 children. The one who didn’t now feels she would have benefited from a year away from the exam-machine, with a chance to experience new things, and an opportunity to to reflect on what she REALLY wanted to study. And if I had my life over again? Yes, I would go to College, but I’d wait even longer before doing so

    1. And I was soooooo ready to go, but I realize it is not for everyone. And I wish I had a little time to dawdle and see the world a bit. I’m only just starting to do that now.

      I agree we have to be thoughtful of individual differences. Why do we celebrate poems like “The Road Less Traveled” and yet try to force everyone to walk down the same path?

  11. This is very pertinent to the conversations we are having around our dinner table with our 16 year old. He is our 5th child and there was never a question with the others. University education is highly valued in the extended family and we didn’t really think about it as an issue. 2 of our kids took gap years and had life-changing experiences in Italy, Istanbul & Cairo, Egypt, but then went on to college. Our 16 year old is completely different – he is incredibly bright but the idea of slogging through 4 years is nightmarish to him. Where I struggle is the attitude that American education has fostered towards those who pick a trade. They are seen as not so bright and you go to tech school because you can’t do anything else which is rubbish. Robert Schwartz, a Harvard Professor was the primary researcher in a report released this year called Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st Century. I heard him on NPR – he challenges the idea of the “single track system” and the notion of a trade being “less than” a college degree and for those who are not as smart. The report calls for better career preparation – Here is the link – well worth a look.

  12. All great questions. I’m not sure of the answers, either. I think most kids should skip the direct ticket to college, at least for a time. There are so few college students who really know what they want to do when they grow up. Heck I didn’t find my true calling until my late 30’s.

    The question is, what do they do in the meantime? The low level entry into the job market is slim. You can only flip hambergers so long. Kid need responsibilty and maybe that’s what college gives them.

    1. I’m not sure that kids gain “responsibility” in college. Many learn how to binge drink, use alcohol and drugs, and squeeze in a little studying in between social time.

      Not everyone, but this is definitely the experience for many students.

      If you want to learn responsibility, folks need to a job or do some kind if civil service. My question is why are we so opposed to having our children participate in this kind of program? Why don’t we expect them — as citizens — to give back. And what better time than before college?

  13. I’m glad I went to college. I’m even glad I went to law school, though I’ll be paying off that debt until I’m in my early 50s.

    I’m also glad I took time out. I meandered around a little and enjoyed my time before deciding it was time to lock into something. That time out is something I look back on fondly, and essential to my landing where I am now.

    Would I recommend others go to college? If it’s practical for them. If they’re ready and can do so in a way that won’t lock them into decades of debt. College itself is no longer an assurance of a decent life, so the question of whether to go or not should be considered in light of a person’s end hopes.

    Of course, I hadn’t quite thought about it like this until another lawyer friend of mine said he’s already planning on encouraging his kids to go to trade school, if they feel compelled to study further after high school.

    (And yet . . . and yet I set aside money every month for Li’l D, the better to help him achieve whatever his dreams may be!)

    1. Like you, I’m glad I went to college. I loved it.

      But it wasn’t for everyone.

      And a lot has changed since 1989 (in my case).

      So many more students are going.

      And they aren’t always ready.

      That seems like the greatest sin of all.

      That our schools are turning out schools where students believe they are ready for college when, in fact, they are not. At all.

  14. This is a hard topic for me. I am currently unemployed and trying to find my 13th job in the last 6 1/2 years. I also have struggled during my time in public school. I have had a reading disability and struggled with many family issues. I got through high school in Alabama by having teachers giving you the answers to tests in the form of study guides. And for the classes that did not do that; I almost flunked. I have gone to the community colleges and after taking a computer test to see where you are at educational wise. I was put in the very bottom. In other words I am going to need a lot of remedial classes just to catch up. There are hardly any trade schools in Alabama as well. To do anything educational wise I have to solve where I am going to live and how to support myself. Just some of the thoughts I am sharing.

    1. Dear barcncpt44:

      Your post breaks my heart. Truly. You are like many of my students who take a test which tells them that they need remediation. In anything before they can even start.

      I understand how discouraging this can sound BUT if you want it, you WILL succeed. You WILL take those prerequisites and you WILL work you butt off.

      You have the life experience to know that life can be difficult without the “piece of paper” to back you up. I hope in the end you are able to follow your heart and land in a career that you love.

  15. I hope hope hope (although ultimately it’s their decision) that my kids (who are both somewhat socially unsophisticated and not terribly mature) will opt for a community college and a part time job.

    They could live at home, grow up a bit, experience a little of the world and have a better idea about what he/she wants out of it?

    I don’t know. I want so much for them to be successful and happy; but there are so many different measures of success and happiness.

    Whatever they choose, I will try to be supportive. I know at this point they’re both thinking “college” – but even this has a vast array of options now.

    Great topic. Thoughtful discussion.

  16. As I mentioned to you earlier, this is a touchy subject for me.

    I did not go to college. I opted to do volunteer work out of high school (because what 18 year old actually knows exactly what they want to do with their life) while I figured things out. By the time I was 20, I landed a job that required a bachelor’s degree that the interviewer assumed I had based on our conversations about literature and his Alma Mater (he happened to go to the same college my oldest brother was attending).

    From that point on, several of my jobs have been ones that required a degree, but I managed to fall into circumstances that allowed me to express my knowledge and experience before they discovered I didn’t meet that requirement, resulting in getting the job anyway.

    As time passes, it is harder and harder to get your foot in the door without a degree. The upsetting part is that (and here is where I am going to try not to sound like a superior jerk) I know that I am more intelligent and capable than many college grads. But my decision not to go to school is held against me, even with the job experience I have. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I was just now leaving high school without a degree.

    I have three brothers and a sister – two siblings have degrees (one a PHd from John Hopkins, the other a Bachelors from Emory), the other two do not. If the four of them were to walk into a room and interview for most any job, there is a solid chance that you would hire one of the two without degrees. (My PHd brother is incredibly smart and obviously dedicated, but the brother and sister without degrees are as well, the sib with the Bachelors degree…well, let’s just say he still has some maturing to do 🙂 )

    I know plenty of people that went to college and made good use of their time in school. Their degree is proof of the work they put in. I also know plenty of people with the same degree, but the only thing it proves is that they managed to memorize enough information to pass a few tests in between getting wasted and football games.

    So, yeah, I think there should be alternatives to college that don’t make people feel like they will never be successful, or that they’ve chosen a “lowlier” path.

    SIGH. I typed too much. Good post. 🙂

  17. I am a strong believer in continuing education, and I believe all students should have the opportunity to attend college. I do not believe it should be mandatory for everyone. There are many ways to further your education. Some people may want to take a year or two off before attending a college or university. The reasons could vary from finding a full time job to save money for college, to travelling, joining the military, or doing volunteer work. Some people are just not ready at 18. Others may want to attend college, but are unsure of their career path. Four years at a private university is an expensive way to “find yourself”.

    There are other types of education besides your basic BA/MA/PhD, etc. trade/specialty schools, music/art schools, culinary school, etc. For those motivated enough, it is possible to self-educate. Most of the textbooks and literature used in universities can also be found in libraries and bookstores.

    It is also possible to take college courses that fill a particular need or interest without actually getting a degree. There are always alternitives. Not going to college doesn’t always result in menial labor.

    Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg both dropped out of college. They seemed to do OK.

    I found a list:

  18. I went back to school because I felt that it was the only way to get a job that paid enough for me to be able to make a better life for my son and myself. It’s been so difficult, and I’m taking out so much money in loans, I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

    I’m studying computer science…yet recently I’ve found myself watching YouTube tutorials to expand my programming knowledge. Couldn’t I do that without paying $20k per year in tuition? Something isn’t quite right. :/

  19. Before college I would love for my kids to travel the world for a year, learn a trade, waiter or waitress, work on a farm, etc. I don’t know how much we can depend on a college education these days. Self reliance and life experiences seem pretty important in my book.

  20. I know I would have benefited from holding off before going to college. I saw it as Grade Thirteen, a chance to get out from under parental authority, and a way to postpone adulthood. I did study well, but I had no idea what I wanted to “be,” and just took everything, ending up with a biology degree because that’s the only thing I had enough of the right credits for–and an alcohol habit. And that was in the stone age, when it didn’t cost that much to go to college. I sure wouldn’t want to be out a hundred grand for my experience.

  21. Great question! I definitely think college shouldn’t be the only option. And the debt – OMG! My dad’s the director of a guidance department, so the writing was on the wall for his three kids from the day we were born…LOL…but I did skip my first semester to work as an extra on “Dawson’s Creek” and really thought I might not go to college and jump right to screenwriting! (I think he would have coped.)

    What made me change my mind and go to college a semester late was that I really believed I would have trouble finding good jobs without a degree. At the same time, I wonder if it was more a matter of pride. I do think there’s a stigma attached to not going to college – it must mean you’re not smart or not motivated. I was also influenced by the fact that my mom always regretted not finishing.

  22. This is a very timely question, considering the job market, the economy and the astronomical cost of higher education. I agree with many of the commenters who emphasized the value of specific trade education. Perhaps for children who are the type to meander a bit before finding their way, community college plus some part-time work could help cover some pre-reqs and develop some responsibility (which, as you stated, is not necessarily learned in college, cough cough, beer pong, cough cough).

    A regular four-year college could be saved for those fields which necessitate it, but I don’t think it should be a requirement for many jobs out there. I worked as a paralegal for four years with a degree in music performance, surrounded by other (equally miserable) liberal arts degree holders. The job was hardly demanding, and any moderately intelligent and organized person could succeed at it. It seems an outdated requirement at this point.

    1. Agree with you 100%. I am a huge fan of 1-2 yrs of national service. One only has to look at the success of Israel’s plan.

      Why don’t we pass a law and have 18-year-olds postpone college until after 1-2 years of national service. They could even earn a tax credit towards college, if that is the route they choose to go.

      Such service would benefit our country tremendously. And think of the experience our children would get.

      I don’t get it.

      Even creating a system like this (like FDR did back in the 1930s) would create tons of jobs!

  23. Great topic & one we discuss all the time. My husband went to comm college for 2 yrs while he figured out what to do. Then finished off at a 4 yr school – with NO debt! My oldest is taking a gap yr & “reapplying now”. The whole college admissions process stinks. There has to be a better way!

    I am a huge fan of 1-2 yrs of national service. It allows kids time to mature. One only has to look at the success of such a program in Israel. Kids finish army or natn’l service then buckle down & get a degree in ~3 yrs. there is no wasting time there!

    1. Andra:

      I love this idea so much and I plan to write a big ole blog about it. I don’t understand why the United States doesn’t do something like this? Why don’t we pass a law and have 18-year-olds postpone college until after 1-2 years of national service. They could ever have a tax credit towards college, if that is the route they choose to go.

      Such service would benefit our country tremendously. And think of the experience our children would get.

      Talk to a 19-year old Israeli vs. a 19-year old American and the difference in maturity is immediately clear.

      What are we afraid of?

  24. A lot of people are not made for college. They should not go. A lot of other people are too smart for college. They should not go. A lot of other people are ready to do amazing things without college. They should not go. I was the perfect type of person to go to college. I wasn’t brilliant or super skilled at anything but I also wasn’t capable in any trades. I needed college. So I went. And haven’t left yet.

    1. And that’s why we sit at the same cyber-table. I am where I need to be. Your answer is perfect.

      I just wish that schools weren’t so busy trying to shove everyone down the same chute.

      As you said — a lot of people should not go.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop