Rethinking College Entirely? Think Again: More Options to Make It Work for You
As college application season looms, some students find themselves questioning whether it’s worth it to get a bachelor’s degree. College is expensive and a major time commitment. Admission to top schools is competitive and, for many students, stressful.
On a more personal level, you might be worried about leaving your family and community or juggling college with other aspirations like travel, military service, or having a family. If few of the people around you have attended college, it may seem unnecessary or a path that’s not really an option for you.
In today’s world, however, a college degree is a major asset. It’s absolutely required for some career paths, and it will make others much easier to pursue. Even if you have limited resources or you’re not sure that the traditional college experience is right for you, there are options out there that may be a better fit for your needs than you’d expect.
The Practical Benefits of Attending College
Is it possible to live a good life without a college degree? Of course! Plenty of people do. However, not attending college does make certain parts of life more difficult. Before you rethink attending college, you should take a look at the data regarding the future prospects of people with and without college degrees.
On average, job and income outcomes are significantly better for those with college degrees than for those without them. Research has found that people whose education stopped at high school have a higher unemployment rate, and that recent job growth has occurred mostly in fields that require college degrees. Exceptions like Steve Jobs exist, but they are very much that — the exception.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 article “The Rising Cost of Not Going to College,” the median yearly income for people aged 25 to 32 who did have a bachelor’s degree was $45,500. For people with only a high school degree, the median yearly income was $28,000. That’s a substantial difference, and one that has grown over time.
Addressing these disparities is a complex topic, and many factors may come into play in determining who can easily access a college education. Encouraging more students to attend college may not always be the best answer, particularly if some secondary schools don’t offer sufficient preparation and support.
Still, statistically speaking, graduating from college will give you more options and likely improve your future income. Not having a college degree, on the other hand, will definitely cut you off from certain career paths and chances for advancement.
Money isn’t everything, but practically speaking, it is essential that you and your future family have your needs met. A college degree will help to qualify you for more jobs, giving you a better chance to achieve financial security and enjoy the greater freedom that a solid income provides.
Besides future income considerations, it’s to your advantage to have the name of a well-known and well-regarded college on your resume. Right or wrong, this will impact how future employers and others who perform background checks (such as potential landlords) see you.
Being part of a robust college network is also valuable. You might use that network to make connections and encounter opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise.
How College Helps You Grow as a Person
Practical factors like income and job prospects aside, there’s a lot to be said for attending college to help you grow personally. You’ll meet people from all over, encounter situations that both affirm and challenge your convictions, and possibly even discover an interest in a topic that you never knew existed. (My major, religious studies, wasn’t even on my radar before I set foot on my college campus.)
Attending college can teach you important skills above and beyond what you do in the classroom. You’ll learn to stay organized, balance a busy schedule, and manage your life independently. You’ll also have access to support services and advising that can help you make wise decisions about your future.
College certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on learning experiences and personal growth. However, it’s a particularly convenient, well-packaged, and feature-rich way to get these important experiences while also preparing for your future career through your coursework.
You should also know that while college does represent a significant time commitment, it’s not mutually exclusive with the other goals you might have. With a little work, some goals can be pursued concurrently. Even if you wait until you’ve finished college, you’ll still be young and have plenty of time to explore different options.
Finding a Good Fit If You’re Not Sure About College
No matter who you are, the best college for you isn’t necessarily the one that’s the most prestigious or well known. Instead, it’s the college that provides the best fit for your personal needs and goals. Our blog post What Does It Mean to “Fit” with a College? is a good place to get started to understand the concept of fit.
Finding a good fit is even more important if you’re unsure whether you want to attend college at all. With thousands of school options out there, you’re sure to find a few that directly address your concerns about whether college is right for you. Here are a few tips for that process.
Get Personal with Your Research
Don’t just read the literature that the admissions office provides. Talk to students and visit campus if possible to get personal perspectives, and don’t hesitate to ask direct questions about the issues that are most important to you.
Thoroughly Look into all Your Financial Aid and Funding Options
Having a tight budget can limit your options, but it doesn’t have to dissuade you entirely. With financial help, you may be able to attend a college that’s more interesting to you and better suited to your needs than you initially thought. Some very expensive and selective colleges offer excellent need-based financial aid programs, for instance.
Don’t Be Afraid to Do Something Out of the Ordinary
For example, even if few people in your family or community attend college, that doesn’t mean that you can’t. As a first-generation college student who attended a college that was very unusual for my home community, I can personally attest to this. It’s up to you whether you want to break the mold, and sometimes it’s a challenging path, but it can be done.
Less Traditional Options: Finding a Path That Works for You
Even if you find a college that’s a good fit for your needs, you might still be unsure whether the traditional approach to college is right for you. Fortunately, more options exist for the process of getting your bachelor’s degree. Here are a few of the more unusual approaches to college that you might consider.
Taking an Intentional Gap Year
A gap year — a planned year off between high school and college — can give you the opportunity to pursue other goals, save up money, or otherwise address issues that might make college seem less attractive initially. Depending on the school, you might even be able to apply while you’re still in high school, obtain an acceptance, and then choose to delay your arrival on campus for a year.
There’s a lot to be said for gap years, as long as you do something productive with your time off and use it to improve your applicant profile. Take a look at our post Should You Take a Gap Year After High School? for more of the pros and cons.
Attending Community College and Transferring to a Four-year School Later On
Some students choose to attend a local community college for a year or two before transferring to a four-year school to finish their bachelor’s degrees. Every four-year school has different transfer policies, so your individual options will vary.
As we’ve covered in our post Should I Go to a Community College?, this approach has its benefits, from saving money on tuition to giving you time to improve your academic record and adjust to the college environment. If you aren’t yet ready to attend a four-year college, but you do want to keep moving forward with your education, this might be a good option for you.
Seeking Out Colleges with Unusual Educational Philosophies
Every college is different, but some colleges are very different. If you’re not sure that the traditional college experience is right for you, you might find that a school with a particularly unique approach would suit you better.
For example, Goucher College in Maryland is exceptionally focused on international education; 100% of its students study abroad, and the student experience is built around this requirement. Berea College in Kentucky doesn’t charge tuition; instead, students are heavily involved in community service projects in the local area.
These colleges take the idea of fit even further. You’re not just deciding whether an urban or a rural school is best for you, or whether you like the atmosphere on campus — you’re potentially making a choice to undertake a truly unusual educational experience. It may just be that’s exactly what you need.
As you can see, college isn’t a monolith — there are many different options and resources available to help you reap the benefits of getting a bachelor’s degree. Only you can determine which is the right path for you. Before you write off college entirely, make sure you understand what it has to offer and how you can make it work for you.
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