Why You Shouldn’t Go Straight to College

They were some of the worst years of my life.

And not just for me.  I know many who feel the same.

I can see why parents are keen to send their kids straight to college. Especially if they’ve never been themselves. Most parents I know consider their children going to university as the ultimate accolade in parenting. A decoration that means more to the parent than the child.

If you don’t go now, you will never go“, I was told over and over again.

Maybe that would have been true, but would it really have been that bad? There are plenty of opportunities and experiences far more valuable, and cheaper, than getting a degree.

For kids, it’s the easy option.  They haven’t had to make any real decisions about what they are going to do with their life yet, why start when they are 17? Following the masses and mindlessly going to university is just another step down the road of “what everyone does“.

After I’d finished at school, I didn’t want to go to university. I wasn’t ready. My grades weren’t as good as they should have been. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.  (In the US, liberal arts degrees where you can take courses in several subjects are the norm.  In the UK, the norm is different courses on the same subject! A US university education was far more attractive at the time, but definitely not an option back then).  Believe me, there were lots of reasons why I shouldn’t go. It’s a long story, but I ended up going.

Part of me did want to go, if only to start a new life.  Another part of me wasn’t comfortable committing to an expensive course of action that deep down I knew wasn’t right. It wasn’t the moving away that worried me.

Those years at uni were the hardest in my life to date. Emotionally I wasn’t ready for it. I had zero confidence, and I knew nothing about the world. I didn’t know how to cook, how taxes worked, how to dress, how to manage money, loans, and overdrafts. I didn’t know how to make friends, how to deal with the peer pressure of living with people from a world completely different to my own.

I tried to drop out, I tried to change courses. I was persuaded to give law (the course on which I’d enrolled), at least a year and see how it went. I had no money and no where to go.

Change is hard when you have no idea, no security, and haven’t a clue what you’re doing. So, I stayed on the road I was travelling.

I was promised they would be the best years…

Maybe it was the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of grants that did it.  I can see why it would have been easier if I hadn’t had the financial pressure. If it all had been free.  Missing half of my classes while working two jobs was stressful and a complete waste of money. I hated it.

Even now I’m still bitter about how I screwed up that opportunity. I was struggling massively, spreading myself thin. I was all over the place, drinking far too much, (the only way I’d been taught to deal with anything), and hardly sleeping.

Coming from a tiny village in the countryside, I was overwhelmed by the opportunity to get involved in things I had always dreamt of doing.

I was doing the best I could, but it wasn’t enough.  I enjoyed most of my classes but missed plenty. I hated missing what I was paying for.(I’ve always enjoyed learning). I completely let myself down.

In hindsight, I should never have gone. I should have at least dropped out in the first year.  Sure, things have turned out alright. But, I would never want my children to go through the same thing. Here’s why I don’t think you should go straight to college:

1. When you’re 18, you know nothing

You don’t know who you are, let alone on what you should spend one of the biggest investments of time and money that you will ever make in your life.

You will have just come out of school. You will have been spending the vast majority of your time around people who are as just as clueless as you.

You might have a part time job, but it’s probably not going to be the kind of opportunity that will have broadened your horizons.

Why gamble tens and thousands of pounds/dollars on going to university at 18?  Why make a decision which will determine what you will be tied into doing for the next three years of your life, and have massive implications, when you are 17 and still in school?

It’s a decision that will determine the trajectory and opportunities that will present themselves to you for the rest of your life.

Why parents and teachers rush kids into making these decisions when they are do young is beyond me.

Apart from having a child or buying property, going to university will be the biggest financial investment you’ll ever make in your life. You’ll be paying it off for years, decades.

Why rush into it? Resist the urge to do what all your peers are blindly doing.

Take time out. Take a break. Work. Travel. Give yourself time to figure out on what you want to spend all that time and money.

2. You don’t appreciate the value of money

It’s easy to get into debt when you’re 18.

I’m not convinced that someone who’s ever worked and lived independently can really appreciate the value of what they’re spending on their college education. Loans feel like free money, something to worry about in the future.

It’s easy to spend that loan/overdraft thinking you’ll get a high paying job in a few years time. With loans and overdrafts, you can often negotiate payment holidays. It isn’t a problem you have to worry about just now right?!

Problem is, you know nothing about the economy, or how jobs come and go.  There are more young people unemployed now than ever before.

You don’t know where you’ll live, or where you’ll want to live when  you leave uni. You don’t know what you’ll want to do or how much that will cost.

If you want to travel, go before you incur all that debt. Saving for wonderful experiences is a lot harder when you’ve got debt  to think about.

Debt cripples people. It narrows your choices, and will effect the trajectory and quality of your life for a long time.

Debt can snowball.  Seriously. I’ve seen so many friends get into  financial trouble. Even those who’ve lived with their parents and had most things paid for by someone else.

Debt is not something you should rush into.  College doesn’t have to be that way.  It’s not a given.  There are other ways.

Go out, work for a bit. Earn some money yourself, and save it towards your college education. Trust me. You will thank yourself for it.

3. You need to get to know yourself before deciding what you want to do with your life

Finding out what those are may not be something you can do at school or during school holidays.  You need to work.  Put yourself under pressure outside the confines of a school environment. Get to know people outside of your usual community.  Figure out what you’re good at, what you need to work on.

Move to another town, get a job, learn new skills. Meet people who are older than you, people you can learn from.  Figure out what you do well, what you struggle with, what you enjoy doing, what interests you, what you hate doing.

That’s all valuable stuff. Things you won’t necessarily learn about in university when you’re concentrating on academic exams.

4. Deciding what to study is a huge decision

Concentrate on studying and finishing your A levels first.

Worry about personal statements, UCAS applications, open days, and interviews when  you don’t have to focus on your A levels.

The best subjects to study are those you love, those that you are truly interested in.  It’s hard to know what those are with the limited exposure you’ve had at school.  Take some time out and explore.  Follow your curiosity.

Taking a year out is not going to harm your career prospects in any way. It’s an opportunity to stand out from the masses. It’s a chance to go to university a little older and wiser than your peers.

Broad multi subject degrees, such as the ones found in the US are rare in the UK. Here, you often study one subject in depth. Great if you know what you want to study, less so if not.

It isn’t a decision to make lightly. If you’re not sure, don’t risk it. It’s not easy to transfer or change courses, and it may cost you an additional year’s tuition and living fees if you get this wrong.

It isn’t a case of just getting any degree. The type of degree you get matters. Make the wrong decisions and you may find yourself with a hellish and boring three years in front of you

When you have a better idea of your skills and interests. Choose a subject that you’ll enjoy reading about. You’re far more likely to do well in a subject that genuinely interests you.

Don’t choose law just because you think you want to be a lawyer.  Most aspiring lawyers I know haven’t a clue what life as a lawyer is really like.

Take your time to research the best universities. Despite not having stellar grades myself, having gone to one of the top universities in the world has opened doors for me that wouldn’t have been opened otherwise.

5. Other options should be considered

Some professions require a degree. If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, then it’s a pre-requisite.

If you’re not sure, then don’t rush into it.

There are lots of reasons to pursue higher education, especially if you can find a subject that you love and are truly interested in. Graduates also tend to earn more, or have access to higher paying jobs when they graduate.

However, there are great positions out there which don’t require a degree. You can start earning decent money and work your way up straight away. You learn on the job and will be years ahead of your university peers.  You’ll have no debt and you’ll be making money. It’s also the quickest way to work out whether a job is for you or not.

You can study for a degree at any time. Having the freedom and stamina to work your way up in a job takes energy and hunger, the younger you are, maybe the better.

There are  so many other things you can do when you leave school, learn a language, volunteer, work on a yacht and sail around the world, study using online resources like CreativeLive, or study university courses independently like Scott Young did with his amazing MIT challenge. Use your time wisely.

6. Learn the basics

For the majority of your life up until you are 18, most of you will have had someone who will provide the essentials. A roof over your head. (or the majority of time anyway…). Someone to pay the bills, sort out food, insurance, council tax, all that.

Unless you’ve got pretty good parents, you’re not going to know how to deal with all that.  Learn the basics before you go to university, before you have the pressure of studying full time.  Get some serious savings behind you before you go and learn how to not destroy your credit rating!

I get that university might be a good time to transition into all that stuff. But college is not real life.  There will be endless distractions that you will want to enjoy without worrying about the admin.  Keeping up with your peers in a pretty intense environment, will drive you to spend a lot more than you usually would too.

Get a taste of real life first.

7. Broaden your horizons

If you’re going straight from school – to uni – to a graduate position, your experiences in life are going to be pretty limited.

You see it all the time when you meet graduates. Most have had a vanilla education in life. The ones that stand out, who bring something different to the table, are often the ones who have travelled, pursued their interests and excelled in other aspects of their lives.

These experiences broaden your perspective, and introduces you to new people and ideas.

I recently read Michael Simmons‘ interesting article about the No.1 Predictor of Career Success. He writes about the importantance of having such an “open network” and the value of divergent experiences. Taking Steven Jobs as an example:

Many are quick to label parts of Steve Jobs’ life as the ‘lost’ or ‘wilderness’ years. However, when we view his life in retrospect, we see that his diversions were critical to his success“.

Stay hungry, stay foolish“. Don’t rush down the path to college without considering if it’s the right road for you.

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