Going to college is viewed as a natural step for most aspiring young adults. It has almost become a cultural norm for the middle and upper classes, shielded from harsh questioning by its promise of better career opportunities, higher salaries, and more respect.

Yet with access to rapidly increasing resources for online learning and discussion, a lot of high-schoolers may be skeptical of the true value of attending college. This is definitely warranted, given the investment of time and money required for an undergraduate degree. And if anything, the questioning should be encouraged by parents, friends, and teachers. Four years of a young person’s life should not be approached lightly.

In this article, I hope to spark more thought regarding college attendance, present the advantages and disadvantages of attendance, and offer advice on how to approach the decision. It is directed to an audience of students approaching the college-decision process, but contains valuable information for younger students, current college-goers, teachers, and parents.

Whether you decide to attend college or not, you will have to make decisions about your future that will feel forced at such a young age. Just don’t let it cloud your judgment. This process will be one of many that mature you.

And even if you can’t map a confident course for your future career (whether that entails college or not), you should at least decide what skill-sets to explore and their viability in the long-term. By strengthening your instinct with research, you’ll soon develop a rudimentary plan for the next few years of your life. Just keep in mind that a bad plan is better than no plan, because having no plan can is a recipe for stagnation. 

Why You Might Not Want To Go

This section is in place to verbalize what you are likely thinking when you doubt the value of a college education. It may help clarify your own opinions as well as set the stage for topics we’ll explore later in the article.

One reason dominates the conversation: saving money. The total tuition cost can range from $30-200k or more after four years. And the average college graduate in 2017 has $37,172 in debt, which increases each year. No matter how much you may value a college degree, those costs speak for themselves. You might be able to find ways around the cost, such as financial aid, scholarships, or attending an in-state school, but it can be a difficult barrier to overcome.

You might have another reason: you already know what you’re going to do, and it doesn’t require a degree. This is rare, but can be the case for surefooted prospective entrepreneurs, particular laborers, artists, software developers with extensive coding experience, or folks inheriting a family business. If you fall into one of these categories and aren’t currently making money in that endeavor, try to ascertain an idea of your projected income and weigh that opportunity cost against tuition and the knowledge you’ll gain while at university.

Finally, you might be in the camp that doesn’t know exactly what you want to do, but just feel that college isn’t the right move. This is a more dangerous opinion than the last one, because it can lead to an irrational or hasty decision, but it is still an understandable one.

In all these cases and ones I may have missed, you should research, think, and discuss with others as much as possible in order to make a good decision. You’re doing that now by stumbling upon this article, and you should form that level of analysis into a habit. This process of meticulous decision-making will serve you well for any future crossroads.

Possible Advantages of Not Attending College

An advantage of abstaining from college that’s often overlooked is that many high-paying jobs don’t require a college degree. This can include transportation-related jobs, supervisor positions, mechanics, and even nuclear-power-reactor operators. Business Insider has a useful ranking of these positions here. The median annual income for these jobs hovers between $50k-80k, which is pretty solid in comparison to the median U.S. household income of close to $56k in 2016.

The downside to these positions is that they have a higher potential of career-stagnation, meaning that there’s not much room for you to advance. This is because upper-level management positions tend to recruit from a pool of college-educated candidates, sometimes outside of the company itself. Moreover, a lot of these roles require non-transferable skills, or ones that may soon become obsolete (which is a topic discussed later). These positions may also require college degrees in the near future, simply because of the trend towards degrees as a new minimum standard for employment.

Another option to learn and grow for folks deciding to either pass on college or simply delay the journey is to live at home while self-educating. Self-education is something worth engaging in even while in college, but it can also be a route to bypass school entirely. Resources such as Udemy, Coursera, Udacity, and Khan Academy can help you gain useful skills or knowledge in your spare time that are directly related to building a business or launching a new career path.

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Contrary to popular belief, it is definitely possible for people to develop general intelligence independently so long as you possess the requisite motivation and work ethic. It can be difficult at a young age to push yourself individually, but certain personalities might benefit from such an approach. The following quote offers great perspective on universities and how students spend a great deal of time while in school: 

Arum, whose book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) comes out this month, followed 2,322 traditional-age students from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2009 and examined testing data and student surveys at a broad range of 24 U.S. colleges and universities, from the highly selective to the less selective. Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills. Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

This leads to the last advantage, which is that a portfolio of projects can be more valuable in attaining a job than just a degree. In the fields of graphic design, web design, and art, a portfolio is the most important, and arguably the only tangible thing you need, to get hired. I’ll refer you to two articles (here and here) that better explain the relationship between portfolios and jobs.

The beauty of developing a portfolio early-on, whether you attend college or not, is that you’ll gain valuable skills in that field and learn if you want to explore it further. Even if you make an art portfolio, but decide instead to go into art related consulting, then at the very least you will develop a creative acumen and impress employers with your initiative. 

Possible Disadvantages of Not Attending College

I already hinted towards one disadvantage, which is that your options for career paths may be limited. This might be harder to understand in the present, especially if you haven’t worked in the industry yet, but can make sense when observing future job-availability projections. For example, a study done by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute showed that by 2020, 65% of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school, and 35% of the job openings will require at least a bachelor’s degree. The lack of a degree may not be as concrete a barrier as people make it out to be, but could be restrictive. In fields such as medicine and law especially, it’s almost impossible to attain a position without one.

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Another study done by the Pew Research Center concluded the following: among 25- to 32-year-olds with a college degree, the jobless rate as of March 2013 was 3.8 percent. At 8.1 percent, the rate was more than twice as high for those with a two-year degree or some college, and it was more than three times as high for those with only a high school diploma at 12.2 percent.

This does not mean that you will be unemployed without a degree, but again hints toward the general benefits of having a degree for the population at large.

And as mentioned, even you get a stable position at a company without a degree, you might find it difficult to shift to another industry or move up in the company without a degree. Just keep in mind that college could be an investment you’ll make for a return that’s four years or more down the road, even if you would otherwise be fine without it now.

Another disadvantage is that you may miss out on the exploration and growth that’s possible in college. Certain experiences are definitely available without attending college, but there are several unknown variables to consider. For example, colleges can provide access to other intelligent people in your class, contact with alumni, school prestige, new courses of study you would otherwise not have pursued, clubs, team projects, a certain type of social life, a good transition to living on your own, job fairs, and potential mentors.

Finally, and perhaps the most fascinating potential disadvantage of skipping college, is the supposed health difference between college grads and non-college grads. The National Bureau of Economic Research had the following to say about it: The magnitude of the relationship between education and health varies across conditions, but is generally large…Four more years of schooling lowers the probability of reporting oneself in fair or poor health by 6 percentage points and reduces lost days of work to sickness by 2.3 each year. Although the effects of gender and race are not shown, the magnitude of four years of schooling is roughly comparable in size to being female or being African American. These are not trivial effects.

Correlation does not necessarily imply causation in any of the cases mentioned, but the data presented is worth thinking about and investigating further.

What you should do now

So what happens if you’ve thought hard about your decision and know that you want to attend college? You should prepare yourself by choosing the right school, then committing completely to the program. It may sound contradictory, but if you set that aim in your mind and later decide that college isn’t right for you, then at least you’ll have made the most of your experiences up to that point.

And what happens if you’ve decided not to go? Just continue to do what you’ve been doing and research your current options. Just be confident in your choice, because you will likely have to begin making an income or figuring out a specific path sooner than college-bound peers.

After having read this article, you may still feel confused about your decision (or maybe more confused than you were before). That’s okay, because there was and will continue to be a lot of information on this topic. There is no single yes/no answer I can give you. However, a good framework to follow is that you should aim to gain marketable skills in an area that peaks your interest. Even if you attend college, you’ll find that developing yourself outside of school is essential, as is having a vision for how to apply that education. The following website may provide some help, as it has well-researched information on various career paths and their impacts on the world.

Also, be mindful of the automation of jobs, and which ones will be eliminated in a 5 to 10-year time frame. Technological development accelerates, and has predictably accelerated for decades, so the world could be noticeably different when you graduate. This article has a cool interface to learn about the probability of different jobs becoming automated, and this one explains the topic in more general depth. Be mindful that you don’t have to pursue the careers least likely to be automated only, but rather have an understanding of the skill-sets involved so that you don’t find yourself becoming obsolete.

So here’s a quick summary:

  • Possible Advantages: saving money, self-educating at a faster pace than a degree program, developing a project portfolio on your own
  • Possible Disadvantages: large number of projected jobs that will require degree, higher chance of unemployment, difficulties in career advancement, not having the social and developmental benefits of college atmosphere