To College or Not to College?

That is a question on the minds of many people in the unschooling community these days. The latest conversation starter is this article, which, while focusing on monetary reasons to avoid college, supports many of the other reasons to stay away from their hallowed, ivied halls. Before I present my thoughts on the matter, here’s a disclaimer:

College can be a wonderful experience. If a person of any age knows what college has to offer and wants to be a part of it, she should do so. To present college as the be-all and end-all of experiences, however—as the thing that guarantees “success” in life—is dishonest and cruel.

Yet that’s what most schools and parents do, in my opinion.

Now,  here are my humble, yet much considered, ideas about where college fits into the grand scheme of life.

College isn’t what it used to be—academically or socially.

When I went off to Rutgers in 1976, the only computers there were at the Hill Science Center, and the only people who used them were math majors—and the computers used punch cards.  Knowledge came from books alone, and from the mouths of the professors who assigned those books.

Most of my fellow freshman had, like me, hardly ever been away from home before. College was our trip abroad, our opportunity to meet new and different people—until we realized that most of these people were fellow New Jerseyans who had attended high schools much like our own.

In 2010, knowledge is everywhere and ridiculously easy to access. The average American, with his computer, has more knowledge available to him at the click of a mouse button than is contained in the entire Alexander Library on the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus.

Now, Facebook  can provide truly new and different people to meet, and after you meet them online, you can arrange to meet them in person.

The world is bigger than it used to be, which makes the claim for college as the  essential life-broadening experience out-of-date.

College has become a seemingly unstoppable money-sucking racket.

For the average American family of blind followers (sorry, but it’s true) the sucking begins with the SAT course (i.e., how to “win” the test-taking game). Next comes the college touring period, marked by many days of travel to other states, with the accompanying hotel and restaurant bills. After that, there’s the college bill—an astronomical amount of money per year for a completely unknown result. No wonder families expect so much from their children’s college experience: by the time it starts, they’ve already spent many thousands in “hope” money.

Ideas for other things to do with that money—that your particular offspring might enjoy more—abound, and the article mentions some of them. I personally like the ideas of travel and reading. Just travel. Or just read. Or—my personal favorite—read while travelling.

If a particular person needs externally imposed structure to help her meet internally  determined goals, maybe the structure of college is a good thing. But the idea that it has to be the one-and-only perfect college, the college with that person’s name engraved on its gate, the college that can only be obtained by jumping through SAT hoops and paying scads of money, is simply absurd. A college is a group of people and buildings that offer classes. Yes, different colleges have different personalities, but, in general, they all offer a place to live and read and discuss. Just pick one, and get on with it.

College doesn’t guarantee anything.

The world is pretty scary for lots of people right now. The economy is bad. The future is uncertain (although, when hasn’t that been true?). Parents have been led to believe that they have much to fear about their children’s lives (see Lenore Skenazy’s Why FreeRange?). So, anything that looks like a done deal with a guarantee makes them feel better, and since they believe that you get what you pay for, a big ol’ fancy college education with a big, ol’ fancy price tag looks mighty purty. (I’m not sure why I slipped into Andy-of-Mayberry-speak there, but please bear with me.)

In reality, however, college does not guarantee any of the following:

  • monetary success
  • emotional success
  • increased knowledge
  • increased job opportunities
  • self-actualization*

*That’s the biggie.

College, to my way of thinking, is usually a way in which parents displace faith in their child with faith in an institution. I say, put the faith (and the money) in the kid, and see what happens. If what happens is college, great. If not, so what? Stripping college of its current position on a very high pedestal is one of the goals of my lifetime. People have been saying it for years; I hope it sinks in more and more to average Americans—the blind followers who usually don’t know who they are—for the benefit of their SAT-tormented, debt-ridden, choice-deprived, currently college-bound (and I mean bound) kids.


18 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Angela said,

    I was one of the many to post this to my Facebook page. What I find interesting is that I’ve gotten several very interesting comments and messages from more traditional minded folks, that let’s me know it’s not just unschoolers giving serious thought to ideas like this. I find that very encouraging.

    Also, I was amused and gratified to find out that my husband spent quite a bit of time defending my posting of the article and our decision to unschool in general to an old prepschool classmate last night at a bar. (-:

  2. 4

    Cristina said,

    And here I am, having my daughter start at the local community college. *blushing*

    For me, homeschooling was so easy. My family was on board with me and the result of what I was doing spoke for themselves. Literally. But now I find the pressure of relatives and friends worse when it comes to deciding about college. Our area is very college oriented. (Ever read Jane Austen in Scarsdale? That’s us, but a little more north and west!)

    Just as the ever present question when she was growing up was “what grade are you in?” now she feels put upon by the new question: “Do you have any plans for college?” When it’s the only thing they can think to say to you, the impact is you start believing you’re supposed to be in college, even if you are two years younger than your mom was when she went!

    Thanks for this provocative and timely post!
    Peace and Laughter!

    • 5

      sgaissert said,

      Cristina, I know what you mean. My daughter has been getting the college questions, too, and we know many who are going through all the motions I described in my post. I hope your daughter enjoys the community college! I certainly think college should be an option for everybody. I just oppose the exclusivity argument. : )

  3. 6

    teganor said,

    You’re like the only adult who can see this! I’m an adult to, but people don’t think 18 counts for anything. Anyhow, I am college bound, and yeah, I do feel *bound*. I don’t want to go because everyone makes the goals of college so cold an impersonal. People like the president and parents essentially crack it all up to be preparation for work, finance, and competition. That’s a bleak outcome and I wish I had an alternative. I wanted to finally get into my art skills, and continue to work on a community center, but my mom is forcing me to go. It was worse when I didn’t get into the ONLY school of my choice, the rest were just picked randomly. And it makes a difference, because different schools have different academic atmospheres. I even begged for a gap year, just to defer enrollement to give me a break, but my mom is forcing this down. Every adult says that I should be happy, but this whole thing feels like an obligation – how can I be happy about not having control over my life with guidance *rather* than obligation. School feels like work, and I can’t stand it.

    Another awful thing is that my mom wants me to go because she never went through with completeing a college education. So yeah, I have the unspoken responsibility to fulfill her dreams and live up to the government expectation that I will compete in the workforce of “21st century” tech jobs, even though I like art, music, and writing.

    • 7

      sgaissert said,

      Thanks for writing. I’m sad that you have to go through this, although I’m sure your mother (and even the president) really do think it’s best for you. I hope you can still find time to work on your art, and I hope things change for you sooneither by college providing an exciting opportunity you just can’t see yet, or by an alternative becoming possible. I agree with you that college is often presented as “preparation for work, finance, and competition.” And that’s not what it was for me; it was a place to dream, discuss, and read. I hope it can be that for you, despite your feeling “bound” right now.

      Please feel free to keep in touch and let me know what happens. Susan

  4. 8

    I know this may not help much, but have you considered a double major? I know that my son and I have talked about college down the road. He wants to be a writer, which I think is great. And he’s said that, at this point, he wants to go to college. I told him, however, to find a second major in something he enjoys. My reason is two-fold: first, it is very hard to find a job as a writer. I suspect this is where your mom is coming from: she wants to make sure you can take care of yourself, and college will help increase your income. The other reason is that I want him to have something to write about. Sometimes becoming a writer in a niche area is a good way to get the foot in the door. So I’m trying to help him build a strategy to meet his dreams. Do you have a strategy for how to make a living as an artist? Could you become an art teacher? Maybe museum studies, and become a museum proctor? You like writing, so why not double major in art and writing so that you can write about art? I know there has to be a way to tie what you love into something to keep food on the table.

    Best of luck…

    • 9

      sgaissert said,

      Thanks for the ideas, Cherish. I know we both wish good things for our friend. I don’t feel, however, that he (or she) necessarily has to be planning a strategy for how he will earn an income for the rest of his lifenot right now, at eighteen. If someone else is still willing to help support him, he can explore options and do interesting things and develop his artistic ability without having to feel that the choicesclasses or experiences or jobs or volunteer workhe makes today must part of the recipe for a highly specific goal.

      I agree that combining what you love and what will feed you is the prize we all want, but I want to stress my point that there are no guarantees. A double major does not guarantee increased job opportunities or a certain pay level or the satisfaction that comes from doing what you love. Our friend might just as well teach kids to paint at a community center, do some fund raising for the center, and decide five years from now that he wants to go to college to learn how to run a non-profit. The end isn’t always visible; sometimes, all you can see is just a bit past the next bend in the road.

      Thanks again for writing. Susan

      • 10

        At 18, she/he should at least be considering how to support his or herself for the next few years. If college is in the cards, then I don’t think it hurts to try to combine pragmatism about developing a marketable skill in combination with something you love. College is not a guarantee of anything…it’s a way to develop skills and ideas. I do have to say, however, that my experience is that, in looking for a job, people will often take a degree more seriously than things like volunteer experience.

        But most important, I think, is remaining open to new experiences. Some times we are so focused on the goal that we forget that the journey is just as important. If we pay attention, there’s a lot to be learned on our way.

        I really wanted to go into physics when I started undergrad, but had to take a bunch of lab courses. I wasn’t thrilled about the idea, but because of one of those courses, I found out that I love geology and want to study it. Hence, I changed from wanting to do particle physics to geophysics. Later, I couldn’t go to the PhD program right after I finished my BS, so I stayed and did an MS in electrical engineering. Not what I wanted to do, but I learned a lot of very cool things that have been extremely useful in other areas. Along the way, I decided to go to a solar physics summer program and met someone who is now my advisor. So engineering is paying my bills while I do my PhD in geophysics on a research project in solar physics.

        I think it’s about making the best of your situation. So if your parents are insisting you go to college, do it…but make sure that at least some of it is on your terms. You might be surprised what fate sends your way.

      • 11

        sgaissert said,

        Smart and practical comments, Cherish. Thank you!

  5. 12

    teganor said,


    Um, when it comes to my interests I really run into problems. The typical job search doesn’t work for me, because I’m not grounded enough and I have a lot of interests that would also interfere with my main career. I dunno, sadly, I might just be a career/life drifter. I’m not saying I’m giving up on life, but like Susan says, there are no guarantees. I have hopes, but I’ve learned to realize that technically there is no such thing as the future. Like approaching the “end” of a rainbow, the future you thought you were approaching is something different.

    I also honestly would never involve myself with mainstream education as a teacher because students have no say in that system. Art and writing would work for college, but then I would be wasting thousands of dollars essentially on practice money. I am good, but my main reason for the college thing would be to get even more skills and some internships – things I could do if my parents could help me at home. Los Angeles has way to many art connections to say that the only place I could learn is in a college. I could easily seek out free and paid workshops, and build my resume by volunteering more, and seeking internships in the summer, but of course that would be too much work for my parents. Especially with economy scares too, my mom says I’m a financial burden to their dire financial situations.

    It is hard for my parents to actually be involved in my education, because the mainstream school system has been dealing with it.

    I really do hope college is okay I guess, because although I have obvious passions, I am deeply confused and unmotivated because of the boredom and lack of support from regular school.

    • 13

      sgaissert said,

      You made such an important point when you wrote:

      It is hard for my parents to actually be involved in my education, because the mainstream school system has been dealing with it.

      That’s the big problem with public education, in my view. It’s a system that excludes the parent, or at best makes the parent a partner with the institution rather than an independent voice. I hope that in college you at least feel that you are the one dealing with your education. I really do wish you all the best. There may not be a future, but in the eternal present, I hope you find fulfillment and the joy of learning. .

  6. 14

    Jennifer Lavender said,

    I am not an unschooler, but I agree with your thoughts on college. And this isn’t the first article I’ve seen that suggested that college was just a money-making racket. It’s amazing to me the number of people who are working in fields that don’t even relate to their degree or the number of people like my dad who got a specific degree for a specific job and are now underemployed because nobody else cares about the degree. The biggest reason I haven’t even started college is because I don’t want to waste my time and money taking classes that I don’t want to take or that won’t be useful in the long run. I’m thinking about skipping the degree route altogether and just enjoying some fun community classes that I am interested in.

    • 15

      sgaissert said,

      You wrote:

      I don’t want to waste my time and money taking classes that I don’t want to take or that won’t be useful in the long run

      I can understand why college has prerequisites and “core” classes. I can also understand the idea of a college wanting to provide a well-rounded pool of knowledge to a student. But I can also see how the exorbitant cost of this full menu of classes can make a person want to go a la carte.

      For people who want that experience, I hope the idea of the “liberal arts education” doesn’t go away. My 1970s college requirements were minimal: a major, a minor (6 classes), and a mini (2 classes). The areas of study were divided into three groups: Arts and Humanities, Social Studies, and Science. The major, minor, and mini each had to be from a different area. The rest was lots and lots of electives.

      I wish you joy in your learning adventures!

  7. 16

    […] That is a question on the minds of many people in the unschooling community these days. The latest conversation starter is this article, which, while focusing on monetary reasons to avoid college, supports many of the other reasons to stay away from their hallowed, ivied halls. Before I present my thoughts on the matter, here's a disclaimer: College can be a wonderful experience. If a person of any age knows what college has to offer and wants to … Read More […]

  8. 17

    The Tyndalls said,

    WONDERFUL article! This has been a constant topic of discussion in our home of late. There’s a lot of pressure out there to go to college. Nice to see the other side of the coin!!!


    • 18

      sgaissert said,

      Thank you so much, Linda. There is a lot of pressure; my sixteen-year-old is not feeling the desire to take SATs or look at colleges right now, and I give her credit for being able to say that to people who ask her about it. I hope your at-home discussions bring many good ideas and feelings.

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