Not so fast, college kid. Before you go filling that Target shopping cart with a mini-fridge, scratchy 100-thread-count twin sheets and enough Flamin' Hot Cheetos to power your first semester of dorm living, do me a favor. Take a deep breath, exhale, and ask yourself, genuinely: "Do I want to keep going to school?"
If you do, hooray! On to higher education you go, smartypants! These words are not for you.
These words are for those of you who answer that question with a fiery, "HELL NO." These words are for those of you who have to foot their own bill and are preparing to take out tens of thousands of dollars' worth of student loans for something they don't really want. These words are for those of you who are coasting into college without giving it much thought because it's something you feel like you have to do — or worse, feel like you have nothing better to do.
Because here's the thing: You don't have to go to college. Dropping out of college before I could even complete my two-year degree was the best life decision I made before my 25th birthday.
Obviously, if you're looking for a career as a teacher, doctor, nurse, lawyer, scientist, massage therapist, or anything else that requires higher or specialized education, you should absolutely keep going to school. You have to. You can't skip it and gain experience in the field by just doing weird medical experiments on your neighbors or opening up a psychiatric booth giving out advice for a nickel, even if you give the best advice ever.
But if you're looking for a more flexible career — or if you don't yet know what kind of career you want — then it might be worth taking a bit of time to sort through your options.
The College Board's Trends in College Pricing (trends.collegeboard.org) says the average annual cost for tuition and housing for students attending a four-year, in-state public college was $18,391 for the 2013-2014 school year. That number more than doubles if you plan on attending a private college or university, and that doesn't include the cost of books (which the board says averages about $4,000/year).
A 2012 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (nces.ed.gov) says that only 59 percent of first-time students who attempt to get their bachelor's degree at a four-year school graduate within six years.
But despite the horrifying cost, and the fact that barely half of all first-time college students actually earn their four-year degree within six years, there is still a lot of pressure on young people to keep continuing their education. Obviously it's not pointless — there's evidence that college graduates have a higher annual income than those who didn't go to or finish college — but not everyone is made for higher learning, at least not right out of high school. I certainly wasn't. And, it'd seem, neither were some of the other 41 percent who packed up their books and split.
If you want to go to school, by all means, do it — especially if you've earned scholarships or are lucky enough to have people in your life willing to cover some or all of the costs. But there's no shame in needing some time to figure your shit out.
Dropping out of college doesn't mean living a life of poverty, working in unfulfilling dead-end jobs, or crippling regret. That's something I learned after going to school, quitting, going back, quitting again, and feeling like a directionless moron. I did my best while juggling an unpaid internship, a part-time job, and a full-time class schedule at a local community college. But once the internship turned into a part-time job offer, that was all I needed to run far, far away from ever having to pay hundreds of dollars for a textbook or do group work with a bunch of jackasses ever again.
Getting that internship proved I could do the job. Proving I could do the job opened the door to more opportunities at the weekly paper where I was working. And now, after writing for nearly two decades, publishing a cookbook, hosting a radio show, and doing other rad shit my high school teachers insisted I couldn't do without college, I can't remember the last time anyone asked me what kind of educational background I have. I found my own way, without college. And not to brag, but I have zero student debt to pay back. (OK, I'm bragging a little.)
If you're paying for college on your own, that's a huge financial commitment — certainly not one to be taken lightly, and not one to be pressured into taking, period. Take a little time. Focus on what you want to do, reach out to people in that field, and ask them what advice they have and what path they took. You may end up deciding to go to school after all.
But at least you'll be doing it because you want to.