The academic year is in full swing and a second term is upon us. By now, you must have already learned your way around the campus, fallen in love with a newly discovered course, became BFFs with your roommate, and signed up to half a dozen clubs. Being at college is awesome, and you are slaying it… Or not.
It’s okay if you are still feeling your freshman anxiety or struggling to adapt to your new freedoms and duties. The picture I painted above is more like a coming-of-age sitcom than real life anyway. However, if it’s a complete opposite for you and you can’t relate to at least one or two things on the list, maybe you have started questioning your choice to attend college by now.
What if it was a big mistake? What if you are not college material? What will your parents think?
Okay, calm down, stop hyperventilating. First of all, most people find it hard during their first year. Maybe it’s not so bad – once you’ve done the proper inventory of your feelings and achievements. Second, even if college is indeed not your cup of tea, it’s not the end of the world. You have plenty of alternative options, and you are lucky you have found out now before you’ve wasted more time and money.
But how do you know which one is it?
Ah, don’t you worry. Grab some chamomile tea and seat yourself comfortably. Let’s figure it out together.
First of all, let’s check for some obvious red flags vs. manageable first-year challenges. My first year was pretty miserable, too, you know. If you feel a certain degree of disappointment instead of walking on the clouds, it doesn’t mean you should call it quits. Let’s compare our notes.
Wrong Reasons to Quit College
You Find Course Load Too Challenging (or Not Challenging Enough)
YOU SHOULD NOT consider dropping out simply because you find the coursework challenging. It might be just academic fatigue. After several years of striving for a higher GPA, AP courses, extracurriculars, applications, and stressing out, you expected… Well, you don’t know what exactly you have expected, but not this. Not the same grind, only more relentless.
Consult your academic advisor, reduce the number of courses you take this semester, take advantage of your college resources (tutors, library, study groups), and don’t be too hard on yourself – a passing grade is good enough! In other words, dial it down a bit.
If your situation is reversed and you feel like you can do with more intellectual stimulation, just add a course or two to your timetable or start a personal project. There’s no time like now! I still remember how much fun I had when I used to write my paper for some elective or other that wasn’t strictly necessary towards my degree but was just so interesting I couldn’t resist.
Your Heart Is Not in It
You envy your chirpy classmates that cannot wait for another lecture. You wish for the same level of enthusiasm, but it just isn’t there. You find subject matter irrelevant and your professors boring. Instead of following your intellectual curiosity and pursuing your passions, you just plow through the meh and the blah. It certainly feels bleak, but there are ways to fix things without resorting to drastic measures.
First of all, some courses are necessary despite being everything but exciting. If you can’t see any practical application for them yet, at least they allow you to build the determination and perseverance – skills you will need when entering the workforce.
Second, this might not be the right field of study for you. It happens. People change majors all the time. Don’t stress over it, and listen to your intuition. What brings you joy? What sparks your curiosity? It’s never too late to change your academic concentration.
You Feel Lonely and Homesick
College was supposed to turn this Cinderella into a party animal, but something went wrong with the spell? If you haven’t immediately connected with people you can call your tribe, and you are stuck with a roommate from hell, I feel for you deeper than you know. Sometimes finding the right circle simply takes a bit more time. Instead of giving up and undoing all the hard work you’ve put in to get into this school, try to take advantage of everything it has to offer, socially-wise: sign up to student clubs and hobby groups, hit the gym, go and see that school play (it cannot be that terrible!), say “yes” to as many invitations as possible.
Also, it’s natural to miss your friends from “another life.” No one said you have to start with a clean slate! Keep in touch. Share your struggles. Arrange a visit to show them around the campus (or go and see them at theirs.) First of all, the comfort of a familiar face will do you a world of good. Second, you might gain some valuable perspective since your friends are probably going through something very similar.
As a final remedy, look at some other campuses. Schools have distinct personalities. Maybe you just hate this school, not the idea of college as such. Think about where you can transfer. If you think that an urban campus is too much of a bustle for you, search for a rural one. If you miss your family so badly it hurts, maybe check out schools closer to home, so you can visit more often or commute instead of living on campus. No need to burn the bridge entirely.
Valid Signs That College Is Not for You
Experience Is More Important in Your Field Than a Degree
Sometimes your degree just isn’t worth it – neither the bucks you pay for it nor the time you waste. Think about this: it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill and approximately 8,000 to earn a degree. Instead of sitting through four years in college, you could be gaining hands-on experience, amassing a portfolio, building a client network, becoming a pro. All this while earning modest income instead of digging yourself into the pit of student debt that growing interest rates can make veritably bottomless.
If you pursue a degree in art, maybe you are better off just creating and learning as you go. The same goes for many tech jobs. Execs in Silicon Valley look away from degrees more and more, favoring problem-solving skills, leadership, and unique value only you can bring to their company.
Moreover, a degree might be seen as a hindrance more than an advantage in some fields. Employers think you will expect a higher salary for the job that a worker without a degree can do competently. This can make them biased against your stellar overqualified resume!
College Is Financially Ruinous for You
There is such a thing as a “financial match,” and sometimes, however flattering the acceptance letter, you just cannot afford an elite school. If a student debt was previously considered a great investment in your future that would pay itself within the first several years, then the financial disaster that is Millennials has proven that things have changed a lot since then. First of all, the costs of attending college keep creeping up ceaselessly, and this trend shows no sign of relenting.
Second, the underemployment rates among recent graduates go as high as 42.6 percent. That means a little less than half of the recent graduates work in a position that does not require a degree. There are more degreed professionals than there are matching job opportunities. Moreover, some jobs that do require a college degree do so merely to reduce the number of candidates and add more gravitas to the position. This is so-called degree inflation. “You need to get more education now to get the same job that your parents or grandparents could have gotten with a lot less,” says Bryan Caplan in his book The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money. And by “education,” he means, of course, money spent on diplomas and certificates rather than actual knowledge.
You Never Wanted it in the First Place
At the tender age of 18, you hardly know yourself enough to decide what you want to do with your life. Yet even if you do, it’s difficult to resist the pressure that your parents, society, and peers put on you. We go to college because everyone else does. Because our parents want it so much, we don’t have the heart to say “no.” Because society made us believe, it is the only way to a fulfilling career. Well, it is a way. But it’s time to think: what do you want? Maybe you wanted to pursue a career in a more hands-on profession that does not require a degree. Maybe you need a gap year to think about it. Maybe college is just not an environment where your talents can thrive. Some of us just learn better on our own.
The important thing is you must be honest with yourself and your parents about the true motives of your decision. Prepare that they might not take it very favorably, especially if they are the ones footing the bill. However, you can point out that this is one more reason for them to support your choice. After all, they don’t want to squander their pensions for something you don’t need or even hate to endure, do they?
What Are Your Further Options?
Let’s say you have decided that college is not for you. What now? Anything you want it to be! Think of it not as of failure but as an opportunity. As Mark Zuckerberg (a famous college dropout) said addressing graduates at Harvard, “The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail […] Right now our society is way over-indexed on rewarding success, and we don’t do nearly enough to make it easy for everyone to take lots of shots.”
Some of us need structure and encouragement, while others thrive when they decide what and when to learn. If you are from the latter category, today is a time like no other to get an education on your terms. With online courses, boot camps, and workshops available online and in-person, you can acquire all the knowledge and skills you need without a formal degree.
“For a lot of people, face it, if you’re in class – somebody’s walking in and out, somebody else is leaning in front of you, you miss things, and you can’t stop the instructor continuously to ask them to go back and repeat something. You’re wasting time,” says Barbara Oakley, the professor teaching the “Learning How to Learn” course available online from Coursera. If you’d better absorb the information at your own pace, why not embrace online courses and self-directed learning?
Paid or unpaid, an internship is the best way to gain experience, learn about the industry, hone soft skills needed for the workplace, and build a network of professional connections. Many companies offer internships without a necessary degree. Moreover, having time at your disposal, you will be able to procure more opportunities and show off your excellent qualities better than your peers juggling college schedules and internship searches.
Although there are some drawbacks, since an intern is often treated as free help, an internship is worth it. It’s a lower commitment than full employment, but it can secure you an entry-level position if you and your team click. And if you will need to attain a degree later in your career to take a higher role, you can always resume college. At least you will be doing it with absolute certainty that this is what you want to study and need for your work. Maybe your employer will even cover the tuition costs – many companies offer training compensations for their employees.
College is not the only place where you can learn. At vocational school, you can get in-depth knowledge of skills needed for a trade of your choice: chef, nurse, carpenter, cosmetologist, welder, automotive technician, IT specialist, etc. No more courses unrelated to your future career. Focus is on hands-on practice, and what classroom time you do have is related to the job directly.
Although vocational education is not free, it is a much cheaper alternative to college – and more practical at that. You will be ready to assume a position in the desired field in two years or less.
If you see yourself as an entrepreneur, starting your own business right away is a wiser investment of your time than writing case studies and reports for four years. Most successful entrepreneurs either never entered college or quit as soon as they realized what they wanted to do with their life. If you are prepared to take a risk and work hard, there is absolutely no difference whether you have a degree under your belt or not.
In fact, if you already have a booming business that needs your undivided attention to grow, it is in itself a valid reason to leave a college. However, I must stress that it should be a prosperous enterprise – up and running, not just an excellent idea for a business.
With the broad reach available through social media, you can make your hobby a business. Do you have a knack for making scented candles, knitting cute little socks for pets, or baking exceptionally delicious muffins? Try to monetize this talent and see where it gets you in four years.
Being of a creative disposition, you can put your talents to use to earn money. YouTube channel, Instagram account, podcast, or self-publishing platform – all these are good sources of income for many creative professionals around the world.
If you would rather be employed than self-employed, some of the very high-paying in-demand creative jobs do not require you to have a degree. A digital artist, web designer, corporate illustrator, photographer, and sound designer are just some of the more popular options on the list. Start as a freelancer or take several free commissions to hone your skills, get connections, and put your work out there. Then stay a sought-after digital nomad or join a team at the office – whichever suits you best.
Finally, if you can afford it, a break from the academic endeavor is a valid option too. High school burnout is real, and your mental health and wellbeing must always come first. Glossing over these issues will only lead to exhaustion and zero productivity. It’s far better to resume college after a break than to push yourself until you see no point in anything you do.
Backpacking around the world, volunteering, exploring your passions, or simply restoring your emotional equilibrium – choose whatever is best for you. Give yourself time to refocus, gather resources, and practice self-care.
When you decide between college and an alternative path, it is essential to consider your goals, values, interests, and wellbeing first and foremost. Ask yourself: are you doing what is best for you or trying to fulfill other people’s expectations and notions of “success”? Do what is right for you, and you will be fine – degree or no degree.