Choosing to Skip College

choosing to sleep in collegeIn the new issue of Philadelphia Magazine, Grace Jay-Benjamin recounts touring colleges with her parents, and deciding at her first stop at McGill University that she actually didn’t want to go to college. Benjamin had attended Greenfield Elementary, which she says has one of the best reputations in the city, but when she complained about disliking school, her parents pulled her out to attend the Philadelphia School, where students called their teachers by their first names and did much of their learning during weekly field trips. Benjamin didn’t want to be stuck in an academic setting that didn’t feel right for her, (nor saddle herself with any kind of student debt). She also wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life, and didn’t think college was the right way for her to figure that out:

When conversations turned to what college I’d be heading to in the fall (as they often did), it was clear that my decision was bold but not unfounded. Business degrees and the sciences weren’t for me — I wasn’t interested in being an engineer or a computer programmer, a lawyer or a marketing major. Like most of my friends, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I would have most likely concentrated on one of the countless humanities majors. Art history or English would have been fascinating, but four years later, I would have been in a pool of highly educated graduates with no actual skills.

Traditional education is under attack, and my trepidation was in synch with the unavoidable data: College prices are soaring; the post-graduation job market is weak; online education is challenging the idea of what one truly gets out of going to school.

The newsmakers of my generation are the ones who took the traditional way of doing things and flipped it upside down. You never hear those people saying that college was their catalyst. Their message is bigger: To be successful today, the most important thing one needs is gumption.

There’s a difference between doing a liberal arts degree with the intention of becoming a social worker or teacher or reporter, and doing a liberal arts degree by default due to a lack of career ambition, and Benjamin makes a good point about that. But success isn’t just predicated on gumption. Benjamin, after all, had two parents who she describes as two “accomplished people” with “impressive careers” who had the resources to find the right kind of primary and secondary schools for her to thrive in. After having long discussions about what not going to college may mean for her, they allow Benjamin to live at home and “would supplement [her] financially, just as they would have if [she'd] gone to college” while she figured out a way to become financially independent from them. Her parents buy an “investment property” and allow her to live in it with a discount on rent as long as she and her roommates fix it up. Benjamin ends up working in real estate, but also going to art shows and doing volunteer work.

Not going to college wasn’t an option for me, but I can envision what that might have looked like: I would have been kicked out of the house for disobeying my parents’ wishes and would have had to figure out how I’d be able to live on the $7 an hour I was earning working in retail. Would I have been able to explore my own interests or found the time to do so? I think, perhaps, I would have ended up in college after a year of not making much progress.

Benjamin is still figuring it out. “Maybe one day I’ll even find myself walking onto a university campus,” she says. “If so, I know I’ll be there with purpose.”

Photo: Pink Sherbert Photography

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12 Comments / Post A Comment

Lily Rowan (#70)

“Underlying privilege” is right. Sheesh. Most people in this world need a job to pay the bills. Most office jobs now require a degree, even if it’s not especially relevant to the work.

And my parents always said I could come back home if I got into trouble, but their two-bedroom apartment was really unappealing as an adult.

Aconite (#6,401)

I got about one third of the way through that piece before I wanted to hurl my computer out of the window. It’s fine being a special snowflake who “didn’t respond to traditional teaching methods” as long as mummy and daddy are on hand to send you to private school and then later, underwrite you financially and give you a house, er, I mean “investment property” to decorate how you like.

Karebot (#5,803)

@Aconite I agree. I think higher education is grossly mismanaged and employers shouldn’t require a bachelor’s degree for jobs that don’t need it. Still, I think the change needs to come from the top down.

To be a young person who isn’t actively pursuing a blue collar career or at least a trade school education is taking a dangerous gamble and the only one feeling that consequences of that decision is themselves. No one is looking at your example and changing the system. Sounds like this kid is going to be leaning on their parents for a long time.

Aconite (#6,401)

@Karebot Yes! This is what I sort of wanted to say but wasn’t able to because I got too wound up to be articulate. The thing that pissed me off about the whole piece is that she seems to think that having no plan and just arsing around on her parents’ dime is the equivalent of learning to be a mechanic or starting a business.

Stina (#686)

I fully approve of the instinct to do what is right for you and avoiding higher education if it isn’t a useful way to get there. Believe me I do.

However this paragraph made me want to barf: “The newsmakers of my generation are the ones who took the traditional way of doing things and flipped it upside down. You never hear those people saying that college was their catalyst. Their message is bigger: To be successful today, the most important thing one needs is gumption.”
Yes because no one before your generation ever 1.Did not go to college and 2. Went to work instead. Yup. You invented that.

TreeTownGirl (#7,031)

@Stina Yeah, I struggle with this because I think that not going to college needs to be a more viable path for my generation (and I went and don’t regret it at all, despite my loans)… but I stopped reading at that same paragraph.

Because yeah, my dad totally did not go to college and went to work instead. And he worked hard, manual labor hard, for many years until he was recognized as having management potential and eventually shifted into an office role at the same company. Climbed the ladder to making a good enough salary to support my mom and two kids at a middle-class lifestyle. That was also totally not a revolutionary path for my parent’s generation.

Also, I don’t get the desire to be a “newsmaker”/I hope she realizes “newsmakers” go to college too. Sure, Zuckerberg dropped out and made Facebook. But then you’ve also got Google’s three founders that all have multiple degrees between them. And actually Facebook may be a bad example if it’s true that the catalyst for that idea was college culture. At least I assume she’s talking about tech when she says that, since those narratives tend to get a lot of press time/we’re making movies about these people now.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

“You never hear those people saying that college was their catalyst.” Really? Sounds like her research was limited. (At the least, you’ve got Steve Jobs’ college calligraphy class.)

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

Okay, I’ve read the whole piece. Aside from everything mentioned above, the other telling part of her development is that she thinks nannying, unpaid internships, and cramming into a house full of roommates is GREAT, while her peers who graduated from college and are looking for jobs in their field would probably see that life as a step down.

beastlyburden (#6,122)

Meh, I’m not mad about this. I don’t think she’s the greatest messenger for “college isn’t for everyone,” but it’s ultimately an important idea. It’s unfair that a BA has become a requirement for so many entry-level jobs. I get that employers use it as a gating mechanism, but in most cases, all it really says about an applicant is that… they went to college.

She’s obviously privileged, and this story would be MUCH different if she didn’t have parental support. But instead of choosing to spend her parents’ money on college, she asked them to spend it on helping her outside of college. It’s not a terrible model.

Going to college was a given for me, although I wish I’d deferred a year or two–I had so much growing up to do and absolutely no idea about what I should study or what I wanted to do afterwards. When my parents found out that I switched my major to the arts, they cut me off. Fun times!

@beastlyburden Going to college was a given for me, although I wish I’d deferred a year or two–I had so much growing up to do and absolutely no idea about what I should study or what I wanted to do afterwards.

You know, I feel the same way, and pretty much all of the males in my generation in my extended family have at least one failed attempt at higher education because of that. I think deferred admission of one or two years, with the understanding that you use that year to work and learn about adult life and finances/travel/volunteer/do something else productive, would be really helpful for people who could benefit from college, but are maybe a little immature or directionless immediately upon graduation from high school. I think that would save people a lot of major-related waffling, flunked classes, and general culture shock. I wish this were a more common thing, although it never would have flown in my family.

guenna77 (#856)

whether or not a college education (and the associated debt) will benefit the direction you want to go is a good question to ask. if i had told my parents that i didn’t want to go, they would have supported that decision. but they would have required me to have another plan, not just ‘eh, who knows?’, and they certainly wouldn’t have paid for a life of leisure while i figured it out. the whole idea that her parents would have spent the money on college anyway doesn’t float – that’s a direction, a plan, with a goal at the end of it.

she didn’t want to waste (her parents’) money on school because she wouldn’t have been there ‘with purpose’? her kind of aimlessness makes it a waste regardless of whether it was for a school or a primo apartment.

Miss_B (#7,053)

I not only chose not to go to college, but I also dropped out of high school towards the beginning of my junior year (and never bothered to get my GED). I’ve been on my own/financially independent since the age of 17, with no family/parental support of any kind; I’m 34 now, so that’s solidly half my life. I did work a bunch of shitty retail jobs into my early 20s, and had a few moments where, had I been just slightly unluckier or poorly-timed, I could have easily ended up homeless. But, I had a bunch of lucky breaks — like being in a relationship/living with someone in my early 20s who had legit employment and paid the lion’s share of living expenses. Like getting in with a temp agency that immediately loved me and put me in jobs I was in no way on-paper-qualified to do, but was still absolutely capable of doing. Two years of that led to me getting an office job at a level that, had I been just applying cold, I would never have gotten. And now, if anything, I am generally considered over-qualified for the sort of work I look for (I have no grand career ambitions — I work because one has to work in order to live, and I have to have the kinds of office gigs I have because I have a horrendously expensive chronic illness that requires the kind of insurance one gets through an employer — like, $10,000 of medical bills monthly, if I didn’t have that kind of insurance). I generally don’t mention my education history (or lack thereof) unless directly questioned, and even then I don’t usually admit to not finishing high school. Most people assume I’m a college graduate, though, because I’m smart and clever and “well-spoken” and all of that. Would going to college have made my life easier? Undoubtedly — I was on the kind of academic track that would have probably gotten me a mostly-free ride at any number of universities I might have been interested in, and I would have had family financial support, in all likelihood, also, if I needed it. Do I regret it? Not even a little. I’m very interested in learning, but very uninterested in academic/structured educational systems. And I would still have had the same lack of career ambition. And I would have still gotten sick when I was 22, which would have left me equally as unable to do all the things I’d probably prefer to do (see: the zillion pieces The Billfold has published about all the ways various people manage to live/work overseas or be self-employed, for instance). I feel like the times have changed significantly since the mid-to-late 90s, when I was making the decision to drop out and fend for myself, however, so I have no idea if this kind of thing would be at all tenable currently, if I were suddenly 16 again. (I kind of doubt it.)

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