Why You Shouldn’t Go To College (Unless You Know What You’re Doing)
When I was preparing my college applications, many, many adults told me, “Don’t worry about it if you aren’t sure what you want to do. Take some time your first few years, explore a variety of classes, find your interests.” Most of my friends hear the same. “Feel free to change majors if you don’t like what you’re doing or find something you enjoy more. You’ll have plenty of time. So long as you settle by your third year, you’ll be fine.”
To all this, I say: Lies.
In a different time, this might have been true. Maybe you could dabble around for two years before picking what you want to do. Maybe it was “never too late to change your major”, as my boss has said in public talks. But anymore? No way. Not if you want to graduate in four years with a degree.
At my college, and most of the ones I considered applying to, there a a “core curriculum”, a set of basic classes that are required to graduate, that have nothing to do with your major or minor. A few of these, like the humanities sequence, need to be completed before the end of the first year. The school recommends most or all are done by the end of the second. But in total, you need 15 courses, plus fulfilling a language and PE requirement, to complete this core. Now, it has major advantages: by being required to take social science, math, physical science, art, English, and history, these intro requirements mandate the sort of subject dabbling that can help undecided students find their academic passion. Additionally, it gives all students a similar, broad foundation (although not everyone has to take exactly the same classes). But at my school, they admit it takes up about 1/3 of a college career. I’ve seen similar numbers at other universities. And that’s a big chunk of time at college, just completing general reqs.
Then, there’s the majors and minors. The intensity and number of classes required for these varies by school, but at mine, our smallest minor requires 5 classes, while the largest requires 9. Majors have even more of a spread: the fewest classes required by a major is 13, and the most is 19. In my particular case, I need 7 courses for my music minor, and 18 for my BS in earth sciences. That, on top of the 15 core classes and the language requirement, which required another three. In four years, I can take a maximum of 48 classes, with 42 as a minimum to graduate. So, I had 8 classes to “have fun”; by this year, I’m down to 1. And I had the advantage of knowing exactly what I wanted to do when I started university. I have several friends who need their schedules to work out perfectly for them to graduate on time, with just their major. And this seems to be a problem all over the country. Looking at the college completion data from Chronicle of Higher Education, around 80% of students in private 4-year schools graduate in 4 year; 94% graduate in 6. And those are the highest rates: public 4-year colleges and all 2-year schools have even lower completion rates.
If all that wasn’t enough, here’s a bit of advice a counselor gave me just a few months ago: “Your transcript ought to tell a cohesive story of your interests and progression in your field. It should demonstrate your focus.” This was for applying to scholarships and graduate schools. And they told me this at the end of third year. Most of a transcript is set by that point; there’s no way to build a picture of your growing knowledge and interest in a single year, especially if you were finding your interest for the first two and a half. But for anyone considering graduate programs, that’s yet another concern to keep in mind.
So, what do you do? Having a college degree is definitely an advantage, as it opens up job prospects and pay ranges. But, if you can’t graduate, you’ve put in a lot of time and money and have squat to show for it. Or, in another scenario, you have a degree in a field irrelevant to what you actually want to do. Or, maybe you can graduate and do have a degree you want, but it took 6 years, and all the financial aid and scholarships expired after 4, so now you have a massive pile of debt to start your adult life. But, as colleges pile on more and more requirements, it’s harder and harder to explore the range of classes offered to find what really sparks your interest. So what’s the undecided student to do?
My advice: community college.
There’s other options, of course: taking a gap year after high school to get some experience (and some money). Doing online programs. Still attending a college full time and hoping you’ll figure it out in the first year or so. But community college has some real advantages if you aren’t sure what you want to do. You can take a lot of the general requirements there, and transfer the credit to a different school once you know exactly what you want to do. You still get a much wider course offering than in high school, and have the freedom to pick and choose what sounds cool. Plus, you can save a lot of money, as it’s relatively easy to work and go to school part time, and you might be able to live at home (if that’s something you want to do). Then, when (and if) you decide to go to a college or university, you’ve already had experience with how college classes work, you’ve met a much more diverse range of people, you can graduate sooner, and you’ll be confident that you’re doing what you want to be doing, without as much pressure to get done. It’s not the path I took, but I know several who did, and found it very successful. And even if you decide after a couple years that college isn’t your thing, you’ll come out with an Associates degree, which is better than no college at all.
Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a stigma around community college, and the adults in your life might try to push you away from that option, in favor of attending a four year college straight out of high school. But college is more expensive, more intense, and much less flexible than it was when our parent’s generation attended. A college degree does not promise a job, and a college degree that’s not in the field you want to go into might be worse than no degree at all. So before you apply undecided, look at the options, evaluate yourself, and make sure that you know exactly what you’re getting into. College is awesome, but it’s also really hard. And the less sure you are about why you’re there, the more difficult it’s going to be. You won’t have time in four years to dabble around and figure it out. Fair warning.
Featured Image Credit: Ali Marie (personal photo)