“I don’t really know what I’m going to do. I might as well go get my Master’s.”
“I want to change my career, so I guess I need to go back to school.”
While it might seem obvious that you don’t need to go to college or go back to school, I still hear evidence that points to the contrary. College is an incredible thing, but not if it feels like an obligation. As we talk about fresh starts in this fresh decade, it’s good to recap when your education needs a formal fresh start — as well as when it doesn’t.
If you want to make a lot of money…
College might not be the right move. When I was an undergrad, I was stunned by the number of people who said their reason for attending college was so that they could have a good-paying job.
Granted, I was in school to become a teacher so I never thought much about making money off a college degree. While some people are truly motivated by money, most aren’t. Those who go into medicine or practicing law solely for the solid paychecks will undoubtedly burn out. It’s not a question of if, but when.
Besides, there are countless careers that make solid money without spending thousands on tuition. Trade jobs, managerial positions — do some research on salaried jobs that don’t require a degree. You can always go to college if you want later, but putting off college in order to make more money might actually be the ticket to meeting your financial goals.
If you want to make a career change…
Evaluate if you really need to go to school to do so.
I always knew that I would become a writer after teaching. When I quit teaching, I had no desire to go back to school to get a degree in writing. Not because I don’t love school, but because it wasn’t practical. How would going back to school help me get a job in the meantime? How could I take on more debt when I still had student loans? What if I decided to change my career again — what would that writing degree do for me?
My transition into writing was something that I largely attribute to fortune, but I have to give myself credit, too. I kept up blogs and writing on the side as a teacher which I was able to submit as writing samples. I took on smaller writing jobs as they came my way and slowly built up my portfolio. I eventually worked at an agency and expanded my writing skills to SEO and marketing.
If you’re desperate to change careers, college might not be the move. It can feel satisfying to make this grandiose change, but the little changes add up and make a massive impact.
Of course, your career change might require extra schooling, and if you’re sure this is the path for you, submit your application! But for most fields, experience is looked at more than degree.
If you’re graduating high school and don’t know what you want to do…
Take a gap year. It’s shocking (but not really, when you think of how our society revolves so heavily around work) how few high school grads do this in the US.
For comparison, nearly every young adult in Europe and Australia takes a gap year. When I traveled with a group in Thailand, I was one of three folks from the US. We were collectively stunned when our British, German, and Aussie counterparts said that in a job interview, a year of travel was much more important than job experience.
Whether you travel during your gap year or work and save money and just practice living life on your own, a gap year is crucial for the college-unsure or -hesitant. College is a massive adjustment and commitment. It’s OK to not feel ready (or to never feel ready).
If you’re not sure what the next step is…
Wait on applying to college. I’ve known people who go to grad school simply because they didn’t know what to do with their life. That’s a ton of work, time, and money, and while I take comfort in school just as much as the next nerd, in this instance of uncertainty it’s better to just work and figure it out.
I took a job at a soup restaurant after quitting teaching. I carried so much shame during this time, but now I look back with equal parts pity and confusion. There’s nothing wrong with not working your dream job at this exact moment in time! You’re not off track, you’re not a failure. If anything, figuring out what you don’t want is often as critical as knowing what you do want.
If you really want to go to college…
Then you should go. I could have gone to a cheaper school and saved money, I could have started at a technical or community college, I could have… — it goes on and on. I have zero regrets and only gratitude for going to Madison. I graduated with a degree that I’m not currently using and worked my ass off and am still paying loans and it is still worth it.
When college is a dream and/or a key component to your destination, you should absolutely attend. It is a priceless and valuable experience for those who view it as such. College is truly an educational gem, but there are plenty of other life paths that offer similar results. You don’t have to go to college, and in many instances, it’s best if you don’t.
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