We begin life in our parents or guardian’s household and under their control, we go to K-12 school then graduate, then we go to college, then get a job, then get married, then have kids. This is the expected life course. Everyone is expected to go through their life in this order. But what if we didn’t follow this trajectory?
What if instead of going to college we opted for a different path? You can have that path.
Let me begin with what I do not mean when I refer to alternatives to college. What I am not talking about is living at home or in your home town, staying in your same high school circles, and working a low wage job or two (or three).
Alternatives to college are about getting what you traditionally would have gotten from a college experience.
Traditional college experiences were about the liberal arts and exploring who you are as a person. Today’s college experience is not very focused on learning and taking classes. It has strayed far from the rigorous study of the liberal arts and the exploration of intellectual ideas in the safe space of the college classroom.
Mind you, some liberal arts colleges retain this tradition. But let’s discuss the purpose of a liberal arts education.
The Liberal Arts
Studying the liberal arts is about the exploration of yourself and your ideas through exposure to a diversity of perspectives. In college, perspectives might be theories in a sociology class or entirely different fields of study including biology, philosophy, geography, economics, and history.
Marvin Krislov puts it well: “I believe a liberal-arts education is the best preparation a young person can have for success in life. The mission of most liberal-arts colleges is to educate the whole person rather than training graduates to succeed at specific jobs that employers may be seeking to fill at a certain point in time.”
While the liberal arts are advantageous for “success in life” (whatever that means!) there are other ways to go about acquiring at least some of the skills associated with the liberal arts. For example, interpersonal skills for college graduates should be highly developed. Today that might not be the case but traditionally it was essential.
As colleges lose site of the important skills graduates need, people need to be prepared to find alternative paths. Let us go through some examples of how the traditional liberal arts education at colleges and universities has changed.
We start with economics. Economics is a field of inquiry in the social sciences. In the past economics departments would have diverse theoretical orientations. That has unfortunately changed. Contemporary economics departments in colleges and universities are extremely narrow and limited largely to what might be called orthodox economics and/or neoliberalism.
Other fields of inquiry in the liberal arts have also suffered in recent years (recent being the past 40-50 years, taking a long term historical view of intellectual inquiry… unironically something traditionally explored in the liberal arts). Psychology and sociology have become increasingly similar ever since the MCAT, an exam required for entry into medical school, started testing knowledge of these fields. Surprisingly, the fields of anthropology and sociology have seen a dramatic rise in explicitly medical research in recent years.
This job training approach to education was critiqued by Peter Cappelli in the Wall Street Journal. Dr. Cappelli’s article is titled “Why focusing too narrowly in college could backfire” and the article discusses the way universities, parents, and society as a whole have abandoned the liberal arts in favor of job training for narrowly focused careers.
Liberal arts is no longer the focus of undergraduate education and college has transformed into job training.
College today emphasizes mechanical memorization and stymies creative thought through strict directions on assignments that are evaluated by equally mechanical rubrics that leave no room for interpretation.
The liberal arts used to explore ideas and expose students to a diversity of thought. Classes in the liberal arts required students to read and understand complex ideas. They offered an opportunity away from rote memorization of facts. Gone are the days of theoretical thinking and thinking through creative explanations for everyday problems.
Thinking takes time, and time is money. The conclusion–for those in control of education–is not to require such deep thinking.
Critical and innovative thought, the very stuff of technological and scientific advancement is largely absent from undergraduate education. This means it is very important to think twice about whether to attend college right out of high school.
Some students are not prepared for college. This lack of preparation can come from any number of angles. Maybe you do not have the interpersonal skills, maybe you are a bit shy or awkward, maybe you have trouble sitting down and focusing, maybe you are just not interested in college. These are all normal.
K-12 education is stifling and college does not provide the freedom it once did, especially with pressure from advisors, counselors, administration, and parents to finish college in 4 years and get a 4.0.
College does lead to a piece of paper that gives you admission into the professional world. But think about it, the age at which a high school student graduates is eighteen (18).
Nevermind questions of student loan debt, the job market does not want to hire an 18 year old. It barely wants to hire a 22 year old! More and more college educated adults are getting Masters degrees, which take 1-2 additional years of study (and tuition, room and board). Age discrimination is real.
Another future is possible.
You do not need to go to college. Maybe college is not right for you right now. Maybe college is something you want to do in the future. Maybe you do not ever plan to go to college.
Let me tell you something people in your life will not say to you: you do not need to go to college, not right now and maybe not ever.
Let me just say, I think it best to attend college. But take a year off and explore yourself!
Many, but not all, of the liberal arts skills–interpersonal skills, quality verbal communication, critical thinking, respect for difference–you would traditionally gain in college can be acquired by alternative methods.
A lot of people figure out who they are in college. But with the way college is today, a lot of students are just working multiple jobs to “pay for college” (those jobs are funding almost nothing and definitely not tuition or the cost of room and board). I’ll save my post about why you should not work during college for another day.
The other popular college activity in college is partying. You do not need to pay tuition to party. You can party anywhere on the planet.
Travel Requirements and Suggestions
First things first, you need a passport. They are easy to get and give you access to the world. Think of it like a college admission fee. The difference being instead of reading about it and talking about it in a rather not diverse classroom you will have access to the real deal.
Next, find cheap one-way flights. This will help you commit to the process. Buy one flight at a time. You never know when you’ll fall in love with a place/people. Stay as long as you want. You’re in charge!
Third, travel solo. Start out solo. Do not bring someone along. You will seriously diminish the experience. There is something about traveling with someone else that requires you to care about them and their happiness. Yes, you should. However, that is not doing anything for you and your personal growth.
Fourth, public transport is your friend. Avoid wasting money on private transportation. Some countries are even safe to hitchhike.
Fifth, stay safe. If you are uncomforable get out of the situation. Of course, at first you might be uncomfortable in general. Learn to tell the difference between discomfort and lack of safety.
Now, let’s get at some of these alternatives to college.
- Work at a hostel and travel the world
Hostels are cheap accommodations. You do not need a lot of money to travel. You just need to be savvy about how you make and spend money while traveling.
A lot of hostels will allow you a free stay (and even meals) if you just offer to work for them and make the hostel a pleasant place to be. Be the fun you want to exist in the world!
There are whole websites dedicated to finding work abroad that come with accommodations in hostels.
This option for an alternative to college is great if you want to party and meet new people like you would in college, except you actually get exposure to people from diverse backgrounds. People come from all sorts of different places in the world and all different backgrounds.
The following list contains website where you can find hosteling gigs as well as private accommodations and work associated with the rest of this list of options for alternatives to college.
2. Teach English Abroad
This option may require a bit of education, but nothing like a college degree and that debt sentence.
The TEFL, Teaching English as a Foreign Language, certificate is a short affordable program that will allow you to spend time living and working in a foreign country. Make sure you look up the living conditions for that country so you know what you are getting yourself into.
There are even options that do not involve the TEFL, but these will likely pay less or be shady. If you find a shady operation, my advice is get out of there and/or resolve the shady problem stealthily.
3. Work on an organic farm
WWOOFing is what they call it. WWOOFing stands for World-wide Working On an Organic Farm.
With this option, you may or may not meet new people on the farm where you work. Find out what type of operation you are joining. Some places provide better accommodations than others. Work loads also vary.
If farming might be something you are interested in exploring, including the business side of farming then this might be a great alternative to college.
4. Be A Hiking Guide
Some places have volunteer hiking guides that lead multi-day treks. You might also find yourself working at the hiking office where people sign up. The jobs also typically offer housing.
Hiking guide jobs abroad usually are for other hostel residents so they are generally not too strenuous and work for beginners. If you want something more advanced, work your way there. Sometimes “easy” on an international hike does not mean the same thing as easy back home.
Outdoor adventure is a real life college program, but why not gain the experience by getting out there and doing it?
If you find you like it, then you can go into debt (or your parents can pay for it/go into debt for you) to get the degree and do more advanced outdoor adventure guiding.
Jobs to Avoid
Whatever you do, if your plan is to explore who you are, do not become an au pair, nanny, or maid abroad. Your goal is to find out who you are and what gives you inspiration and makes you feel most alive.
You also want to stay safe. If at any point you are uncomfortable due to creepy or controlling behaviors by hosts, contact someone you trust immediately and get out of there. It is important to contact someone you trust first, then if you have someone local you can contact get to the safety of someone you know. Never allow yourself to be fooled into returning to a situation in which you felt unsafe.
When you’re young, what makes you feel most alive should not be scrolling social media or partying in some frat house. If your goal is to work on finding yourself and exploring your identity, travel abroad can expose you to all kinds of possibilities.
It might be scary at first. Traveling solo can be high anxiety. You do not know anyone and you do not know the place. But you have privilege, unlike the children that migrate with no-one only to be detained by violent state authorities that put them in cruel living conditions. Recognize your privilege and move forward. Migration is beautiful.
Traveling and working can also help you meet new people and form great social networks that can advance your professional career if that is what your future holds. It can even help you find good jobs while traveling. Win-win!
Best of all, you meet friends you will keep for a lifetime. If you continue traveling, you might even accidentally meet up again in the future or find that you have mutual friends on social media.
It really is an amazing opportunity to be free from debt and get this amazing life experience that can work for your benefit as you grow and prosper.