Why NOT Going to College May Be The Right Choice

A new report shows more high school graduates are choosing NOT to go to college. Michael Horn, education expert and co-author of the forthcoming book, “Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life,  says that for many people, college is not delivering the desired or anticipated results. Below, Horn draws on his latest book and research to discuss why colleges, parents and students all need to think differently about what college is really FOR.


Why might a student’s “best school” be his or her worst option?

Despite ranking and popular opinion, the question students should be asking isn’t whether they should go to the best possible school, but what is the right educational experience for them now, based on their goals, circumstances or the progress they are seeking to make. That means understanding what they want out of college, what they are trying to accomplish in their life, and what excites and motivates them and aligns with their purpose and passions. Ignoring these questions and just following what others think is the “best” could lead to students choosing a school that is misaligned with what matters to them right now – and that could lead to disastrous results. College is more expensive than it’s ever been, and it would be a catastrophic mistake to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt and ultimately drop out without earning a degree. This isn’t a hypothetical given that close to a third of all college graduates are underemployed and one in three college students drop out without obtaining a degree. Ultimately, students should optimize for finding self-fulfillment and purpose, not going to the “best” school for the sake of prestige or the “college experience” alone.

What are the benefits of taking a gap year after high school?

In our research, we found that many students were going to college for a whole host of reasons, including to do what was “expected of them” or to get away from their home, town, or a job. All too often, these students would go to college because it felt like a socially acceptable response to these situations. However, because they often lacked a clear motivating purpose for the school they chose, they experienced sub-optimal outcomes – dropping out, transferring, or feeling that they had wasted a lot of time and money. What we saw was, if students took a purposeful gap year instead – not just an excuse to go backpacking aimlessly around Europe – they could learn what they liked and didn’t like, as well as their strengths and interests. A purposeful gap year would be one in which a student was exposed to a variety of experiences, from different jobs and careers to short educational programs and bootcamps to a variety of community-based opportunities. This helped students develop more purpose and intentionality as they chose a school at the end of the gap year, which led to far better outcomes.

How can students know if vocational training or an associate degree (rather than a traditional 4-year school) is the right choice?

To know if a vocational training or an associate degree is the right choice, students must start with an understanding of why they are pursuing more education, what their current circumstance is, and what they are hoping to get out of it. Trying to get away from home, but not sure what’s next? A four-year bachelor’s degree is probably a poor choice. Want to be a doctor? Enrolling in an associate degree program in the humanities probably isn’t going to get you there even if it helps you fulfill your general education requirements — assuming the next school would even accept those credits. The reality is that people with associate degrees out-earn 28 percent of people with bachelor’s degrees, but this happens in technical fields where there is a clear premium for possessing those skills. If you’re going back to school and you already have a bachelor’s degree, then adding a vocational or associate degree on top will almost always be a better choice than another bachelor’s degree.

What are some good job options for those with a high school diploma or an associate degree?

Unfortunately, just having a high school diploma or GED severely limits you in the market today. If college isn’t in your future, find an apprenticeship that can allow you to build skills and gain entry into a career that pays well. Ideally, that apprenticeship would build off a high school diploma that has a career and technical bent to it. Associate degrees that are technical in nature can likewise lead to some great job options, but the key is to be intentional about why you’re seeking it and make sure that it aligns to the progress you’re trying to make, your purpose, strengths and passions.

Michael is the author and coauthor of multiple books, white papers, and articles on education, including the award-winning book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and the Amazon-bestseller Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools. An expert on disruptive innovation, online learning, blended learning, competency-based learning, and how to transform the education system into a student-centered one, he serves on the board and advisory boards of a range of education organizations, including the Clayton Christensen Institute, the Robin Hood Learning+Tech Fund, and the LearnLaunch Institute. He also serves as an executive editor at Education Next and is a venture partner at NextGen Venture Partners.