Four years ago, I was sitting in my college dorm in Conway, Arkansas, wondering why paying $39,290 a year possibly made sense. I had come to college with hopes that it would make me a better person, but I soon realized that I would learn far more by going out to experience that world, rather than paying people tell me about the world. Disillusioned with school, I left.
(Photo credit: Kristian Risager Larsen/Flickr)
In America, we’re told that you go to college to find out what you want to do and to learn how to do it.
But that’s just not the way things work anymore. In the United States, the average bachelor’s degree recipients in 2012 took six and a half years to complete their course of study. Costs average more than $8,000 per year for in-state students at public universities and more than $29,000 per year for students at private universities, according to The College Board (not including room and board). To be fair to institutional leaders who set enrollment policy and to the folks who work hard to ensure access for those who aspire to college, financial aid has also grown as costs have increased.
But a significant portion of overall financial aid offers presented to families are comprised of three kinds of loans: the Federal Direct Student Loan – Subsidized, the Federal Direct Student Loan – Unsubsidized, and the Federal Direct Parent PLUS loan. According to the Institute for College Access & Success and their Project on Student Debt, seven out of 10 college graduates now take out student loans, incurring an average of $29,400 in debt upon graduation.
Keep in mind that only 59 percent of those who enroll in college actually graduate today. Those who earn a degree — and those who do not — are taking on more backbreaking debt than at any time in history. In a report last month, global information services giant Experian reported that there are 40 million people in the U.S. currently paying back student loans. The total amount of U.S. student loan debt now stands at $1.2 trillion. That’s nearly the size of the bubble created by the subprime mortgage crisis in 2006-08, which reached $1.3 trillion in outstanding loans at its peak.
The prospects for landing good jobs upon graduation have never been bleaker. Average starting salary for recent college graduates hovers around $27,000. Roughly six percent of college graduates remain unemployed one year after graduation, and another 44 percent are underemployed, meaning they work in jobs that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines as requiring less than a four-year college education.
Three years ago, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel and others predicted that higher education was a bubble that would eventually burst, much like the housing crises, but worse. The reason is this: unlike any other type of private debt, student debt is unforgivable in the case of bankruptcy. It’ll stay with you until you die and then be passed onto your next-of-kin. Default rates are rising, and at some schools the rate is as high as 19 percent.
Fortunately there are more options today than ever before for those who want to choose a more self-directed path:
Take a Gap Year
Taking the time away from the familiar confines of the schooling system to understand who you are, what you want, and how you learn pays off. Research shows that students who take gap years prior to college go on to graduate from those four-year institutions more quickly, are more engaged in campus life, and earn higher GPAs than their peers who enter university directly after high school.
Nine out of 10 students who take a gap year go on to attend university within one year. And they’re choosing more wisely where to study. Because of their added life experience, they succeed more frequently in identifying schools that fit their personalities and career ambitions. And most importantly, after college they’re doing what they expected to be doing. Students who have completed gap years report are more likely to report higher job satisfaction after graduation.
Learn a Hard Skill
DevBootCamp and General Assembly pioneered the concept of the “learning bootcamp” — an intense, 12-week course in which you buckle down and learn how to code. The outcomes from these types of programs are incredible compared to college, typically boasting 80 percent employment rates or more. From an ROI perspective, $12,000 for a program that (practically) guarantees a job is a much better deal than at least $32,000 for four years of school to maybe get a job. Three years later, there are now more than 60 such bootcamps in America alone, with more around the world.
Hack Your Education Online
Some students decide that they don’t need a formal program to learn employable skills, and turn to the Internet to provide free learning resources. In 1999, MIT launched OpenCourseWare to make their class materials open to the public, but they remained obscure and hard to find. In the last three years, companies such as Udacity, Coursera, and EdX have organized such course material and added community, and coaching layers to bring the content to life. If you have the right motivation, it’s not so difficult to imagine that you could teach yourself everything you need to know to get a job at Facebook online.
Start a Company
The Thiel Fellowship offers young people an opportunity to drop out of college and pursue their dreams of starting a company. I was a fellow in 2011, and the program has continued to grow and will be selecting the fifth class this year. Even if you aren’t young enough to be a fellow, there are many other incubators that offer you funding for a startup. Y-combinator is the most well-known, but there are dozens of others around the country that help young companies grow into the next Dropbox, Airbnb, or Facebook.
The notion that everyone should obtain an expensive college degree just doesn’t hold up under examination. Questioning this notion seems to be more taboo than atheism, but perhaps that’s because the higher education system is a massive part of the economy — Higher Education represents a full 2.6 percent of the GDP in the United States.
Because it’s such an entrenched paradigm, it takes courage for someone to consider stepping away from it. To make that easier, UnCollege has announced that we’re paying off the student loans of first-semester college freshman who decide to drop out to pursue a Gap Year within our program. Certain colleges make sense for certain students, but not for all. I was fortunate to have a supportive network that offered me couches to sleep on and jobs when I left college, but I know not everyone is that lucky. I hope paying back these student loans can help dropouts who don’t have that safety net to follow their dreams.
Tell Us What You Think
Would you participate in a program like this? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.