What Will Happen If I Leave College?

Last week, I received this query from N, a college sophomore.  I will publish my reply on Thursday, but for now, I’d like to know what you think.  What should he do?

Dear Auntie Siobhan:

My senior year of high school I found myself going from a good student in AP classes to having no motivation and pretty heavy depression. I fell behind, skipped class and if it weren’t for the help of my school administration I probably would not have graduated high school! My dad lives and works out of state and comes home on the weekends and did not know about any of this, but my mother knew. Before senior year I would have never imagined I would be one of *THOSE* kids who barely graduate!

These issues I have had with motivation have carried over into college and I have not done well. I am in a difficult major. I was not ever certain of why I have these issues with school but lately I am wondering if this has something to do with if I am even meant to be in college.

I know I am intelligent and a competent person. I like science and writing and when I am have the motivation I do very well on exams, much better than my friends who are constantly hard at it. But still overall I am not doing well in college.

I have withdrawn from all my classes this semester and only my mother knows. You must be wondering, why all the deception?

When he was a young man, my dad moved to America from his home country and completed and paid for his masters and PhD in under 4 years… yeah. He is VP of a large and well-known international company. To begin with, I feel like there is a lot of pressure to complete college because of the very fact that my Dad did so quickly and was very successful.

In addition to that pressure, there is of course the societal pressure… if you don’t go to college you must be some lazy loser. I was told from Day 1 that college is my only option.

I am getting no guidance from my parents in this matter. My mother just gets scared. I have called my Dad in tears several times, and his reactions are mixed. Sometimes telling me that I should come home and figure out what I want to do. Sometimes telling me that I have NOTHING to be unhappy about because I am at a good school, have college paid for etc…

I have no idea what to do. I do not even know my options besides a 4 year college. I WAS NEVER TOLD ANY! That is what makes me most angry! I feel almost forced into this! I feel like I have NO TIME to even stop and think “is this right for me? is this realistic for me?” because I have people yelling at me from everywhere that college is my best bet and that I have to get out quickly to compete… but at the same time everyone is yelling at me that college will not even guarantee me a job in this country! What on Earth?!

I am sorry that this might just be a long desperate rant… but I have no one I can reasonably talk to about this! I am upset, locking myself in my apartment and not coming out or seeing anyone for days.

What are my options besides college?

Do you have any advice for N?  What would you do in his shoes?  I have already sent him my thoughts, but I’d like to hear yours.

Image by gerard79

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31 responses

  1. Our son left college after a year and a half. We were devasted, thought he would become a complete failure or that we had failed as parents. He roamed and wandered, learning outside the traditional structure and eventually completed his degree on-line and now attends graduate school. In the US as you know, college is an extremely expensive investment. People shouldn’t do it just to fill time. There are many opportunities to explore; your student can always return. Looking forward to your response. It’s great he’s able to confide in you and ask your advice.

    • CG: Personal experience always provides the best food for thought in these matters – thank you! Oh, and, as it happens, N is not a student of mine; he wrote to me out of the blue, and kindly gave me permission to publish his letter here. That said, I get questions like this from students all the time, so it will be helpful to hear what others have to say.

  2. If money matters were not at stake, I would personally advise against dropping college. It is true that a degree does not guarantee employment, but if it is considered the standard minimum, not reaching it doesn’t look like a good option either, especially now that he is already some time through it. I would be the first to suggest to take a year off after high school to work or volunteer, just to clear up ideas and know better how to do after – but now it is a little too late. Employers don’t like gaps in the CV and things half-finished. I know it because a friend of mine has a similar story and apparently not even degrees from renowned universities and good references from employers can make up for the same that he is considering to do.
    Maybe he could consider taking classes in other fields, or doing some extra activities to build up his enthusiasm and help him carry on with the rest. Student clubs and non-profit organizations are excellent places to escape the studying routine and at the same time develop skills that can be very useful later in life.

    • Chiara: I had not considered the effect that a gap in a CV might have on an employer. However, I wonder if it’s necessary for such a gap to appear? If a student takes some time away from college and returns to it later, it is possible to simply note the date of graduation on your CV; also, if you don’t finish a particular degree, you could not indicate it on your CV at all, or chalk it up to courses rather than an incomplete degree. It seems to me that there are ways around this problem, but perhaps others have thoughts on it.

      • There are ways around having a gap, even if he can’t simply list the graduation date. Just because he’s not in school, that doesn’t mean he’ll have a gap. He could use his time off to work or volunteer. This kind of experience could allow him to figure out what he wants to do and also build up skills and qualifications he will need later. He may decide to return to college with a better focus. He might also consider a community college or technical school as we call them in the US. ( I don’t know what this would be in Canada.) At these types of schools, students can earn shorter degrees in technical fields. Students get hands on training to become electricians, mechanics, chefs, even hairdressers! Often, middle class students are not presented with community college as an option, because the BA has come to be considered a requirement for being middle class. It’s silly. The skills one can learn at a community college or tech school can help a person get a job they love, and one that earns a them comfortable living. College is great. I know I loved it. But it’s not for everyone.

        • Osozereposo: For sure, there are plenty of ways to make constructive use of a year off, and I agree that we put too much emphasis on university, when some may find that a technical college or vocational program fits their needs better.

          • Not only that. If a gap year is spent in a way that enriches a person it may well benefit. A person with a degree and nothing else is less of interest than a person that is whole and has developed outside of the schoolsystem.

            I myself took 6 months off during my career and it has never harmed me when properly explained, in fact I have always managed to make it a feature on my CV.

    • “Employers don’t like gaps in the CV and things half-finished.”

      But a gap year is so easy to spin. Let’s say he’s in an interview and the employer asks why he took a year off, he simply replies “I had the opportunity of a lifetime to backpack across the country and I took it.” Or he replies with whatever interesting thing he did with that gap year – volunteering, traveling the world, or simply working with a hotshot entrepreneur in a local business.

      The point of a gap year isn’t to flip burgers all day and watch tv all night. It’s to learn *differently* and outside of what school can offer. If someone goes to college thinking they are there because that’s how you learn, then they are sorely mistaken. College today is more about the opportunity of meeting people and experiencing and studying new things than anything related to employment. Check out Charlie Hoehn’s “Recession Proof Graduate” (google it, he has a TEDx talk) and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

      • [reply to all]

        I also think that taking one or two gap years after high school or after a Bachelor’s is good (here in Europe it is commonplace to take a Master’s too), and not going for college at all is also good, but I am just a bit concerned with leaving things in between. Of course it depends on the field of work, but when I saw the red marks our previous employer had put on my friend’s cv (whooops, shouldn’t have seen that) I got scared. If there had been competition for that student job, she probably wouldn’t have got it. Talking about business fields, it is quite unlikely that whoever screens a cv actually takes the time to ask the candidate for reasons to things that look wrong.

        By the way, taking a gap year is different from having gaps in the cv – one is made with a purpose in mind and a plan (so it can very well put in a cv), while cv gaps are due either to not having a clue about what to do and taking time to figure out (which was probably my friend’s case), or to unemployment. To be honest, I hadn’t thought about actually being able to continue university after a gap year, simply because where I have studied so far one has to pay tuition anyway even when not taking courses, and nobody wants that.

        Now that I myself am looking for a full-time position, and I am becoming more and more discouraged, because although I know that people should follow their passions and all, it looks like from job ads that companies don’t care that much. If you don’t have top 1% grades or very specific knowledge that you can acquire only working, you’re out. Some don’t even ask for cover letters – which is a total shame, because it demonstrates that they don’t care. And while in my uni website there are lots of nice (underpaid or unpaid) internships in all business fields, almost all the full-time ads are about bookkeping, which is the most boring and least rewarding thing a new business graduate could aspire to…
        [Sorry for the rant].

  3. If N’s father is sincere about his offer to let N return home and try to figure out what he wants, perhaps he should take him up on it.

    I’d suggest a term off so that he can spend time researching his options, and himself. He may need time to figure out where his passion lies.

    Educators who are aware of the tectonic shifts occurring in the job market realize that most of the jobs which current college students will find upon graduating have not yet been created. Students need to learn to think critically, creatively,and adaptively on their feet, but not all colleges are preparing students to meet the new needs of the market. While there are a lot of college graduates who cannot find jobs right now, many U.S. companies are finding it hard to fill positions, because they need such highly specialized employees. There are opportunities out there, some requiring a college degree, some requiring technical training and apprenticeship. N needs to make sure he is being prepared for for the opportunities that speak to his passion.

    If a term off is not an option, I’d recommend some useful Christmas break reading: Sir Ken Robinson’s _The Element_.

    Good luck N! May you find your passion and the chance to pursue it productively!

  4. Clearly this person has not found that something in life that is his passion. It sounds like his goals have been set for him, and his life has been laid out for him, and the depression is his reaction to not having control, and not doing what HE WANTS with HIS life.

    I would wish to give this young man the strength to say to his parents, “I love you both. You have provided a wonderful home and upbringing for me, and I will always be grateful. But it is time for me to establish my own life with my own dreams. This includes going in a direction that does not involve college. I’m not ruling out college, but it’s not in my future right now. I am asking for your understanding and love with these decisions. Right now, I have to do what is best for me and my life.”

    • Unheardof:
      You’re right – this is something that we must all say to our parents sooner or later. It involves a big risk, though, and it does take courage (and perhaps the resources to take care of ourselves that we don’t all have at N’s time of life?)

  5. I am an adjunct English professor now at a local community college. I see so many students who are only in college because they think they should be. I can say from my own experience as a college student that “should” is not a good reason.

    When I graduated from high school, there was no choice for me but to attend college. My school even had this awful program called the “Alpha/Beta Program.” In a nutshell, those “alpha” students went to college, but the “beta” students went to vo-tech. It was a horrible program because it made people feel like they weren’t good enough for college. I will tell you that most of the “beta” students became plumbers and welders, make far more money, and set their own hours. Not to mention, the plumbing field isn’t going away.

    So I was not given a choice either. College. And at the age of 41, I have a graduate degree and a huge student loan payment because I kept changing schools and majors because I didn’t know what I wanted to be. College is much too expensive for people to try and find themselves there. It took me 10 years to get my bachelor’s degree. I dropped out once for 3 semesters and enrolled part-time for 2 others. When I graduated, I did not work in my field so my degree didn’t help me for a very long time. It was just another bill I paid every month.

    I had no business going to college right out of high school. I was not prepared for it. My reasons for going were along the lines of “should,” which sounds very much like another word that starts with “sh.” I wasn’t a bad student, but I felt like I was fulfilling someone else’s requirements rather than reaching my own personal goals. And to this point, my degree has only succeeded in getting me part-time work in my field. It is not an investment that paid off as far as that equation goes.

    My advice to anyone regarding college is “there is no rush or requirement.” College isn’t this pinnacle of achievement. And it will not signal failure for someone to wait or to forego college altogether. Going to college when one is not motivated or prepared is a lot like buying a Ferrari when one doesn’t know how to drive. It’s not going to end well.

    As far as N’s pressure from home, he needs to remember that he is an individual and cannot compare himself to someone else’s timeline. He should explain to his father that he wants to invest wisely in college (if he ultimately decides to go) and attending when he is not motivated or sure of his direction would not be a good investment. If his father is a successful businessman, his father should appreciate someone not wanting to waste time or money. But even if he doesn’t want to tell his father, or if his father doesn’t take it well, N must trust his instinct and search for his own path. On his own terms. Of course, he can’t lie around on the couch all day hoping for a miracle, but he can consider what type of things do motivate him and seek out options there. “Between Trapezes” is a great book for looking at options. But if he chooses to attend college to please someone else, he will likely continue to struggle and be unmotivated and unhappy.

    I certainly sympathize with him and wish him the best.

  6. I do have to say that the first thing I would suggest, before all these wonderful suggestions that are being made, is that N. go to speak to a counsellor or psychologist–someone who is trained not only in education issues, but also in emotional issues. Beyond the decision to go to college or not, there are some familial elements in this situation as well as the admission that N. “has no one [he or she] can talk to about this”. Writing to someone he or she does not know might be a start, but talking to someone trained to deal with the psychological difficulties of growing up would be an essential first step, in my opinion. I know it’s very Mariella Frostrup of me, but that’s what I think.

  7. It seems that the most depressing element of the whole situation is not whether you persue a college degree or not, but having A VOICE. I would advice you to develop your own voice on the matter, which may mean explaining to your parents some of your dreams and goals. If you don´’t know what those are I would advice taking some time off, even a semester, and dedicate it to finding your own voice.
    Time would not be wasted if you dedicate time off to acquire new experiences and develope a life’s plan. Developing a life’s plan is important as it will help identify your goals and keep you moving towards them. Keep in mind as you explore the possibilities however, that job markets require highly skilled labor, whatever preparation that may take.
    I have a brother who chose to drop out of college and did very well on self directed projects. The idea of a structured education did not appeal to him. He picked up books on his own and became an expert in the field of his dreams. However, the discipline required to develop those skills is something not everyone can handle.
    Then again, there have been a couple of drawbacks to this type of education. In terms of entering the job market. He has the knowledge, but what can he show as a CV? Also, when he meets with friends and other entrepeneurs with an equivalent level of knowledge he always finds himself skirting around issues which involve personal education or feels underestimated.

    • Vicki:
      I am finding it very interesting to see how closely the advice of readers is parallelling my own. If you check back on Thursday, you may see some striking similarities between your take on this situation and mine.

  8. I agree with others who say that it sounds like he doesn’t really know, or isn’t taking into consideration, what he’s truly interested in or wants to do. He says he’s in a hard major, but nothing about whether it’s something he likes or feels any particular attachment to doing.

    I know it’s a huge leap of faith, but you really do have to do what you *care* about, because there’s just no drive to keep up with college-level work if you don’t have some kind of internal, independent drive to do it.

    I feel like, from what he’s told us, some time away from college will probably be a good thing. Figure out (or admit to yourself) what you really want to do with your life. Get a menial job just to put some of YOUR OWN money away and gain some experience with manual work. (Also, I learned some priceless things about humanity while working at Starbucks.) Look into service programs like AmeriCorps, or something that would get you outside.

    Keep a private journal. Writing helps sort my thoughts out like nothing else in the world.

    And maybe I’m naive, but I don’t necessarily think that a “gap” on a CV or resume needs to be a big problem, as long as he uses the time well and is able to explain why, instead of just letting it become lost time. Time away from college doesn’t need to be wasted time if you use it to figure out what you need to. And that might even be that you don’t need to go back to college.

    • One common thread I see in all these comments is the need for some sort of plan. It doesn’t even need to be a concrete plan with defined steps. “Work at Starbucks for a year and pay close attention to the world and then make my next decision” could be a plan.

  9. I was in a similar situation were I went from being a stellar student to almost failing my senior year of high school due to apathy. Afterwards, I enrolled in college because I didn’t know what else to do; I failed or withdrew from 3 consecutive semesters before quitting outright.

    8 years later, I started back up at a community college, transferred into a prestigious university, and am working through gradschool. The point is that those 8 years were essential to sorting out what I wanted and what I needed to do to get it.

    Take the time you need to get perspective on your life; the people who love you will understand, now or later.

  10. To put it rather bluntly, this child needs to stop living for someone else’s expectations and learn to do what he wants to do. He doesn’t need to be a doctor, lawyer, or congressman, he just needs to be himself. He is not his father, he is not his mother, they know it, and I would guess that he needs to know it.

    The boy needs to find a passion and go with it.

    • JDreier: I think we’d all agree that passion is key, and that we need to detach ourselves from our parents’ expectations. I see students every day, however, for whom this is very difficult. Living with a parent’s disappointment is hard enough, but going out into the world with little work experience and few qualifications can be really daunting, especially if a parent says, “Go to school or you’ll get no help from me.” I would agree that N needs to take a stand here, but I don’t think it’s as simple as saying “just be yourself.” There are both practical and emotional considerations, and he ignores those at his own peril.

      • It’s also incredibly difficult when, as N says, he’s had information about other options withheld from him all his life. I get the sense that he *knows* he needs his own expectations, but has no clue about what those even could be because his parents insulated him from everything but what they wanted from him.

        Nothing’s a guarantee, and “just being yourself” isn’t a guarantee of success any more than buckling down to be a doctor or lawyer is…I’ve just found it to be a much better bet.

  11. Sounds like he needs a gap year. I’m a sophomore in college currently, and considering taking a gap year before graduating.

    The pressure of succeeding from under his father’s shadow is interesting. Reminds me of something I read in _The NOW Habit_ by Dr Niel Fiore. According to Fiore, the creator attaches too much self-worth onto their work, and failure doesn’t just become an F on a report card (or whatever), but it represents complete failure as a person. I would recommend _The NOW Habit_ to this man, it’s an easy read and surely cleared some things up for me.

    Also, it’s important to remember that the university system doesn’t have a monopoly on education. I think it was Einstein that said “Rote learning kills creativity.” A gap year perhaps learning a foreign language and couchsurfing, with the occasional evening spent at a public library, would be what I would do if I really didn’t know what I wanted out of college.

    • Ben: I’ll look that Fiore book up. I don’t know if N has the funds for the kind of gap year you describe, but I agree that a break may be in order – a change is as good as a rest, as they say.

      • Traveling need not be expensive. If N is intersted in traveling I would recommend the book Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. It also has some practical philosophy/life-advice that I for one have taken to heart. One particular quote about cheap travel from Potts goes something like: 8 months of scrubbing toilets could pay for 2 years of vagabonding.

  12. I went through a similar depression my first semester in college. I started my second term and withdrew. Everyone said I was making the biggest mistake of my life. However, I felt I was wasing my time and money because I had no motivation and no idea what I wanted to study. I moved back to the state where my boyfriend was, and moved out on my own, got a small efficiency apartment and worked three jobs at once (a full-time day job, a half-time evening job, and a third job both days on the weekends). I did this for many months. I became a totally self-supporting responsible adult. When I later went back to college it was with high motivation and high marks. Encourage this young woman to have the confidence to follow her feelings, but not to waste the time. Get a job, or two jobs. It doesn’t matter if they are low-wage or even dead-end. Working like that for a few months or a year will probably refresh her, give her new direction, and restore her motivation.

    Lynne Diligent
    expattutor.wordpress.com

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