Should You Go To University?
This essay is a distillation of my thoughts on university education over the last decade or so.
What this essay is not going to be is a monologue about how well one can do without formal education. Or, how attending university is a waste of time (I don’t believe it is).
Rather, I hope it will be a thoughtful and balanced analysis of the decision of going to university, or not. I hope that this will inspire an internal dialogue in young people who are currently dealing with this very difficult decision. This essay may help them make the decision that is appropriate for them.
My desire is that this essay will give confidence to those who choose not to go to university. Unlike what everyone they know will say, they are not throwing away their life. They may well be enhancing it beyond their imagination.
The most important thing to keep in mind is the importance of choice. I was fortunate that I was able to make a free choice about whether I would continue my education or not. I am aware that not everyone will have such an easy ride.
My parents placed a lot of trust in me to make the correct choice for myself. Yet, I still felt a huge amount of both internal and external pressure. The pressure to walk in line with everyone else and go to university.
This essay provides powerful ammunition to those young people who have made the choice to leave formal education. They have to defend their decision against all the forces around them.
I quickly become disappointed with my high school education. I went to a very expensive “public school” in London on a double (scholastic and music) scholarship. Yet, I felt that there was a huge amount of lost opportunity to learn what would be useful and interesting in life. What I found was rote learning, pointless exercises, and a results-only based mindset.
I felt that there was an existing education system that worked well enough, and it wasn’t going to change anytime soon. Of course, all my professors were university graduates. Some eve had two advanced degrees from renowned universities.
I began to have a feeling that this was a monstrously large, faceless system that generated clones to continue operating the machinery to keep itself alive, a type of twisted Kafkian nightmare. Of course, this is much clearer looking back, at the time I only had a very shallow understanding of this.
So I decided when I was sixteen that I was not going to go through the process of applying for university. I was still going to continue my education until I was eighteen and complete college.
Exactly one year into my two-year college course, I had had enough, and promptly resigned from my role as a student.
The reason for this, unfortunately, was not some enlightened idealism. I had not found my life’s passion and it didn’t require any further education. Quite the opposite. It was a mixture of apathy, boredom, unhappiness, and a sense that my life was being planned for me.
I felt like going to university was going to set me on the path to having 2.5 children, a house in suburbia, a steady job, a dog and a cat. Eventually, a comfortable retirement, but with an uneasy feeling in the back of my mind that I could have accomplished more.
This wasn’t the promise when we were children.
We were all going to be astronauts, inventors, ballerinas, and firefighters. Nobody grows up wanting to be a Risk Management Analyst at Deloitte.
My life has been quite interesting ever since, and I didn’t end up, as one of my high school tutors eloquently put it, “stacking shelves in the local supermarket for eternity”.
So I didn’t go to university, and I didn’t even finish college. Yet, I am well educated, and this is a point that I will be touching upon later in this essay.
The fact that education is far more about your individual attitude and aptitude than where, or how, you actually gain this education.
We need a clear separation between being educated and being educated.
This is especially true nowadays, where we have access to the world’s information at our fingertips.
At the time of writing, I am thirty-one years old, and so I’ve spent almost 14 years educating myself since I left college. Do I regret leaving formal education?
Absolutely not, or at least, not yet. Having said that, I feel that it’s been long enough now that I can use hindsight and say I made the right decision.
Since I stopped formal educated at the age of 17, I’ve gained an ever-increasing voracious appetite for books and ideas, and I started writing at the age of 20. I will be adding a selection of this writing on this website as “my notes on everything”.
This is what I call my “free study”, a term that I’ve borrowed from Herman Hesse’s novel “The Glass Bead Game”.
While I don’t hold that all-important “piece of paper” from a university, I do have other things, including a hell of a lot of real-world experience.
Whether these experiences have been more useful than a university degree is something that cannot be quantified.
As I’m sure you’re aware, life is a series of compromises, if you do one thing, you might be shutting the door to another. I discussed this in-depth in my essay “Burn Your Ships” about how we can leverage this fact of life. By cutting down our options for retreat, to ensure that we make the most of the current opportunities.
Now I’m not against formal education. In fact, I am currently weighing up on whether to embark on a remote study course with a major university in the UK.
Education is wonderful and is something that should never stop during one’s life. My current decision-making process is based on whether I may gain more benefit by continuing my free study, or whether a structured course would be more beneficial. So to conclude this introduction, let me summarize what I am going to discuss.
- The issues I have with universityThe downsides of not going to university
- The alternatives
- The benefits of free study
- Finally, I’ll draw some conclusions from my thoughts, experience, and discussion in the last fourteen years.
One thing to think about, and this is coming from a stringent Stoic perspective, is that everything is transient. There was once a time without universities, and one day there will be a time without universities as well.
The Issue with University.
I’ve already mentioned the issues I had with high school, in that I felt it didn’t give what I consider a full education.
I’m not going to go into what I think a full education is, because that’s an incredibly loaded question. Something that I will need to tackle another time, in a separate essay.
I’m also going to play the devil’s advocate and try and shoot down my own point of view, and see if they hold up to scrutiny. As mentioned in the introduction, I want this to be a balanced essay, it’s not meant to be a call to action to quit formal education.
Every Idiot Can Now Go To University
…and they do.
Without being sensationalist, it is a fact that jobs that before were available to sparkly-eyed sixteen-year-old apprentices, now need at least a bachelor’s degree. Sometimes even a master’s degree!
Perhaps, perhaps, the world has now become far more complex than it was last century, and so this is merited.
Or, a university degree has now become a basic filter to weed out people who drop out of education for the wrong reasons. We’ll discuss exactly what is a right and wrong reason later on. After all, to receive a college degree, one makes the assumption that the person has some type of basic skill set.
This much is true, but how many of these skills most intelligent people have already acquired by the time they are sixteen?
Many people are now aware that the barrier of entry to university has lowered, and so this now makes a degree less valuable than it was in the past.
So now what is important is the type of degree, the university that it’s from, and the level of qualification achieved.
Ask yourself if you are better offer going straight into the workplace? Especially if you go to a mid-level university to study non-classical subjects like fashion or photography. You’re better off jumping right into the workplace as an apprentice. In the same 3-4 years you can have lots of real-world practical experience. You’ll be more valuable in the workplace.
You’ll save a lot of time and money, and still end up with the career you want. I am reminded of a fantastic quote:
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.Mark Twain
Now that the majority of people are going to university, it is time to pause and reflect on whether attending university is still as valuable as it used to be.
This is coming from my experience in the UK, where there are fees for higher education. Some countries still offer free or highly subsidized higher education, and so this will not apply. Putting yourself in the equivalent debt of several years’ worth of salary with the government before you have even figured out exactly what you’re going to do with your life, is perhaps not the brightest of ideas.
Make no mistake about it. This is the first large investment that anyone makes, and so it should be considered carefully, like if you were to invest in a business.
Investing in a good education for yourself is a wonderful thing, and a wise move. So the question arises if going to university gives you the best value, and education, for your money.
Let’s make the assumption. A university degree, along with the other expenses such as living costs, requires a total investment of around two to three years’ wages for an entry-level white-collar job.
With that kind of money, you could do one of the following:
- Buy all the books you will ever need to read for the rest of your life.
- Start a business.
- Travel extensively, and learn how people in other parts of the world live.
- Buy yourself plenty of time to think and contemplate.
The main issue I have with student debt is that it straight-jackets you into a certain lifestyle, we can call this the career funnel. It may not seem like it at the time, but student loans are not free money. , There is a cost associated with them, but you’ll only feel them once you have actually left university.
The Career Funnel.
This is the main reason why I didn’t go to university. Taking on student debt, and needing to pay it back once you leave university, means that you will need to take on a job, or career.
This may, or may not, be that dream job you’ve always wanted.
It’s likely that it will be in an entry-level position at a company that does something related to your degree.
You’ll earn decent money too, but as is the case in our consumer society, it will almost be inevitable that your spending will grow to match your income. So you will be stuck working for the rest of your life until retirement, which is exactly how most people end up.
I’m not saying that this is a terrible way to lead your life, but for many of us, this is not enough. The 9 to 5 grind, with a few weeks of holiday each year, is not tolerable.
We Give University Undue Credit
We often credit university with helping people find themselves and grow up. It gives them chances in those key formative years and also introduces them to lots of new people.
Well, guess what, if you don’t go to university, you can still receive all the above benefits. Because these are part of growing up! It’s not like you won’t mature unless you go to university, or that you won’t expand your social sphere.
It’s far more about the individual’s attitude and far less about an institution’s role in that person’s life.
Statistics, damned statistics, and lies.
Most statistics show how university graduates earn more money during their lifetime. I have an issue with these statistics. we are cross-categorizing a wide selection of society down a single division.
Whether they attended university or not.
This is inherently a stupid way to look at things. People decide not to go to university for different reasons. The reasons are really important when trying to understand these statistics.
Let’s think this through. Some young people will choose not to go to university after careful consideration of the pros and cons. Others, this will be the default choice. This might be due to their culture or other socio-economic factors. Some may drop out to have a career as a petty criminal.
These groups of young people are completely different. You cannot lump them into one statistic and look at average wages and other life outcomes.
That’s why the statistics don’t give a clear view.
If we were to segregate the highly educated and intelligent section of sixteen to eighteen-year-olds. Then, track all the ones that did and didn’t attend university, there wouldn’t be much, if any, difference. Correlation with earning potential and university attendance correlates to intelligence.
The other issue I have with this is that it turns earning money into a barometer for success and happiness. With this logic, I should become a career criminal as the earning potential can be fantastic.
What we should be examining, and this is something that statistics will never be able to tell us, is what is going to make us happier. What will give us more meaning? Help us lead to a more balanced work-life, what is going to keep me interested, what is going to make me passionate?
This is what we should be worrying about. Not a silly and meaningless statistic on wage differentials over a forty-year time span.
The downside of not going to university
Every choice in life has repercussions, both positive and negative. In light of that I am trying to achieve an essay with a balanced viewpoint. Here are a few of the downsides of not going to university.
This will only affect you if you care about what other people think, which you shouldn’t.
You may feel that you will go through life with a chip on your shoulder if you don’t go to university. Especially if you are still well educated, people will ask you where you studied. They will make the assumption that you did indeed go to university. Having to answer that you didn’t attend university may be something that you will find difficult the first few times. You can own this identity once you are comfortable with it.
I actually find that it makes me a more intriguing person. Someone who is well educated knows about philosophy, maths, science, economics. But very little formal education. People tend to remember you.
However, you will also face some snobbery about the fact that you didn’t go to university. You may be seen as “strange”.
I find the best practice here is to ignore the naysayers.
Disappointment of Family & Friends.
Make no mistake about it. While you are making your decision, you will face immense pressure from your family and friends. They will want you to make the default choice.
Don’t. Make sure the choice is yours, regardless of what the final choice is.
This is critical.
But, if you do make the choice not to go to university, you will then have to face the disappointment of your family and friends.
Phrases like “throwing your life away” will become common. Some may question if you’re depressed or if there are other issues going on.
The perceived stigma about not studying at university is strong.
Your family and friends will be trying to understand your reasons, but most won’t. Remember they feel that they want to do the best for your life. The concern is coming from a good place. In fact, it would be strange if they were not concerned!
The best defence against the disappointment of family and friends is to prove them wrong. Once you’ve finished college or high school, hit the road running with your plan. Show them that you’re not a slacker. Build great daily habits, make each day slightly better than the day before. Work like hell at whatever you choose.
That’s the way they will understand that you made the right choice for yourself.
Missing Out on a Social Life and Connections.
One argument for going to university is that it allows you to rapidly create a network of friends. This will serve you well into the future. There isn’t much to argue against this point because it’s absolutely true. You will meet people who are bound to be important later in life.
The point about the social aspect is somewhat weaker. As I have found the social life at a few universities to be quite one-sided, with a strong focus on negative behaviour like drinking.
But, it is correct to say you will make fewer friends if you don’t attend university than if you do. Then this may be turning into a quantity vs quality argument.
University will narrow your circle down to the few hundred or thousand students that attend. While not going to university, well, the world’s your oyster. The main challenge is to make use of the opportunity, which can be hard at times.
It Does Close Some Doors
If you do decide to skip university, you are closing some doors, and burning some bridges. The first thing to note is that it’s actually fine. This happens all the time in life, but it’s better to be aware of it than to stumble through life burning bridges.
There are some careers that will require you to have several degrees. By postponing this you may put yourself at a severe disadvantage if you later choose to enter that field. My counter to this is that with hard work and determination, you can still overcome this obstacle.
Let’s imagine that at the age of thirty you decide to become a doctor. If you are willing to pay the price (university fees, the long hours of study, etc) then nobody is going to stop you.
You can achieve anything, but it’s whether the price is worth it.
If you don’t go to university, there are quite a few options available to you, and they are worth exploring. Some are more traditional, such as getting an apprenticeship or job. Others, like travelling, starting a business, or free study, are somewhat less conventional.
There are upsides to taking on some menial work such as working in a bar, restaurant, coffee shop, or even retail. It teaches you what the “worst’ type of career in life could be, and it’s not that bad. I have done all those jobs when I was younger. My first job was washing plates in a restaurant. It was actually quite fun seeing how a kitchen works.
It also teaches you a lot of humility. You are serving people, and you find yourself on one of the lowest rungs of society.
This is fantastic. You will never forget to say “thank you” to anyone for the rest of your life. You’ll know first hand the feeling of working for someone and appearing to be invisible.
The other advantage is that this is a form of practical negative visualization. You do the type of job that would have you labelled as a “failure”.
Then, you realize that it’s actually not that bad! You’ll have far more confidence going forwards than if you have never experienced this “terrible” fate.
One thing that I would advise against, is any form of full-time employment in a typical “dead end” job. Unless you are doing something worthwhile on the side. There is a problem in working a full eight hours a day five or six days a week. It doesn’t leave space for anything else, especially for improving ourselves.
This is the only route that can get you stuck. Because before you know it you’ve only got five years experience in making espressos, and you’ve completely lost the habit of learning.
An apprenticeship is a common route these days and a great one at that.
This will mean that you’ll start to earn money right away. You will find yourself with a definite career path, lots of experience, and some money in the bank. , Your peers are about to graduate and face the “real world” for the first time. This is actually the preferred path of choice for many types of practical work.
Taking the typical gap year appears to fall into this category. But, this is done with a plan to already go back to university. So, it doesn’t fall under alternatives to university.
What I am talking about is travelling without a concrete plan of coming back to study or work. This can be a wonderful feeling, and I know it first hand. I moved from Europe to Asia without being 100% sure of what I was going to do. I had a great eight years in Asia. Now I’ve been travelling full time for the last year. I have increased the variety of people that I have met and the type of experiences that I have had.
Start a Business.
Starting a business and even achieving partial success, will force you to educate yourself on a wide range of topics. This is fantastic for anyone. While it may also bring a degree of pressure or stress, but is healthy to keep on learning.
Don’t Think Singularly.
The choices above are not an either/or. You can do two or more at the same time if you’re clever in the way you go about things. Who says you can’t start a business from your laptop while you’re travelling — also working part-time as you go along?
While this may seem idealistic, there are cases where this has worked out very well for people. Yet, single-tasking is what I generally prefer to do.
There is also one more alternative that I haven’t mentioned.
This is taking the time out to study, in a practice that I call Free Study, and this is what I would like to explore next…
The Benefits of Free Study
There is a wonderful book by Herman Hesse called “The Glass Bead Game”.
In this book, the main character Joseph Knecht spends ten years in free study. Then, he is able to leverage what he learned to become an influential leader later in life.
I find the idea of taking time out in life for Free Study is something that I find absolutely fascinating. Being able to spend time learning for the sake of learning is an incredible luxury, and also a big responsibility.
With nobody around to tell you what, or even how to do something, you are on your own. It’s completely up to you to make sure you actually make good use of the allotted time. There are no excuses. You must make sure that you don’t squander this golden opportunity.
This is why I would be the first to say that unstructured education is not for everyone. Most people are better suited to a structured university course instead of a period of Free Study.
The general idea behind Free Study is that it is a time of expression, exploration, and discovery.
You will discover a passion for a certain subject, and then you will delve into that subject. At the same time, keep a broad outlook on other subjects, as this is healthy for the mind. Finding something that you like studying is great because you will become naturally knowledgeable. You don’t mind putting in the time and effort.
And, if you happen to be reading this and society is still based on money and the exchange of goods, then you are in luck. You will easily find someone who will pay you for a service related to your passion because they can be almost certain that you will add value. Think about it — you’re both knowledgeable and passionate, and that is a combination of things that is difficult to find, and commands a premium.
The foundation of Free Study is reading, lots and lots of reading.
With all this time on your hands, you will find that you are able to read one to three books per week. I know this sounds like a lot, but if that’s your focus, you can read 4 to six hours a day without even noticing. Split reading between morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. If you struggle to do this, then the first thing you want to learn is how to speed read. It’s a misconception that this means skipping through books.
It’s both an art and a science. There are plenty of resources to learn to skill. One day I may also publish my own guide as it’s such a crucial skill to ensure that we can keep ourselves well educated. So reading is one thing, but understanding and retaining is another.
What I do to understand and retain the things I learn is that I write about them, and then I publish them. Then I periodically reread my own writings, and this keeps the main points of each topic fresh in my head. So far, so good.
However, it’s important that we don’t become stuck on abstract concepts and theory, we should also aim to do something practical. This can be something as simple as regular exercise. This I recommend, purely from the standpoint that a healthy mind needs to be powered by a healthy body.
Other ideas for practical studies are art, music, sculpture, building something, cooking, martial arts, calligraphy, and any hobby that requires dexterity or physical skill. Of the huge advantages that we have nowadays, compared to the past, and even compared to fictional accounts of free study (like the one in The Glass Bead Game) is that we have the internet.
While it’s a double-edged sword, the internet is without doubt one of the most revolutionary tools ever created. The ability to find information at a moment’s notice, to discuss and share ideas with other people from around the world, all from a small device in our pockets, in something that would have seemed like pure science fiction only decades ago.
And yet, here we are. Because I want to make this essay stand the test of time, I am not going to give precise information regarding what you can find in terms of resources, and things move so quickly that anything I write will soon be out of date. But keep this in mind, many major universities publish entire courses, free of charge, online.
Lectures, study materials, and more. This means that potentially you can mix your free study with the resources of a university course, without all the hassle and inefficiencies of actually attending.
That’s pretty awesome.
The great thing about Free Study is that it’s not a dead-end road. If at any time you want to stop and go to university, find a job or do anything else that feels important, you can. You only have yourself to answer to, and that’s a wonderful feeling.
In fact, some may say that delaying attending university is actually the smart thing to do and that you’ll get far more value out of it between the ages of twenty-five to thirty-five than eighteen to twenty-two because at eighteen you are still learning just how to exist outside of your home environment.
By the time you are in your mid-twenties, you should have far fewer distractions, and your time spent in Free Study will have comfortably prepared you for the reading and writing required to get through university in an enjoyable and efficient manner. While a counterargument to this is that you should finish university as quickly as possible to then find a job, I think that it doesn’t hold water.
When you look at your life in the span of decades, the fact that you went to university at eighteen or twenty-five won’t make much of a difference. The differentiating factor will be you; your attitude, your work ethic, your capabilities, and your education.
So, as we have seen, the question of whether or not to go to university is not an easy one. My advice to anyone who is currently facing this decision is to keep the following in mind points in mind.
Firstly, make sure that it is your decision. There is nothing worse than having your life decided for you, and the question of whether to attend university or not is a major one, and I don’t think that anyone, including parents, teachers, and friends, should be making this decision on your behalf. If you are old and wise enough to understand that you have a choice, then you are old and wise enough to make that choice for yourself.
Secondly, remember that you don’t necessarily have to explain your reasoning to anyone else. Regardless of your choice, remember that you always have the option to keep the reasoning under the hat.
This is often a good idea. Telling your school tutor that you are not going to university because you want to explore a period of free study is going to bring up a lot of questions and discussions, and you don’t have time for that, you need to focus on the road ahead in these key years of development.
Finally, keep in mind that this choice is actually reversible. If you go to university, you can quit at any time, if you don’t go, you can still go later.
This is actually quite amazing.
Often in life, you’ll find that you will have to make choices that do absolutely burn bridges across rivers that can never be crossed again, this time this is not the case, so my advice is to take it easy. I personally don’t have any regrets about not going to university, and, in fact, I wonder if the more intelligent one is, perhaps the less likely it is that you should go to university.
I think I have already made it abundantly clear that I didn’t make the choice with a particularly logical explanation, but just a general feeling of apathy, and then reverse-engineered my thoughts in the following years.