Should You Wait to Go to College?

by Kelly Kehoe on 19 July 2012 3 comments
Photo: Linzi Clark /

For many recent high school graduates, it’s almost unheard of to consider not continuing onto college the following fall. There are some reasons people simply can’t go to college —  financial problems, etc. — but what if you were to have the time and money available, yet still opt out of the higher education route? (See also: 40+ College Resources for Parents and Students)

This isn’t to say you should never go to college, but what about waiting a few years to decide what you truly want to do with your life (and get a little traveling or work experience in while you’re at it)? Making a major life decision at the relatively young age of 18 isn't easy, and taking time off from school to delve into your true interests can help you avoid a major career change in the future.

So, should you wait to go to college? Let’s examine the consequences of this decision.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt

Americans owe over $1 trillion in student loans. This is more than what they owe in credit card debt, and according to finaid.org, the average load per person is $27,200. Some people even rack up over $100,000 in student loan debt thanks to high interest rates, and the worst part is that you can’t unload this debt in case of bankruptcy. Not to mention the poor cosigners (such as parents) who are left responsible for the debt in instances where the recipient of a loan dies.

In this economic climate, the path to a career is no longer as straightforward as merely getting a college degree and immediately getting picked up by a firm that’ll pay you the $40,000+ per year that was advertised by your university in the job prospects section. In fact, a significant chunk of the American unemployed is recent graduates who are unable to find work due to a flooded labor market.

So what does this mean for those who are thinking about or currently going to college? It's likely that spending thousands of dollars on an education won’t guarantee you a job, possibly leaving you with the burden of debt payments for years to come (especially if you don't get a highly sought-after degree). But if you hold off on the college route, you could ride out the economic downturn and build up your savings in the meantime (allowing you to pay for an education without acquiring debt in the near future).

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The Employability Paradox

A major problem faced by the teens and 20-somethings of today is the paradox of needing a job to get experience, but needing experience to get a job. Sometimes, extracurricular activities can give your resume a boost in this area, but if you only have education under your belt, you’re likely going to have a hard time finding that first job that pays well. Even in instances of a job candidate with a bachelor’s degree and one with just work experience, there’s a good chance the employer will choose the latter.

Take culinary arts, for example. You could have gone to the best school in the country and dropped $100,000 on your education (thinking you were going to be earning $50,000 right out of school). Unfortunately, like everyone else, you’re going to have to start out at the bottom, making a meager hourly salary and wondering how in the world you’re going to pay off all that debt you’ve accumulated.

One way to avert this problem is through the "learn by doing" approach through internships and apprenticeships. This way, you can acquire practical, real-world experience that not only furthers your knowledge in your field beyond classroom theory, but also adds a lot of meat to your resume.

Possible Alternatives

So if you’re looking to wait a few years before college, what should you do in the meantime?

If you had some sort of savings for college, one possibility is investing that money somewhere else. Real estate, stocks, mutual funds — you name it. Since a four-year education no longer guarantees you a steady job immediately upon graduation, investing the money is an excellent alternative and will really make your money “work for you” over the course of time.

Aside from financial matters, you could pursue non-educational endeavors as well. Perhaps you can finally settle down and write that novel you’ve had at the back of your mind. Travel cheaply around the world while you’re still young. Start a business using your college funds as start-up capital. Your options are limitless, and if you still want to go to college after a few years, that’s an option as well.

College — now or wait it out? What do you think? Discuss in the comment section below.

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Andrea Karim's picture

I should TOTALLY have waited to go to college. I would have saved my parents so much money and probably ended up with a much more useful degree. At the time, though, it didn't seem like an option. It was pretty much "You will graduate from high school and then college and then get a job."

Guest's picture

Great article!

I say wait it out. The best decision we (my wife and I) could have made is to drop out of college and use the money we would have spent to do self training in things that we felt relevant to the industry. Not out dated like many of the curriculums offered in college.

Within six months of deciding not to pay a college to study and after doing tons to online tutorials and projects to build up my portfolio, we had a successful freelance business.

With the skills we picked up we were able to take our business on the road. Today we are overlanding through South America while maintaining a steady 15 hours of work for clients back in Seattle per week.

Once you know what your passion is go back to school for a fancy stamp on a piece of paper.

Guest's picture

Personally, I feel that most kids should wait before going to school. Aside from what you listed here (all very good points), there's also some other reasons. For example, fresh out of high school, how many kids take the education seriously?

I nearly flunked out of my first semester in college, because I just wanted to socialize; I did not take it seriously. I ended up taking a job, saving up some money before going back to school. By the time I went back, I was ready for it emotionally and financially. I paid all my tuition and fees out-of-pocket, and I was on the Dean's List every semester until I graduated.

Kids these days (me included!) need some time to grow up after high school. They need to figure out what they want to do with their lives, and they need some experience under their belts in order to understand the value of a good education.