With the cost of higher education rising dramatically each year, should you forgo college* and instead use that money to travel the world? It’s one of the questions I receive a lot from graduating high school students and disenchanted college freshmen and sophomores. In their emails, they express a desire to pursue higher education, but at the moment, they aren’t sure what they want to do and would rather travel and “figure life out.” School doesn’t seem to be a good fit for them at the moment.
I have trouble answering this question. For starters, it’s a very personal decision to make, one based on your individual goals and desires. I can’t know what is right for you. Only you know your heart’s true desire (and I certainly don’t want angry parents emailing me!). Plus, I personally don’t like giving strangers such life-changing advice when I don’t know much about them.
But while everyone’s situation is different, these emails bring up a topic to think about: when you’re young and unsure of yourself, is school worth it? Or is it better to pursue your current interests and dreams while you work out why you want to go to school?
I think most young people should delay school—regardless of whether it’s to travel—if they don’t know why they want to go.
Now, there is nothing more important than education. You should, of course, continue educating yourself your entire life. Learning should never be confined to just your time in classrooms. I constantly attend business and travel conferences, read, listen to podcasts, and speak with experts to advance my own knowledge. I’m always working to learn, grow, and educate myself.
If you’re a driven individual, whether you attend college or not will not necessarily be an indicator of your future success. Take Steve Jobs, Einstein, Mozart, Ford, Mrs. Fields, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Da Vinci, Walt Disney, Wolfgang Puck, Mary Kay, or Mark Zuckerberg, for example. These individuals have accomplished great things without completing formal learning programs. Why? Because they were driven and smart, and they understood the value of learning itself.
So when I say, “Maybe you should skip school,” I don’t mean skip pursuing an education, I mean skip school itself… at least until you know what you’ll do with yourself while you’re there.
One thing that has always impressed me about other countries is the prevalence of the “gap year.” In many Western countries, when you turn 18, you set off on a trek around the world before you head off to university. The idea behind this is: “Why go to school when you don’t know what you want to study?” I often feel like Australia and New Zealand practically kick people out when they turn 18 to go explore the world and grow up.
Yet here in the US, we head right to college after high school. It’s part of the American path: school, job, marriage, house, kids, retirement. And there’s a myth that if you don’t attend college right away, there must be something wrong with you.
But let’s look at some statistics on the growing cost of an education:
As you can see, the cost of college has gone up much, much, much faster than incomes or other consumer goods!
I know friends from other countries who have said tuition rates have increased greatly for them, even in the UK, where they are raising tuition to 9,000 GBP per year—a threefold increase since 2006 and a ninefold increase since 1998! (That’s a big increase, especially since their high taxes are supposed to cover this!)
And all of that is without taking into consideration the cost of housing or books!
So with college as expensive as it is, why should an 18-year-old go off to school with no idea of what he or she wants?
Many of my European friends don’t start university until they’re in their twenties, once they’ve determined where their interests lie. Most work or travel first. Some decide to work and go to school at the same time, but they aren’t under pressure to put in four more years of school right when they turn 18 like here in the States.
Now, this isn’t necessarily the socially acceptable answer in the US, but I think those other countries are onto something. School and education are important, but isn’t school wasted time when you’re a bored, rudderless freshman? College students often switch majors multiple times, waste semesters partying, or earn degrees they don’t use because they weren’t really sure what they wanted while they were studying.
I think school is important and useful if you have an idea of what you want to get out of it. And if you don’t, don’t go. Work, volunteer, take up hobbies, or travel the world instead.
Travel is an education in itself, giving you the opportunity to learn about both yourself and the world. Travel has taught me how to engage different personalities and nationalities, how to be more independent, and how to survive in uncomfortable situations. Exploring the world definitely forces you to grow up and — sometimes — gives you direction in life.
Having a college education increases your earnings and opportunity over your lifetime. But if you’re young and unsure of how to proceed after high school, I’d say hold off on further formal education until you can make the most of it and know what you want out of it.
Until then, pursue your dreams.
Take up a hobby.
Get a job.
Travel the world and go on adventures!
Never stop learning, but go to school when you’re ready.
Now, tell me: What do you think? What’s your opinion?
*Note: For non-Americans, we use the words college and university interchangeably to denote a higher learning institution.