This essay is a distillation of my thoughts regarding university education over the last decade or so.
In a nutshell: I didn’t go to university, and I think that everyone should weigh up their choices very carefully when making a decision.
What this essay is not going to be is a monologue about how well one can do without formal education, how attending university is a waste of time (I don’t believe it is), and a “told you so” to everyone who tried to convince me to take the traditional university path.
Rather, I hope it will be a thoughtful, sound, and balanced analysis on the advantages and disadvantages of going to university and more generally, on formal education. I hope that this will inspire an internal dialogue in young people who are currently dealing with this very difficult decision and help them make the decision that is appropriate for them. Specifically, my desire is that this essay will give confidence to those round pegs in the square holes, the ones who choose not to go to university, that unlike what they will be told by their teachers, tutors, parents, friends, and acquaintances, they are not throwing away their life, but may well be enhancing it beyond their imagination.
The most important thing to keep in mind is the importance of choice. I was extremely fortunate that I was allowed to make a free choice as to whether I would continue my education or not, and 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, and yet I still felt a huge amount of both internal and external pressure to walk in line with everyone else and go to university. My final wish is that this essay provides powerful ammunition to those young people who have made the choice to leave formal education, and yet have to defend their decision against all the forces around them. So let me tell you briefly why I decided not to complete college, and not even to apply to university.
I quickly become disappointed with my high school education, and I went to a very expensive “public school” in London on a double (scholastic and music) scholarship, and yet, I felt that there was a huge amount of lost opportunity there to learn what would be useful and interesting in life, in exchange for 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 with multiple 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, but 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 my role as a student. The reason for this, unfortunately, was not some enlightened idealism, or that I had found my life’s passion and that 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, and eventually a comfortable retirement, but with an uneasy feeling in the back of my mind that I could have accomplished more. This wasn’t what we were promised when we were children. We were all going to be astronauts, inventors, ballerinas, firefighters, not Risk Management Analysts 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, and yet, I consider myself 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 twenty-four years old, soon to be twenty-five, and so I’ve spent almost 8 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, and a small selection of this writing has ended up on this website. 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, mainly one hell of a lot of real world experience. Whether these experiences have been more useful than 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 consciously 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 whether to embark on a remote study course with a major university in the UK. I think education is wonderful and is something that should never stop during one’s life, but 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 summarise what I am going to discuss.
- The issues I have with university
- The 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 eight years.
I think one thing to think about, and this is coming from a stringent Stoic perspective, is that everything is transient and that there was once a time without universities, and one day there will be a time without university
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 and 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 require at least a bachelor’s degree, and 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, maybe 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 I wonder 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 been made lower, 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 overall level of qualification achieved. So if you’re thinking about going to a mid-level university to study a non-classical subject like fashion or photography, you’re probably better of just jumping right into the workplace as an apprentice. 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 by Mark Twain:
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
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 obviously coming from my experience in the UK, where there are fees for higher education. Some countries still offer free or highly subsidised higher education, and so this will not apply. Putting yourself in 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 normally the first large investment that anyone makes, and so it should be considered carefully, just like if you were to invest in a business. Obviously investing in an good education for yourself is a wonderful thing, and a wise move, but then the question arises if going to university gives you the best value, and education, for your money. Let’s make the assumption that a university degree, along with the other expenses such as living costs, requires a total investment of around two to three year’s 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.
- Comfortably start a business.
- Travel extensively, and learn how people in other parts of the world live.
- Just buy yourself plenty of time to think and contemplate.
The main issue I have with student debt is that is 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 to 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. By 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 highly likely that it will just be in an entry-level position at a company that does something related to your degree. You’ll probably earn fairly 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, and so you will be effectively 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 just simply not enough. The 9 to 5 grind, with a few weeks of holiday each year, is just not tolerable.
We Give University Undue Credit
Often university is credited with helping people find themselves, grow up, giving them chances in those key formative years, and also meeting 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 just part and parcel 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 about the individual’s attitude, and far less about an institution’s role in that person’s life.
- It’s too results based
- You are making choices before you had much, if any, real world experience.
- I felt it was going to be a repeat of High School. I got great grades, never did homework, just studied before the exam. Didn’t get anywhere near as much value as I could have, if it was structured differently. Too focused on exams.
- Is it a good investment? (Opportunity cost, money, time, (liver?!))
- We give a lot of credit to the “growing up” factor of attending university, when that is just a fact of life, you are growing up between the ages of 18 and 22.
- University doesn't teach you what you really need to know (high school doesn’t either).
Statistics, damned statistics, and lies.
There are plenty of statistics about how university goers earn more money during their lifetime than non-university goers. My issues with these are that we are cross categorising a wide selection of society down a single division of whether they attended university or not. So we lump all the intelligent young men and women who decide not to attend, is the same group as all the young men and women who drop out for all the wrong reasons, and get involved in permanent non-inspiring jobs, crime, or simply don't do anything. That's why the statistics don't give a clear view. I'm convinced that if were to segregate the highly educated and intelligent section of sixteen to eighteen-year-olds, and then track all the ones that did and didn't attend university, there wouldn't be much, if any, correlation with earning potential and university attendance. The other issue I have with this is that it turns earning money into a barometer for success and happiness. With this logic, perhaps I should become a career criminal as the earning potential can be fantastic. What we should really be examining, and this is something that statistics will never be able to tell us, is what is going to make me happier, 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 unmeaningful statistic on wage differentials over a forty year time span.
Downside of not going to university
Every choice in life has repercussions, both positive and negative. In light 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 because they will naturally 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, but eventually it just becomes part of who you are. I actually find that it makes me a more intriguing person, someone who is well educated, knows about philosophy, maths, science, economics, and didn’t study. People tend to remember you. However, you will also face some snobbery about the fact that you didn’t go to university, as you may be seen as “strange”. Personally, I find the best practice here is just to simply ignore the naysayers.
Disappointment of Family & Friends
Make no mistake about it, while you are making your decision about whether to go to university or not, you will face immense pressure from your family and friends to just make the default choice. Don’t. Make sure the choice is yours. This is critical. However, 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 be bandied about, and some may questions if you’re depressed or if there are other issues going on. The perceived stigma about not studying at university is strong, and your family and friends will be trying to understand your reasons, but most probably won’t, purely because they feel that they want to do the best for you, namely convincing you to go to university. 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. That’s the way they will truly 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 creative a network of friends that 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 personally I have found the social life at a few universities to be quite one-sided, with a strong focus on negative behaviour like drinking. However, it is probably correct to say you will make fewer friends if you don’t attend university than if you do, but then this may be turning into a quantity vs quality argument. University will narrow your circle down to the few hundred or thousand of students that attend, while not going to university, well, the world’s your oyster. The main challenge is just 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 just stumble through life burning bridges. There are some careers that will require you to have several degrees, and 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. If at the age of thirty you decide you want to a medical doctor, and 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 that are worth exploring. Some are more traditional, such as getting an apprenticeship or job, and others, like travelling, starting a business, or free study, are somewhat less conventional.
A great thing about taking on some menial work such as working in a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop, or even retail, is that it teaches you what the “worst’ type of career in life could be, and it’s really not that bad. It also teaches you a lot of humility, because you are serving people, and you find yourself essentially on one the lowest rungs of society. This is fantastic because you will never forget to say “thank you” to anyone in your life because 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 visualisation. If you do the type of job that would have you labelled as a “failure”, and then you realise 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, in any form of full-time employment in a typical “dead end” job, unless you are doing something really worthwhile on the side. The problem is that working a full eight hours a day five or six days a week, is that it doesn’t leave space for anything else, especially for improving ourselves. This is perhaps the only route that can really 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 fairly common route these days and a great one at that. This will normally mean that you’ll start to earn money right away, and will find yourself with a definite career path, lots of experience, and some money in the bank, while you peers are just 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 normally done with a plan to already go back to university, and 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, and so far I’ve had an exciting two years, and significantly increased the variety of people that I have met and the type of experiences that I have had.
Start a Business.
You may want to read my essay on the lessons that I learnt in my first year in business, but I’ll put it into a nutshell for you: starting a business and making it even partially success will force you to educate yourself on wide range of topics, and I think that is fantastic for anyone. While it may also bring a degree of pressure or stress, that’s not absolutely true.
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, and 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. However, there is also much to be said for single-tasking, which is generally what I prefer to do. There is also one more alternative that I haven’t mentioned, and that is taking the time out to simply 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, and then is able to leverage what he learnt from his period of free study to become an influential leader later in life. I find the idea of taking time out in life for free study 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 really are on your own. It’s completely up to you to make sure you actually make good use of the allotted time, and 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, and many, perhaps 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.
Hopefully, you will discover a passion for a certain subject, and then you will delve deeply into that subject, while simultaneously keeping a broad outlook on other subjects, as this is healthy for the mind. The fantastic thing about finding something that you really like doing and studying is that you will become knowledgeable and gifted in that subject because you don’t mind putting 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 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 because you're both knowledgeable and passionate, and that is a combination of things that is difficult to find, and commands a premium. I think the foundation of free study is reading, lots and lots of reading. With all this time on your hands, you will probably 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 easily read 4 to six hours a day without even noticing, just by splitting up between morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. If you struggle to do this, then the first thing you probably 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, and 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 keep the main points of each topic fresh in my head. So far, so good. However, it’s important that we don’t become just get stuck on abstract concepts and theory, we should also aim to do something practical. This can be something as simple as regular exercise, which I highly recommend, purely from the standpoint that a healthy mind needs to powered by a healthy body. Other ideas for practical studies is 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, or 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 counter argument 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.