Alternatives TO School

choices, options, alternatives


Alternatives To School

Disclosure notice: The following topic causes panic among parents when I bring it up. We’ve looked at alternative schools in the past (here, here, and here for instance) and will do so again in the future, and this makes people a bit uncomfortable. Today we’ll go one step further. I’m going to walk you through (gasp) some alternatives to school that may work for you.

In my last post I broached the idea that college falls short in its outcomes for many students. Perhaps, then, many would be better off to get what they need through other channels. Sacrilegious, I know, but perhaps you don’t need a full-blown college experience to get where you need to go. Before thinking about school by default, perhaps we should challenge the assumption that anything but a college experience would serve you well. The old maxim is true: College isn’t for everybody. Here are a few alternatives to school to consider.


Self-Guided Education

You’ve thought about everything you want to get from school and ultimately you simply want a more educated mind or expertise in an area to show for your investment. If so, consider yourself very lucky. One can attain an enviable, well-rounded and deep education with very little monetary outlay.

Let’s think about what the college experience offers in terms of education. In all likelihood you will find yourself lectured to, reading select passages from books, and writing papers. The sciences may require a little more hands-on involvement in a lab. Thanks to the advancements of the Internet and the consequent breaking loose of information, you can have this formal educational experience for free or nearly so. Colleges from the world over offer their courses to the general population through online conduits such as edX, Coursera, Udacity, and iTunes U. And we’re not talking second tier institutions here. Schools like M.I.T., Harvard, Stanford and Princeton have led the charge to offer free online courses to anyone interested. From the comfort of your own home you can get the full treatment: Lectures (videoed), readings, handouts, student interaction and assignments. In fact, if you complete the course you can walk away with a certificate stating you met all of the objectives and can formally recognize yourself as expert.

In my lectures, after I point this out, I ask for a show of hands of those who wrote down “education” as their highest objective in an earlier exercise. Typically, about 80 percent of the hands go up. Then I ask how many still will seek to go to college and pay tuition in light of these offerings. Nearly all the hands stay up. At this point one must reckon with the fact that a quality education is free and readily available and therefore one desires to go to college for other reasons. It helps, then, to figure out the real primary or strong secondary reason to still choose school—whether it be the social experience, the degree at the end, or the enhanced job prospects a diploma might bring. THIS is what you’ll be paying for and what you must now value. The actual education is free. Act accordingly.


Oftentimes little more than the fear of mundane, low-skill, low-pay jobs drives high school graduates to the land of college. At the same time many highly paid and exciting careers remain unfilled at the higher levels of the trade ladder. Many experts on the labor situation in America lament a growing “skills gap” which leads to a disparity between people looking for work and employers seeking workers. A big part of the problem? Students, who after years of college under their belt, cannot or will not consider putting in the time required for specialized training in an industry or trade that would otherwise suit them.

Going against the herd from the get-go can pay huge dividends if you have the wherewithal to not sign on for college out of gut reaction upon leaving the nest. If you like challenging your mind and working with your hands on a daily basis nothing stops you from readily available, lucrative work except your willingness to spend your next few years in specialized training. For many skill-based careers this training entails working for a set period under industry-standardized arrangements as an apprentice. After three to four years (sound familiar?) you can then graduate on to becoming a full-blown professional ___________. Apprenticeship occupations run the gamut, with trades including boilermaker, architectural draftsman, electrical field engineer, gemologist, locksmith, pharmacist assistant, prosthetist, surveyor, well driller and a whole host of mechanical specialties to name but a few. If this interests you, look up the apprenticeship specifics in your state and begin to research those careers that seem interesting. If you find something you will be light years ahead of your college-going buddies when they graduate in that you will already have a going career path and money in your pocket from your time in training.

Experience Learning

Sometimes people attend college to learn about something that is better experienced directly. It never ceases to amaze me the number of students I find who go to classes in search of a deeper understanding of culture or language or history or philosophy or some such thing. Many times the student would have been better served to live among Asians, embed oneself in Central America far removed from native English speakers, to soak in the offerings of museums around the country, or to debate great thinkers directly than to spend thousands of dollars getting second-hand information in a lecture hall. Colleges offer many great courses in many great things but often it would suffice quite nicely to interact directly with the subject matter in question.

Countless times I’ve heard incredibly astute peers credit their time backpacking from hostel to hostel in Europe or living the Peace Corps experience in Sub Sahara Africa for their superior understanding of human ways.  Writers talk amongst themselves of how disappointing it is to have articles and book proposals rejected for publishing while others without English degrees rack up writing assignments and book deals. Famous singers credit their time spent in Deep South honkytonks with their trademark sound while voice majors get a solo now and then in the local volunteer theatre. I could go on, but if you desire to get a degree in the arts or social sciences you may find direct experience and rolled up sleeves more beneficial to your pursuits.

So there you have it: a post about not going to college from a guy who’s supposed to prepare you for it. But I would rather students try work some of the other angles than to join the tens of thousands who will drop out early, come away with worthless degrees, or have only financial devastation to show for the experience. While college may be right for you it may not hurt to explore some alternatives just the same. At the very least be sure to know with fair certainty what you want to gain from your next few years and then be sure to go about getting it, whatever the pathway or source.