College Admissions Decision: Part II: Does College Make Sense for Me?

Back when I was a young freshman in high school, spending 20 hours a week on my company, a few city managers to whom I was pitching my product asked whether I was going to college. I hadn’t given it a second of thought. "Of course," I responded. Everyone in my immediate family had gone to college. My Mom’s side of the family tree is full of academics.

Some thought this was a good idea ("There’s so much to learn" or "The social life is amazing"). Some thought this was a bad idea ("It will hold you back, you need something better, and different")

I didn’t ask myself this question until my junior year in high school. I had been successful in the "real world" with my entrepreneurship. I had developed a curiosity about why the world works as it does that demanded different skills than the traditional classroom. My grades in school were poor — in part due to my intensive commitment to my company, in part because I wasn’t good at scoring high on tests (both the testing and recall). The kind of intellectual exposure I encountered in the business world — smart, high energy folks who challenged my ideas and provided new ways of thinking — seemed absent in the classroom. Despite top notch teachers and impressive students, so many of my classes in high school couldn’t engage me (or I couldn’t engage them). I wasn’t "above" the classes; our styles didn’t mesh.

For a long time I was simply ambivalent about whether college was in my future. I remember a reporter asked me this question and I said, "Yes" and then a second later added, "If it makes sense with where I’m going."

Then I met marketing author Seth Godin in New York and discussed where I was in the college process. He posed an idea I call "Real Life University." Seth questioned whether four years in a place that teaches how to be normal filled with students who are looking for a degree helps me. He wondered aloud whether two years on the road traveling in different cultures, and two years reading books and meeting mentors, would be a better experience.

From that point forward my opinion on the matter became clear: I want to spend four years of my life learning. I don’t want to graduate from high school and just start more businesses. After all, business is only kind of interesting. I want to learn. I want to explore.

"Real Life University" – four years of reading and exploration, guided by a "board of trustees" of advisors and mentors – became a real idea I refined and held in my back pocket.

I wanted to give myself options. I would pursue the traditional college admissions process and see what happens. If none of my college options suits my fancy, I thought to myself, I can always do Real Life U

7 comments on “College Admissions Decision: Part II: Does College Make Sense for Me?
  • For me, the best experience of college was being surrounded by such a high concentration of people who were taking time out of their lives to focus on learning new ideas. It’s a kind of learning that I don’t think the non-college world could have duplicated for me because in the real world people juggle learning new ideas with so many other things. The intensity is what made college special for me.

  • One of the reasons I was frustrated and bored when I went away to school was A) I landed in a few places that had excellent professors but really intellectually lazy student bodies–the student body really does matter, I found–and B) I started studying things I was “good at”–English and whatnot. I was incredibly bored in those classes, because I had the sneaking suspicion I had already taught myself the important stuff, because of my excessive reading of books throughout high school. So, I started studying science–even though it was harder for me and I didn’t earn the highest grades, I knew I was learning something that I would never, ever teach myself–I needed someone to teach science to me. Plus, I’m finding that a B.S. is just a much more valuable degree than a B.A.–although others may have a different experience than mine.

    (I’ll be totally psyched if you end up in Evanston, where I was born and raised–I can give you loads of advice about the area.)

  • I am in complete agreement with you. As someone who has always hated school and consistantly looked beyond the classroom for intellectual challenges and fullfillment, I certainly understand your position. I have been fortunate, though, to have had one teacher who truly inspired me to become far more academic and appreciate the value of a formal education. While I think most teachers are illfit for their positions, all you need is one to inspire you and show you what education is truly about. The problem with most teachers/schools/lower education in my opinion is that they are too structured and don’t encourage imagination and therefore aren’t condusive to learning. Learning and education is about thinking outside of the box. History isn’t comprised of fact and dates, but rather is valuable to understanding ourselves and the future and requires one to therefore think outside of the box. I almost begin to feel that the same skills that are applied to entrepreneurship can and should be applied to academics and learning. While I attend school full time and have grown to love academic study, I still continue my many outside activities because they both, I feel, compliment eachother and make one a stronger, more dynamic person. The truth is, that we no longer produce renaissance men such as Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, etc and this fact is only a reflection of the dumbing down of both our education system and our society. Everything is connected and we therefore shouldn’t sectionalize our lives and activites, but rather live far more dynamic lives in which we gain knowledge and information from a variety of sources all the time. What’s wrong with indulging in multiple different activites at once? and why must we always strive to be so focused?

  • As a person who chose to spend the past year working on a masters degree, at the age of 38, I have often reflected on what my experience of attending undergraduate school from ages 17-21 meant for my life. I think for many young people, it is more about doing what is expected by society, by our parents, experiencing independence for the first time etc. My choice to get an undergraduate degree in business was because it would supposedly give me the edge I needed to “get a good job.”

    When I made the decision to attend graduate school many years later, it was about making a choice to study a subject that would enhance my ability to help make the world a better place, rather than doing what society expected of me. I was so inspired by the group of masters students (ages 22-50) from over 40 countries that I met who really cared about finding solutions to the worlds problems. I am so glad I did it. Yet, the focus of my masters studies was just one of my many interests. There are are a lot of other training “experiences” on my list of things to do over the next few years. For the most part, these are much more experiential than can be found in the traditional academic university setting.

    The thing for you Ben, is that you don’t need to go the college “to get a job.” There are a lot of societal pressures for you to attend undergraduate school, but you have to listen to your own heart and decide what is best for you. Rather than spending 4 years of your life taking a bunch of courses that may or may not really matter in your life once you graduate, you can choose your education on an “as needed basis,” based on your unique interests and talents. There is nothing wrong with that at all!

    I wish you the best in your decision. Life is a journey. Each and every journey is unique. Whatever choice you make will be the right decision for this specific part of your journey. As long as you are committed to learning from each and every experience in your life, then there is no wrong decision.

  • “Rather than spending 4 years of your life taking a bunch of courses that may or may not really matter in your life once you graduate, you can choose your education on an ‘as needed basis,’ based on your unique interests and talents.”

    It’s the perfect pitch to VCs. I see a huge business opportunity. Billions of dollars and euros. Education on demand.

    Wikipedia + blogs + Facebook (social networks) + podcasting + videocasting + Flickr = Education 2.0

  • You are very right to question the idea that you need to go to college. You don’t, though you need to be dedicated to continually learning if you’re going to get along without the credential. (Note: most college grads don’t know much, and don’t do much learning after B.A.)

    Penelope has a great insight, though. I recommend that you give her remarks careful consideration. If you choose to follow her path, pick a place where the students are very intellectually alive (small, selective liberal arts college, most likely. You might look into New College of Florida). Then ignore the subjects that interest you; ask around who the great teachers are, and take whatever they are teaching.

    Writings related to your idea: Paul Goodman’s Community of Scholars, and Albert Jay Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.

    Good luck

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