High school senior needs a real-world smackdown
August 31, 2006 6:14 PM   Subscribe

I'm a 12th grade senior in a public high school and live in a town where over 95% of graduates go to college. Can I get away with not going? Spare the politeness and call out my 17-year-old naivete. Some lengthy text follows, sorry in advance.

I attend two schools: a big high school (just for AP classes) and an independent study program, where I go weekly to turn in and discuss homework. Big High School is very education and music-oriented, where parents regularly push their students to overload their schedule with 4-6 AP classes yearly. The independent study program is mellow, open-ended, and an introvert haven. I'm an introvert but a skilled conversationalist, with enough close friends. This arrangement leaves me with a lot of free time to pursue my interests at home.

My interests are mainly programming and photography. A few years back, I wrote most of a large cross-platform software package that occasionally appears in scientific journals. I can get production sites up in Python/Django in very little time. I code pretty stylesheets and work around IE6 bugs. I sysadmin and solve almost any problem on Linux, Windows 2000/XP/2003, or OS X.

I've been spending a third of my free time on DSLR photography this past year. A few of my photos got re-printed in small magazines, but usually not for artistic value. A lot of the programming and photography employment I see nowadays is based solely on prior work. Will the majority of employers still demand that I have a college degree?

I'm getting to the question, I promise. I live in a university town. My parents are academics. I've talked to professors on campus and visited plenty of other universities. I find most of the academia boring - (generalizing here) bleak, unprofessional, slow as molasses, with TAs and occasionally boring professors lecturing undergrads in large lecture halls. The socializing aspect doesn't interest me much either (I'm not into alcohol, I'd have to dodge every party). Four years is an eternity to me and the tuition/housing costs are crazy. I would never take Computer Science as an undergrad because it would be a colossal waste of time. But I'm easily willing to take specific university classes later in my life.

My parents are reasonable folks who would let me do just about anything as long as I move out soon. The only other limitation is having practically no college savings (which I could work around).

I guess my options are:
  • Ignore college completely, focus on contract-based programming/web development/computer work in the short term, and possibly take over my parent's software company later.
  • Apply to colleges to please my teachers (hundreds of dollars, weeks of application-filling, essay writing) and not go anywhere.
  • Apply, accept, attend, and likely drop out after a semester or two.
  • Apply, accept, force myself to attend four years, have massive debt, and risk being useless in a changing job market.
  • Take a one year "break" for computer-related work, and if that doesn't work out, apply next year.
Did you stay the 4-year undergraduate course? Did you drop out or never even apply? Do you regret or not regret the experience? Any relevant advice given my non-willingness to go?

Thank you, Ask MeFi!
posted by aye to Education (66 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Go to school. It can get you hired just by being on the resume. The debt's not that massive. Try law or med school debt.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:17 PM on August 31, 2006

Check out New College in Sarasota, Florida. Sounds like it would be a perfect fit for you. It is NOT traditional.
posted by konolia at 6:23 PM on August 31, 2006

How about a school with a less traditional structure? Someplace like Reed or Evergreen State or even Deep Springs.

You need not limit yourself to places that focus on lectures in large halls.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:24 PM on August 31, 2006

I can attest to the fact that you are going to have a hard time moving up the ladder as a computer programmer without the benefit of a bachelors. Many recruiters aren't going to let you in the door without a degree. In many cases it doesn't even have to be a relevant degree but a bachelors shows discipline. Not to mention if you attend a high-end school simply having that on a resume shows something about you.

That being said, you apparently aren't ready for college yet (not a slight I think this is probably healthy). How about this for a compromise, go to a community college short term while doing contracting. 2 years in a community college isn't something that would show up on a resume. You could pretty much pay cash, decide how many classes you want to take and work on your career all at the same time.
posted by bitdamaged at 6:25 PM on August 31, 2006

Or, hell, how about art school?
posted by mr_roboto at 6:25 PM on August 31, 2006

If you don't see a value to going to college, all you are doing is wasting your money and the money of everyone else. On the other hand, having that degree does open a fair number of doors.

Not all college institutions are academic big-lecture-hall oriented universities. What I'd do is look around at smaller institutions that are more studio/practicum oriented and keep student/faculty ratios low. I'd also ask around about individualized major programs and credit for independent project work.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:29 PM on August 31, 2006

Take a year off and do computer related work and save your money. Then take the next year spend your savings on travel, travel, travel.

Then come back and do what's needed to get some more education.
posted by disclaimer at 6:30 PM on August 31, 2006

Best answer: You posted a very well-thought out question and you seem really very mature, just from your question.

I went to a high-powered school where 95% went to four year colleges, myself included. Certainly college was the right decision for me. But I had a number of friends who made the conscious decision to pursue other things, usually some type of trade like electrician or musician. For nearly everyone who skipped college, things worked out OK -- they have remained well-employed, have fulfilling family lives, etc. But nearly all of them have regrets not going away to college.

Most people probably do not go on to get a job doing the thing they studied in college but there's certainly a lot of personal growth and discovery that goes on when you are on your own, in a structured/sheltered environment. I think my non-college friends feel that they missed out on the shared experience the rest of us had. That's not to say they would have chosen to do anything differently.

You don't need to go to college to be successful, smart, and happy. But a lot of the successful, smart, and happy people you will want to keep in your life will have gone to college.

Don't apply if you don't have any intention of going, it's just extra work, extra expense, and it might hurt your chances of really getting into the school of your choice if you get initially rejected because you sent in a crappy application.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 6:33 PM on August 31, 2006

Best answer: If you aren't interested in going now, don't go now. It's a good idea to go to college at some point, but there is absolutely no harm in taking a year or two off, especially since it sounds like you have the skills to get a halfway decent job in the meantime. Live on your own and support yourself for a while; knowing how to get your own money and take care of yourself is a valuable thing.

During your time off, you should be looking for something that you might be interested in enough to study for four years. Maybe take one or two classes. Save money for when you do go to school. When you start up, you don't have to pick a track right away; take a variety of classes and hopefully find something you like. But, even if you don't get really passionate about one particular major, a college degree in anything will make you look good. If you can't find anything to do, take management/marketing/business classes that will apply to almost any industry.

I went to college right out of high school because it was the obvious thing to do. I majored in chemical engineering because I liked high school chemistry and physics. Chemical engineering was boring and sucky, so I failed all my classes and got kicked out. For the next year and a half I took some community college classes but mostly just worked my ass off to not starve. It was good for me! When I went back to school, I had a totally different major and I did really well and now my life is great, yay.

Also, you should be able to find someone in college who isn't just binge drinking all the time. There are lots of social opportunities besides that.
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:36 PM on August 31, 2006

Can you get away with not going? In a word, no.

But why wouldn't you? You sound like a very bright, motivated young man who would gain a lot from college. Attending college isn't just about gaining skills you need to market yourself to employers (though, obviously, by not going you would forfeit this aspect of the experience, which is increasingly essential in this economy). It is also about exploring new interests and with the kind of institutional support you just can't get in the "real world."

I second the advice about looking into non-traditional colleges. More examples of such schools are Sarah Lawrence College, Hampshire College, Bennington College, and NYU's Gallatin School. I transferred to one of these "alternative" colleges from a traditional school and consider it one of the best decisions I've ever made.

I'm not personally familiar with it, but I have heard that Colleges That Change Lives is a great resource for people considering a non-traditional academic experience.
posted by chickletworks at 6:38 PM on August 31, 2006

Response by poster: Special thanks for the non-traditional college advice. I'll read more about them, because apparently they're the ones that haven't been spamming my mailbox.
posted by aye at 6:45 PM on August 31, 2006

Best answer: It sounds like you're very, very smart. And possibly quite entrepreneurial, as well. That means you'll probably do well with start-ups and small companies where you have a lot of immediate input on things and where the demands for formal education are usually a lot lower. But if you're ever going to want to work at a large company on large tech or consulting projects, a degree is likely to be mandatory.

I also think the image you have of college is perhaps a bit jaded. It's very much a get out of it what you put into it experience. Most professors are more than happy to meet with students and help them advance past the lectures if that's where their interests and aptitude lies. I think you're the type who could do very well in advanced studies and research - perhaps not in a university setting forever, but at one of the major tech labs, and you'd need to go to college for that. And undergraduate CS degree also has very little to do with the things you've mentioned as your core skills - it's not so much about software engineering and programming, and more about theory and mathematics. An advanced CS degree is even less about coding yet.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:46 PM on August 31, 2006

Take a one year "break" for computer-related work, and if that doesn't work out, apply next year.

Consider applying now, then "defer" your enrollment for a year (this isn't all that uncommon), and pursue your computer-related work. After a year in the workforce, you might be thrilled to be going to college, or you might be passionate about your work. Either way, you'll be in a better frame-of-mind than it sounds like you are right now.

I went to college for two years, before leaving for a one year break (in 1993). I ended up not going back to school, and I've never regretted it.

With that said, computers have been my passion since I was about 8 or 9, and for the first 2-3 years of my career, I had to work twice as hard as the graduates around me (but, given my passions, I liked my job twice as much). I also had the luxury of being a young, talented Unix expert in San Francisco in 1996 -- the job market is not likely to ever look like that again.

P.S. if you do defer... get your own apartment, and pay your own rent. Living with the 'rents doesn't really give you the whole picture.
posted by toxic at 6:48 PM on August 31, 2006

(I'm not into alcohol, I'd have to dodge every party).

I thought that when I was 17 too. I changed my mind in a couple of years. In general you seem certain that who you are right now is who you're going to stay for the rest of your life. For your sake, I hope that's not true, you'll get awfully bored.

I would never take Computer Science as an undergrad because it would be a colossal waste of time.

Are you really so sure? It's a huge field and there are a lot of things to learn. Hell, I'm a professional programmer, and I'd still like to go back and take some of my undergrad courses again--they didn't seem relevant at the time but they sure would be helpful now.

I find that a lot of self-taught programmers think they know it all, but end up reinventing the wheel a lot, or try to do things that are proven to be impossible.

I find most of the academia boring

Well, sure, that's why you try to get past the stuffy-huge-lecture-hall stage as quick as possible, and into more advanced (and smaller) classes, taught more directly. It's a lot more interesting when you're more personally involved in the process. Not all universities are huge dull hidebound places.

That said, if you don't want to go, don't; you'll only get out of it what you put into it. But I think there are places you'd enjoy, where you'd find kindred spirits and some challenge -- look off the beaten track.
posted by xil at 6:49 PM on August 31, 2006

I dated someone without a college degree for a few years. He was smart, curious, and really quick -- but no one would hire him. Granted, part of that was his allergy to starting at the bottom and working his way up, but what I learned was that without a college degree, he had no choice but to start at the bottom and work his way up. No one was going to hire him for the types of slightly cushy jobs I got upon graduation, because he hadn't proved himself by completing a degree.

Your situation sounds different; you've obviously accomplished a great deal already. And I would agree that taking some time off now wouldn't be a bad thing necessarily. But I do think, from watching my ex, that if you don't eventually put the work into getting a degree, you will have to do so much extra work every time you change jobs to convince employers that they should take a chance on you. So it may seem like four years of "wasted time" right now, but I think it does eventually save you a lot of grief.
posted by occhiblu at 6:52 PM on August 31, 2006

Other small, unique colleges for you to check out: Bard and St. John's.
posted by MsMolly at 6:54 PM on August 31, 2006

It's not as though you can't go back later. Why not see how things go without college? That'll give you a much better idea than anything you read here.

I was in a similar position (complete with academic parents) and didn't go to college for reasons very much like those you've articulated — I wasn't impressed by academia (being the child of a grad student will do that to you) and couldn't stand the thought of incurring years of debt to do something I wouldn't enjoy. I don't regret this at all (very low expectations and being often lucky in the jobs I've held have helped). But I'm still very young; perhaps in a year I'll be living under a bridge subsisting on Wild Irish Rose and other people's cigarette butts and cursing my callow 17-year-old self for a fool the way everyone always warned me I would.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 6:59 PM on August 31, 2006

College is not like high school - go for the social experience if nothing else. There WILL be others there just like you.
posted by peep at 7:00 PM on August 31, 2006

I second Hampshire College.
posted by ericb at 7:03 PM on August 31, 2006

...and St. John's (Annapolis and Santa Fe).
posted by ericb at 7:04 PM on August 31, 2006

I do not think you understand the college "scene" as well as you think you do. Underneath the frat-boy exterior, you'll actually find lots of people like yourself. Intellectually curious, introverted, etc. Just because drinkers and partiers are the loudest group doesn't mean that they're the norm.

Also consider that a bachelors degree is really the new high school diploma. You need one to even get your foot in the door at most places.

If you're really willing to work hard, it's not too hard to get out in 3 years. I don't recommend it, though, because I think that the college experience is much more than classes. It's about making connections, being exposed to topics you wouldn't think about normally, getting a chance to explore lots of different fields, etc.
posted by chrisamiller at 7:04 PM on August 31, 2006

Best answer: Caltech also might be your kind of place, if you lean more towards the sciences than liberal arts. It's chock full of weirdos, and if you're as awesome as you say you are, you'll have tons of opportunities for individual study and research, in whatever interests you. I can't imagine a better place for getting severely challenged, for a change.
posted by xil at 7:13 PM on August 31, 2006

Best answer: I think you should carefully consider college, but by no means should you rush into it. You can absolutely succeed in life without it, and you can absolutely be happy without it.

I only went to college for a year and consider myself relatively successful- I even taught upper division CS for a year.

A friend of mine, at my urging, didn't go to college, didn't even graduate high school, and he's now an Important Person at Apple. Another friend of mine took a few years off after high school, earned a lot of money working as a financial analyst, and is attending school now that he's ready.

There's nothing about college that is magical. Don't believe the people who say there is. People will say that you'll miss social opportunities, and you will, but there are other opportunities available.

Do stay interested in things that interest you. At 17, you shouldn't be making choices about career or life- you should be having fun and maturing. The choices become easier when that's done.

Realize that going entirely without college is a little harder in some fields. For me, I've tended to be a self-starter, so I haven't needed a degree to convince anybody I knew what I was doing. Come to employers with impressive credentials that you care about and things usually work out.

All of that said, a couple things you say stick out to me:

Apply to colleges to please my teachers
likely drop out after a semester or two
attend four years, have massive debt, and risk being useless

You've made this decision already. Even if we all said that you absolutely had to go to college to live past age 19, you'd have trouble. You're asking us because you want us to justify you not going to college.

I think I can safely say that you don't have to- but consider carefully what your reasons for not wanting to are. A lot of your verbiage seems like a front to cover why you really don't want to go. Figure out what that is.

Good luck!
posted by thethirdman at 7:17 PM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

Go to school anyway. Get the certificate of participation. Build your web and photo portfolio while you do school. 4 years isn't that long.

It is possible a comp sci degree has nothing to offer you. Have you considered a business degree? If you're that talented AND you have social skills, a business degree might take you further.

posted by freq at 7:23 PM on August 31, 2006

Response by poster: thethirdman: You're right, I wasn't in a college mood when I wrote that post. The reason I asked though, is because I'm prepared for it and waver on the topic monthly. Thanks so much to everyone who posted. Any other insights are welcome.
posted by aye at 7:24 PM on August 31, 2006

WARNING: reed is hardly non-traditional as far as structure goes. In fact, it has one of the most conservative academic programs in the country and has very strict course distribution requierments. Culturally, sure, you can't get more progressive.
posted by mmdei at 7:26 PM on August 31, 2006

Dont go to college to learn. Any reasonable smart or self motivated person can learn way more by spending their time in the library or on the internet. Reasons one may want to go to college are:

- your parents are paying
- you have a specific career planned and you need the degree
- you want to be a lawyer/doctor/academic
- you need structure and discipline
- you want to be social/network

None of these applied to me, so I didnt go. You don't have to either.
posted by petsounds at 7:40 PM on August 31, 2006

I'm an IT manager in a medium-sized organization, and if you'll pardon a little strutting, I think I'm a pretty good guy to work for and I've built a great team over the years. We get to do cool projects and have nice lives. When I'm looking at resumes, I only look at work and project history; I could not care less whether or not you have a college degree. Having a degree says nothing about you or your skills.

However, here's the rub: I have a very difficult time getting HR to let me interview, let alone hire, someone without a college degree, no matter how awesome and valueable I think they are. Even if you find a great department to work for, you've got to get past HR, and they (essentially) go to entire seminars on Why You Should Not Hire People Who Did Not Go to College.

If nothing else, consider a college degree a ticket to get you past the myriad non-technical people involved in the hiring process who won't understand your skills or knowledge well enough to accurately assess your value to the organization.
posted by ulotrichous at 7:56 PM on August 31, 2006

I would apply to graduate school in CS and try to skip college. I would say your experience more than replaces an undergraduate degree in CS. I dated a girl who never finished High School, technically never graduated college (had enough classes, but did not want to write her major thesis) and still went to law school.

I would consider pursuing an entreprenurial route for a year and then apply to grad school.

I learned a great deal in college, most of it outside the classroom, but I could have had the same experience in grad school too.

You should consider working by day and classes part-time at night too.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:00 PM on August 31, 2006

If you want to avoid debt and your parents are academics, you can usually attend college for free at whatever school your parent teaches at... personally, I'd do this to get all of the required courses done and then transfer the credits to another school and take the interesting stuff.

Other thoughts: Brown is known for being non-traditional with lots of opportunities for independent learning. Rochester Institute of Technology is a techie school famous for photography (and is decidedly not an art school).

The reason I would go to college, and have, for 16 years straight now, is because I get this little plastic card that allows me access to libraries and darkrooms and $50,000 film scanners and a gym and a pool and editing suites and languange clubs and a radio station...
posted by xo at 8:02 PM on August 31, 2006

As hinted at above, if you do decide to go to college you should consider small, rigorous liberal arts colleges. There are a lot of them.

At a liberal arts college, you'll be encouraged to develop your entire brain -- including artistic, scientific and analytical. You'll be encouraged to dabble in unfamiliar fields.

At a small college, you'll have small classes. You'll also have opportunities to take on leadership roles in extracurricular groups. You'll be known by your fellow students and by your professors.

At a rigorous college, you'll be challenged academically. You'll read, work, write, program, think, discuss and learn. It's pretty awesome.

I went to a small, rigorous liberal arts college. I never had a TA; all my classes were taught by professors. I never had more than 20 students in any of my classes; many classes had four or six students. I learned a lot, including in topics I might never have explored otherwise. I got individual attention from professors. I had opportunities to lead campus groups.

There were downsides too -- my college was rural and isolated, and that was pretty hard. But my undergrad experience was nothing like what you seem to think college will be like at all.

One more point: not all college computer science classes are purely about how to acheive your programming goals. There's a lot of theory and even a little math -- you might, even if you already do know a lot.

Best of luck to you. I'm sure you'll be fine, whatever you decide.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:10 PM on August 31, 2006

Go; the debt isn't that bad. It will help in your career, even if just to get you the interview.

You may feel very different about your social life at 19, 20 and 21. The social scene isn't all frat boy, and you might meet someone(s) who'll change your life.
posted by spaltavian at 8:13 PM on August 31, 2006

This is a tough question to answer. You may never feel like you've figured it out. College really isn't for some people. Lots of people, in fact. But college is not what you think it is. At least it doesn't have to be.
A small, liberal arts college might be just the thing for you. There are loads of them (of varying levels of difficulty to get into) all over the country. Most of us who attended them when in thinking universities were dumb and graduated convinced of it; colleges are where it's at, my friend.
Actually, it looks like you live in Portland. You might have a look at my alma mater; it might be just the thing (might not; I promise it won't hurt my feelings if you don't want to go there. If it does tickle your fancy, though, feel free to email me with any questions). I had a couple of good friends there who matched your description coming in; one dropped out and has made a good life for himself in IT, the other graduated and has made a good life for himself in IT. Neither regrets his time at college.
I guess the point I'm skirting rather than making is that your window of time to be a young college student is relatively small, whereas your window of time to be an adult with a tech job is all but infinite. I found that a liberal arts college was a really good place for me to be at that time; so did almost everyone else I met there. The few who didn't moved on relatively painlessly. FWIW, if you do go the college route, I recommend being at least 2 hours' drive away from home; you want to be far enough away that your parents will have to call and make plans if they're going to drop by, even if you're not planning to do anything illicit and/or your parents are impossible to shock. Just to find out what you're really like on your own.
posted by willpie at 8:21 PM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

It's true that HR can be a stickler for 4-year degrees. That just means that you will end up working mostly for companies small enough not to have a HR department, where the person you'll be working under does their own hiring. Smallish (25-ish person) companies can often be the best companies to work for.

I occasionally think about getting a 4-year degree, but I already make more money than I know what to do with. My main reason for doing it, if I were to do it, would be to study things like philosophy and literature that didn't much interest me when I was 17, not to improve my career prospects.
posted by kindall at 8:24 PM on August 31, 2006

Response by poster: willpie: I'm actually about 500 miles from Portland. It's a good guess though. Thanks for the advice and the links; I do plan on moving far away from my parents.
posted by aye at 8:29 PM on August 31, 2006

Best answer: I just finished four years at UC Santa Cruz last year and it's a bit of challenge to summarize my whole experience into an AskMe post, but let me say this: the image of college I had in high school was radically, radically different from the reality, and even though I've got federal student loans to pay off at [a relative pittance] a month for the rest of my life, I'm glad I went.

Here are some things I did in college where the presence of the college's resources/assistance (note: not the same as "classes") was invaluable:

- came out of the closet
- wrote for an awesome satirical newspaper
- sea kayaked in Monterey Bay, hiked in Big Sur, went clubbing in San Francisco, etc.
- taught high-school geography and social studies in Ghana for a summer and got the school to pay for the whole experience by writing a grant asking for them to fund it as an "independent study" for my politics major/education minor
- experimented with not shaving for a month, vegetarianism, fasting, assorted controlled substances
- took advantage of the very generous vacation time to visit Istanbul for Spring Break, see Yosemite over Christmas and New Year's, and take summer classes at other UCs in subjects I couldn't take at UC Santa Cruz for a much-reduced fee
- organized a class taught entirely by other students about international affairs and created a giant simulated United
Nations committee to debate what we'd learned about
- got free copies of the New York Times, which fed my crossword addiction and gave me a reason to enjoy a civilized, leisurely breakfast every day for the first time since starting middle school, which made me a much more mellow, reasoned, and relaxed person during those early classes

None of the things above involved lecture halls or fraternities or alcohol (well, much alcohol - and I, too, hated the taste until I was 21 and could legally just go try new things when out with friends after class or whatever). I think the key thing for you to remember is that college isn't about the degree, but about you having the freedom to feel out what you want to experience/learn/do.

So then: if you're "meh" about college now, go anyway and build a niche for yourself - there's a whole architecture of personal freedom built into most universities if you're willing to find it, and if there's one thing the university-powers-that-be like, it's independent, mature, motivated, and ambitious students who are looking for help for their next project. You'll have a great time.
posted by mdonley at 8:47 PM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

As a student of computer science going back to school next week after working as a software developer all summer, I will tell you this: I find school infinitely more interesting and less frustrating than working full time, therefore I work to go to school. I do NOT go to school to work.

Going to school will benefit you in many ways, as others have mentioned above, but I think it will benefit you vastly more if you approach it as a worthwhile endeavour in itself, rather than merely a means to an end.

As someone who has often regretted not taking a year off, I think it sounds like a good idea for you at this point. Sitting in class all day, and doing assignments, thinking "Why the hell am I doing this?" is not a good way to go through school. If taking some time to work and figure out what you want can save you from that, it would be more than worth it in my opinion.

I've said this before, and I'll say it again: It's not a race.

FWIW, I'm going into (mostly) third year at Carleton University.
posted by benign at 9:14 PM on August 31, 2006

Go to college. But first, consider a year of volunteerism with Geek Corps, the peace corp for geeks, and all around awesome resume builder.

I agree with the other posters, though - college isn't what you think it is - and there is a college out there for everyone. You might not be big rah rah state school material, but there are some great smaller and more flexible colleges out there, you just have to do the work to find them (although there are lots of great links in this thread).

So if I were you, a year in Geek Corps, and then the right college - one that appeals to your more quirky nontraditionalism. And that is when the Geek Corps volunteerism helps you out, by making you a great candidate for admissions and for non-need based financial aid.

Honestly, you can get away with not having a college degree until about 28, but then it gets really tough to keep moving up, career-wise, at work. And there is nothing worse than watching people who couldn't work their way out of a wet paper bag, get larger raises every year and faster promotions, strictly because they have a degree.
posted by sperare at 9:19 PM on August 31, 2006

youre thinking too hard about this. college is an option that you can abort at anytime. there's a tremendous about of personal growth that goes on in college. you could achieve the same end other ways, but those ways are always available to you. i say go to college and feel it out - you can always leave. no harm no foul.

but its important to atleast give it a shot. i know right now you think youve think you got it figured out. but you dont. in the instance that something you've guessed at with no real-time knowledge actually works the way you brained it, you've lost nothing by experimenting.

there's a whole side of college you dont even know exists. the late night discussions of South Park rhetoric, the people you may meet of like mind, the interesting hobbies you might develop. but if you dont even give it a shot you'll never know.

my brother does quite well without a college degree. but when i think of age 18-22 and all the wonderful - and not so wonderful - experiences, i look at him with pity.

like i said before: you can always leave. but you'll never get the chance to experience this 4 years the same way again. youre smart - so i'm sure hyou understand wasted oppuritubnties.
posted by Davaal at 9:23 PM on August 31, 2006

I'd probably add my vote to the "take time off" pile.

I was in a similar situation and i went off to art school just because i could and felt like i "had" to go to college. about 60K and a bunch of mediocre grades later, i was dropping out because i just couldn't force myself to go through those motions anymore. I took a couple years off, pursued other interests, and then went back to school because i really wanted to, and got so much more out of it.

College is really what you make of it, and its really not worth the debt of going anywhere but the cheapest possible if all your going for is a degree so you can put it on job applications that you have a BA. However, if you reach a point in your life when you are really excited about what you can get out of going to school, its one of the best experiences you can have in your life.

So really, take the time now to either get excited about school (there were some awesome programs listed already that might be ones that spark the interest) or recognize that its not something you're ready for just yet and take some time to find what you really want to be doing. Either way, the most important thing is to be doing what you want for you.
posted by teishu at 9:30 PM on August 31, 2006

Best answer: Did you drop out or never even apply? Do you regret or not regret the experience? Any relevant advice given my non-willingness to go?

I dropped out of high school, I have never attended a single college course, and I'm a pretty successful software engineer.

1) Yes, not having a degree will negatively affect your ability to get a job - for the first few years. After that, you'll start noticing that or equivalent experience is on all of the job ads that you think you're qualified for. Take note of this, because if you can demonstrate that you know your shit, not having a degree won't hurt you at all. The one job that I've been passed up for because I didn't attend college was a cluster engineering job that needed lots of calculus skill.

2) If you do decide to skip college, and want to write software as your day job, spend a few months reading about algorithms and data structures. Read up on modern kernel design, understand how filesystems work, learn about process scheduling. Even if the details aren't interesting now, go over them. The only thing college seems to be good for, besides giving people little transparent stickers to put on their car, is teaching you about a whole lot of things that you don't care about now, but might well care about some day. So take your education into your own hands.

3) Contributions to open source projects will not only be handy when someone asks for sample code, but it'll also go a long way to getting you a job without a degree. You might even get job offers because of your open source contributions.

4) You will not make as much money as someone who has a college degree, even if they do the exact same job as you. It's stupid, but that's how it is. At a certain point you won't even notice, though.

Personally, I don't regret skipping college at all. If you're tough, smart, and think well on your feet, you might not regret it, either.
posted by cmonkey at 10:09 PM on August 31, 2006

Oh, and if you do want a technical degree, go with EE, not CS. It's much more applicable in the real world.
posted by cmonkey at 10:14 PM on August 31, 2006

Take a year off learn about the world.

Oh, all this cool computer shit? OSX? DSLRs?

It wasn't here five years ago. Extrapolate. Think 20 years from now. The education 'protects' you. It's not about the actual classes - it's about a structure of how to learn and relate.

20 years from now all this will be different. 20 years ago it was vastly different. Go research - and figure as you hit 40, what you'll be doing may not exist today.
posted by filmgeek at 10:32 PM on August 31, 2006

Best answer: Just a few off thoughts that occurred as I read your questions -

- Just as you can not go now and still go later, you can go now and still not go later. Going for 2 semesters and dropping out because you can tell it isn't going anywhere for you (regardless of its intrinsic potential) is not horrible or wrong in any way, and any credit you build will be portable at least for a while. Filling out applications if you have no intention of going is a waste of time though, your teachers aren't your parents so (in this limited case) fuck 'em. This is though as easy as it is ever going to be to go into college, and being in it even for a while will make it easier to get back in later.

- It's hard for me to judge because my education was paid for by scholarships, but I'm glad I experienced a classic, ridiculously requirement-encumbered liberal arts education. It never would have occured to me to make an in-depth study Urdhu literature, chinese art, the US congress, the philosophy of science, the history of chemistry, the art history of photography and the philosophy of the literature of existentialism on my own, but I'm really glad I did. If I'd had to go into debt for it though I might feel different.

- while a conventional CS degree might very well be several clicks behind your state of the art, at the higher levels of education significant components of the true cutting edge is being forged. So if you are interested in not just practical but theoretical computing you might need to reconsider the value of the academic environment.

- alcohol-centric parties are the least interesting component of the college social scene. The network I made in college remains the most interesting, intelligent, productive group of people I've ever encountered.

- I don't think this has come up yet, but totally serious: college is the peerless environment in which to get laid. I don't know about you, when I was 17 that was very important to me.
posted by nanojath at 11:01 PM on August 31, 2006

Best answer: I would never take Computer Science as an undergrad because it would be a colossal waste of time. But I'm easily willing to take specific university classes later in my life.

I want to second the opinion that several people gave above: with all due respect, it sounds like you don't have a very clear idea of what computer science is. It is very much not about the programming (except that you will need to do some). If you want to get a clearer idea what is involved (or at least a clearer idea of one piece that is involved), you might want to get a hold of some books like the CLR algorithms book, the russel and norvig AI book, and some good book on formal language theory (I'm not sure what is best here, but I used Sipser -- Introduction to the Theory of Computation). You may end up deciding that CS is not for you (I did, and ended up doing something that I didn't even know existed when I was in high school, and wouldn't have found it if I didn't go to college), but what I'm trying to get at is that it is very hard for you to make an informed decision from your point of view.

Another point is that you (and perhaps some people in this thread as well) are looking at the value of a college education with respect to your immediate career path upon graduating. This is indeed a common view among many people. But I (and I'm not alone in this) don't think it is the right one. If you choose the right classes (which isn't necessarily easy), you will become immeasurably broader as person. This is not necessarily of use to one's career, but it might be of use to one's happiness.

Finally, with respect to the socializing issue, have you considered the possibility that your close friends will be going to college and may not remain as close? People change radically between the ages of 18 and 23 or so, and most people seem to gain an entirely different social network at college. I'm basically not in touch with anyone I was close friends with in high school, and though I feel guilty about this sometimes, it seems pretty common. Building a new social network may be much harder for you as a wage slave (especially if you work for yourself).
posted by advil at 11:12 PM on August 31, 2006

You are going to be fine either way -- you're obviously smart and motivated.

I loved college, I went to a very academic small liberal arts college (Wesleyan University in Connecticut), and would never trade that experience. Schools vary widely -- I would recommend that you choose something brainy and semi-alternative (if you go). You'll meet kindred spirits, go to intense and esoteric seminars, etc., etc.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:15 PM on August 31, 2006

Best answer: You're really asking two very different questions: "Should I go to college?" and "Do I have to go to college right now?" The answer to the latter is a definite no. Plenty of people take time off between high school and college [or between college and grad school.] You can easily apply and defer, or wait a year to apply. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this, and odds are that you'll end up with cool opportunities that people who went straight to college didn't get. You may also find that if/when you do go to college, you'll be more mature than your peers, which can be a big asset for the academic aspect of things. I went to college straight out of high school, and I ended taking time off in the middle of college - I wonder occasionally whether I would have been better off waiting a year.

However, in answer to the first question, there are good arguments for going to college at some point. Your reasons for not wanting to go seem to be based off of several generalizations [expensive, too much alcohol, boring professors, etc.] that certainly don't describe all colleges. If I were you, I'd reconsider some of them. This isn't to say that you have to go to college, but there are some big benefits, both practical [a degree, employability, networking] and personal [everything else], and it sounds like you're approaching this with a fair number of sometimes-inaccurate preconceptions. Make sure you're making an informed decision! If you take the time to investigate the various schools out there, you should be able to avoid most of the things you complain about in your post. My take on them:

The "bleak, boring, large lecture halls" aspect of academia that you dislike certainly doesn't resemble my undergraduate experience. I had a few large intro classes, but most of my classes were smaller intermediate and advanced classes [required or elective], where questions and discussions were encouraged. I've never had a TA teach a course, nor have I had a professor brush off a question. Sure, there are some uninspiring professors, but most professors are very excited to talk about the things they love, particularly if you're interested too. [Note that this can be and often is the case in full universities as well as small liberal arts colleges, but it's truly central to the latter.]

You're also ignoring some of the academic opportunities that college provides - exposure to subjects you generally don't encounter in high school, and a chance to do research in whatever you're interested in. The classes were great, but working in labs was probably the most valuable part of my undergraduate experience. Additionally, the classes I took and the research I did led to me changing my major to something related [but different] than my original choice.

College doesn't have to be horrifically expensive. You can spend time during your year off researching and applying for scholarships; almost all but the very top schools give merit-based as well as need-based financial aid.

Finally, computer science [at decent universities] isn't "here, learn how to make webpages using CSS and code some C++ & Python." [Looking through the courses offered by the CS program at my undergraduate institution, I can't even find any courses that mention the programming language used.] It's about the theories, patterns, and math that make programming work. Your programming experience would give you an advantage, yes, but not necessarily a great deal more of one than, say, someone who's got a very strong math background.

Social stuff:
College [in most places] is not one big drunken frat party. I mean, sure, obviously some people do that. But most students at decent schools are there because they're interested in learning and doing things. I guarantee you that if you choose to go to college, you will be able to find friends who either don't drink or don't care whether or not you drink [even if they do.] Most people go to parties because they want to spend time with their friends and talk with interesting people about interesting things. Places like MIT or Caltech that allow students a great deal of autonomy and self-governence are particularly good for this; although I am not personally familiar with the small liberal arts colleges mentioned above, I suspect that this is also true of them.

Other stuff:
College isn't just parties and classes. At college [mostly through experimentation with the resources available] I learned to weld, edit video, do decent [if basic] carpentry, do foundry [particularly iron casting], paint murals, silkscreen, book bands, do a little tae kwon do, build and fix computers, design and build circuits, and a great deal more. Much of this is stuff that I probably wouldn't have tried [due to lack of exposure or lack of resources] if I hadn't gone to college. And that's all outside of class! I consider learning an end in itself, and so there are also a great many classes I took simply because they looked interesting and were new to me. If you look at college from a purely utilitarian view, it's probably worthwhile. However, if you enjoy learning [and really, it sounds like you do enjoy learning and creating things], it's definitely worthwhile. And believe me - those four years [or five, in my case] end up going by very, very quickly.
posted by ubersturm at 12:52 AM on September 1, 2006

Take a one year "break" for computer-related work, and if that doesn't work out, apply next year.


if you feel like you don't want to go to college right away, don't. you will most likely be unhappy and remain unfulfilled. take some time off, enjoy not being in school, eventually you will realize how much you want to go back.
posted by sophist at 1:01 AM on September 1, 2006

Great question and one I faced myself when I was in college. I would definitely recommend going to college for two reasons: 1) It is an important personal experience to go through. College is very different than being in high school and will open you up to many experiences you haven't had before. 2) it looks good on the resume.

I'll also put my vote in for Hampshire College. I went there and it was an amazing experience. Very open minded and suits self-motivated folks like yourself.

Keep in mind that college is only as useful as what you make it. But life will definitely be easier for you in the long run if you find a school that suits you and you put your best foot forward with it.
posted by tundro at 5:23 AM on September 1, 2006

I kind of wish I'd had more life experience before I went to college, just so that I would have maybe had more idea what I wanted out of the experience. I was mostly just going with the flow for four years until I started panicking and realizing I was going to have to find a job. So it would probably be worthwhile to take some time off, maybe work or do some kind of exchange program abroad, and try to figure out what you would want to do with yourself.

I'll put in another vote for small liberal arts colleges - they give you a lot of opportunities to dabble in other subjects, so you can get a well-rounded education that introduces you to new ways of thinking.
posted by srah at 5:53 AM on September 1, 2006

Another +1 doublegood for small liberal arts colleges, for all the reasons stated above.
posted by desuetude at 6:18 AM on September 1, 2006

Oh, and go to school not in your hometown and get away from academic subset to which your parents belong.
posted by desuetude at 6:20 AM on September 1, 2006

Best answer: Just to throw a wrench into things, I'm not so sure you need to go to a small liberal arts college. A lot of the so-called "alternative" liberal arts colleges are filled with boring stoners wasting their parents' trust funds.

Another problem with liberal arts colleges is that they usually don't have graduate departments -- and someone like you is going to benefit from having the opportunity to jump into higher level classes as soon as you're ready.

I think you should aim higher, for one of the elite big research institutions. Hampshire College is all fine and well, but if you go to say Harvard or Caltech, you may have the chance to get involved in much more cutting edge stuff and you will be surrounded by very smart people.
If you do go to a liberal arts college, go to a very rigorous one attended by very smart people -- St. Johns, Reed ...
posted by footnote at 6:20 AM on September 1, 2006

You may try an online university. The classes can be fit in around what you are doing - that's the good part. You'll be working toward your degree while waiting to decide on your future course of action. There are several that are accredited.
The classes tend to be a bit structured, so breaking out beyond the box might be more difficult, but you will be accumulating credit toward a degree.
Some online universities are better organized than others. You might want to look for students comments and feedback for the field you want to enter. I work for DeVry. I think we are well-organized and could match your needs. If nothing else, you can stick your toe in the water in an online U, try things out to see if they are for you.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:39 AM on September 1, 2006

You've gotten a lot of very good answers here already, so I'll try to keep this short as I share my experience.

I went to a liberal arts college for a 4-year CS undergrad degree. Honestly, I felt like a lot of the time I spent in class was wasted time. We were taught very little programming and a LOT of theory. Some of the theory has come in handy, and some of it was useless. Regardless of the quality of my education, I gained several things in college that I would not have gained others - life-long friends and contacts for job networking.

I know you said you're not into the party scene, but there are plenty of other people in college who aren't either. My best friends 4 years out of college are my college roommates. I never would have met them had I skipped college. I'm an introvert too, and while I have no trouble conversing with people, I'm not likely to put myself out there to meet new people. Being at college forced me to meet new people. Plus, college is a safe in-between step to moving out. You have the ability to live on your own, but with peers and plenty of people willing to help you out. It's a good learning experience for life.

Do you have to go to college to get a job? No, and you already know that since you have a job. But getting a degree will open a lot of doors for you and make the job search easier, regardless of how useless you think your degree is. That said, I have two good friends who do not have degrees and have been able to find good programming jobs without them.

You are obviously a very smart and together individual. Best of luck to you, whatever you decide to do!
posted by geeky at 6:46 AM on September 1, 2006

I'm the oldest of 6 children (born to the same parents, who are still together), 5 of which have gone on to a 4-year degree program (the 6th is still in high school). I don't know that we all went for this specific reason, but I do believe it had a good effect on each of our motivations to attend a college of some sort: our parents made us all get real-world part-time jobs while we were still in high school.

I worked first at a dog kennel, where my boss was a bigger bitch than any of our clientel, and later at a local supermarket packing bags and pushing carts for a couple years before leaving for school. What I learned in those years is this: there are people who, although they may have the potential to do greater things, never do, whether for lack of motivation, or for fear, or what have you. Every time I go back home to California, I make an effort to go and just walk through that supermarket I used to work in. Why? Because I see the same check-out clerks and shift managers still working the same hours, probably making about the same hourly wage, in the same spot that I left them over 10 years ago. I don't go to say hi, or by any means lord anything over them. I go to remind myself (even now) to not ever let anything stop me from pursuing the next level of education or other opportunity, especially when I think it may be beyond my reach or ability.

This clearly isn't your problem, but I thought it might give you a little insight. I knew one guy when I was in college who turned down a number of 6-figure positions in the tech industry to go to the small private school we were attending together. When he graduated, instead of going to work for the man (like me), he went on to start a few of his own companies, and is now doing better than he ever would have had he not got his degree.

What I learned both in college, but even more so in my years since, has been this: the corporate world - and the world at large - has placed an enormous, and by many standards disproportionate value upon that little piece of paper that they hand you at the end of 4 years, whether you spent them reaching for your next beer or planning how to take over the world.

Its like this: there is nothing on my resume at this point that came from my pre-college experience, save my name. Everything else on my resume is, ultimately, completely dependent upon the fact that I went to college (and to some extent that I kept my grades up). At the end of the day, I don't think I learned that much in school that I am now applying in my current work environment. In fact, most of what I do now is based on knowledge I have been able to build in on-the-job experiences.

But, as more esteemed minds than mine have already mentioned here, it is the 4 years of on-your-own living in a fairly sheltered environment that allows you to make the transition from adolescent to adult more smoothly - this is the value college provides. Millions of us have been doing it for 100s of years, so even if the value of the system has changed somewhat, it still seems to be working well.

As for the alternative schools, they seem like there may be a good fit for you out there, but I'd offer you this warning based on the lifestyle choices you seem to have made - most of the alternative schools are also *very* big proponents of alternative lifestyles - I can't speak for all of them, but I know Reed in particular has a week long festival of drunken, drug-induced debauchery. So just be prepared for that kind of thing, or on the look-out for it if you do visit some schools. If you decide that you are looking for the structured life-molding experience, you may want to consider a smaller more regimented program, despite the fact that you may make some academic trade offs.

At the end of the day, a guy like you could probably do great without a college degree. But a guy like you will almost certainly do great with one.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:49 AM on September 1, 2006

I had some other ideas for you while I was at work.

AP classes might save you money and time, and seem like a huge deal in high school, but when you get to college you'll find that you're not really at any disadvantage for having not taken them.

What about going to school in Britain or another place with English-speaking academia (Jamaica, India, Ireland...) full-time for all four years? You can probably still use federal loans there (or your costs would be so reduced it wouldn't matter), there certainly wouldn't be any fraternity ridiculousness, and you'd be immersed in a very different culture which would keep you interested in learning in new ways.

Have you considered the fact that your current teachers may seem like they really, really care about your choice of college, but that they probably recognize that you're a flight risk, and having dedicated their entire careers to education, are trying to keep you on board with the program?

To suggest another school, Princeton's only got 4500-odd undergrads and a smaller graduate school, so if you want something totally top-flight, cutting edge, and perhaps so totally beyond your current experience that it doesn't fit any of your preconceived notions of what college is, perhaps that might be a good fit.
posted by mdonley at 8:09 AM on September 1, 2006

I just wanted to add something... I don't drink or do any drugs, and I had a great time in college, socially, including going to my fair share of parties. Don't feel like you've got to drink or use to have fun in college.
posted by YoungAmerican at 8:26 AM on September 1, 2006

Another vote for "Apply now, go later." Your teachers remember who you are now and can give you good rec letters. A year (or two, or three) from now they will be writing for their current students.

Another thought: Tell teachers you want to take a year off so you can [blank], which will make you a more rounded person. Ask them to write rec letters now and keep them on file for you.
posted by johngumbo at 8:40 AM on September 1, 2006

AP classes might save you money and time, and seem like a huge deal in high school, but when you get to college you'll find that you're not really at any disadvantage for having not taken them.

There is an advantage, though: I graduated in 3.5 years because of my AP classes. I could have graduated in 3 years if I'd taken a slightly heavier course load several semesters.

I'm the oldest of 6 children (born to the same parents, who are still together), 5 of which have gone on to a 4-year degree program (the 6th is still in high school).

OK, prolly too much information, but I had to share: I'm the oldest of 5 children (born to the same parents, still together), and I'm the only one who has graduated from a 4-year degree program (the 5th is still in high school).

Of my brothers: one spent five years working and exploring the world after high school, and is now in college in his mid-20s; one went to college for three years, dropped out, and is now making good money as a computer programmer; one dropped out of high school and is just getting by. Who knows what the 15-year-old will do.

How well we're doing and how happy we are does not appear to correlate to our own educational acheivements.

posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:57 AM on September 1, 2006

You've gotten a ton of good responses indicating a multitude of suggestions.

I would absolutely have to vote for college. Not just because I work at one, but because most of the people I'm still friends with today are people I went to college with. It's very difficult to meet people and form relationships without that bond of classes. Yes, you have your workplace, but that can be a blindingly different vibe.

I loved school. In fact, I loved it so much I went back for a Masters and returned to work in academics. It's just my thing. I love sitting around bullshitting about silly facts and information. I love writing papers and examining topics. And while I did participate in the parties and the drinking, some of my best times as an undergrad was playing D&D in some dorm room or just staying up all night talking.

My boyfriend on the other hand, never finished his degree. School's just not his thing. He's in CS and has been turned down for a multitude of jobs because he doesn't have a degree.

I've come to realize that many employees don't see the degree as proof that someone is smarter or better than someone without a degree. All the degree proves is that you can jump through hoops.

If that's important to you, then go. If it becomes important to you at a later date, you can still go. But I would strongly suggest giving it a shot. Not because you're going to learn amazing things that will change the world (you might) but because you can build relationships and friendships that very well may be with you for the rest of your life.

And that's not something to sneeze at.
posted by teleri025 at 10:46 AM on September 1, 2006

I wish I could help more, I can only say that every case is different and so many of us can attest that college is overrated, but I want to congratulate you -- at 17 you're clearly smart, accomplished and have very clear ideas. and don't worry too much about the future, these are winning qualities you have, you'll succeed. cheers
posted by matteo at 11:00 AM on September 1, 2006

A few thoughts from the other side of the Atlantic:

Applying with deferred entry is a wonderful thing, as is applying a year or two (or three!) later, preferably with some better idea of what you want to study.

Yes, college is a wonderful opportunity for growth and personal development and all that. So is just about anything else that involves spending a lengthy period of time away from your current friends, family and existing comfort zone.

Whatever you do, take lots of photos. You don't have to talk about building up your portfolio, just do it anyway.

There are a lot of structured gap year programs out there, and I have no idea what's available now/for Americans but it might be worth your while having a look at them. I personally thought a lot of the things I heard about seemed like gimmicky ripoffs designed for people with more money than sense (building schools in Africa? Aren't there local guys with actual building experience who would want the job? Also most of the environmental programs I found, which seemed to work on the premise of 'give us lots of money to fund our jobs while you swan around and look decorative'), but there were some that appealed (lab tech at the University of the South Pacific!) and some that looked actually useful in that they might require skills not available locally (pretty much the sort of thing covered by the Geekcorps link above).

I'm in my mid-twenties, I spent my gap year travelling in nice, safe, English-speaking countries and getting laid more than in my first year at university. I (barely) completed my BSc, and didn't get nearly as much out of university -academically or socially - as I might have done if I'd cared about it more. I'm still friends with half a dozen people from that time, none of whom were in my classes. I've got lots of photos, experience as a moderator of a busy messageboard, and fantastic research skills, although I'm less good at writing things up. My current job did not require my BSc, but having the degree did get me out of spending a month on a mathematical training course.
posted by Lebannen at 12:11 PM on September 1, 2006

GO TO COLLEGE. Even if it takes you 8 years to figure yourself out, GO. You have the momentum now and statistics are against you that you'll go later on.

Also-- I just heard that over the course of your lifetime you'll earn $1,000,000 more with a college degree than with a high school diploma.

Just my advice. Good luck to you. And don't sneeze at changing majors or transferring. NO experience is a waste of time. Except for wasting time.
posted by orangemiles at 12:47 PM on September 1, 2006

Best answer: enjoy not being in school, eventually you will realize how much you want to go back.

Not necessarily. People who hate school really, genuinely hate it. I know "eventually" could be a long time, but I'm in my thirties and have yet to feel any such thing; on the contrary, I'm baffled as to why the whole post-secondary education system still exists at all. (If it's job training, it does a very poor job. If it's for personal growth, then why do we require it for unrelated employment?) All I can say is this: don't believe parents, teachers, and couselors who tell you that even though you hate high school, college will be different and you'll just love it. College is very different in many ways, but if you hate high school, you'll likely hate college too.
posted by Violet Hour at 8:31 PM on September 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm not sure anyone wanted a followup given the wealth of general information in this thread, but my likely decision is to apply this year and not defer enrollment. I'm doing it to (1) get out of the house quickly, (2) possibly learn something, and (3) stay mentally sane as I wouldn't socialize otherwise.

Thanks, hive mind.
posted by aye at 3:29 AM on September 29, 2006

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