Ask Gayle is a weekly column in which New York Times bestselling author Gayle Forman answers fan questions about love, life, and everything in between! Submit a question anonymously via our Ask box. Today’s question is:
I will be a senior in high school this fall, and now is the time I’m to be applying to colleges and doing college visits, but instead, I am just dreading the future. I don’t want to go to college. But when I tell my friends that, they act as if I’m already the biggest failure. My parents don’t care what I do with my future. I guess my question is, does not going to college automatically mean failure? Are there any other choices but college for the future?
Does not going to college automatically mean failure? If so, I suppose I’m a failure. And my husband. And princes William and Harry, not to mention about 200,000 Britons who take time off before college. The Australians do it, too. Also, the Israelis. We can’t all be failures.
Look, I get where your friends are coming from. Our world has become hyper-competitive, winner-take-all. There’s a sense that any minor deviation from the good-school-high-SATs-college-job trajectory spells doom. Your friends—the ones questioning your sanity—may have had this fear drilled into them all their lives by their teachers, counselors, parents. So be thankful that your own parents “don’t care,” which I take to mean not that they don’t actually care but that they’re not pressuring you to jump into a college education. Which is sensible. According to the College Board, average tuition cost per year at a “moderate” in-state school is upwards of $22,000. Go private and you’re looking at closer to $43,000. For that kind of money, you could buy this house in Pittsburgh:
But you wouldn’t buy a house in Pittsburgh or a boat in Michigan if you weren’t sure you wanted one. So why invest in a college education that you’re not ready for? Not that the decision should be financial, but it is worth noting that right now the jobs for college grads are pretty sucky, with recent reports showing how grads are often stuck in the kind of menial, not-great paying jobs that someone not going to college might get—but grads are also saddled with college debt.
Of course, that’s now. The economy will change. You know what else will change? You. What you see yourself doing, what you want for your future. When I was a senior, I had no interest in going to college. Ever. I thought it seemed like a monumental waste of time compared to the Valuable Life Lessons I could learn by traveling, which is what I intended to do. Forever. But after three years of travel, I was road-weary, tired of the kinds of crappy jobs where stupid people told me what to do. So I went to college. And unlike so many of my freshman peers, who fooled around, all hopped up on the freedom of being away from home for the first time, I took advantage of my education. Fully. I’d been a lax B student in high school. I graduated college summa cum laude.
Life is not a race. It’s not a competition. It’s a long and winding road and sometimes you have to meander a bit to find your path. Take some time, a year, two, three and I can almost guarantee all those murky questions—college, careers, future—will become much more clear. You can do something that interests you: painting, surfing, volunteering, all while working to support yourself and paying rent to live away from home. Because—this is key—you don’t want to live at home in your parents’ basement. Staying in a kind of suspended adolescence—that is something to dread.
Unless, of course, you wind up a YA author. And then it can really work for you.
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