Plain thoughts about alternatives to college

Minister and blogger (and friend) Adam Tierney-Eliot looked at his family’s finances and so addressed one of the great taboos of the educated middle class: that there may be an alternative to college for his children, that blithely opting into college surely come with a mountain of debt, and that the alternatives might be demonstrably better. The influence of homeschooling and related questions about the cost of ministerial education surely play into a larger discussion.

I’m glad that Team Eliot has some time to make plans.

A college education, to my mind, provides at least the following five benefits, which need to be addressed in a plan to “un-college” a youth.

  1. Content information in a field of study
  2. Character development, including manners and professional or academic habits
  3. Habits for further learning, including disciplined curiosity
  4. A social network
  5. Identifiable credentials

Of course, other experiences provide these; military service is an obvious alternative. Also, not all college student acquire these five, or do it well. But so long as there’s a presumption that one’s middle-class standing is tied to a post-high-school college education, then it makes sense to address all of these intentionally — at least to relieve the anxiety that the experiment is foolhardy and detrimental. The goal, I think, is not to ape class prescriptions, but to guide a young person into a confident and competent adulthood without hobbling him (I’m still speaking here of the Eliot boys) though decades of student debt.

I work in the HR and financial end of a savvy nonprofit organization, and I see the effects of high student debt every day. Avoid it if you can. And now the question of how. (I hope to return to this subject, but I would like readers to comment at length, too.) But I’ll start here:

  • There needs to be a plan, with measurable goals. Making plans and meeting goals, and the peril in failing to do so, is itself a basic life lesson.
  • The plan should include independent study and networking and compensated work and travel and public service.
  • An internship, including one or more of the above, should be a part of the plan. It — or they; multiple internships are not uncommon — has, since my own college days, become essential, and may matter as much or more than the degree to some employers.
  • The most valuable skill is the ability to write and speak in clear, convincing and jargon-free English.
  • The second most valuable skill, I suspect, is the ability to manage money, including the ability to read (and perhaps draft) budgets. Personal ones, at the very least: it’ll also make the prospect of self-education seem wiser.
  • If a degree turns out to be essential to follow a career path, then distance learning, based on credit by examination might be an option. I tested out of about two quarters of classes that would have otherwise bored me, and let me graduate with two majors in four years.


By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. “Un-college”…I like your lingo! The social element was brought up as a concern in the comments to my post. I think this is an interesting issue, particularly when one considers that it is this element that many folks remember most form their own college years (I went to four different schools in as many years for financial reasons and left with only one lasting relationship…the one I have with my wife).

    I know that in homeschooling there is a “co-op” model in which families pool areas of expertise and interest to form an organism that is as much social as it is academic. This sort of peer group (parents are probably not necessary) would be essential, I think.

    I agree with your areas, particularly when you emphasize diversity of experience and the need for internships. I would also add mentors…

  2. I was thinking of mentors, too — if for nothing else than to provide perspective about what has been learned. And to make contacts.

    I think conference attendance would be helpful once a “major” was discovered — particularly in those fields that have high-participation “unconferences” like I described earlier this week.

  3. When I have served churches as a youth pastor I have worked with teens who did not feel a great pull towards college. I encouraged them and their parents to look at other options. The ones that worked well included…

    (1) A female student who had enjoyed her German classes in high school, but felt she was not interested in college. She took a 2-year job as a nanny for a family in Vienna, Austria. She built up life skills, gained allot of maturity. And her German became fluent. She is only now looking at college.

    (2) A male student who did not know what he wanted to do in terms of vocation in life. He took a one year internship with an urban ministry center, and then went on to a technical pharmacy technician diploma. He now works for a public health clinic.

  4. Some of the residential college experience can be found if you spend time working in a seasonal job – theme parks, beach resorts, ski resorts,… Especially if it’s overseas.

    Of course you need to make an effort to get into a career, but I’ve found (particularly early on) that an adventurous or unusual job was a nice hook in a job interview. And there’s usually plenty of fodder for interview question answers.

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