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5 Reasons You Should Skip Traditional College

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Our college system is broken. We promote standardized tests, crippling student loan debt, and assembly-line-style education. We tell you that there's a cookie-cutter formula to success, a formula that's based solely on the logo on your diploma and the marketability of your major.

And I'm not a fan. So I did something different.

I picked a college program that gave me flexibility and freedom. The flexibility to take courses through other schools with lower tuition, earn credits at my own pace, and test out of any class I wasn't interested in. The freedom to live where I wanted to, set my own schedule, and focus my extra time on things I really cared about - my local literary center, relationships with my family, and personal writing projects.

The path I chose allowed me to earn my bachelor's degree in less than two years, for less than $10,000.

Now, self-directed education options aren't for everyone.

For example, this is not for you if...

  • you've already earned a full ride scholarship to an awesome school.
  • your parents are funding your education and don't care how much it costs.
  • independent learning and self-motivation aren't your cup of tea
  • accelerated and/or distance education doesn't mesh with the vision you have for your major (It's hard to participate in a music ensemble or a pig dissection over Skype. Think through your chosen major and be realistic about what's right for you.).
  • you've been looking forward to dorm life since middle school - because who doesn't love communal bathrooms!? Wait......

Okay. If you're still with me, let's dive in.

Reason 1: Reclaim Your Financial Freedom

When I was making college decisions, I refused to take out any loans. My financial freedom was more important to me than "the college experience" or a fancy logo on my diploma. I wanted the freedom to make career and life decisions based on my dreams...not based on my debt.

If you enroll at a traditional college, you have little control over how much you spend. You're typically required to take the majority of your credits on campus and they set the prices for everything from courses to parking permits.

So I enrolled at a flexible school that allowed a large number of transfer credits instead. Why? I could piece together an inexpensive degree by choosing the cheapest options for each course requirement.

This meant I could take that super cheap math class through that one school and transfer it in. This meant I could take that cost-effective writing workshop through that online program and transfer it in. This meant I could take the $80 Natural Sciences CLEP test instead of the $1300 Biology 211. This meant I could invest all of my saved money into candles and organic chocolate. Sort of kidding.

Reason 2: Set Your Own Deadlines

If you're trying to speed up your graduation timeline at a traditional college, you have your work cut out for you. You're stuck with a rigid semester system. Classes are offered once in the fall and once in the spring, or sometimes only once a year. You're only allowed to take a certain number of credits. And it doesn't matter how great of a writer you are - you have to take Freshman Comp 101.

When I was making my college decisions, the idea of spending two entire years on generals bored me to tears. I had taken advanced classes in high school and had done a lot of independent study on subjects that interested me. I didn't want to pay someone $1,000 to tell me how to avoid comma splices. Plus, if I really needed help with comma rules, I would look it up on YouTube (you know, since we live in the 21st century and all.).

So, I chose a college that gave me options. I could test out of subjects I'd mastered and take year-round, self-paced online courses that allowed me to breeze through the material at my own pace. I didn't have to work within a rigid framework that told me that I had to invest four years of my life, minimum, for a piece of paper.

Flexibility is not just an advantage for those who want to speed ahead. It's just as valuable for those who want to slow their education down, or for those who are working full-time, or are raising a family, or starting a business.

It means that when real life happens - a death in the family, needing to pick up extra hours at work, coming down with mono - you can hit pause and take a breath.

Reason 3: Live Wherever You Want To

Many young college students are excited about moving out and moving away, but you might find yourself in a different situation.

Maybe you want to live at home, but your family doesn't live close to any colleges. Maybe you need to stay in your area so you can hold on to your job. Maybe you want to launch a cross-country roadtrip. If you choose a flexible education path that enables self-directed, distance education, it's all up to you!

With that said, I need to be super honest for a second. I'm not trying to glamorize this whole alternative education thing. I'm not promising that soon you'll be sitting on a beach, sipping real deal coconut water, and practicing your Spanish homework with a dark, handsome stranger. Because that's not how it's gonna be - at least, it wasn't for me.

I spent a lot of time in my bedroom, wearing two-day-old yoga pants, rocking a messier-than-messy bun, and fighting back tears as I tried to understand a science graph that didn't make sense to my creative brain. And I didn't have a professor to talk to, because I was studying to test out of the course.

Eventually, I passed that Natural Sciences CLEP test. I saved hundreds of dollars, skipped much of the coursework, and learned more about myself and my capacity to struggle. But it wasn't easy for me and it won't be easy for you.

Still, in the midst of the hardness, it's good to know that you have the freedom to take an extra week (or an extra month) to study, because you're setting the deadlines. And, on top of that, you have the freedom to live anywhere in the country, to be near the people you want to be near to, and to maintain the job you need to maintain.

Reason 4: Set Your Own Schedule

When you choose a college that offers flexible alternatives to a traditional class schedule, you get to decide what your days look like.

I know how and when I learn best. I'm not a morning person. I'll fill my entire afternoon with busywork and Netflix if I have something scheduled at 4 - because, you know, I don't have time get anything done before that. I'd rather spend six straight hours on a project than spread that same work over six days. I work best in an environment where I can listen to music, zone in, and work through things at my own pace.

A traditional college schedule would get in the way of my focus, my productivity, and my general sanity. I would struggle to get anything done if I had an 8am math section, classes scattered throughout each day, and small assignments due each time a class met. I'd be a hot mess, all day e'ry day.

Choosing a school with flexible options allowed me to work through self-paced courses quickly, take tests in coffee shops, and watch lectures in my pajamas. I could spend an entire day on a research paper and I could spend the entire next day studying for a CLEP test. This fit perfectly with my learning style and my lifestyle, which meant that I was more efficient, more sane, and less of a hot mess. Win-win-win.

Reason 5: Focus on What Really Matters

If you take away one thing from this article, take this. College isn't the end goal; it's just a launching pad. It's a place to build your skill set, rub shoulders with people who do what you want to do, and prepare for your future worklife.

Many graduating students think that their diploma will unlock the door to their dream job. But in today's hiring world, it isn't enough (unless, say, you have a 4.0 GPA from an Ivy League school - in that case, why are you reading this article?).

Your diploma is a baseline requirement, but your skills will get you hired.

If you choose an education path that allows you flexibility, you will have the margin to focus on things that matter. Your days won't be wall-to-wall filled with classes for four years straight. You won't have to spend your summers on dead-end part-time jobs just to cut back on student loans. You'll have space to invest in other things.

You can begin developing important skills now, so that when the dreaded job-searching begins, you'll have more than a fancy university logo on your diploma. So, learn an additional programming language, work at the non-profit, master that software, network and reach out, publish your short story, start a blog, build your portfolio, land a foot-in-the-door job, teach internationally, or learn photography.

Or, maybe the idea of focusing on things that matter hits a little bit closer to home. Putting food on the table for your family. Spending time with your kiddoes. Caring for a sick relative.

I don't know what situation you're in, but I know that having space outside of classes and homework is important and necessary.

So this is the end.

I'm not here to say that a traditional college education is evil. But there are other options, that open doors to freedom, growth, and flexibility. And maybe those options are right for you.

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