Skipping School: Eight Alternatives to College


When I was 19 I won some money in a chess tournament. Instead of using the money for my college tuition, I decided to drop out of college and buy a car. I bought a used 1982 Honda Accord. I drove it around for a few hours, since they let me drive it right out of the lot.

But when I saw my girlfriend and everyone else taking their classes, I got a little jealous. I returned the car, canceled the check, and entered my sophomore year of college. But I regret it now.

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Whenever I suggest that people shouldn't send their kids to college, a lot of very smart people invariably ask: "Well, what else should they do?" And this amazes me. I guess it is really hard to figure out what people of the ages 18 to 23 should do during the most vibrant, healthy years of their lives when they grow from being a child to an adult.

So I thought I would help out by coming up with a quick list:

Start a Business

There are many businesses a kid can start, particularly with the Internet. On another post I will list possible types of first businesses. But if you always focus on the maxim, "buy low and sell high," you'll start to generate ideas.

Many people say: "Well, not everyone can be an entrepreneur." It's amazing to me, also, how many times I've addressed this in writing, and yet people who've read the exact articles still come back to me and say: "Well, not everyone can be an entrepreneur."

First off, there's no law against being an entrepreneur. In fact, everyone can be an entrepreneur. So, what they really mean is: "Not everyone can be a successful entrepreneur." And, as far as I know, there's no law against failure either. When someone loses a tennis match or a chess game, how do they improve? They study their losses. As anyone who has mastered any field in life knows: Studying your losses is infinitely more valuable than studying your wins. I failed at my first three attempts at being an entrepreneur before I finally learned how to spell it, and I finally had a success (i.e., a company with profits that I was then able to sell).

Failure is a part of life. Better to learn it at 18 than at 23 or older when you've been coddled by ivory blankets and hypnotized into thinking success was yours for the taking. Get baptized in the river of failure as a youth so you can blossom in entrepreneurial blessings as an adult.

What do you learn when you are young and start a business (regardless of success or failure)?

  • you learn how to come up with ideas that will be accepted by others;

  • you begin to build your bullshit detector (something that definitely does not happen in college);

  • you learn how to sell your idea;

  • you learn how to build and execute on an idea;

  • you meet and socialize with other people in your field. They might not all be the same age but, let's face it, that's life as an adult. You just spent 18 years with kids your own age. Grow up!

  • you might learn how to delegate and manage people;

  • you learn how to eat what you kill -- a skill also not learned by college-goers.

Travel the World
Here's a basic assignment. Take $10,000 and get yourself to India. Check out a world completely different from your own. Do it for a year. You will meet other foreigners traveling. You will learn what poverty is. You will learn the value of how to stretch a dollar. You will often be in situations where you need to learn how to survive despite the odds being against you. If you're going to throw up, you might as well do it from dysentery than from drinking too much at a frat party. You will learn a little bit more about eastern religions as compared with the western religions you grew up with. You will learn you aren't the center of the universe.

Create Art

Spend a year learning how to paint. Or how to play a musical instrument. Or write five novels. Learn to discipline yourself to create. Creation doesn't happen from inspiration. It happens from perspiration, discipline, and passion. Creativity doesn't come from from God. It's a muscle that you need to learn to build. Why not build it while your brain is still creating new neurons at a breathtaking rate, rather than learning it when you are older (and for many people, too late).

Make People Laugh
This is the hardest of all. Spend a year learning how to do stand-up comedy in front of people. This will teach you how to write, how to communicate, how to sell yourself, how to deal with people who hate you, how to deal with the psychology of failure on a daily basis -- and, of course, how to make people laugh. All of these items will help you later in life much more than Philosophy 101. And, you might even get paid along the way.

Write a Book
Believe me, whatever book you write at the age of 18 is probably going to be no good. But do it anyway. Write a novel about what you are doing instead of going to college. You'll learn how to observe people. Writing is a meditation on life. You'll live each day, interpret it, write it. What a great education!

Work for a Charity
Plenty of charities do not require you to have a college degree. What is going to serve you better in life: studying French literature or spending a year delivering meals to senior citizens with Alzheimer's or curing malaria in Africa? I have an answer to this. You might have a different one. Which is why I'm listing eight alternatives here instead of just this one. And, by the way, if you do any of these items for one year, two years, ten, then maybe go to college? Why not? It's your life.

Master a Game
What's your favorite game? Ping pong? Chess? Poker? Learning how to master a game is incredibly hard.

I've written before about how to do it, but let's start with the basics:

  • study the history of the game;

  • study current experts on the game, videos, books, magazines, etc. Replay, or try to imitate in some way, the current masters of the game;

  • play a lot: with friends, in tournaments, at local clubs;

  • take lessons from someone who has already mastered the game. This helps you to avoid bad habits and gets someone to immediately criticize your current skills.

Mastering a game builds discipline, lets you socialize with other people of all ages and backgrounds but who have similar passions, and helps you to develop the instincts of a killer without having to kill anyone. Nice!

Master a Sport
Probably even better than mastering a game because it's the same as all of the above, but you also get in shape.

If anyone can think of any other alternatives, please list them in the comments. We only have the life we have lived. But as I write this post, I look at these alternatives with longing, I know that when I hit "Publish," I'm going to sit here quietly while the sun goes down, wondering "what if . . . ?"

Here are my related posts on why kids should not go to college. Don't Send Your Kids to College, 10 More Reasons to Not Send Your Kids to College, Living Life is Better than Dying in College, Advice I Want to Tell My Daughters. I am looking to expand this list from eight to 40, so will post again at when I have the updated list. Additionally, I hope you follow me on Twitter, where I am happy to engage in discussion over this topic.