How to Skip College — and Thrive

After excelling at two of Philadelphia’s best schools, I shocked everyone — including myself — when I decided I wasn’t going to college. Am I risking my future ... or have I found a better way?

Grace at her South Philly home. Photograph by Adam Jones

Grace at her South Philly home. Photograph by Adam Jones

The lecture hall is packed. The elephant-gray room is set up like a mini-arena to allow for maximum capacity and good acoustics. It’s new but generic — there are probably a million of these very same tank-like spaces in universities around the world. The concrete step I’m sitting on cuts into my back as I shuffle my feet to make room for the other kids and parents who are streaming in. My mom — in her usual chic all-black attire — is perched above me; my friend Carlo and his mom are on a step right below. We are at McGill University in Montréal, the first stop on our college tour — a high-school student’s version of online dating, where we pick out some colleges we think we would like, schedule a visit, and see if sparks fly.

We look toward the middle-aged speaker, one of McGill’s top faculty members. As he rattles on about the perks of being a student here, I feel myself pull away, hearing only background noise — the audience laughing at a joke, someone standing up to ask a question. I can focus only on my quickening breath, attempting to slow it down. None of this feels right.

The program ends, and the crowd surges out of the room, chatty and eager to attend the next lecture. We make our way out the front door, and I’m blasted with a gush of arctic air. Thank God it’s cold here, I think; I can bury my face in my scarf and my hands in my pockets — no one can see that my lips are pursed tightly together, that my jaw is clenched, that my hands are in fists, that I’m doing everything I can to not cry.

We go to a French bistro for lunch, and I excuse myself to the bathroom. The lock on the heavy wooden stall door clicks, and the battle is over: My face is soaked with tears, and my mind is racing. This is supposed to be my time, the first chapter of my adult life. This isn’t nervous energy I’m feeling; it’s just plain dread. People are always reminiscing about their college days — the adventure, the possibilities, the freedom, the emotional evolution. All I can see is a socially acceptable prison.

I fake my way through lunch. We talk about junior-year exams, about which summer jobs would improve our college applications. All I want to do is something real, something meaningful, something new. As the waiter brings our check, I wonder how much he makes a year, and if it’s enough to live on. I try to figure out a way to tell my mom that all of this isn’t right for me. That college isn’t the answer to my dissatisfaction about high school. I had imagined college would be different — challenging classes, worldly people, professors who are passionate about teaching. But today had been a profound first date: I couldn’t sit in another classroom. I wanted to really learn.

This overwhelming stream of emotions was the inception of a clear and sudden reality: I wasn’t going to college.

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN EAGER to get to the next place I’m going. In middle school, I couldn’t wait to get to high school; once there, I wanted to graduate early so I could start college. Every new phase of my education taught me something about the way the world worked and how I interacted with it.

My parents are accomplished people, so school has always been important in our house. My mother, a Penn grad, has carved out an impressive career based on her passions. She co-founded the popular jewelry line Maximal Art, wrote a Sunday column for the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine, launched (and still runs) DesignPhiladelphia, and is currently the director of the Philadelphia Center for Architecture. My dad attended Boston University, where he played the trumpet and worked at the school newspaper, then went on to own his own business.

As is the case for many Philadelphia families, we moved because of the neighborhood elementary-school catchment. I attended Greenfield Elementary near Rittenhouse Square, which has a reputation as one of the best public elementary schools in the city. Even at a young age, I recognized that Greenfield wasn’t working for me — it was too crowded, and it was too easy to get lost if you were the kind of student who didn’t respond to traditional teaching methods, like I was. I could easily get through the math-problem busywork, the vocab pop quizzes, the forced silent-reading time, but not much stuck. I didn’t hate learning; I hated the way I was being taught. At home I would assign myself art projects based on my favorite mystery books, reenact David Sedaris’s monologues, and go to gallery openings and museum exhibits with my parents.

By the time I hit fourth grade, my parents were exhausted with my nightly fits over my severe dislike of my situation. They were concerned about the environment and my lack of interest in classroom learning. So I transferred to the Philadelphia School, a private school that I attended from fifth through eighth grades.

TPS was an eye-opening experience, as the teaching methods were hands-on. We called teachers by their first names, memorized Spanish vocab words through songs, took weekly field trips for science and agriculture lessons, and improvised scenes from Shakespeare plays. My happiness and grades soared. I saw that I learned the most from interactive experiences, and that finding the way that worked for me was as much of an education as what I was actually learning.

When it came time to apply to high schools, I panicked. The pressure was unspoken, but palpable: College is considered the first step of your adult life, and so which high school I went to was a big deal.

In 2007, I became a member of the 270th class of Central High, sleeping through most of my classes while maintaining mostly A’s and B’s. I was back to being bored, unchallenged, and thirsty for something that was going to have an immediate impact on my life. When junior year rolled around, we had planned to visit a slew of colleges, but I ended my tour after McGill. I had made my decision. And I was petrified.

OF MY 580 GRADUATING classmates at Central, 574 went on to college. The ones who didn’t most likely made that decision based on circumstance, not choice. Of my friends from high school, grade school, art class, family friends, I was the only person I knew who wouldn’t spend the summer buying extra-long twin dorm-room sheets and stocking up on ramen.

When conversations turned to what college I’d be heading to in the fall (as they often did), it was clear that my decision was bold but not unfounded. Business degrees and the sciences weren’t for me — I wasn’t interested in being an engineer or a computer programmer, a lawyer or a marketing major. Like most of my friends, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I would have most likely concentrated on one of the countless humanities majors. Art history or English would have been fascinating, but four years later, I would have been in a pool of highly educated graduates with no actual skills.

Traditional education is under attack, and my trepidation was in synch with the unavoidable data: College prices are soaring; the post-graduation job market is weak; online education is challenging the idea of what one truly gets out of going to school.

The newsmakers of my generation are the ones who took the traditional way of doing things and flipped it upside down. You never hear those people saying that college was their catalyst. Their message is bigger: To be successful today, the most important thing one needs is gumption.

My rationale was met with a surprising number of nods of agreement from adults. They had a different perspective — but also, I wasn’t their kid. (Thank goodness, I could hear them think.) My friends were supportive and understanding but scared for me. Most of them tried to convince me to at least apply to a couple of schools. How could they not be worried? Hell, I was freaking out, too.

For the first time in my life, my plan was a non-plan. Explaining that to my mother and father was my first challenge. My parents have always encouraged me to be true to myself, mapping out certain expectations they had along the way, like getting good grades, staying out of trouble, no drugs … the usual parent stuff. They are also incredibly open-minded and caring. Still, I was terrified to tell them about my decision. At first, it didn’t go over well. I’ll put it this way: I had one conversation with them about the fact that I date both men and women. I had eight conversations about not going to college — in the first week alone.

Once they came around to the idea, we sat down together and sketched out what a non-college life would look like for me. There were ground rules. I had to work and support myself until I figured out what I wanted to do. They would supplement me financially, just as they would have if I’d gone to college. When I became economically stable, I’d move out. I’ve always loved to work and had savings to fall back on, but I was still scared.

I landed a job as a nanny right away. After about a year, I was working with so many families that I could have started my own child-care agency. Working with kids was rewarding and enlightening. I figured out how to watch as many as five young children at a time. (The key, I discovered, is to create actual activities, not just plop them in front of the TV.) I was forced to be flexible, adapting to each family and each child’s challenges. There was no guidebook — being prepared and imaginative was crucial.

Being a nanny made me realize that I want to have kids. Lots of them. Working with these families opened my eyes to the fact that kids aren’t cheap. So I decided a more lucrative path was important to my future. I tapped into my creative side and got an internship working with the Mural Arts Program.

Being around creative people was inspiring, and I was surprised to discover that I had a passion for organization and management. I decided to take two eight-week courses at Temple Real Estate Institute to get my real estate license — a field my dad is currently in. It’s an in-demand industry that I had the skills for and the interest in, and the total cost for the courses was around $600.

For the past year, I’ve been working in real estate property management and freelancing as a social media manager. The jobs have given me financial independence and the freedom to pursue other interests. At the age of 20, I was able to move out of my parents’ house and pay my own way, which was an education all its own.

At the time that I was looking for somewhere to live, my parents were searching for an investment property. We went to see a house one day, and I loved it right away. It’s a stereotypical South Philly house and was preserved in its full 1970s glory, with shag carpeting, wallpapered ceilings and wood paneling. A few days later, my parents put in a preliminary offer and asked if I would be interested in fixing it up.

I moved in with two roommates. We had an official contract with my parents — in exchange for discounted rent, we would clean and renovate the space. The challenge was daunting, but I was excited. I was going to get to redo an entire house.

My first lesson: Never move in with your friends. After about three weeks of working on the house (after work and on weekends), I had cleaned and painted my room, both bathrooms and a walk-in closet, and had started de-carpeting the living room. My roommate was still on the first coat of paint in his room.

It was around this time, as the house started to shape up, that I finally felt like my decision was working out. I began to be more confident. My friends would come over and marvel at the vintage decor I picked out. I took pride in being the one responsible for paying the bills (especially because I was the youngest in the house) and in having a large-scale project to work on. I had tasks, and I knocked them down. I felt like I was becoming the kind of person I wanted to be.

As I settled into my independent life, I had more time to explore. I went to First Fridays in Old City, where I was exposed to all kinds of art. I volunteered at Philly AIDS Thrift, where there was always someone interesting to talk to. I checked out new neighborhoods. I went to free concerts at the Piazza in Northern Liberties and saw new bands. I started reading again, too. I hadn’t really read on my own since high school, and I enjoyed reading whatever and whenever I wanted to. I wouldn’t let myself slow down.

I DON’T REGRET my decision, but that doesn’t mean it’s without challenges. Given my education, background and socioeconomic status, non-college has come to define me a bit. It’s a regular topic of conversation with everyone from my parents to random people I meet in bars. Actually, it’s a great conversation starter. The first question I’m asked on a date is usually “So, where’d you go to college?” The way people react to my answer tells me immediately if they’re the type of people I want to spend time with. Surprisingly, I’ve found that most people tend to understand why I’m doing it this way. There was only one guy who, on our first date, was actually offensive. His reaction to my situation: “Well, don’t think I’ll be supporting you ’cause you can’t get a job since you don’t have a degree.” Just for a frame of reference, at the time he was working (unhappily) as a bike mechanic. His degree was in philosophy.

If there’s one thing I’ve missed out on, it’s the social stuff. The first year was the hardest. While my friends were posting pictures on Facebook of the ’80s-themed and toga parties they were going to every weekend, I was spending my nights looking at their Facebook photos. I was happy for them, but keenly missed having a go-to group. Most of the people I’ve grown close to these past few years are in their early 30s — about 10 years older than me. I’ve met a lot of great new people, but it hasn’t been easy.

Not all of my high-school friends understand my decision, but I’ve stayed close with the ones who respect it. When I go visit my friends at their schools, we talk about their classes, and they show me projects they’ve been working on. When they visit me, they stop by my office and hang out with my new friends. Carlo and I have remained close. We like to reflect on our separate decisions — we had completely different journeys, yet our priorities are the same. He recently graduated from McGill and has landed a job in politics, a field he’s wanted to work in since high school. When we compare our lives and those of old classmates of ours, Carlo always notes that he admires how I didn’t waste time and learned in my own way.

I know that for the rest of my life, I’ll have to explain myself to future employers. My hope is that my work and life experience become of such high quality that my education (or lack thereof) will fall off the bottom of my résumé. I’m aware it will be an uphill battle. Traveling was always a part of my plan, and last year I applied to the Peace Corps. I was told I was rejected for one reason: my lack of a college education. It was a speed bump, but I wasn’t deterred. In fact, I recently left my real estate job for a nine-month volunteer community-service-focused exchange program in Israel. I’ll work in a school, learn about agriculture, and be immersed in different cultures.

I’m not sure what kind of person I’ll be when I return, or if I’ll come home with any clarity for what’s next. But I’m confident that I’m putting myself in a position where I’ll be forced to grow and change, and situations like those have always been my best learning experiences.

If I had gone to a traditional four-year college, I would be graduating next spring. For some of my friends, college has been a great tool. Others were unsure what they wanted to do going into college, and feel the same now that they’re coming out. I think I’m no worse off than they are, and am proud of all the things I’ve accomplished and learned. I look at my path as just one of the options. It’s not for the lighthearted or unmotivated. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll even find myself walking onto a university campus. If so, I know I’ll be there with purpose.

Originally published as “College? Nope.” in the September 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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