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College: deciding whether to go

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After the completion of high school (or equivalent), most people who are capable of going to college based on their intelligence and ability to work hard do, although financial considerations may sometimes constrain people's college choices. As a general rule, this seems like a sound decision. We recommend that unless you have strong reason to believe otherwise, you go to college, and use our college selection pages to help guide your choice of what college to go to.

See also alternatives to college.

Review of the typical benefits of going to college

  • Human capital (you acquire valuable knowledge and skills).
  • Signaling to potential employers and others that you have the relevant abilities or acquired the relevant knowledge.
  • Consumption: The college experience is fun, fulfilling, and personally rewarding.
  • Networking with students: You get to network with other students.

The relative role of the individual factors varies from situation to situation. Some majors, such as a programming-intensive computer science major, teach useful skills and confer useful signaling benefits. Majors such as English or visual arts often do not teach job-relevant skills but the very act of going to college and finishing a college degree signals some ability.

Whatever the mix of reasons, it does seem the case that the economic return to education, controlling for pre-existing ability, is high: given two equivalent people at the end of high school, the one who goes to college will earn more. In other words, ability bias (the idea that people who go to college were better to begin with) doesn't fully explain the return to education. For more on how most college major choices offer positive returns, see the blog post Major Premium.

General mainstream activity is going to college

If you've finished high school on time, have strong college admissions prospects, and are otherwise intellectually, physically, and emotionally ready for college, there is a strong presumption in favor of your going to college. You should therefore have strong reasons if you decide not to go to college. This is part of our general advice that you should stay mainstream until you have demonstrated success doing unusual stuff.

On the other hand, if you are an older student, have weak academic credentials, or have other problems, going to college may not be the best situation for you. We link to more detailed discussion of some of these special situations at the bottom of the page.

Articulate your reasons and do relevant research

Write up your arguments for why you should not go to college, and run them by a few people.

Gap year option

In the context of going to college, if you are well-prepared but want to explore alternatives, consider taking a gap year between high school and college.

Assessing your readiness

Using standardized tests as a benchmark for your academic readiness

Both the SAT and ACT release college readiness benchmarks. In addition, individual colleges release their 25th and 75the percentile cutoffs for standardized test scores. You can use these to get an idea of how ready you are for college in general, or for a particular type of college.


Assessing your readiness for the academic and social environment of college

Consider immersive environments that provide you a taste of college:

  • Consider watching online opencourseware and enrolling in and completing massive online open courses in order to get a better sense of some aspects of the college learning experience to see if it suits you.
  • Consider auditing courses at nearby universities to get the feel of the brick-and-mortar college experience.
  • Read college newspapers, join college social networks or mailing lists, or hang out at college events geographically close to you, so as to get a better sense for the student activity scene at colleges. Note that you don't have to partake in these as a student, but if student activities is one of the attractions of college to you, it might be worth getting a sense for them.

Assessing your financial situation

Use online calculators to judge the level of financial aid you are eligible for, using websites such as AllTuition.

See also