When I graduated high school, for me, college felt like the only option to live a successful, fruitful life. But now, many Gen Z'ers are rethinking college altogether. According to the World Economic Forum, 4 million fewer graduates enrolled in college in 2022 than in 2012.
For many, prices are to blame — from 2010 to 2022, tuition has risen an average of 12% every year, while earnings for young college-educated workers have remained mostly flat over the last 50 years, as reported by Insider. Young workers with at least a bachelor’s degree and a full-time job had median annual earnings valued at $56,000 in 2018, which was nearly equal to what comparative workers made in 2001.
While financial debt is arguably the biggest reason many Gen Z'ers are rethinking college, I wanted to understand what other reasons Gen Z has for choosing different paths and what it is they're doing instead. So, I reached out to Gen Z members of the BuzzFeed Community who chose not to go to college. Here's everything they had to say:
1."I’m an older Gen Z’er. The costs — financially, emotionally, and time-wise — far outweighed the benefits. I didn’t have a clear career trajectory that I wanted to follow, and I’m extremely introverted, so college didn’t feel worth it for me. I started getting my two-year associates degree from a community college in my area during my last two years of high school."
2."The sheer idea of being tens of thousands of dollars into debt while working a minimum wage job scared 17-year-old me. On top of that, my dream was to be a therapist—to help people the way those in my life helped me—but the average salary vs the money and time I'd need to achieve that goal was, truly, not worth it."
3."I actually ended up going to college for a few years after not really being interested in school all throughout high school (I still made decent grades, but wasn’t interested in the academic-portion of school). A few years into college, and after bouncing around from major to major, I realized I got much more life experience from the career I was in at the time rather than school itself. I realized college wasn’t for me when I found my secret baking passion."
4."I’m choosing not to go to college because it costs a lot of money and time before you can actually start your career. I’m going into tattooing and finding an apprenticeship soon so it will cost less and I’ll be happy actually learning about the career."
5."I'm doing the thing that many of my friends can't understand, even when I explain it to them. I'm enlisting in the US Army. Why? Because I'm in decent physical shape, and I have the ability to follow instructions. Once I put in a few years, my healthcare is taken care of forever by VA benefits. Plus, while I'm in, the US government pays 100% of my college tuition and other costs if I do decide to take any courses. My friends imagine that I'll be super old when I get out, but I don't think the mid to late twenties is old at all."
6."Besides the cost, it was because I was told by everyone my whole life that I HAD to! People don't seem to understand that some people's ambitions aren't to study to get a job in some competitive field and get mountains of debt and responsibilities. College offers nothing to someone like me. My aspirations in life are to live with my partner while we both work part-time, combine income and enjoy a simple life free of the responsibilities that society wants to force on us."
7."I chose not to go to college because it was too expensive, I didn't have a specific career path I was devoted to, and I prefer being debt free. I also think keeping things simple means more time with my friends and family. I currently am an office assistant and do a lot of data entry. I'm trying to build a small bookkeeping business as well."
8."I've never wanted to be stuck in a life I don't want. To me, college closes more doors than it opens. Instead, I plan to start permaculture farming to be more self sufficient and have some disposable income as well as no debt."
9."I don't trust that the curriculum would prepare me properly for a job. I'd rather self study the topics I'm interested in and apply what I've learned to my passions to be an entrepreneur. I think college would be better if they encouraged more people to be entrepreneurs. If each college had its own startup accelerators I think more people would be interested because everyone's passions can be turned into a business. Many people want to turn themselves into a brand on social media which has shown to make people a lot of money."
10."I turn 18 in one month and I already have pictures ready to post for my OnlyFans page. I will have a few months to save up and make some money before I even graduate high school. By the time I graduate I won't have to struggle in the job market with everyone else going for the same limited jobs. To me, OnlyFans is offering a more secure form of job security and financial security."
11."I don't want to waste time and money learning random stuff. Instead I'm going to live in a tent—no partner, no kids, no debts. I'll work part-time in manual labor and if I get injured or have some kind of emergency I'll commit a crime that doesn't hurt anyone. If I get caught, I'll go to prison where I get free food and free shelter."
12."I tried college (twice) and could not get the motivation to follow through with the assignments. I mean, I wanted an English degree... why do I have to take an earth sciences class? It just felt like a waste of time and money. So I started working instead. I didn't have much experience, so I worked at a donut shop for a year. From there I met someone who worked as a registrar at a hospital and she helped get me a job at the hospital."
13."I am 21 and I have a full-time office job at a growing company and I am getting paid more than I ever thought I could. My husband is a full-time student and I know he only chose to go to school because his family pushed him into it. I grew up so fortunate with parents who told me that it did not matter what I chose to do with my life as long as I was creating the best life for myself."
"My husband is miserable more often than not because of debt as well as overwhelming expectations. I hear more stories about people not using their degree, and with this inflation, yeah no...please do not put me into debt."
14."I felt like school was taking too much time training me in a bubble when I could instead be using that time to save money and gain on-the-job experience. I left school and at 22, I'm working in video advertising earning $50k per year while working 30 hours per week. I get to work remote which gives me a massive amount of freedom to have side projects and hobbies."
15."I tried college twice, once right after graduating high school and once again a few years later. Although I always excelled in school, college is just not right for me. Instead of learning through lectures and exams, I'd rather learn by experiencing and doing things, learning on the job. I'm enrolling in a trade apprenticeship instead."
16."I’m going to be a hairstylist, so my field won’t be requiring a four-year university, but I think regardless I probably wouldn’t have gone. It’s just too expensive, and I feel like having a degree is growing ever pointless. I have friends already drowning in student loan debt, meanwhile I’m sitting back wondering if choosing cosmetology was too easy."
17."The skills I was developing at college were tangential to what I wanted to learn. There were better and free resources online. I want to create a start-up, so I dropped out and started working full-time. As I hobby, I'm developing my skills for my side business. School felt like a waste of my time."
18."I'm doing a one-year teacher training certificate for ballet. I'll get to work in ballet schools for students going into professional dance careers. I also get paid for performing with companies and at events. There are colleges and academies in Ontario, Canada that offer similar training certification programs online with flexible schedules, two-month co-op/internship included with a company of your choice, and even a bursary where they refund some of the tuition back upon graduating."
19."I saw the institution of college fail my millennial friends and family. I am an older Gen Z, so I remember a time when high school teachers and guidance counselors made it seem like college was the only path to success. I watched my millennial peers buy into a narrative that told them a future of poverty and back breaking labor was ahead for anyone who didn't get a college degree. I watched as millennials went deep into debt and spent years of their lives struggling to balance work and school as well as other aspects of their lives. It looked like an expensive torment. After years of stress, and a mountain of debt, I watched as millennials struggled to find jobs; employers wanted more degrees for lower and lower pay. Many of my relatives and siblings had to move to bigger cities with higher costs of living just to work within their field—throwing them deeper and deeper in debt."
What are your thoughts? If you didn't go to college, what did you choose instead? Let me know in the comments.
Note: Some submissions have been edited for length and/or clarity.