When I was fourteen years old I asked for the Fiske Guide to Colleges for my birthday. I had known since I was very young that I wanted to go to the best college that I could get into as soon as I was done with “high school.” I didn’t know what I wanted to study or what I wanted to do when I was done with college, I just knew that I needed to go because I was a smart, capable young woman, and that is what smart, capable young women did.
I started unschooling at fourteen, but I thought that I would still need a transcript and some test scores to get into college, so I dual-enrolled at the community college and prepped for the SATs. When I was seventeen I sent out five college applications. I was accepted to three schools outright, waitlisted at a fourth, and asked to take another math class at a fifth.
I decided that I wanted to attend New College of Florida. I liked their educational philosophy (no grades, only written evaluations, the ability to create your own classes) and it was close to home and inexpensive. At the time there was a program in Florida that offered full in-state public tuition scholarships to anyone who met a certain SAT score, so my parents were just paying for room and board.
I left for school and had a difficult transition. The food in the cafeteria was pretty abysmal (It was later rated the second worst college food in the nation) and I lost some weight. I got into a really amazing acting class the first semester, and that made things a little easier. I was considering a sociology major, something that I now look back upon and laugh.
While all that was going on, I was really missing pottery. I had started throwing on the wheel the year before, and I had gotten really hooked. New College didn’t offer a single wheel class, and my attempts to design a pottery class for myself were unsuccessful.
By the time the second semester came around, my discontent was starting to grow. I felt like I didn’t know why I was there or what I was getting out of my classes, and I was watching my classmates graduate with little real world experience and almost no job opportunities. This was right after the financial collapse of 2008, and it seemed like an undergraduate liberal arts education was worthless- that your college diploma and two dollars would buy you a bus ticket.
In addition, I was totally frustrated with what seemed to be the very nature of a liberal arts education. We were assigned hundreds of pages of readings, written in this dense, verbose, masturbatory prose that no one in her right mind would read for pleasure or enlightenment. Then we were asked to analyze, interpret or regurgitate the information in pages upon pages of academic papers. And that was pretty much it.
With little exception, we didn’t DO anything. I think that was my biggest problem- I like to learn through action, and we never quite got there. I felt like every class was an introductory lecture that should have led to some awesome experiential learning but never did.
After my second semester ended, I spent the summer at home thinking about what I wanted to do the following year. In the end, I went back to school by default. I was tied in socially by that point, and I had a boyfriend at school to whom I wanted to be close. I made a final decision that I wanted to do a Psychology major, and I signed up for Psychology classes. I also signed up for a Queer theory class- a decision that would end up being the final nail in my college coffin.
Then I left for an unschooling conference. I knew I wouldn’t have time to do very much work over the weekend, so I was trying to do my Queer Theory readings on the plane trip, and the cookie finally started to crumble. I remember staring alternatively at the readings and the knob holding up the seat back tray when I started to panic. I consider myself to be a really good critical reader, but I couldn’t make head nor tail of any of these readings. It was literally as if the article was written in a foreign language, and it was fifty pages long. I remember thinking at that point that the emperor of undergraduate liberal arts was naked, and that if he really had something to say, he would say it in a simple and readable fashion. It seemed that if you spent so much time obfuscating your meaning with tricky prose, maybe you didn’t have anything too important to say in the first place.
The following day, I was on a panel representing grown unschoolers, and a good friend by the name of Ken Briggs asked: “So Brenna, why have you decided to go to college?”
I literally could not think of a single good answer for him, which was another small revelation. I think I ended up saying “sorry, today’s a bad day to ask me that question.”
Luckily, my parents hadn’t paid the housing costs for that semester yet, and I spent the weekend considering what I wanted to do. (They would have been in total support of any decision I made even if they had paid for that semester- it just made it easier that they hadn’t.)
I’d like to say that I ultimately made a totally rational decision that the time cost involved in continuing to go to college was not worth what I was getting out of my college classes. Maybe that reasoning was occurring on a subconscious level; I certainly wasn’t aware of it. In the end, I had to go with my gut. I knew that I was miserable in school and I didn’t know why I was there. I had come to hate it and feel like it was a waste of time that was getting in the way of my living a fulfilling life.
So I dropped out.
And I came home in a total panic. I spent about six months totally freaked about what I had done. I had nightmares several times a week that I had missed a test at school, or that I had needed to rush somewhere to get back into school.
I tried to spend a little bit of time each day thinking about what I wanted to do next, but I wasn’t really ready to do that at first, and forcing myself to examine my future was really terrifying.
Eventually, thinking about the future got a little bit easier and I started searching for an apprenticeship. On New Year’s Eve of 2009, I found one. Beginning to plan and prepare for that experience gave me more confidence about my choice to leave school. Actually participating in the apprenticeship convinced me, without a doubt, that I had made the right decision. (On the drive home from my first day at my apprenticeship I remember stopping for gas off of highway one and doing a little dance in the gas station parking lot from excitement and relief.)
I still have small moments of regret about leaving college. I was in the noodle aisle of the grocery store a few months ago, and I realized that I am never going to have a college degree. (I know, I could go back at any time- I’m certain I don’t want to.) I spent a moment feeling insecure about that, before remembering all the opportunities and experiences that I’ve had in the last three years that I would have missed out on if I had stayed in school.
Three years later, I can say with confidence that dropping out of college was the most liberating and empowering decision that I’ve ever made. I almost feel that my unschooling didn’t really begin until I dropped out of college, because I’m no longer doing anything because of the way that I think it will look on a transcript.
As it turns out, that’s a really nice way to live.