Part of The Schools Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
“But these will be the best four years of your life!”
It’s what people told me the first time I dropped out of college as an almost-19-year-old buckling under the pressure of needing time and space to figure out what she wanted her life to be and help her mental health, while simultaneously needing to pick a major, a city, and a career plan before she could even legally drink alcohol.
“You know this is your future?” I remember the woman in the registrar’s office informing me with the tone reserved for parents catching their kid sneaking back into the house after a night out.
Of course I know, I wanted to counter. It seemed like the only things I “knew” had to do with my future: what it should look like, the gravity of it, the numerous ways I was ruining it by just standing there. My future — the vague, all-consuming ideal we’re taught to live for — felt like a more dominant force in my life than my present. That was all changing in the drafty hallway at the small university 45 minutes from my hometown. I was dropping out.
I always imagined I’d go to college later; I was going to work in the dance industry, and higher education would come after the prime working years for my body. But when I got injured, recalibration looked like rushing into college as fast as possible to try to get my life in order, fearing that if I didn’t go then — and if I didn’t go full time — I’d never get “on track,” an ideology that permeates young adulthood that I now know to be a myth. I’d get involved; I’d make new friends. Surely I’d love college. Everyone did, right?
But what awaited me on campus was not reinvention. I was toggling back and forth between being a student and commuting 45 minutes to my off-campus job. For the first time, I encountered adults older than me who asked me why I was working so much and not focusing only on school. I was severely depressed but had no language to explain it, and subsequently felt isolated and lonelier than I ever could have imagined feeling in spaces where I was perpetually surrounded by people. By the time I strode across the campus to the registrar’s office to withdraw, it felt like an out-of-body experience, watching myself choose failure in real time.
Of course, there was a little more to it than that: I had the privilege to move home until I figured out what I was doing. I also had the job I’d been commuting to throughout my freshman year, at which I could increase my hours to full time. But in that moment when I dropped out, I felt like I had ruined my life before it had even begun.
We call college a rite of passage because it’s spun as the start of who you are as a young person. For many young adults, it’s the first time they have the opportunity to leave their hometowns. We have college rankings and “best of” lists, where you can see exactly where your education and formative experiences fall on the scale of what is perceived as impressive. You start making critical decisions about your future — taking on debt, deciding where to live, entering courses of study that supposedly outline the career path you’re going to take — which, by the way, you’re supposed to have determined before you sign for those loans.
Too many of the common talking points still exist: If you don’t go to college, you’re a slacker who didn’t make the most of their potential; if you do go, you’re also irresponsible, because whatever you decided, there’s someone waiting to tell you that you could’ve done it cheaper, or chosen a better major. A certain idea of how to attend college — pursuing a four-year degree while living at school right after you graduate high school — dominates the narrative, so much so that any other way of attending is labeled “nontraditional” by schools themselves. College is amplified as “the best four years of your life,” not to mention the most formative. Pegging anything as the “best of your life” is a gutting amount of pressure whether you’re 18 or 60, because, deep underneath the wild freedom that’s supposed to illustrate, you’re left wondering whether the self-doubt and uncertainty and terror will linger forever.
In retrospect, the pressure to have my life figured out, sealed and signed on the dotted line for student loans by 18, still feels unrealistic and insurmountable, but familiar enough to remember the ache of thinking it was all downhill from here. But what I didn’t realize at the time is that what I felt like I was straying from was a myth, and one that so many others around me were puncturing, whether through choice, circumstance, or both. Instead, I was doing something every young person should have the opportunity to do, especially in college — building a life that felt more like me.
Among all Americans over the age of 25, college graduates are just shy of the majority. But the share of young people attending colleges is rising steadily (with the big exception of the 2020 pandemic) — from 2007 to 2017, enrollment of those under 25 increased by 11 percent. Among those who attend, leaving school is a strong possibility: A whopping 40 percent of students drop out, sometimes because of financial pressures and needing to work, or lack of support and feelings of isolation. Some decide their college circumstances aren’t for them, or their scholarship or financial aid is not renewed, and falling behind on payments prevents them from continuing. Barriers to staying enrolled in college impact low-income and first-generation students, in particular, with systemic inequality embedded in degree attainment.
Many of those who are enrolled look far different from the popular idea of a college student, known by colleges as a “traditional student.” According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, as of 2015, 70 percent of full-time college students were working while in school. A 2018 report thoroughly debunked the myth of every college student being a recent high school graduate: Around 41 percent of college students in 2018 were 25 or older, despite many universities being slow to accommodate needs that make education more accessible to them, including child care, flexible class schedules, and more expansive financial aid and payment plans. Students who are also parents are more likely to face time and financial demands (and one in five of today’s college students are parenting a child while enrolled in classes). According to a survey of 86,000 students by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, 56 percent reported experiencing housing insecurity in the previous year.
There’s also a persistent narrative that students pursuing post–high school education only attend residential four-year universities, leaving out the thousands of people who lay a foundation for their lives at community colleges or vocational schools, or through pursuing a trade. A subset of this myth pretends that all students have to focus on is what happens in the lecture hall for that hour and a half, as if life beyond school pauses simply because you’re a student. But college students — whatever kind of school they attend, whether they’re full time or part time, whatever their age — aren’t just students. They’re people, with complex lives and stressors and expectations even beyond what they do in classes or on campuses.
Xorah, a 16-year-old community college student pursuing her associate’s degree in early childhood education, told me that this myth of the “traditional” college student is “a part of this American dream ideal that we have about owning a house and having a specific number of kids and being married. It’s like a dream that we have in our collective mind.”
Xorah (who, like other students interviewed for this piece, is being referred to by her first name only to protect her privacy) thinks part of the reason community colleges aren’t centered in conversation around young people and school is that they have a “negative connotation” as being somehow lesser — the exact opposite of Xorah’s school, which she says offers academic and personal support as well as a diverse student body.
“In my parents’ generation, it was super important that you go to college, and that if you wanted a good job, if you wanted to be stable, you got a college degree,” she said. “I think that is kind of being questioned, because there are so many different mediums to be able to be successful. And success looks so different today, and even the idea of success is super diverse today.”
For lots of young people, college represents access and opportunity and a chance for freedom, reinvention, and discovering a “true self.” But for others, it feels midway between an identity crisis and existing in a pressure cooker. The idea that any rite of passage will contain the best of your years isn’t just inaccurate; it’s depressing. It’s not a matter of whether any one person loved college or didn’t. But it is about how an entire society has hyped up one four-year chunk of time as the best you’re ever going to be, while ignoring the realities that compose it.
When I asked Pearl, 21, whether she felt collegiate pressures had informed her identity as a young adult, she was swift to correct me, explaining that the word “inform” was too passive in regard to what college does to your identity. “College more so chokes or conforms your identity rather than informs,” she told me, describing the challenges of dealing with discrimination for marginalized students on predominantly white campuses. “People think the height of your life is your college years, which, the more I think about postgrad life, the more I think that is not true,” she said. “There are so many opportunities out there that people fail to see or look for.”
When I talked to adults in their mid- to late 20s about whether college was their best four years, most seemed skeptical to attribute who they were now solely to the experience they’d had then. Many said they regretted the money they spent on college, and there was a lot of repetition that, at the time, they didn’t realize how much that would factor into what they experienced later. Some people loved their social lives at school, whereas others pointed to incidents of harassment and assault, discrimination, or ostracization that they felt were embedded in their campus’s culture. Stuffing college into a one-size-fits-all, glorified cornerstone of young adulthood leaves out that for a lot of people, their higher education experience wasn’t just okay — it was awful.
Rebecca, who went from community college to a four-year college and is now in graduate school, likened college to a popular conception of marriage, in which your partner is supposed to be everything — the love of your life, your best friend, your therapist, your financial support, your whole world. “I think college has become the same thing,” she told me. “You’re supposed to find yourself, learn everything, get job skills, become financially independent. And it’s like, how in the world can one institution be all those things?”
There’s tremendous pressure regarding young people getting into college — America even had its own higher education scandal where celebrities scammed to get their kids into elite universities, dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, underscoring the classism, “elite” school fixation, and parental collegiate obsession that still exists. Maybe it’s because costs have skyrocketed or the college prep process feels like it starts around first grade, but by the time students actually make it to college, no wonder they are stressed out, overwhelmed, and, as one student who recently endured the admissions process phrased it to me, “soulless,” having poured so much of their energy and self-worth and time into building a future that begins at collegiate gates.
All this breathless hype “makes it feel like you have to follow a specific plan and everything has to go a certain way and it has to be done on a specific timeline, and if you can’t get it done in that timeline, something’s wrong with you,” said Jessi Gold, an assistant professor in the psychiatry department at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, and a specialist in college mental health, medical education, and physician wellness. Having to decide a life plan so early, she said, doesn’t leave a lot of flexibility in your choices, given many haven’t had time to determine their own “identity and values. But you’re supposed to be choosing what you’re going to be doing forever.”
When I dropped out of college, I was sure I had decimated my future with my own uncertainty. Goodbye, I thought, to the chances to try new opportunities, or courses of study, or meeting new people. But the failure around my collegiate expectations also felt freeing: So much of my own unhappiness and anxiety and uncertainty around that time came from following a path I didn’t feel I’d picked in the first place. It didn’t match that I didn’t feel ready to move away from home. Or that I needed to work while in school and had an off-campus job I didn’t want to give up. Mostly, it didn’t feel as though it matched me being so unsure — instead of slowing down and looking at how different pieces could make a puzzle that fit my life, I panicked, worried that I was behind, and that if I didn’t go to college right then, in the “traditional way,” it meant I’d squander my opportunity to define my life. The expectations felt insurmountable.
I floundered for a while, a thing we’re never supposed to admit lest we betray we don’t know everything yet. But eventually, I found my footing. About two years after I dropped out, I discovered a bachelor’s program where I could submit portfolios of work experiences for academic credit, which saved significant money and time. I took online classes with classmates who were both younger, freshly out of high school, and older, midway through careers or during retirement — an experience I loved. Because my bachelor’s program was online, classmates weren’t confined to a specific geographic region, and hearing about how their communities or jobs shaped their perspectives was enlightening.
Sometimes I wondered if I was missing out on what college was “supposed” to be. But my experience set me up for the kind of adulthood I embraced, not just one I thought I should aspire to: Deciding to finish college a different way gave me the opportunity to have dreams beyond just getting through.
It’s worth considering that the perception of college might be shifting for students today, maybe because of cost, maybe because of the pandemic — which, in a lot of ways, shattered the “traditional college experience” myth as we know it — or maybe because they’ve chosen a different path. If time is so precious, if these years are so coveted, some young people are reconsidering how they do college and if they do it at all: It’s presented as both an aspiration and a life practicality, an opportunity you both have to earn and pay for. Students I spoke with described opting to take gap years, working full time instead, or pursuing a couple of classes at a time while they continued working as opportunities to craft a college experience that fit with their lives, rather than them working to fit it.
Colleges need to do their part, too. Instead of students working to fit their lives into the confines of a specific experience, these institutions should work to meet students where they are — particularly those who are working, parenting, or caregiving, who are first-generation or low-income students, or who are experiencing basic needs insecurity. That means acknowledging college students have lives and identities beyond school. Those aren’t “nontraditional” experiences. They are parts of people’s lives.
During my college career, I was hustling, I was achieving, but little of it was driven by curiosity or exploration, two things I thought college would provide in spades. And I was a white, privileged student with a job. First-gen students, low-income students, students of color, students who are queer, and otherwise marginalized students all face challenges that often go undiscussed, because our society still believes that as long as we get them to college, the rest figures itself out. While the talking point that gets thrown at college students often is to take chances, explore, and embrace failure, that skims over how many students fundamentally can’t afford to fail, and renders that advice a platitude out of touch with the stakes countless students are experiencing.
There are a lot of moments I remember from college. I remember the first time we were required to read aloud in class, and how my cheeks flamed red when I stumbled over words I’d never heard spoken aloud as classmates coasted through them. I remember a professor telling me I didn’t take getting a degree “seriously” because I was working while in school. I remember how I felt I was failing more often than I was doing much else, and I wish I’d known that was normal, but I also wish I’d known that failing wasn’t the end of the road. The college experience has changed.
But if I could tell my college self anything, I’d tell her to ease up on the pressure that college must be the best of you. I’d encourage her to be honest, about who she is and what she wanted and when she felt lost. And I’d tell her that so few of the things she learned that would eventually become who she is would be included in her GPA.
Rainesford Stauffer is a writer and Kentuckian. She previously wrote for Vox’s The Highlight about the death of the summer job. This essay has been adapted from her new book, An Ordinary Age, reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.