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College – not the path for all

Growing up in Southwest Allen County schools, I remember thinking of college as the only option after high school.

The question wasn’t whether I was attending college, it was which college was I attending.

I don’t remember hearing much about managing loans or debt, and I don’t remember hearing anything about the option of self-directed learning – forming your own course of study outside of school based on your interests.

But as the price of attending college continues to climb and the prospect of finding a well-paying job after graduation remains a gamble, some students are skipping school in lieu of other options. And it turns out there’s even a program paying them to do it.

Silicon Valley investor and philanthropist Peter Thiel is tempting some of America’s brightest young minds to drop out of college – or “stop out of college,” as he says – and bring their most ambitious ideas to life now.

As co-founder of PayPal, Thiel started a fellowship that gives rising technology entrepreneurs younger than 20 a gift of $100,000 to skip college and focus on their work and self-education.

Rather than putting the entrepreneurs through linear coursework, it pairs them with expert mentors in their areas of interest and gets them to start “a radical re-thinking of what it takes to succeed and improve the world.”

When two-thirds of college students graduate with an average debt of $26,600, it can be impractical, if not impossible, for young people to start a business or community venture.

So self-directed learning can be an option for students who want to hit the ground running and are motivated enough to carve their own path.

Fort Wayne native Nick Arnett shocked his South Side High School classmates in 2011 when he decided to skip college so he could pursue his interest in community development and local economics through self-directed learning.

Instead of going to school, he started working in his field of interest and supplemented on-the-job experience by reading books and articles and seeking advice from experts in the field.

Arnett applied for the Thiel Fellowship in 2012, and even though he wasn’t selected, he stayed connected with its foundation and its network of young visionaries.

Now he oversees the network of 1,200 young scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs and visionaries from dozens of countries around the globe.

At age 21, Arnett spends much of his time traveling, but he still considers Fort Wayne home base.

Although Arnett and others have found success as self-directed learners, forgoing college remains a risky route that’s not right for everyone, Arnett said.

The unemployment rate for students who have only a high school diploma is nearly three times as high as for those who have a bachelor’s degree or more, according to a Pew Research study. But if individuals are motivated to teach themselves and seek advice from experienced professionals, Briljent President and CEO Kathy Carrier agrees with Arnett that they can make it work.

“All the bookwork and lectures in the world don’t teach someone how to work hard when the chips are down and the bills are stacking up,” Carrier said. “Also, the bad client experiences have probably taught me more than I learned in my college education.”

The discussion comes at an opportune time. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education’s new College Readiness Report found nearly one in three Allen County graduates in 2012 did not attend college.

When I read a JG article about the College Readiness report, I appreciated a quote from Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman Krista Stockman regarding the district’s 41 percent of students who did not attend college.

“We want any student who wants to have a career that needs a college degree to be ready to go to college, but we don’t just operate under the assumption that every single one of our students will follow that path,” Stockman said. “We focus on our students being college and career ready.”

For some, perhaps the best path to career readiness is forgoing the traditional college experience for something entirely different.

Kara Hackett is social media writer for The Journal Gazette. To see more of her work throughout the week and participate in the conversation, go to www.journalgazette.net/coffeebreak, where this column first appeared.

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