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It’s been more than ten years since I graduated high school. Thinking back to that time, I remember vividly how important college felt. I was an honor roll and AP student, President of the Student Government Association, an editor for our newspaper, member of class council, the track team, cross country team, soccer team, and lacrosse team. I was voted most likely to become president and most involved. I was the kind of student who built their entire high school career around going to college. When I ended up going to my safety school, for a variety of reasons, I felt like a failure. As if nothing I accomplished in high school was valuable in its own right because it didn’t unlock the next level of achievement for me.

At 18, I was completely bought in to the linear vision of college. Take a rigorous course load, complimented by a laundry list extracurriculars, sprinkle in a few leadership positions, a dash of work experience, and round it out with volunteering for Relay for Life and hosting Senior Citizens dances. This was the recipe for getting into an elite, private school that, after four years, would ensure success and happiness. If I missed any rung on that ladder to success, I’d fall into an abyss of mediocrity for the rest of my life.

I wish someone had told me that there was another way. That the path to a degree doesn’t have to be the same for everyone. Even better, that there is a way to save myself time, money, and emotional energy when it comes to going to college.

How Did We Get Here?

College feels like a major life milestone, a right of passage that is akin to marriage or having children. In reality, college has only established itself as the norm in the past half century. We’ve only recently entered an era where college feels like a necessity to success, and colleges are capitalizing on that feeling. What would you pay to see your student go to Harvard or UCLA? I won’t belabor the topic of tuition. Just google Varsity Blues if you need more evidence, or see the graph below. (Update: I also recommend listening to this episode of the Freakonomics podcast.)

Source: https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/tuition-fees-room-board-over-time#Key%20Points

Where did we develop the belief that college is an integral part of a successful and happy life? Partially from studies like this one, which claim that the typical college graduate will earn roughly $900,000 more than the typical high school graduate. What we tend to miss is the fine print:

Students who attend college are not the same as those who do not attend at all. For example, individuals who attend and graduate from college score higher on aptitude tests given during high school. This ability is rewarded in the labor market; smarter people (on average) tend to earn more money. But are college graduates being rewarded for their time in college, or for characteristics they possessed before stepping foot on a college campus? This is a question of correlation versus causation, and it is one of the most studied questions in the field of labor economics.

This is one of the most asked, and least answered, questions in the field of labor economics. How can we measure the success of people who don’t go to college if every successful person believes that they need to go to college? Too many people are scared to diverge from the prescribed path to success, especially if their family doesn’t have a safety net if things go awry. Imagine if we lived in a world where everyone could craft their own version of higher education. Where students could take the four years and $100k+ they spend on college and use it to travel the world, get an internship, take a coding class, or an improv class, buy the books they want to read, and explore the topics that are of most interest to them. How would their success measure up with students who spent four years in a college campus bubble?

Maybe that’s a radical vision, but here at Verto Education, we’re taking steps to help us get there. Here’s how we are helping students create a nonlinear path to a college degree.

Starting with Why

As James Altucher put it, “Kids at 18 have no idea what they want to do in life. The world is a very big place. It’s bigger than five classes a day on philosophy or chemical engineering.”

One of the biggest issues with college is that students are expected to know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives at the age of 18. Not only that, but they are expected to invest tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars they don’t have to get a degree in a subject they have no life experience in.

Think about how bizarre that concept is. Even now, I often get advised to not get another Master’s degree or go back to school for an MBA until I know for sure that it is what I want to do. I’m told that a degree is not worth my money or time unless it has a direct correlation to upward mobility in a career I know I want to be in. Doesn’t that same advice apply to college?

This lack of direction and enthusiasm is evident when you look at the statistics for the number of students who actually graduate college in four years, fewer than 40%. Of the students graduating on time, how many of those students are graduating more out of necessity than the feeling that they’ve truly prepared themselves for a career they’re excited about?

Source: https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=40

The first year out of high school should be all about seeing more of the world, gaining confidence, finding direction, and understanding why you want to go to college in the first place. At Verto, we structure our curriculum to help students better understand themselves, and their goals. Half of our alumni go straight into college after a semester or year  of traveling the world with Verto. The other half spend a semester interning in New Zealand, studying in Ireland or getting work experience in France. Our mission is to help students find the right path to college for themselves.

Possibilities of the Nonlinear Path

Let’s imagine a world where students could travel with ease through multiple institutions to earn a four year degree. If we released ourselves from this notion of a linear college path, what would be different?

Advising that Matters:

Instead of coaching students on writing admissions essays or getting the best SAT score, college counselors would help students create their own four year curriculum. A student’s self worth wouldn’t be tied to the schools they got into, or the ones they could afford. Education would be student centric, not school centric.

Shake that Stuck Feeling:

Students would no longer feel locked in to the decisions of their inexperienced, 18-year-old-selves. They wouldn’t dismiss the idea of doing something different because “it’s too late now” but allow themselves to make new decisions. Education would be fluid.

Space to Explore:

Sometimes it’s best to ditch the map, escape cell service, and see what you discover. Education should work this way. Students should be allowed to see where their curiosity takes them, and craft their own general education curriculum.

Creating Lifelong Learners:

For so many of my friends, college turned them off of reading and writing. When learning is force fed to you the majority of your life, it’s hard to change that relationship. By allowing students to indulge in their own interests and power their own growth, they learn to love learning again.

Building Confidence:

Remove the stress and self doubt that a typical college setting can often bring, and replace it with self exploration and discovery. In a nonlinear path, students have more autonomy. They have room to fail and change direction. They actually get a chance to push their boundaries and get more hands on experience in the real world which will fuel their confidence in the workplace.

Global Community:

Rather than friendships revolving around the college social scene of parties, friendships are developed through authentic engagement with real world issues in which students are encouraged to practice vulnerability and be challenged as whole people. As a result of the intense experience students go through, they end up creating lifelong friendships, and forming their own community that is spread out across the country (and the world).

The Verto model isn’t perfect, but we’re working to change a consumer behavior that is entrenched in society’s vision of success. We need to develop more innovative solutions to higher education that give students the freedom and flexibility to create their own path. We also need students, parents, and counselors who are willing to break the mold and pave the course for a better version of college.