Unboxed Life

Boldly existing outside the box through conscious living and constant learning.

Exploring Alternatives To Higher Education

In our society it seems there are few topics where it is harder for us to think Unboxed than when it comes to higher education. The debate over the validity and value of a college degree has been debated for some time with both sides of the argument unwilling to budge on their stance. I am a firm believer that as we move through life it is vital that we allow our viewpoints and opinions to be refined as we are presented with information and insight.

In regards to the value of a college degree my point of view has shifted many times. I am a college graduate. Like many of my peers I spent the required number of years and took the required hit to my bank account to receive my diploma. I consider it an accomplishment and a privilege to have gotten the opportunity to attend college, but at the same time am left wondering why. Is going to college the only path? What if I didn’t go? What is the real value of a college diploma for the majority of young people?

There was an interesting piece on the TV show “60 Minutes” the other night that started me thinking about this. If you have 15 minutes and are interested I would suggest you check it out.

What I would like to do in this post is lay out some of my thoughts on how this topic relates to Unboxed Living. Here at Unboxed Life we are all about opening up our minds, thinking outside the constricting confines of limited understanding, and appreciating the variation in the world and in ourselves. Here’s what I’m saying:

  • Life, especially for young people, should be about pursuing passions and discovering what our life’s work will be and not necessarily about just going to college
  • College is not worthless but is certainly is not for everyone
  • Alternatives to higher education can be just as valuable, if not more so

For far too long it has been accepted as fact that without attending college a person would never succeed in life and would forever be destined for failure and struggle. You can find the statistics about how much more money college graduates make and what jobs one can get without a degree. I am not disputing those figures; I am saying that life isn’t just about how much money we can make and what career we can get. It seems as if we have fallen into a pattern of thought that tells young people that their passions, interests, and goals have to fall within this certain structure and that pursuing what their desires might be should be a side pursuit. This seems like a mistake to me. Forcing our kids down a path they have no vested interest in can only produce unhappy, underachieving adults who end up wishing they were doing something else. What value does that add to society? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to help produce vibrant, passionate, energetic members of society who can initiate change and make things better for the rest of us?

There needs to be more value places on the pursuit of a person’s passions and the striving for what we love in life. From my experience I have seen that for most people that does not require attending college. I mean how often do we see people spend $30,000, $40,000 up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in pursuit of an arbitrary piece of paper only to realize their true path in life is something completely different? Only now they are saddled with massive debt and unable to change course. College is not, and should not, be a place to “figure things out.” It seems a mistake to use something like attending a university to see if we want to do this or that with our lives. As I will discuss later, there are better ways to do that. The bottom line is that our path in life and the one to true fulfillment and happiness should be lit with the light of passion, excitement, and love, not with the false glow of diplomas and unused knowledge.

Now I am not saying that college education has no worth. On the contrary, for some people college is a necessity. Even if your hunger in life is to learn, great, maybe college has some value for you. I would be foolish to suggest that doctors, lawyers, dentists, and teachers could make the impact they do without higher education. To these folks the time, money, and commitment it takes to complete a degree is well worth it. The problem lies in those who falsely perceive college as the only path toward their best life.

Take me for instance. As I said before, I graduated college with a degree in Health Informatics and Health Information Management. Fancy right? When I graduated I was already working in the field and continued to work at that job for some years after school. That job did not require the degree and advanced credentials I paid big money for. I have had other jobs since school that also did not require the advanced training I received. I will admit that this is most likely at least partly a product of the underlying lack of desire I had for the work I was doing and the falsification I had convinced myself was true about what I wanted out of life. At this point in my life, five years after college, I have just now discovered my true path: to serve others through international community development work, travel, writing, and creating to make the world a better place. I firmly believe that had I taken time before I went to college I would have figured these things out sans the student debt and years of hard, but mostly useless, work.

So if college is not for everyone, what are the alternatives? Part of thinking Unboxed and living life attempting to appreciate the varied and immense world is realizing that one path is never universal. For most of us that path is not evident early in our lives and it takes some mindful pursuit to uncover our life’s path and our hearts passions. It seems limiting, “boxing” if you will, to say that the best and only option for young people is to attend college. At the same time I recognize that living at home with mom and dad, sleeping in till noon, and otherwise not contributing to society in a constructive way is not the best idea. The beautiful part is that there are lots of cool things to do to help hone ones vision for your life.


For a fraction of the cost of a four year degree you can take an extended trip around the world and discover the unimaginable and unbounded glory that is the world we live in. What better way to sharpen your focus and expose yourself to a multitude of potential life pursuits than to escape your box and hit the road. One of my favorite quotes comes from the movie Into the Wild where the main character says, “The core of man’s spirit comes from new experiences.” Testing one’s self against the sometimes unforgiving but always enlightening larger world can do nothing but lead you toward the most true life path for yourself. A byproduct of this adventure might end up being that you decide you really do want to attend college and pursue an advanced degree. Great! Now you can attack that pursuit with increased focus and assurance that you are doing something worth while to you.

copyright 2012 Tanner Colton


One of the core principles of Unboxed Life is the adherence to the idea that serving others should be a focal point of every person’s life and through which we find true fulfillment and ultimate joy. Taking the opportunity to volunteer full-time in a variety of capacities is one of the most valuable pursuits one can undertake in life. There are multitudes of opportunities for this, some with flaws, all with potential pitfalls, but nonetheless each offering the chance to serve others and yourself. Join the Peace Corps, apply for Teach For America, join City Year, seek out your own unique service opportunity and attack it with ferocity and focus. I would go as far as to say that requiring each and every high school graduate to participate in at least one year of full-time volunteer work would be invaluable to society as a whole and to the individuals who perform the service. Imagine an entire generation of people engrained with the understanding that in everything they do the wellbeing of others should be the main focus. Wow, what a different world we would live in.

Me in front of a motorcycle repair shop I helped work on with Village Care International. Copyright 2011 Tanner Colton


Work can teach many lessons and also aid in finding what our true passions are in life. Taking time to just be gainfully employed not only instills a value of earning your own way, but also affords you time to try lots of new things and figure out what the heck you want to do. Far too often people exit four or five years of college in their mid-twenties having never held a real job and lacking the working skills it takes to be successful at any pursuit. Gaining those skills before pursuing higher education will put you ahead of the game and actually strengthen your resolve to pursue what your passions are.

Regardless, and often in spite, of what I say or others who prescribe to this idea say, the pressure to attend college always exists. Where does it come from? Why is it there? How can you overcome it and make the decision for yourself? These are questions that will invariably lead to making independent and more authentic choices with your life. Ask yourself if your views on higher education and the path in which you will set yourself is really your own or if it is a product of outside forces looking to keep you boxed into what is the status quo.

Part of the pressure that exists is there due to a generational disconnect between young people now and older generations. There existed, and in large part still exists, the idea that life should be set in a linear path marked by check boxes for accomplishing accepted goals to being successful. That idea is being challenged by young people who are looking at their lives and wondering what other possibilities there are for them. They want to try many things, pursue lots of interests, and participate in life as a free-form existence with room for variation and independence. I think we should honor and encourage that sense of wonder and discovery. Why not empower young people early to be honest with themselves and seek out their life’s passion first and then set a path towards that instead of the reverse.

When it comes down to it, college is always there. The opportunity to pursue higher education will not leave if it was ever presented to you to begin with. Before placing the burden of debt and time on your life, why not confirm your heart’s desire to engage in that activity? Living Unboxed allows you to see the world for possibilities and potentials, not barriers and barricades. Be mindful, make choices consciously, and most importantly feed your passions with the food of action and see your life as truth and not the product of incorrect presumptions. Whether you agree or disagree, the fact remains that college tuition is raising at atmospheric rates and the student debt machine is out of control. Why not entertain alternative means of education and encourage those who see other ways to follow their hearts? I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic so please engage in the comments and let me know what you think.

Cap and gown photo: pepperperkinsarcher

3 comments on “Exploring Alternatives To Higher Education

  1. John Paton
    June 8, 2012

    I’m currently a college student and all the time I think about whether my degree is really worth the high fee. Initially I started out majoring in the social sciences, but I’ve since moved into engineering. The only way that I’m finding to justify the expense is that at least engineers are in demand!

    I’m glad I found your blog. You write very well!

    • Tanner Colton
      June 8, 2012

      Thanks so much John! I appreciate so much your participation in these posts. I think my overall feeling about the value of college is this: let’s not default to going to college as the only clear path. Let’s encourage our young people to explore many options and follow the passions they have. With the high price of a college education and the increasing difficulty graduates are having finding well paying jobs I think we owe it to ourselves to at least consider some alternatives. I commend you for re-evaluating your choice in major, it shows you are self aware and willing to position yourself for success. Thanks again for engaging with me, I appreciate it so much. Let me know if there is something you would like to see me write about or have more information on. Also, if you like what you read go ahead and put in your email address in the box to the right of this post or click here and you can get email updates when I post new content. Talk to you soon John and good luck with your studies.

  2. Pingback: From Strong Bases Spring Powerful Structures « Unboxed Life

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