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5 Wrong Reasons for Going to College

5 Wrong Reasons for Going to CollegeIt’s the summer before college. You’ve been preparing for it for years — studying, researching schools, talking with teachers, guidance counselors, family and friends.

It’s never felt so much like a decision as the next inevitable stage of your life. Now it’s less than a month away. Your mother is bugging you to start packing. Your younger sister is coveting your room. Your friends are talking about the big party you’ll all have at the end of summer. Everyone seems more excited than you are. What’s up?

Yes, a college education can be priceless. The friendships, contacts and networks you’ll make can be wonderful. The possibilities for finding new dimensions of yourself are great and varied. But all that only happens if you are engaged in school, not just hanging out there. The investment of time and money are only worth it if you are determined to make it worthwhile.

If you find yourself wondering if you are really ready, maybe you should listen to yourself. It’s possible you’re having only a momentary instance of cold feet. That’s absolutely normal. After all, you are leaving the familiar terrain of your high school, your friendship circle, your family and your town to jump into an unknown community where nobody knows your name.

But maybe in your heart of hearts you know that you are going for all the wrong reasons. Maybe you need to take time out to consider whether going off to school is really the right thing for you to be doing at this point in your life. If any of these factors was a big influence in your decision, you’re probably right to second-guess yourself.

5 Wrong Reasons to go to College

1. Because someone else expects it of you.

Perhaps you come from a family where everyone goes to college. Or maybe, on the other end of the spectrum, you’re the kid that everyone is proud to believe will be the first to get there. It seems that for years everyone has just assumed that of course you’ll go. It’s become so much a part of the air you breathe that you’ve never stopped to consider whether you want to go, whether you’re ready to go, whether you share the assumptions of influential adults.

Not good. You’re riding the tide of other people’s expectations. Think about what you want. You’re the one who will be at school. You’re probably the one who will be taking on loans. You need to make a conscious, personal decision to embrace a future that includes more school.

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You may well decide that yes, you want it. That’s fine. Making an independent decision sometimes means doing what we think is good for us even if a significant person wants us to do it. But, on honest reflection, maybe you’d like more time to explore options for your future. Either way, it’s important to claim the next few years as yours and yours alone.

2. Because your boyfriend or girlfriend is going.

You’ve been dating the person you think of as the love of your life since you were 15 or 16. Or you just found your soul mate in the last few months or year. You are in love. You decide to avoid the heartbreak of separation and to go to the same university as your true love even though you don’t like school all that much.

Bad idea. If your partner really wants to go to college and you don’t, avoid the mistake of latching on and going along. It’s a situation that too often leads to disappointment and resentment. While you are fantasizing about a love nest for two, your partner is anticipating making new friendships, exploring new interests, or for the first time being able to delve deeply into a subject or discipline.

Yes, sometimes high school sweethearts can evolve into lifetime partners. But that is most likely to happen when partners care enough to support and encourage each other’s growth. If the relationship has a good foundation, it will survive and thrive in spite of distance.

3. Because all your friends are going.

In only a few weeks’ time, the whole friend group will be scattered to a half dozen different colleges in a half dozen different places. Not to go would be to set yourself apart. Friends would wonder what’s wrong with you. Some would take it as a betrayal of the dreams you’ve dreamed together and the plans you’ve made.

It can feel like a big risk to say, “Well, guys, I hope you have a great time. See you at Thanksgiving. I’m going to do something else for awhile.” It takes courage and conviction to decide to do something different from everybody else when everybody else is in lockstep.

4. Because you don’t know what else to do.

It’s been tough to find even a summer job. You don’t have an alternative plan. Everyone else is doing it (see above). Might’s well go to school.

That is the lamest of reasons to spend $20 grand or more in the next year. See Are You Ready for College: Alternatives for the Unsure.

5. Because you are afraid you’ll regret it if you don’t go. Your uncle tells you that his one regret in life is that he didn’t go to college. Your supervisor at work tells you she could have gone so much farther in her career if only she had a college education. Your grandma tells you how much she wishes she’d accepted the scholarship she’d been offered instead of marrying grandpa so young. Whatever the story, there are always people who regret decisions they’ve made.

Please keep their good advice in perspective. Not going this fall doesn’t mean you never will. It only means you aren’t going now. Most colleges will defer entry by students they’ve admitted. If you didn’t apply or didn’t get in, there’s always next year. You’re only 18 or 19. You have plenty of time explore other things and still go to school.

If You’re not Ready, You’re not

These days, the decision to go to college is not one to make lightly. It’s a big commitment of time and expense. Make sure you are going for the right reasons – to expand your world with new experiences and new people, to become a more informed citizen and a better critical thinker, to refine your art, develop skills, or delve deeply into a discipline, and to develop your mind and deepen your heart.

If you’re not ready to do that, you’re not. Take a year to work, to volunteer, to intern somewhere – whatever you need to do to figure out just why you want more education. The goal doesn’t have to be specific. It’s legitimate to finally decide to go to school in order to try out a class in each of the things you are interested in so that you can make a final decision. But having some goal and working toward it will make all the difference in whether you are truly in school or just at it.

5 Wrong Reasons for Going to College

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). 5 Wrong Reasons for Going to College. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.