Can dropping out of college make good financial sense?

I quit college—and it was my best money decision

Choosing the right college and the smartest way to pay for it can be a lot for families to take on. And when those choices turn out to be the wrong ones, students often feel stuck. Not so for Kentucky native Rainesford Stauffer. After an unrewarding freshman year of college that saddled her with loans she didn’t fully understand, she took time off to regroup, eventually returning to school to finish her degree with a clearer sense of her academic and financial options. Now 24, Rainesford discussed the mistakes she made the first time around and how she got back on track.

Why did you drop out?

When I was 18, I enrolled at a small private university close to where I grew up in Owensboro, Kentucky. I majored in literature, and spent a year doing that before realizing that it wasn’t giving me what I felt I needed—a more real-world experience. I don’t think the school, which was pretty conservative, was the right fit. I decided to take a gap year to work—I’m from a middle-class family, I’ve had one job or another since I was 15 years old.

How did your family react when you told them you were dropping out?

I was fortunate to have support from my parents, and I moved home. I took a full-time job in public relations for a ballet company, which spoke to my interest in writing and communications as well as my background in ballet, which I danced pre-professionally until I was 16. That gap year eventually turned into two.

Do you have any lingering regrets from your first go-around at college?

That first year is responsible for the bulk of debt that I have today. I simply did not know enough about the loans I was signing, the scholarship I was being offered, or the resources that were probably there that I could have taken advantage of. It’s a position that so many young people find themselves in: They accept whatever the college is offering, and then, like me, are frustrated down the line by those hasty decisions. I’m embarrassed to say I just kind of signed on for what was offered, and I do regret that.

How did you find your way back to college?

I came across the New School in New York City, which has a great prior-learning program that offers academic credit for work-life experience outside the classroom. It also offers an online degree, so I was able to continue to work full-time, which I did until I graduated this past January, with a B.A. in liberal arts.

I was lucky that they had a very open dialogue with us about financial aid and scholarships, and how they stood to increase every year I was at the school. For instance, with the prior-learning program, I think I paid $500 for a year’s worth of academic credits for work that I had already done that first year, which was just a tremendous help. The New School is pretty expensive, but the with assistance offered and the flexibility of the online curriculum, it made going back to school possible.

How did talking with your parents about this stuff change once you decided to return to school?

I think the fact that the conversations were happening at all was the main difference. When I was 17 or 18, I was certainly aware of the cost of college, and that tuition was astronomically high. But I felt, and I think even my parents felt, like this is just what people do. There’s not a good way around it. I’m the oldest of four kids; my youngest sister is a high school senior. My parents are pros now, they know all the ins and outs. And my siblings are all on track to have a lot less debt than I do.

What financial advice can you offer people looking at college?

Ask a lot of questions. That sounds like a very basic piece of advice, but nobody told my parents and me that when I was 17. I think that there are a lot of young people who don’t want to ask questions for fear of feeling stupid. I would encourage families to set meetings with college admissions counselors and financial aid officers. Look at all the options, because sometimes the first thing they put out on the table is not the best for you. Don’t let anyone scare you away from pushing back and fully investigating your choices.

I have a lot of friends who were told, “Don’t worry about loans now. Focus on your education.” Then they walked the graduation line—and were blindsided by all this debt.

(Quotes have been edited for style and length.)

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