I know there are a number of similar old threads on the subject and I've spent a bunch of time reading through them before deciding I would like to make my own more specific post.
To give an overview of my situation, I am a 26 year old male. I did one year of college straight out of high school due to the haggling of my parents. Had no idea what to study or what even interested me. After one pretty miserable and unproductive year, I dropped out dissatisfied with the college experience and seeking adventure. Spent a couple years sailing, back packing, rock climbing, working odd jobs to make ends meet etc. Found out about working as an instructor or a guide in the Outdoor Expedition and Wilderness Therapy fields. Was extremely excited about this as a career path and did a 1 year Outdoor Leadership training program through a community college. Got a good gig at a youth wilderness program for foster youth leading trips and introducing urban youth to the wonderous outdoors. Worked at this program for 4 years and although i could have managed to save quite a bit of money, instead i opted to take more than half the year off each year to go on more travelling adventures and rock climbing trips around the world.
During this time, my love of nature grew deeper and deeper and through this and my travels i began learning more about things like foraging, primitive skills, homesteading, medicinal herbs, sustainability etc. In the past year, I read a book called the Hand Sculpted House which was the first thing that really turned me on to natural building and permaculture in general. I had heard some of the terms but had never really grokked the big picture. Every since then I have been obsessively researching and reading. This spring, instead of going back to my job at the wilderness program, instead I moved to Northern California to work as a grunt/"apprentice" for a timber framer natural builder and live on their homestead as a caretaker and garden hand. It has been mine first experience extensively gardening. It will be a pretty significant hit in the amount of money i earn but I decided to do so in the interest of what I will learn through it.
Due to these new interests and recent revelations , I've recently awakened to the idea of saving and planning and working to build the future that i desire. Though i have no regrets and feel rich with incredible experiences, I have only a few hundred dollars saved up in my bank account currently due to all my travelling and adventuring. Thankfully, I have no debt. I am able to live frugally fairly well due to all my time living out of my car penny pinching so that my climbing trip could last 5 months. I would love to save up to buy land so that I can start growing food and building a home and developing a sort of homestead. Im not sure what career path to follow though. I am a very hands on person and like working with my hands and when i first learned of natural building thought that it was what i wanted to become. But i have very little construction and carpentry experience and the idea of becoming a carpenter/natural builder seems daunting and far fetched seeing as it could take me a decade or more to aquire the skills i need to become self employed. Ultimately, that is what I would love the most. To be self empoloyed so as to have a flexible schedule. That or a seasonal job that leaves me with plenty of time to work on personal endeavors like homesteading.
Now that I have a vision of a life I might like to lead, I feel its time to buckle in and work to make it a reality. My dilemma is that im not sure where to go next. I am wondering about going back to school to finish off and get a BA and am wondering what folks input might be on that. I do have a fair amount of credits, maybe 3 or more semesters worth, assuming they transfer to wherever I would go. I feel getting a BA may be a prudent choice in order to open better paying opportunities for myself. While I do have a lot of experience under my belt in the outdoor/wilderness therapy field, most programs require that you have at least a BA to get the higher paying more long term Director and Coordinator type positions. I would do my best to find a way to go back to school for however years it would require to get a BA without going in to any debt. I feel this would be achievable due to scholarships (im now an independant adult who is dirt poor on paper, less than 20,000 a year) and familial support. DO you think getting a BA would be worth it if it meant I werent saving much money at all during that time but i wasnt going in to debt? I was considering environment sustainability focused schools like Sterling College in VT or Warren Wilson so that even if I chose to get a degree in OUtdoor Educations because i have lots of credits in that department, I could still glean and network and gain more insights in to the world of environmental sustainability. I was also considering a degree in Ecology or Sustainable Food Systems or something of the sort. I already have the tool kit to get many jobs in the outdoor field and often it doesnt matter what your BA is in so this could be a good way to diversify my skillsets and maybe land a job related to permaculture. What might that job be though? Maybe I could create m own major and find a way to combine my interests in wilderness therapy and permaculture.
Ive written a lot. Bottom line is, to go back to school or not? What about pursuing a trade instead? What jobs could those types of environmental BAs land? Any advice or ideas on how to best go back to school to finish a BA degree? Any experiences with Sterling College in VT? Any advice or thoughts whatsoever are greatly appreciated
If you've read all this, even if you dont reply, thank you. It helps me just to write this all out. Im new to this site but Ive already learned so much,
How do you feel currently about your former guiding/leadership gig?
If you still like that kind of work, seems like it might not be incompatible with your other aspirations; in the short term, what about just replacing the climbing/traveling part of your year with learning more about permie/natural building stuff?
The key IMO is to be learning and gaining experience without ending up out of pocket. Maybe you won't get paid, but I'd expect you could find many opportunities to acquire knowledge plus room/board in exchange for labour. If you have the drive and energy to also pursue book learning and maybe a side hustle you could pick up an awful lot in a couple years split this way, while banking the vast majority of the income from the employed portion of the year...
Given your discussion of avoiding debt I think you're on a similar page... I just have a hard time seeing the value in that BA. What are the odds of finding another path to that senior position? Once you've the job once, would that resume entry trump the need for the BA at other places? If so, where can you go to get that job, where they don't care about the BA?
This may just be me, but I very rarely find information I paid for to be better than information I earned...
Otoh if you cringe at the idea of many more years of similar work... maybe don't invest further in that track.
'Theoretically this level of creeping Orwellian dynamics should ramp up our awareness, but what happens instead is that each alert becomes less and less effective because we're incredibly stupid.' - Jerry Holkins
Hi Peter, I think Dillon nailed it. You seem to already know what you love, and know to live frugally to reach your goals - why not focus there? You just may have to defer your 5 month trips for a while. Otherwise, I would pursue a trade over a BA these days. Good luck!
“All good things are wild, and free.” Henry David Thoreau
Peter, "The Hand Sculpted House" lit a fire in me too. That is one of my favorite books, along with "One Straw Revolution."
To answer your question, having a college degree lets you work for other people. It buys you stability. If you did not have a clear passion (natural building, homesteading), then I would say it might be a good path for you. I've worked with many directionless people who were perfectly happy to come sit in their office all day and go home to watch TV while raking in that steady paycheck. It strikes me as odd, but it works for them.
You, on the other hand, have a fire burning in you to learn natural building and start a homestead. I can tell you from experience that if you run away from that passion and follow a more traditional path (college, salary job working for somebody else), that passion will continue to gnaw away at you until you finally cave in and do something about it. Either that, or it will slowly die, which is even worse.
But your question is about practicality, balancing what you're interested in with the very real need to earn money. By the way, that's wonderful that you have no debt and are good at living frugally. You're already doing great.
If you are interested in any state or federal government jobs, then I think the BA may be worthwhile. Unlike private companies, where you can weasel your way into a high ranking position based on (gasp) your knowledge and skills, of which it sounds like you have plenty, government jobs are highly prescriptive in their requirements and do not make exceptions. Most require a college degree. They will also determine your pay based on your years of experience calculated, once again, following a strict formula. My experience working in state government years ago was generally positive. It's very stable and predictable, you get decent benefits, and you're (in theory) serving the greater good. You could get a fun job in an environmental or fish & wildlife department. It would likely have to be full-time. On the downside, the inefficiency and apathy in government can drive you nuts.
If you're not considering a government job, then I don't think the college degree is worth it unless you're confident it will lead to a lucrative, well-paying job. No doubt, if you pursued a BA you would learn new things and gain some skills - a college degree is not as worthless as people make it out to be. However, a college degree is often not worth the investment of time and money as a learning experience. A college degree can be worth the time and money as a hoop to jump through if it lands you in a career you want (not likely based on your interests) or a high-paying job. With a high-paying job, if you continued to live frugally, you could potentially build your homestead up slowly over time, tinker with natural building on the weekends, then retire early and live your dream life (still frugally) maybe starting in your 40's. Delayed gratification sucks, but with that plan you're getting the best of both worlds, especially if you get your food-producing plants in the ground early and have years for them mature while you're still slaving away for a paycheck.
You may want to do some math. Suppose you can find a job now or cobble together enough side gigs that you earn $30,000 a year. Could you live on $20,000 and stash away $10,000 each year? Awesome. Over the next 15 years you will save $150,000 plus interest. Suppose you go to college for 3 years and net $0 during that time - no debt and no savings. Then you get a job that pays $50,000. For the next 12 years you live on $20,000 and save $30,000 each year. In the end you have saved $360,000 by the same age living at the same level of spending. Just crunching the numbers for this entirely hypothetical scenario, going to college makes more sense. You may want to do some research and look at various realistic scenarios in the same way so that you can weigh the cold, hard numbers against the enjoyment and satisfaction you would experience in each scenario.
I wish I had a clear answer for you, but what I can do is tell you about my own personal experiences having college degrees. Maybe seeing how it played out in real life for someone else could offer you some insight to help you make up your mind. Since the day I graduated, I've worked full-time in jobs that required at least a bachelors: four years in state government, seven years teaching at a public university, and now one year at a private organization. In general, my jobs have been pretty cushy and low stress. I've always had enough money, usually more than I need. I've gotten to interact with tons of wonderful, intelligent coworkers from all different backgrounds. I've learned a wide variety of skills, many of which I never would have learned if I were just doing my own thing and not being forced outside my comfort zone. I've gotten to travel for business trips. In fact, I just returned from Toronto last night, where I stayed in a fancy hotel and went out for drinks every night with very smart, kind people from all over the world, all on the company's dime. There are perks to working at a professional job that requires a college degree beyond just a better salary. Most importantly, though, I've gained an understanding of what makes the world run - board meetings, policy development, office politics, committees, memos, organizational hierarchy charts - mind numbing things that make you want to bang your head against the wall. However, understanding how the business/government world works puts you in a much better position to create change in the world if there's something you're passionate about.
The downside of these jobs is that they were not completely fulfilling. Even worse, I feel like a slave working 8 to 5 every weekday all year long with only two or three weeks of vacation time that gets eaten up by sick kids or dentist appointments. I, personally, have not had much success finding part-time jobs or jobs with flexible schedules that pay well and are intended for people with college degrees, but that could just be me. So I am trapped in the rat race of working a rigid full-time schedule and never having a chance to pause and reflect on the what the heck I'm doing. I look back at the last 12 years and feel like I mostly wasted my talents and extinguished my inner creativity. As long as I've been working, I've felt restless and daydreamed about running my own small farm, which was my dream long before I ever went to college. Yes, having a comfortable lifestyle has been nice, but in my opinion it has not been worth selling my soul.
Soon I will jump ship and start building the life I want, which is made much easier because of my college degrees. The reason is that I will be teaching online (about 10-15 hours a week) to make just enough money to cover the bills. That affords me the opportunity to make a lot of mistakes while I learn how to eke out a living doing the things I actually love. Without my college degrees, I would not have the luxury of being able to make a smoother transition from working for the man to working for me. Having a steady paycheck, even a small one, brings me peace of mind, which is important to me since I have children and a family to think about. It sounds like you may not be as tied to stability and predictability as I am, given your description of your years sailing, rock climbing, backpacking, etc., which is why I lean a little more toward not going back to college in your case. The only exception is - you mentioned looking at Sterling College. If you could get into the next round of the Wendell Berry Farming Program, it looks pretty amazing. I'm sure it's competitive.
Best of luck to you! When trying to make a difficult decision, I have two pieces of advice. First is to remember that no matter which path you take, you can always change your course, and you will always learn something. The second is to flip a coin and say "heads" means you go back to college. If it lands on heads and you feel disappointed, then maybe that's not what you really want to do. If it lands on heads and you feel relieved, then maybe that is what you want to do. I know that's kind of stupid, but it has worked for me before. Good luck to you!