Breaking the Infamous Stigma of a Nontraditional College Path

In our society, there is an underlying need to be perfect in all aspects, especially when it comes to school and academia. Beginning from a young age, children are taught that overachieving is the norm and should be the standard for everything that you do. This ability to be great at everything and do well is portrayed as simple and easy to accomplish yet the opposite is often true. But why is this unrealistic standard what is expected of every person regardless of their ability, whose decision is it to deem this mindset as inherently correct?    

I believe that this idea of students needing to live up to a certain criterion is unfair, and exclusive. Every student is different and should feel entitled to their own path in life and the ability to use this path to create their own successful destiny, however different from others. If everyone had the same path, and achieved the same goals, where would the diversity come in? Where is the room for growth and development if everyone remains stuck in more traditional and standardized practices?   

This divergence of paths is especially seen in people who have begun their college career. Between moving into a new environment to finally being able to select the classes you will study, one is overwhelmed by the numerous options surrounding every aspect of college life. Many students are often under the wrong impression from those around them that they are supposed to get the “perfect” degree for the economy, finish in the predestined four years, to join clubs, and eventually stretch themselves thin in every area. Despite wanting to do the “right” things, students in their first year of college ultimately realize that there is no set ”plan” to follow yet still feel bound by what is expected of them. This pressure to succeed and do well is often crippling and causes self esteem issues and a lack of confidence in their innate abilities.  

So, where does this leave those with goals and dreams different from the norm? What about those students who strive for a two year Associates degree and plan to receive later certification, or those who work full time through college and are unable to complete their degree in the traditional four years? How can we help break this stigma that surrounds the standards for students of our generation? The following tips are some that I have come up with to spread awareness of the differing paths students are able to take.    

  1. Firstly, laying out a plan, or options for the student to participate in college is a great way to encourage students to connect with others with interests similar to their own. In doing so, students are able to see what is available to them through other people. Does their path have more to do with service work around their community or more so an administrative role on campus? Joining clubs is an excellent way to understand your options while also connecting you to like-minded people. 

  1. The normalization of nontraditional career paths such as extended or shortened degree completion years or certificate programs can help students realize that every option is valid and just as justified as the traditional college path. 

  1. Informing students of all the resources on campus. Resources such as the career center and the wellness center can help students connect with professionals who can remind them all of their options and provide testimonials from past students. 

Personally, I believe that breaking this stigma would take an overwhelming amount of pressure off of students. This would allow them to not compare themselves to others on the more traditional path, leaving them with the ability to go at their own pace and reach their own goals, as society should encourage.  


Trina Ralph