I dropped out of school during my sophomore year of college. I was a little bit scared to do it, but I followed through because I was certain that I didn't want to get a normal job or do anything else that would make use of a degree. Dropping out was one of the best decisions I've made, and it pushed me towards the life that I really wanted to live.
However, just because dropping out was right for me doesn't mean that it's right for everyone, or for you. I think that the school system is trending towards obsolescence and is a far worse value proposition that it was in previous eras, but that doesn't mean that it's worthless or that it's not the right choice for a lot of people. You might be surprised to find out that when people email me to ask if they should drop out, I tell many of them that I think they should stay in school.
When I talk about dropping out of school, by the way, I mean dropping out of college. Unless you are home schooled or have a very good plan for learning useful life and social skills, I think that at least completing high school is a good idea. I also think that taking some college is a good idea for many people. Going for a semester is a fairly small investment of time to figure out if it's a good fit for you, and you can also completely disregard course guidelines and take interesting things like Chinese and scuba diving.
If you're in high school or entering college, the most important thing you should realize is that you alone are responsible for your education and your life, and that you should use the next four years in the best way possible. Forget about labels like graduate and dropout, and focus on what is best going to prepare you for the life that you want to have.
This means that going to school is not enough. Showing up and getting a degree will not get you anywhere. Showing up and learning things, creating projects, and making connections WILL get you somewhere. You can also do these things outside of school, which is why in many cases I discount the importance of school. In the end your success will be due to your own efforts.
In some fields, like Law or Medicine, school is the only way you can make progress. If you want to be a doctor, not only should you go to school, but you should independently learn as much about medicine as you can. School will provide you with a lot of leverage in those fields. On the other hand, if you're interested in building things with computers, school may actually be more of a hindrance than a boon. For many people, learning computer science on their own will be more efficient, more practical, and more comprehensive.
On the other hand, if you will not put in effort independently, it's important to recognize this. The worst thing you can do is drop out and do nothing, so in that case it's probably better to go to school. You will at least be pushed along at a minimum rate, which will be a better outcome than doing absolutely nothing.
The cost of school must be examined as well. School is the one thing besides medical care that no one dares put an upper limit on. If you're able to get a full scholarship that covers room and board, you should probably go to school no matter what. Just take the classes that interest you, spend all of your time doing your own projects, and then drop out once your own projects start to take off. If you're forced to actually take classes towards a major, just don't show up and fail out. At least you'll get an extra semester of time to work.
Remember that the point of being in school isn't to have a stack of graded papers with your name on them, but to give you the biggest possible advantage for the rest of your life. Sometimes the way to accrue that advantage is to study hard and pass tests, but other times it's to not show up to class and use your free time to create things with other people you meet at school. This is called thinking outside of the box-- something that school doesn't teach very well.
School is not a necessity, it's not a shortcut, and it's not a guarantee. It's a tool. For some jobs/lives it's the right tool, and for others it's horribly wrong. Your goal as you approach that phase of life should be to pick the best tool for the job and wield it as well as you possibly can. Deciding whether to go to school, to graduate, or to drop out, is a personal decision that warrants a lot of thought regardless of your inclination. The reason I often come up against school is because there are very few counterpoints to the "school is for everyone" dogma. Dropping out was right for me. It might be right for you, or it might not be. Making that decision independently is probably a good step towards a successful adulthood.
Photo is a cool staircase in the third temple on the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan.
I went to college, got my degree, and graduated. Would I do it again? Probably not. While I learned a lot, the value that I got out of it is not nearly worth the amount of debt I accrued.
Tynan, can you give us your thoughts on the two different versions of Earth Runner sandals? You wrote that used the thicker model for your Peru hike, but I haven't seen you post your thoughts on them anywhere. I was looking at purchasing some Earth Runners this summer and was curious what you thought. Thanks!
I realise that Americans have a skewed view of higher education due to the ridiculously high costs, and I realise that most of the readership here is American, BUT
In many countries, higher education is cheap or even free. Here in Portugal, I pay 1k € per year towards my degree (which can be paid for by working for our minimum wage during the summer), and many countries have free higher education - or in some cases (Austria, I believe) you only pay if you take more than the standard time to graduate.
I still agree that you can't depend on college for learning and expect to have a job just cause you got through it - it's important to see it for what it is: in my case, a pretty cheap investment that gives me access to some pretty amazing minds for a couple of years, and an opportunity to meet a lot of incredible people. It's also important to use our free time to actually produce something useful - possibly ourselves - so that we can contribute to society when we're done.
Just playing the European Devil's Advocate. :)
A degree is nice to have as a backup in case you decide to be normal again. In China, you HAVE to have a degree to get a job as a foreigner.
But looking back, I hated school and it did NOT help me grow as a human being. If anything, it made me hate learning.
But you are right to tell people to stay in school because the ones who will drop out (and have a chance) will do it despite you anyway.
I think I need to squirrel away this post in case I ever have kids, so I can pull it out in a couple of decades. Nicely written, Tynan. I'm pretty disillusioned with the modern-day state of higher education, and have read quite a bit on it, but I think you've summarized the situation here in a more concise and even-handed way than I've seen anywhere else.
I have a bachelor's degree, and don't regret the four years it took to get, because circumstances allowed me to graduate without going massively into debt. But would never take the same route without the scholarships and help from parents that made that possible. There's no one-size-fits-all solution for everyone, but you would never know it from the COLLEGE COLLEGE COLLEGE advice that teachers, guidance counselors and parents try to jackhammer into your brain in high school. That may have been good advice in 1976 when they made the decision, but it sure as hell isn't now.
I'm a fan of community colleges for their cheap cost, laid-back atmosphere, cut-and-dry classes, and the fact that you can take no-credit courses. I am going to one to work towards transferring for a computer science degree and I think it's a good place to start out without racking up debt, since it's more manageable to pay for up front.
On the other hand, going away to some 4-year college off the bat would really enhance my interactions with people, making connections. I do make them at the CC but probably would do so more if I were to spend more time on campus instead of just going in for my classes and leaving right after. Going away would also be a good way to simply immerse yourself into living alone (or at least with different people than you've been with for 18 years) in a different life. You would get a wake-up call to reflect on your own needs for living your daily life. Dorms are rather minimalistic, so it would be a nice way to practice living that way. Or you could rent a house with some friends... whatever. College can either be a way to experiment with various elements of your life while maintaining some structure of dealing with classes, or college can suck you down the beaten path if you don't take the initiative to experiment.
Today's graduates just need to go in with both eyes open and do a lot of self introspection imo. If you are not 'a runner' or ambitious personality type then you should be looking at the cheapest college options possible. Basically you do this so that you have a chance of repaying student loans accured. If you are not a runner you will most likely end up making 8-12$/hr at your very first job if being paid at all. Factor in how much college you can pay back with that minimum salary + living expenses and make an appropriate choice.
The above calculations are approximated from SF/Bay Area living standards. Very high cost of living, not many entry-level opportunities, and overcrowded public schools makes college almost a no-go unless you can get all your classes and get them cheap. The environment you live in is a big factor in what the right choices to make are. To me SF Bay Area is becoming a sort of eugenic filter where only the best and brightest who bootstrap startups or started with money can survive - everyone else gets kicked off the curb. If I lived in a more middle class friendly area where rent was cheap, college was affordable, and entry level opportunities abound I'd probably recommend college. If I had to do it over again as a comp sci. I'd probably just take some generic online college for cheap just to have a degree and bootstrap the rest. Woudl've spent a lot more time making connections as well instead of closing my eyes and trying to charge thru the workload.What most graduates don't realize is going to college is the first big decision of their lives. Most people do or don't go out of some defaulted 'gut level' thinking but this is one of those things that really needs to be thought through. Going to college is basically your first big business deal of your life - do you invest now and hope to make more back later or see that the investment will not likely pay off? Like any business venture one has to do due diligence and really weigh the financial pros/cons of each with hard numbers. Unfortunately our education system does not really promote the concept of 'self responsibility'.
I would say it also depends a lot on where you go... I went to Mercer University, a private Baptist college in Macon, GA -- the senior EE labs were about 7 people. I had a scholarship to University of Alabama (Huntsville), but I think I made the right choice in going to Mercer: because we were small, I got to work on a diverse set of subjects (I had to to do the projects that I wanted -- including an IEEE robot contest and the Formula SAE car competition), and I had the freedom of being "nonstandard" in many ways (essay course on Lord of the Rings -- sure!).
But I chose to persue these projects -- they were "things I was interested in" and I also know that --for me-- the best way to learn something is to do it (kinesthetic learning). For me, the saying "I do therefore I understand" is the way I learn. I also chose to take the CompSci courses (yes, CompSci theory is important -- when you're trying to figure out how to eek out performance in an algorithm, it pays to pay more attention to what it's trying to do than how it's trying to do it), and the Lord of the Rings course because I was interested in those things.
Despite barely showing up as a blip on the "Engineering Curricula Guidelines", I think the Liberal Arts classes were very helpful -- thoughtful analysis and presentation goes a long way towards career advancement, even in engineering. Then again, I wouldn't have gotten as much out of "decision analytics 101" (probably a MBA class) as I got out of "Character Analysis of Frodo Baggins" (see, that "by doing" thing again), so I don't really know how I could advise someone else, other than saying -- if it's even idly interesting, persue it.
fyi, since you went to Japan I switched to Feedly since Google Reader is going away and I got multiple feeds from you of several emails instead of just the most current.
More on topic, I forwarded "dropout" to my niece and nephew who are approaching college...I'll be interested to hear what they think
Ah. A timely post. It so happens that I just dropped out of grad school. I discovered that my true academic calling was philosophy, but that type of writing or thinking did not fly among modern historians, and I was stuck in history--whose practitioners tend to be people who think things said by other historians are more important than primary sources; further, modern philosophy is a post-Kantian cesspool of people even more disconnected from bleeding reality.
I despair for the sake of modern academia in America. Maybe it is better elsewhere, but here, the game is rigged.
That said, learning Latin and Greek as an undergrad was one of the best things I ever did. I could not have done that without college. Also, I made a lot of lifelong friends. But the system is deteriorating rapidly. That is not good. Arguably, education is the most important function of a society. When it breaks down, the society breaks down.
I live in an empire in decline without the wherewithal--and, thanks to a failed educational system, the wisdom--to engage in its assumed role of international cop.
[Edit: I just had another thought]
It is not just the West but worldwide that a college degree is a sign of "class." If you do not have a college degree, you are lower class, no matter how successful you are, and, factually, people with college degrees DO make more money. (This is true. Research that if you do not believe me. You will not find one economist, not ONE, who thinks college is a bad investment.) BUT. This has nothing to do with knowledge or wisdom. It is just a social control mechanism that societies use to filter managers from workers.
I'm an economist and some economists are skeptical of the value of education. The data clearly shows that college graduates make more. But, its hard to know to what extent this is due to selection effects (people who go to college tend to be of higher ability). The weight of the evidence (using statistics) seems to indicate that education also has a causal effect on earnings. But, this view is not universally shared by economists.
"The data clearly shows that college graduates make more." Que Est Demonstratum. All else is speculation. Interesting, maybe even valuable for improving the value of education, but, still, speculation. I'd be interested in hearing the names of economists who dispute the data itself. My research has not uncovered them. If yours has, I stand corrected.
That's silly. The data also shows that people who go to the hospital are more likely to die. But, it's pretty clear that the hospital isn't causing the death, sick people just tend to go to the hospital. The whole point of the social sciences is to tease out causal relationships from correlations that are otherwise meaningless.
The first economist who comes to mind that disagrees with the value of education is Bryan Caplan. His upcoming book is:
The Case Against Education: A Professional Student Explains Why Our Education System is a Big Waste of Time and Money
Caplan's views do not represent the consensus of economists, but they illustrate that there is controversy about the value of education.
How I wish someone had told me this when I was heading off to college. Instead it was a lonely experience, where I felt lost and out of my depth and like the only person who didn't know what they wanted to do with their life. I regret the money that my parents wasted (money that wasn't easy to get), and I regret that my upbringing compelled me to "do the right thing" instead of speaking up and asking for help.
In our culture going to school is given a lot of respect. Dropouts face a sharp negative stigma. They're quitters. They're losers. They'll go nowhere in life. But is this really true? How big of a factor is college on success?
Here's a list of some of the dropouts that I personally admire :
Larry Ellison (Oracle)
Almost 1 in 5 of the US Presidents including Lincoln, Washington, Jackson, and Cleveland
John D. Rockafeller
Ray Kroc (billionaire founder of McDonalds)
The second semester. It's what every single high school senior awaits. It's one of the most well-known phenomenons of high school students all over the States. Students, teachers, and parents all take for granted that the second semester of senior year is supposed to the most stress-free time of students' lives.
The whole logic is that colleges only have grades, extracurricular activities, and whatnot for three and a half years of high school. That last half, the second semester of senior year, is completely irrelevant to college admissions. Sure universities can withdraw their offer if you experienced a horrid second semester, but it's almost unheard of.
As a current second semester senior, I am surrounded by this mentality. People complain about getting work because "it doesn't matter" anymore. I've admittedly most likely thought the same thing at least once. But the more I think about this whole concept of the "second semester senior," the more I hate it.
In short, it is implying that the only purpose of high school is to get into college. Every thing you do in high school, whether it be grades or sports or whatever, is to gain admission into a college. In the end, that is all that matters. College is viewed as an end goal to high school students, not a place along a journey.