Perhaps you remember hearing somewhere that Downtown Brooklyn is home to more college students than Cambridge, Massachusetts? Well, as it turns out, all of those industrious men and women, plugging away at their educational goals are suckers who should just quit while they can because all the really successful people in the world think college is for losers. Losers!
Wait. Doesn't this go against almost everything you've ever heard about the benefits of going to the best school you can get into because starting your adult life with $60,000 of inescapable debt builds character? I'm confused. Maybe because I'm not that smart. Because I graduated college.
The idea that maybe not everybody will get the maximum benefit out of college is not new of course, but the New York Times is jumping all over the story now, for some reason. In his article, "Saying No to College", Alex Williams writes that "the idea that a college diploma is an all-but-mandatory ticket to a successful career is showing fissures." Williams has some evidence that dropping out of college is not the crazy endeavor that your parents would have you think it is. After all, "it worked for the founders of Twitter, Tumblr and a little company known as Apple."
You guys. Those are some of the coolest companies ever. If I could retro-actively drop out of college, I would!* Other drop-outs who are not as cool as Steve Jobs and Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams of Twitter include Bill Gates and the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. Who are also pretty successful, just nowhere near as cool. Of course, Jobs attended the prestigious Reed College and Gates and Zuckerberg were at Harvard, which, well, there's an argument to be made that if you have the natural intelligence to get yourself in the door of those universities, then you're already ahead of the game. There's a pretty good chance that whether or not you attend college, you're still not going to be the next Steve Jobs.
But does that even matter? Williams spoke to Michael Ellsberg, author of “The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won’t Learn In College About How to Be Successful”, and a Brown University graduate, who said, "I’m not saying you have to be Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. I know people with dog-walking businesses who make six figures." And who doesn't love dogs and want to pick up their shit, professionally? I mean that. I do it for free now and wouldn't mind raking in even five figures from the situation.
*Actually, fun fact: I did drop out of college. Then I went back and graduated. So, I basically know of what I speak. For once.
One pretty valid argument against attending college is that, with tuition prices rising stratospherically, most graduates can expect to carry tens of thousands of dollars in debt around with them for years to come. This might be acceptable if you're entering a lucrative career, but if you're, say, a writer, that debt can quickly become crippling. However, it is also perhaps not the worst thing for college students to keep in mind when they decide to go to NYU and major in Religious Studies that, perhaps, they might want to look beyond the experience of their four years in school and take a look at what the future holds. If what the future holds is cocktail waitressing, then maybe pick another major? Or a more affordable school?
Predictably, experts from the higher education industry think that college is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to obtain a worthwhile career. And, just as predictably, people who have already been successful after dropping out of college find higher education unnecessary. I guess it's just funny to me when a person who is building an industry for themselves out of denouncing college, like "James Altucher, a prominent investor, entrepreneur and pundit who self-published a book called '40 Alternatives to College,'” now says that he "regrets going to Cornell." I mean, sure he does! OK. But how can he pretend that he didn't benefit at all from the prestige and culture of elite networking that his college experience brought him. Perhaps he would have been "more" successful if he hadn't gone, but that is a hard thing to measure, especially in retrospect.
I guess, in some ways, I am old-fashioned. I believe in the inherent value of a liberal arts education. I don't think it's for everybody and I don't think that career or financial success is dependent on it. But I do think that a liberal arts education is sui generis and that having an extended period of time to explore academic interests before setting out on a career path is almost never a bad thing. And I also think that part of the allure of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg is not just that they dropped-out, but that they dropped out in such spectacular ways. They are exceptions though. Just like the dog walker making six figures is an exception. And the Times clearly recognizes this. The end of Williams's article settles on Jean Fan. Fan is a young woman in high school who is an editor for UnCollege, a website that "advocates a D.I.Y. approach to higher education," but "is busy applying to elite universities right now." Williams points out that Fan "recognizes the irony" in doing so, but I think the irony of this whole article extends beyond Ms. Fan wanting to continue on the educational path that she has been on her whole life.
For me, the irony is more along the lines of the fact that the iconoclasts mentioned are always the handful that have managed to become wildly successful. You can't prove a rule by highlighting the exceptions to that rule. Any college graduate knows that. Statistics show that a college degree is indispensable in finding employment—"while the unemployment rate for recent four year college graduates is 6.8%, according to researchers the unemployment rate for recent high school graduates is nearly 24%." So, while it's fun to imagine that dropping out of school will simultaneously guarantee that you won't have student loan debt while also starting a billion dollar company, that isn't too likely. It's a little bit like winning the lottery. I guess it's possible, but is that really what you want to gamble your future on?
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen