Education, Top Stories

The Case for Dropping Out of College

During the summer, my father asked me whether the money he’d spent to finance my first few years at Fordham University in New York City, one of the more expensive private colleges in the United States, had been well spent. I said yes, which was a lie.

I majored in computer science, a field with good career prospects, and involved myself in several extracurricular clubs. Since I managed to test out of some introductory classes, I might even have been able to graduate a year early—thereby producing a substantial cost savings for my family. But the more I learned about the relationship between formal education and actual learning, the more I wondered why I’d come to Fordham in the first place.

* * *

According to the not-for-profit College Board, the average cost of a school year at a private American university was almost $35,000 in 2017—a figure I will use for purposes of rough cost-benefit analysis. (While public universities are less expensive thanks to government subsidies, the total economic cost per student-year, including the cost borne by taxpayers, typically is similar.) The average student takes about 32 credits worth of classes per year (with a bachelor’s degree typically requiring at least 120 credits in total). So a 3-credit class costs just above $3,000, and a 4-credit class costs a little more than $4,000.

What do students get for that price? I asked myself this question on a class by class basis, and have found an enormous mismatch between price and product in almost all cases. Take the two 4-credit calculus classes I took during freshman year. The professor had an unusual teaching style that suited me well, basing his lectures directly on lectures posted online by MIT. Half the class, including me, usually skipped the lectures and learned the content by watching the original material on MIT’s website. When the material was straightforward, I sped up the video. When it was more difficult, I hit pause, re-watched it, or opened a new tab on my browser so I could find a source that covered the same material in a more accessible way. From the perspective of my own convenience and education, it was probably one of the best classes I’ve taken in college. But I was left wondering: Why should anyone pay more than $8,000 to watch a series of YouTube videos, available online for free, and occasionally take an exam?

Another class I took, Philosophical Ethics, involved a fair bit of writing. The term paper, which had an assigned minimum length of 5,000 words, had to be written in two steps—first a full draft and then a revised version that incorporated feedback from the professor. Is $3,250 an appropriate cost for feedback on 10,000 words? That’s hard to say. But consider that the going rate on the web for editing this amount of text is just a few hundred dollars. Even assuming that my professor is several times more skilled and knowledgeable, it’s not clear that this is a good value proposition.

“But what about the lectures?” you ask. The truth is that many students, including me, don’t find the lectures valuable. As noted above, equivalent material usually can be found online for free, or at low cost. In some cases, a student will find that his or her own professor has posted video of his or her own lectures. And the best educators, assisted with the magic of video editing, often put out content that puts even the most renowned college lecturers to shame. If you have questions about the material, there’s a good chance you will find the answer on Quora or Reddit.

Last semester, I took a 4-credit class called Computer Organization. There was a total of 23 lectures, each of 75 minutes length—or about 29 hours of lectures. I liked the professor and enjoyed the class. Yet, once the semester was over, I noticed that almost all of the core material was contained in a series of YouTube videos that was just three hours long.

Like many of my fellow students, I spend most of my time in class on my laptop: Twitter, online chess, reading random articles. From the back of the class, I can see that other students are doing likewise. One might think that all of these folks will be in trouble when test time comes around. But watching a few salient online videos generally is all it takes to master the required material. You see the pattern here: The degrees these people get say “Fordham,” but the actual education often comes courtesy of YouTube.

The issue I am discussing is not new, and predates the era of on-demand web video. As far back as 1984, American educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom discovered that an average student who gets individual tutoring will outperform the vast majority of peers taught in a regular classroom setting. Even the best tutors cost no more than $80 an hour—which means you could buy 50 hours of their service for the pro-rated cost of a 4-credit college class that supplies 30 hours of (far less effective) lectures.

All of these calculations are necessarily imprecise, of course. But for the most part, I would argue, the numbers I have presented here underestimate the true economic cost of bricks-and-mortar college education, since I have not imputed the substantial effective subsidies that come through government tax breaks, endowments and support programs run by all levels of government.

So given all this, why are we told that, far from being a rip-off, college is a great deal? “In 2014, the median full-time, full-year worker over age 25 with a bachelor’s degree earned nearly 70% more than a similar worker with just a high school degree,” read one typical online report from 2016. The occasion was Jason Furman, then head of Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, tweeting out data showing that the ratio of an average college graduate’s earnings to a similarly situated high-school graduate’s earnings had grown from 1.1 in 1975 to more than 1.6 four decades later.

To ask my question another way: What accounts for the disparity between the apparently poor value proposition of college at a micro level with the statistically observed college premium at the macro level? A clear set of answers appears in The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, a newly published book by George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan.

One explanation lies in what Caplan calls “ability bias”: From the outset, the average college student is different from the average American who does not go to college. The competitive college admissions process winnows the applicant pool in such a way as to guarantee that those who make it into college are more intelligent, conscientious and conformist than other members of his or her high-school graduating cohort. In other words, when colleges boast about the “70% income premium” they supposedly provide students, they are taking credit for abilities that those students already had before they set foot on campus, and which they likely could retain and commercially exploit even if they never got a college diploma. By Caplan’s estimate, ability bias accounts for about 45% of the vaunted college premium. Which would means that a college degree actually boosts income by about 40 points, not the oft-cited 70.

Of course, 40% is still a huge premium. But Caplan digs deeper by asking how that premium is earned. And in his view, the extra income doesn’t come from substantive skills learned in college classrooms, but rather from what he called the “signaling” function of a diploma: Because employers lack any quick and reliable objective way to evaluate a job candidate’s potential worth, they fall back on the vetting work done by third parties—namely, colleges. A job candidate who also happens to be someone who managed to get through the college admissions process, followed by four years of near constant testing, likely is someone who is also intelligent and conscientious, and who can be relied on to conform to institutional norms. It doesn’t matter what the applicant was tested on, since it is common knowledge that most of what one learns in college will never be applied later in life. What matters is that these applicants were tested on something. Caplan estimates that signaling accounts for around 80% of the 40-point residual college premium described above, which, if true, would leave less than ten percentage points—from the original 70—left to be accounted for.

There are many signs that the signaling model of education is correct. Consider the case of a Canadian named Guillaume Dumas, who, between 2008 and 2012, attended lectures at prestigious universities such as Yale, Stanford and UC Berkeley without being enrolled. It turned out that this was surprisingly easy, since colleges do little to prevent non-students from sitting in on classes. Many professors are even feel flattered if their lectures attract outsiders, which is why so many of them put their lectures on the web. But think about what this means: If the knowledge conferred by university lectures were so intrinsically valuable—as opposed to just a means to a diploma—why would these schools and professors essentially be giving it away for free? The answer is that they know what Caplan knows—which is that it is the diploma that’s valuable as a signaling artifact, not the actual substance of what’s learned.

The general public, too, is aware of this—which is why almost no one seems interested in following Dumas’ example by attending college lectures without being enrolled in a paid course of study. If it were the actual content of lectures that people wanted, every college would have to post a guard outside of classrooms to prevent unpaid auditors. Instead, the opposite it true: When a professor cancels a class, most students cheer, as this allows them to graduate while attending one fewer lecture.

Till now, I have discussed the value of college education in generic fashion. But as everyone on any campus knows, different majors offer different value. In the case of liberal arts, the proportion of the true college premium attributable to signaling is probably close to 100%. It is not just that the jobs these students seek typically don’t require any of the substantive knowledge they acquired during their course of study: They also aren’t really improving students’ analytical skills, either. In their 2011 book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa presented data showing that, over their first two years of college, students typically improve their skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by less than a fifth of a standard deviation.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s 2017 report on STEM jobs, even the substantive educational benefit to be had from degrees in technical fields may be overstated—since “almost two-thirds of the workers with a STEM undergraduate degree work in a non-STEM job.” Signaling likely play a strong role in such cases. Indeed, since STEM degrees are harder to obtain than non-STEM degrees, they provide an even stronger signal of intelligence and conscientiousness.

However, this is not the only reason why irrelevant coursework pays. Why do U.S. students who want to become doctors, one of the highest paying professions, first need to complete four years of often unrelated undergraduate studies? The American blogger and psychiatrist Scott Alexander, who majored in philosophy as an undergraduate and then went on to study medicine in Ireland, observed in his brilliant 2015 essay Against Tulip Subsidies that “Americans take eight years to become doctors. Irishmen can do it in four, and achieve the same result.” Law follows a similar pattern: While it takes four years to study law in Ireland, and in France it takes five, students in the United States typically spend seven years in school before beginning the separate process of bar accreditation.

In a 2014 interview, the contrarian investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who has raised alarms about the direction of the higher education system for many years, explained that the idea of education has become a mere “abstraction” which serves to obscure problems with the quality of training and knowledge people receive. While the price of college education increased at more than double the baseline rate of inflation between 1980 and 2017, there is evidence that many students are learning less today than their parents and grandparents did.

Over the last 50 years, the amount of time students spend studying has fallen by almost 40%. At the same time, the average GPA has steadily risen, at a rate of about 0.1 point per decade. In 1983, the average GPA was 2.8; in 2013, it was more than 3.1. This may sound like good news: better grades for less work. But a more likely explanation is a simple inflationary dynamic.

In the American imagination, college is a stepping stone to a better life. But the value from the “sheepskin signaling premium” conferred by a diploma isn’t going to those who need it. As Matthew Stewart argued in his June Atlantic magazine cover story, The Birth of a New American Aristocracy, it is the students whose parents already are well off who are capturing the benefits of this system. A 2017 study found that 38 colleges, including five Ivy League Schools, had more students from society’s top 1% earning families than from the bottom 60%.

To some extent, this is the result of informal mechanisms that allow wealthy families to provide more opportunities for their children. Practicing a costly sport such as lacrosse, fencing or squash, for instance, can greatly increase one’s chances of being accepted into an elite college. And in California, the eleven best public elementary schools are located in Palo Alto, where the median house price is $3,310,100. (This reflects a national trend. A 2012 study by the Brookings Institute found that “home values are $205,000 higher on average in the neighborhoods of high-scoring versus low-scoring schools.”) But in some cases, such mechanisms are formally institutionalized. Court documents published in 2018, for instance, reveal that legacy applicants are five times more likely to be accepted to Harvard than non-legacy applicants.

These problems are well-known, and efforts to help admit disadvantaged students have been underway for decades. But a class divide persists on campus even for those students who make the cut: While the average graduation rate at four-year colleges after six years is 59% (an already appallingly low number), the graduation rate among low-income students is only 16%. The other 84% suffer the worst of both worlds: They receive almost none of college’s income-boosting signaling effect, while still paying tuition proportional to the time they stayed in college.

Similar trends play out along racial lines. While the college enrollment gap between white and black high-school graduates has almost vanished, the graduation gap remains substantial. According to a 2017 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the six-year completion rate stands at 45.9% for black students and 55% for Hispanics. For white students, it is 67.2%, and for Asians it is 71.7%.

Wealthy families can pay for college out of savings. For most Americans, it is financed through debt. In 2007, the total amount of outstanding student debt was $545-billion. Today, the number is $1.5 trillion. According to the Brookings Institute, nearly 40% of all borrowers may default on their student loans by 2023.

But thanks to the phenomenon known as “degree inflation,” taking on debt to pay for college often seems like the only option in today’s job market. An analysis by Burning Glass Technologies found that “Employers now require bachelor’s degrees for a wide range of jobs, but the shift has been dramatic for some of the occupations historically dominated by workers without a college degree.” Indeed, “65% of postings for Executive Secretaries and Executive Assistants now call for a bachelor’s degree,” despite that fact that “only 19% of those currently employed in these roles have a B.A.” A report by the Harvard Business Review came to a similar conclusion, noting that “in 2015, 67% of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, while only 16% of employed production supervisors had one.”

But as multi-faceted as the symptoms of this problem may be, the path forward isn’t a mystery, because the tools to permit an education revolution already exist. While selective, high-cost elite colleges epitomize the problems I am discussing here, those same colleges, ironically, are showing us what an alternative education system would look like—since the MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) offered by these prestigious institutions tend to be especially popular. Moreover, the days when students were required to begin every semester at the campus bookstore may also become a thing of the past, as countless inexpensive or even free textbooks now are being uploaded to the web.

But the power of the educational establishment doesn’t lie in its monopoly on actual knowledge or education. As noted above, it comes from its power to signal status, by conferring titles that are widely used as a proxy for desirable qualities. The education system does not promote learning, it takes it hostage by sending the implicit message that anything learned outside of its walls is worthless. As long as titles such as B.A, M.S., PhD remain the primary currency within the job market, the revolution will never succeed. It isn’t just the education system that has to change—it’s the whole culture.

When pundits come to the defense of a traditional college experience, they often will argue that the education one receives on campus happens as much outside the classroom as inside. Students socialize, they figure out what they want out of life, they mature. And it is true that most students I know would say that they have gone through an important transformation since the beginning of their freshman year. But a lot of that growth and transformation would have come anyway—since young adulthood typically is a transformative period in life no matter what one does. Is spending $200,000 and four years pretend-learning really the best, most cost-effective way to become a better person?

* * *

Two years before graduating from high school, I dropped out. While I was doing well academically, the learning experience left me alienated. Lectures were boring, tests and homework stressful.

I was just 16 years old, but I had a plan. In France, where I grew up, a high-school diploma can be earned by taking a two-week long set of exams, the Baccalauréat. It is possible to take the exam even if one is not enrolled in high-school, which is exactly what I did.

I got all the texts I needed, and worked through them. I struggled at the beginning, because I wasn’t used to working without outside pressure or deadlines. But after a few months, I started making progress. Eventually, I got into Fordham University, which granted me 20 transfer credits because of the good results I’d achieved on the Baccalauréat.

Why couldn’t there be such an option for college? For every class a university has to offer, why not just offer a traditional exam that tests all the knowledge and skills taught in the class? This would allow for an order-of-magnitude decrease in the cost of a degree while still permitting the option of a traditional lecture-based university curriculum for those who wanted to pay for it.

The problem with existing MOOCS and competency-based university programs is that they are targeted at non-traditional students, and the exam proctoring happens online. If, however, elite universities decided to create a mainstream open-to-everyone approach, with rigorously proctored examination-hall testing procedures for all classes, it could solve the crisis in education almost at a stroke. But I’m not getting my hopes up: Elite universities know that their cachet comes from a sense of exclusivity. If anyone who didn’t fence or play lacrosse could get a Harvard degree on the basis of mere brains and hard work, that would hurt the institution’s brand—even if it helped society.

Blogger Scott Alexander proposes another, more radical sounding solution: “Make ‘college degree’ a protected characteristic, like race and religion and sexuality. If you’re not allowed to ask a job candidate whether they’re gay, you’re not allowed to ask them whether they’re a college graduate or not. You can give them all sorts of examinations, you can ask them their high school grades and SAT scores, you can ask their work history, but if you ask them if they have a degree then that’s illegal class-based discrimination.” While this may sound extreme, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. As Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) have argued, there is a strong civil rights case to be made in this area, since the focus on credentials has a disparate impact on minorities. In the United States, 39% of whites have a college degree, compared to only 29% of blacks and 20% of Hispanics.

As for me, I chose not to return to Fordham University when this past summer ended. I don’t know how this decision will work out. And if I am unsuccessful on the job market, I might end up going back to school and finishing my degree. But before I resign myself to a university system that I know to be harmful, I’d like to try advancing myself outside the bastion of privilege these schools have erected.


Samuel Knoche is a former Computer Science student at Fordham University. You can follow him on twitter @samuelknoche


  1. yandoodan says

    “For every class a university has to offer, why not just offer a traditional exam that tests all the knowledge and skills taught in the class?”

    Because the prime virtue of a college degree is to let an employer know that this young adult can defer gratification for four years, enduring (in theory) great difficulty, and spending a large amount of money doing so. No one believes that it actually teaches you anything useful. It is a test of character, not of knowledge.

    “Make ‘college degree’ a protected characteristic, like race and religion and sexuality. … if you ask them if they have a degree then that’s illegal class-based discrimination.”

    Welcome to the 1970s! for this has been the case for at least that long in law enforcement. Courts decided that a college degree lacked a measurable connection with the characteristics of a good law enforcement officer, and declared that a degree requirement discriminated against protected categories that disproportionately lacked them.

    • Pavel Andrei Lukacko says

      I doubt that being able to endure four years of misery, forcing yourself to do things you have no interest in knowing that you will never use it again is a sign of endurance. It seems more like a sign of conformity. I don’t believe endurance is a very real virtue actually. I think that in a free society, people will naturally be compelled to put all their effort into what they’re passionate about

      • It does tell a future employer that you can work. You can set goals, do the grunt work, and accomplish a mission. I occasionally have ABD’s apply for work, saying they did al, the doctoral course work, but just got too busy to write that dissertation. No thanks. It shows a lack of ability to prioritize, set and complete goals and follow a time frame. I need those things for leadership roles.

      • Peter Thiel (@peterthiel) says

        Dear Samuel,

        Very intriguing read. I see you know my name. Now the honor is mutual.

        One of your countrymen was a good friend. You remind me of him. You might enjoy his work:

        I am confident you will go far. It sounds like you understand that learning does not stop, inside the walls or out. Soar.


    • David Orr says

      “this young adult can defer gratification for four years”

      It certainly doesn’t confer this, though. Perhaps for a student with a tough STEM degree and a great GPA. But for most students with a 3.0 in borderline science? Everyone thinks these people were partying multiple times per week and probably high most of the rest of the time.

    • MagnusMino says

      I shudder every time I drive across a bridge, wondering if the engineers who built it were C students, or even dropouts.

      Lacking a CS degree is ridiculous, finish your degree, son! Life only gets harder as you get older, now is the time to get the diploma you think is “worthless”. Deferring it until later shows a distinct lack of wisdom and foresight. Ask around. Having a Master’s is quickly becoming the new Bachelors, as computer programmers need more and more in-depth knowledge. What a university gives you is precisely its stamp of approval, saying *someone* evaluated your assignments, midterms, and finals to make sure you aren’t a complete fraud, something which is nigh-impossible to do online. Online courses are great, for you to touch up on in ten, fifteen years, to refresh your skills and upgrade them. Until then, you are only jamming a branch into your own spokes by not finishing your degree. Women know better, it seems, they don’t drop out, and finish their degrees more. In real life, it’s not just your talent and your skills, it’s “who you know” and a university “knowing you” aka conferring a diploma to you, is the most valuable thing you can get. Many recruiters will simply not even call you for an interview if you don’t have one. I know a few people who’ve lied through that step, but had to look over their shoulder for years and years, until eventually admitting what they did after they had sufficient work experience. But it never looks good, not finishing what you started. It’s a one in a million chance to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or John Carmack, so don’t let your ego go to your head and assume you will be. Finishing a degree proves that you are an adult, and live in the real world, one in which accreditation matters, even if it is total BS, you do it anyway. Because that’s the way the world works.

      The author even mentions that secratarial jobs require bachelor degrees, this has been true for a while now. A programmer without a CS degree applying for a competitive post at a major firm will stand a much lower chance, even if is it in theory accepted, than the same person with one. If you can’t even finish a “pathetic CS degree” that you can sleep through, what does that say about you? That you’re “too smart” to play by the rules? Corporations like people who play by the rules. So grow up. (this is to the author, not yandoodan).

      • @MagnusMino You have no idea what you are talking about. Once you have a few years of experience in software engineering, most employers don’t care at all about your degree. Of those that do, about equal numbers consider it a plus and a negative, since many good engineers don’t have one.

      • n-tupleplusgood says

        Disclaimer: I’m a third-time-unlucky dropout.

        A comment below asks for IQ tests to replace degrees — what you’re suggesting University is worth amounts to the same value as a personality test. Yet some of the least conscientious people I know have degrees, via self-medication or ‘heavy copy-editing’ from poor graduates (or non-grads like myself). And I know even more genuinely stupid people that have degrees.

        You’re definitely right that recruiters look at you funny if you are the black sheep without a degree in their pile of CVs. It would certainly make sense to me if I was recruiting for civil engineers. I don’t know if that makes sense for office administration, though. It feels more like a polite way of putting an “I’m middle class, honestly!” stamp on your CV.

        For all humanities degrees, and a couple of sectors (mainly just programming), a completed degree indicates almost nothing about their readiness for the workforce. I prefer people without a degree to work around me in a tech store, because they usually know how to interact with the general public, and being into tech, they’re at least decently smart anyhow.

        Programming is far from a saturated market. Yeah, if you want a job at Gulag, you’ll need a high grade in your CS degree and be able to show problem-solving aptitude (and basic emotional intelligence). But if you want a job in a mid-weight enterprise doing Java, you simply need to be intelligent enough to have passed at a CS degree had you theoretically tried, and followed several courses online.

        Corporations like people who make money. People who make money are often those who play by the rules, but not always. If your recruitment strategy is so narrow as to ignore people who lack degrees yet possess an otherwise impressive CV, then you make less money.

      • Bitwonk says

        CS, in particular, companies will hire competent developers who do not have degrees. I say this as an undegreed (though CS-educated) developer who now has thirty developers working under me.

        Something that continues to confound me is how, even out of the best schools, only about half of the CS graduates are competent at making software.

        • Steverino says

          College is worth more than you think, however fashionable it is to discount it. Before entering college class work, a group of us took a problem-solving obstacle course for the Air Force with about ten different problems. We only finished one of them. Many of them seemed impossible to solve.

          After college graduation, I happened to run the same course with a bunch of graduates. We finished most of them. The rest seemed solvable but we ran out of time.

          Four years spent reading and thinking and solving problems made us much more competent at general problem-solving and execution.

          • @steverino – sorry but such poor anecdotal “evidence” proves nothing. It sounds cute but you’re missing the author’s entire argument. He isn’t anti-learning, nor does he claim one learns nothing in college. Sure, you may now be a genius for almost completing the project but AT WHAT COST was the point. You could have achieved the same increase in intelligence with a library card.

      • Degrees are often CYA, like doing random drug tests and background checks. Businesses care for skills, but when sued, you’ll need those credentials to show “you did all you could” to ensure the worker was vetted. I mean, the Feds require businesses to even do immigration checks when all they want are workers with skills.

      • יצחק וקסמן says

        If you’re genually good at what you do then the lack of a degree won’t matter.

        • but you’ll be lucky to ever have a chance to demonstrate it (in many fields)

      • Maybe if you work for a company of degree snobs. My son went to a startup straight out of high school and runs circles around his peers. Experience is far more valuable imo.

        I hired a cmu PhD. I make more and know more.

      • Good grief @magnusmino, that has to be one of the most awkwardly written and ill supported arguments on the supposed benefits of a college degree I’ve ever read. Nothing you wrote, utterly nothing, provides any actual evidence for your claims. Instead you offer name calling and conclusory statements.

        “Ask around” – most readers of your comment will tell you likewise.

    • Train Rick says

      “It is a test of character, not of knowledge.”

      And by “character”, @yandoodan means “willingness to accept pointless abuse”….

      • Train Rick says

        And author: Bitchin essay. One of the most sensible things I’ve read on Quillette.

    • David Blair says

      “the prime virtue of a college degree is to let an employer know that this young adult can defer gratification for four years”–I can’t tell whether you are satirical or not. If not, you’ve never been on a college campus.

    • Alexander says

      Challenges to build character, willpower, teamwork, and determination can be done at a far cheaper cost through an “Iron Gauntlet” training regimen program to help people become better “doers”. We live in an age of excessive comfort and our bodies are simply not adopted to a physically stress free environment, we do not function optimally in such environments unlike what evolution designed us for. College teaches us how to become “knowers” which is important but becoming “doers” requires the strength and willpower to persist and that takes physical stress to the body which trains the mind to endure mental and emotional stress during challenges to accomplish ones goals. You can know all you want, but it is worthless if you can’t do anything with what you know.

      I see that in the future we will use VR to replace expensive physical structures like college buildings. We’ll have lectures pre-recorded from online rather than force teachers to rehash the same lecture over and over. You can pay for interactive lectures and one on one mentoring for specific questions. Students will be able to choose courses in a variety of ways through a semester system of 4-5 courses simultaneously or 1 course a month at a time. Education will be life long and a degree may not take 4 years it could be sooner or later depending on the individual. Degrees may also be unnecessary if employers only wish for specific knowledge, it just depends on what specific courses employers desire for you to take that you can stack. School Schedules are flexible you can pause and start again any time you wish depending on your life situation or finances. Dropping out to failure does not mean getting permanently kicked out of university, you are able to return any time you wish. I think the cost of VR university could bring the cost of a valuable education to $6k per year and about $24k per degree on average.

      Research and more advanced career training will have to be done with real reality unfortunately.

      • Alexander says

        What we also need is a way to network with people in person based on similar interests, desires, and goals. Network boutiques could be set up so that people can meet throughout the week to socialize with other people to become part of a community. If you have unique knowledge or skill that you may have acquired outside of the education system that is useful to potential employers, network boutiques allow you to gain an opening into career opportunities outside of the resume/credential system and to make friends and build teams to work on projects together. It’s also a way to stay updated on new knowledge in your field.

    • Brendan says

      “defer gratification for four years, enduring (in theory) great difficulty, and spending a large amount of money doing so”

      Desperate losers make the most excellent lick spittles. This is what an employer is looking for. Not character.

  2. dellingdog says

    Although I’m a college instructor myself, I have to admit that this essay raises some excellent and difficult questions. The community college where I teach recently expanded its “credit for prior learning” program, which grants college credit to students who have relevant life experience and can fulfill certain requirements. This makes it easier to earn a degree, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem of degree inflation and the spiraling cost of college. I don’t think there’s an easy solution. There are a lot of vested interests (including instructors like me) who benefit from the current system and will strongly resist disruptive changes. Administrators are part of the problem as well. While the number of college faculty has increased roughly in line with the student population for the past several decades, the number of administrators (and associated staff) has increased by a factor of five. This is a huge expense, and the benefits to students are questionable at best. I teach at an institution which offers both general education and vocational degrees. In my view, more students should be encouraged to seek the latter. Not everyone needs a four-year degree, especially since individuals who are interested in the enriching, non-vocational aspects of higher education (philosophy, art, literature, etc.) have ample opportunities to pursue them online.

    • Sam Hall says

      Not everyone needs a college degree

      But as the author shows, everyone does. Or at least every job posting demands one. And hey, why not? College degrees are the new high school diplomas. It might not say much that you have one, but it says a lot if you don’t.

      There is institutional rot in American higher education, but there is also a cultural problem. We all think if you don’t go to college you’ll end up fixing toilets, and corollarily we look down on toilet fixers. Economics does its work in this environment and those willing to be toilet fixers make good money, but you will never convince the mass of middle class or affluent teenagers to aspire to be plumbers or mechanics when their own parents and everyone else will see it as failure even while their peers are pouring coffee with their gender studies degrees.

      • “College degrees are the new high school diplomas.”
        Yes, for many they are. But still those who graduate from the most selective schools are well-educated. In fact, as first year students they were more educated than the baccalaureate graduates of many other universities. The meaning of a college degree has changed and become less valuable as a marker of skills, abilities and success.
        How come articles (like in the NY Times) that advocate loans for college as investment don’t ever say that future expectations should not be based on past performance? Like the SEC requires stock funds.

        • Timm W says

          SS – but the author addresses that aspect of selective colleges by comparing college population to non-college. Are the students superior because of the college, or were they superior and the college just selects them? It’s a “chicken or the egg” proposition. Choosing only the best athletes tends to produce the best athletic teams.

        • Charlie says

          Much of what a person know learns in the first year at university was learnt previously at school. We can look at education over the last 500 years and assess from what age can people learn a subject. Bright children can start to learn calculus at 14-15 years of age. When it come to languages, start French at 6 years, Latin at 8 years and Greek at 9 years. Start classical music at 5 years of age. Enable study at evening school while at work; this method produce engineers such as Mitchell- Spitfire, Chadwick- Lancaster, Wallis- Wellington and Bouncing Bomb, Tommy Flowers designer and builder of Colossus the first computer. All the great artists started by becoming apprentices at the age of 14 e.g Michelangelo

          Have school days from 8:30 am to 3:30 pm with traditional rote learning combined with searching questions; 1.5 to 2.0 hours of sport per day sport with 1.5 hours of homework per day. If a class last 40 minutes, 10 minutes of disruption is 25% or 2.75 years lost over 11 years. Poor discipline costs students time and money. Schools often had classes on Saturday morning from 9 am to 12.30 pm. Reduce lessons to core – English, maths, science, languages, history , geography, music, physical education, woodwork, art, etc. Bright children can take exams in 10-12 subjects at the age of 15 to 16 years.

          By the age of 16 years or earlier, children should be able to learn vast amounts of facts and after this start to learn concepts. By allowing children to start calculus at 14 or 15 years of age it enables teachers to derive equations using this method at the plus 16 year level which enables rapid leaning of the concepts of physics, chemistry and biology. Early rigorous training meant that pre 1988, a degree from Cambridge or Imperial took three years and covered what most universities outside of the UK covered in a masters which was on top of a four years undergraduate degree. Early rigorous schooling saves pupils and undergraduates money and time but costs schools and universities lost income. The longer a person stays and the more attend a university the more money they make and the more people are employed. Not many people need a level of maths above that of the old Cambridge Entrance Exam taken at the ages of 17 years to 18 years.

          Bright scientists could obtain doctorates at the age of 22- 23 years in the old UK system. As Huxley( Nobel Prize Physiology) explained, Britain produced a large numbers of Nobel prize winners comparatively cheaply by starting rigorous education at an early age.

          Some jobs do need doctorates, for example cutting edge technology companies. Even if jobs do need post graduate training, a very high standard undergraduate degree ( pre 1988 degree from Oxbridge, Manchester, Imperial ) combined with a few specialised courses should be adequate. I have known in some universities the undergraduate exams( Imperial ) were of so high a standard they were the same as the masters. Those attending the masters courses were for those from outside of Imperial who wishes to reach the standard of an IC B.Sc degree!

      • MagnusMino says

        The author is, sad to say, an idiot. He invalidates his life choices by his own admission that the game is rigged against those who tell the emperor he has no clothes, but in the end, the emperor presses the button, and they slide down the alligator pit like all the other hapless saps before him. There is a sad sex-bias to this as well, as more and more men are dropping out of college for similar reasons as the author, not knowing that conformity is what society demands of us, or perhaps thinking that it’s impossible to be ones’ true self by “selling out” to the corrupt mainstream US college system. So, go to a cheaper college with good teachers, but at least get the degree. Way too many boys and men are letting this false “wisdom” of being dropouts fool themselves into hurting their career prospects and thus inherent value as males (as seen in the eyes of society, and especially, women).

        This same mentality is what leads way more men to drop out of the rat race and become homeless than women. It’s not the path to Easy Street(tm) to think this way, it’s only the path to misery. I hope no one who visits Quillette takes this author’s advice, for their own sake. Having no university when you are halfway to getting one is complete folly. No one is forcing you to go to an expensive Ivy League school, there are plenty of affordable US colleges. Just get the degree, and move on. And get good grades too, because you never know when you might want to do a Master’s or a Ph’d in 10-20 years. True story, happens to many. They think they just need to graduate and get the B.Sc and graduate and life thereafter will be laid out for them, never looking back. But life is getting harder and harder, and some jobs are locked out of reach for those without Ph’ds and Master’s, let alone Bachelors.

        I re-iterate, not getting a bachelor’s if you want to do CS is complete lunacy. Don’t listen to this author for one second, this is totally idiotic advice.

        • Sam Hall says

          Yes, I was gobsmacked that he said he dropped out. It’s one thing to recognize the corruption of the system, another to voluntarily throw away what he knows is the basic entry ticket to conventional success. As others pointed out, though, his background suggests he’s some sort of trustafarian who isn’t too worried about putting food on the table.

          • “Trustafarian” wow, cool word dude. The pompousity of you supposed “intellectuals” like @magnusmino and @sam hall is stunning. If you think you’re convincing anyone against the author’s positions you’re dead wrong. If anything, you’re both revealing deep seated insecurities about the spiraling downward value of academics in society. If the two of you are evidence of what 4+ years of college provides, we’re in deeper trouble that we thought.

        • Train Rick says

          “I re-iterate, not getting a bachelor’s if you want to do CS is complete lunacy.”

          Horse … shit!

          I work in CS, in the Valley. Many companies here are starting their own training programs to recruit and train talented people right out of high school. You need to inform yourself, bro.

          The university system is broken, and we know it. We are going straight to the source, getting our people before they’ve dug themselves into a quarter-mil “financial-aid” hole paying for “intro to African basket weaving and feelings.”

          I can’t tell you how many of my colleagues skipped college. They have no patience for this nonsense anymore. The world is changing. Peter Thiel is on the cutting edge of that change.

          Don’t offer advice when you don’t know what the actual fuck you’re talking about, sucking bright kids into whatever dystopian reality you live in. They know their way better than you do. The kid who wrote this will probably be my boss in five years.

          • MagnusMino says

            Telling kids not to drop out halfway through their CS degree is just basic common sense. There are tons of jobs, especially high level ones, where you actually need not only a Bachelor’s, but a Master’s or higher. Like Research scientist. If you’re satisfied being an easily replaceable script monkey, be my guest, live your live with a high school diploma and see how far that gets you. People like Bill Gates and John Carmack are the exception, not the rule. My advice is in fact the opposite of elitist, it’s rationalist and a result of working in many large corporations for decades. So talk down to me all you want, but I know I’m right. All I have to do is look at the job postings at top companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc, which require Ph’ds as an entry requirement. B.Sc is merely the first step along a long road to those quarter million dollar salaries, most of which require both great deals of job experience and high level theory which is quite hard to pick up on your own without any guidance from actual experts. I laugh at those who shrug off CS topics. Most people with CS degrees can’t solve a sorting problem or big O notation on a blackboard interview and they proceed to whine on and on about it on twitter that life’s unfair.

            Job experience is great, but they don’t teach you enough theory on the job, you are left to your own devices and will typically end up writing garbage for years until you have to pick it up. Think of it like the difference between an architect and a construction worker. If you’re happy with staying on the bottom rungs and being replaced by cheap Indian or Chinese labour, be my guest. Meanwhile the rest of the planet knows what’s up and the comment section of Quillette can bite my shiny metal ass if you don’t like it. Anyone who drops out of college who thinks their lives won’t be harder is seriously delusional and yes, a complete moron.

            I’ve seen people without CS degrees at the office. You can tell who they are, because they ask basic questions like what’s Big O mean. This is when they will get passed up for job offers and promotions, let alone those high paying, high status jobs. Even then, job security is increasingly precarious and an undergrad is probably not enough for your “amazing” startup coding experience to provide for your family once you get older. Ah but you didn’t think of that, did you. One day, you’ll realize that missing that CS degree is resulting in all kinds of doors closing on you and then maybe you’ll think back at your arrogant, condescending snark. I do know better than you. Life is unfair, deal with it. The system is corrupt, too bad. Deal with it. Grow up. Companies are going to reject you out of hand when there are dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of applicants who have that piece of paper that you don’t. Throwing a branch into your own bike spokes isn’t a smart idea. Don’t self-sabotage your life by dropping out of the rat race. You’re in it no matter what road you take, all you have to answer is whether you’re going to be your own ally or your own worst enemy. The author’s advice is going to hurt impressionable young men who think that by dropping out they’ll be able to skip to the front of the line. No, sorry, you’ll likely end up at the back of the line. Or more likely, on the unemployment line .

        • Wow, @magnusmino in his earlier posts above tries to hide his stupidity bias, but it eventually comes to full bloom here with the name-calling and ad hominems against the author. What magnus mino lacks in clear and cogent argument, he more than makes up for with dumb and pointless personal attacks on the author. If magnus mino is a college grad, likely a PhD, his comments here are actually stark and convincing evidence in support of the author’s positions. To use your own style @Magnus Mino…’re a dumbass.

      • dellingdog says

        I agree, that’s part of the problem: the social stigma attached to following a vocational track instead of pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Germany’s educational system does a better job of combating this bias, and integrates real-world experience with vocational education starting the the 10th grade. The U.S. would do well to emulate Germany’s approach.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Community college sounds like a good thing.
      I can’t see why you need to have live-in universities with 4 year degrees in which a lot of the things studied are what should have been covered at school.
      It appears that in the US people set far more importance on where you went to college rather than where you went to school. Private schools do not seem to be so important as class markers.

  3. ralfy says

    Some countries have been focusing on the processes described in the article through open universities.

  4. X. Citoyen says

    Before dropping out completely look into challenging for credit. I don’t how widespread it is, but a lot of universities allow you to challenge a course for credit. Some even allow you to challenge the whole degree. The price is usually nominal, the fee for having someone mark the exam. Last time I checked for someone, however, my local universities seemed to have tightened up the restrictions—no doubt to protect the commodity. But you might find you can get the rest of your Fordham degree for a few hundred bucks.

  5. Wm. E. Kimberly, Sr. says

    1) Could anyone explain to me how the (un-renounceable) Student Loan program could not have led to the skyrocketing cost of Universities?
    2) Judging from the “Leftist Lean” in universities, would it be more appropriate to refer to a “University Indoctrinacion” or a “University Education?”
    3) I genuinely feel bad to see so many young people begin their working lives burdened with a huge debt. How much longer can this “Indentured Servitude” system survive?

    • dellingdog says

      In response to your second point: most courses have nothing to do with social justice and provide minimal opportunities for professors to indoctrinate their students, even if they wanted to. Unless a student majors in Grievance Studies, their exposure to far-left ideas (in the classroom, at least) is likely to be very limited.

      • Kent M. Gold says


        “most courses have nothing to do with social justice and provide minimal opportunities for professors to indoctrinate their students, even if they wanted to. Unless a student majors in Grievance Studies, their exposure to far-left ideas (in the classroom, at least) is likely to be very limited.”

        Cool story, brah. ?

        • dellingdog says

          @Kent: substance-less response. Are you in higher education? I am, and speak from experience.

    • You are entirely free to not go to the university. Just don’t grumble later how it’s unfair that those who have did are not as deserving. Or that others should fund you life’s needs. Or that you have a right to sleep in public areas not designed to be a home.

      • Train Rick says

        “You are entirely free to not go to the university. Just don’t grumble later how it’s unfair that those who have did are not as deserving. Or that others should fund you life’s needs. Or that you have a right to sleep in public areas not designed to be a home.”

        Did you read the article?

        This kid had the balls to drop out of high school and challenge the exams, then go to a university in a foreign country, then call them EXACTLY on their bullshit and peace out. He’s WRITING the articles here at … 20? (As opposed to, you know, posting on obscure comments boards like some loser … yes, I know, pot … kettle … black.)

        Your takeaway? This kid’s NOT … LIKE … YOU. He knows what’s going on, not you. He’ll be more than fine. I hire people like him, and one of his ilk hired ME … cuz he owns the damned company. Here’s how the interview goes with kids like this:

        He tells me the foregoing information and….

        “I don’t actually have a bache–”

        “Don’t care. We’ll teach you what you need to know, and you’ll learn a lot here. When can you start? And how much money do I have to promise you to convince you NOT to go across the street to Google and show your face? You know they treat white males like second-class citizens, right? James Damore? I know him. Nice guy. Look him up. How about Monday? Let’s go meet the boss. You two will get along.”

        I refuse to pass by this un-nuanced downer crap and say nothing. Exceptional people take exceptional paths (and his path is becoming more and more unexceptional, he’s just on the cutting edge).

        Maybe you and most of the people you know are functionaries and placeholders. Maybe your kids dropped out and play video games in your basement all day. I don’t know. But not everyone is like that, and not all industries are credentialed NPCs moving digital paper from one side of the desk to the other.

        You do you, and stop trying to scare this kid into denying what he knows is right for himself. Author, go kick some ass, and be sure to send us an update letter when you do. I’ll be cheering for you.

  6. The author raises some good questions but is very naive in his assumptions. Furthermore, despite his professed awareness of class, only the very wealthy would even consider dropping out of college midway without an urgent reason (e.g. medical). IT’s just too great a waste of money, too risky. So the author’s class bias shows right away. That and the fact that he/she comes from France to Fordham and presumably pays out of pocket, something very few people can do.

    Also a couple of his economic assumptions are off, probably because he is basing them not on data but on his own personal experience: Tutoring for instance–as a tutor, I can assure you that the most expensive is not $80/hour. it’s more like $300/hour (or more). Also, he conflates the cost of Fordham at full freight with a state university, or even community college for two years, then a state university. That also belies his upper class status/naivite. Fordham is going to be around $300K total. Whereas community college for 2 years, then state university is going to be about $60K total. If that. And you can get a great result going the community college/state university route. I really take issue when an upper class person acts as though their choices were the only economic choices. They’re not. Furthermore, probably because of his wealth, he fails to factor in need based scholarships for lower/middle class students that are widely available. My own kids go to Ivies at far less than state university costs.

    So his baseline economic questions are inaccurate; the cost/benefit analysis is very incomplete if we don’t consider the range of costs and the opportunities thereon. Furthermore, an upper class person who can toss away 2 years at Fordham without worrying about how to pay for loans without anything to show for it, is also not as worried about supporting himself and additionally may have connections that a lower income person doesn’t have (for whom the connections in college is so important). The author by the way also fails to consider internships and other connections that are very valuable and often lead to job connections. Again, if he is rich he may not need this. But the rest of us do.

    As far as not learning a great deal in college – when did we? I mean aside from math/science. When I went to college in the 1980s, and when my parents went in the 1950s, colleges were very obviously not about learning or broadening our minds through content. I mean, they were in part. But mostly they were about demonstrating to an employer that we were disciplined, motivated, and organized, and bright enough to read at a college level successfully. This is still largely the function of college.

    Yes college is a waste for sure, however, if you are spending a lot of money and majoring in ‘useless’ majors that lead to no concrete jobs and are only good if you want to go for an advanced degree.It’s a crime when colleges do not consider job prospects when recommending majors. They are still stuck in being finishing schools for upper class folks in that sense. I think the author could have emphasized this aspect more.

    As far as whether it’s worth $300K. Um, no, not if you are not well off. But again, there’s the community college/ university route, and yes I do think college is then work the $60K total. Particularly if you major in something that will yield superior incomes like, well, computer science. But computer science is not as good an example as that is a very practical specific skill set and many companies only care if you can code and program. But if you major in, say, engineering or pre med and do well, then heck yeah. This is where colleges need to advise better (and parents). Only the very wealthy can afford to major in something that yields no practical benefit on graduation.


    Or we could just allow employers to administer IQ tests. Contrary to received wisdom IQ tests are not racially or culturally biased. They are simply a measure of cognitive horsepower.

    Employers could hire directly out of high school and not need to pay candidates inflated incomes right off the bat. Since the new hire is not $100,000 in debt they have the freedom to learn on the job and see if they fit. This benefits both parties. Higher income will generally be realized in the time it takes to get a degree.

    Such an arrangement would relegate universities to the academic stream and specialized STEM. Perhaps about 10-15% of the population. Well within the realm of historic levels.

    The real challenge here is the coming hue and cry from the bloated college administrations that would have to disappear. If we really want to be honest about this subject, money, and the free flow of it from the taxpayer to the colleges is going to be the crux of the matter. Students are now in debt in the US to the tune of 1.5 trillion and the colleges have already spent that money with the assumption that more is on the way.

    • Circuses and Bread (Solutions, not politics ??) says


      You just nailed it. The university degree operates in a similar fashion to a guild by restricting entry into certain trades. Except that a guild usually delivers some value. The value that a university degree provides today is highly debatable.

      • MagnusMino says

        It depends on the degree. A degree in Women’s Studies or Gender Studies or English Lit or Philosophy is virtually worthless, beyond merely having the degree itself which is mandatory. (Actually I would never hire a woman with a degree in Hating Men(tm), I’ve dated many in my early years and they are vicious shrews, to the last).

        It’s more of a rite of passage to let kids figure out what career they want before committing the rest of their lives to it. Many don’t even end up working in the field of their degrees (like women in computer science or engineering, for example, or anyone in English Lit), but that’s still useful degree for the modern technocratic workplace. At least more than an English Lit degree. Most people can’t even figure out when to use apostrophes these days, which is primary-school level English. Art degrees are even worse. You can’t really teach Art in any meaningful sense, I believe. AI is going to end that. Programming too. Actually we’re all pretty much screwed. The newscasters in China are AI translation bots, so it’s inevitable that’ll trickle down to all the other low-skilled labour out there. And high-skilled too. AI can design better AI than humans now, in many cases. It’s crazy.

        • dellingdog says

          I respectfully object to the inclusion of Philosophy with Women’s and Gender’s Studies. Philosophy teaches critical thinking skills which are applicable to almost any occupation — and, looking beyond the remunerative aspects, provides an opportunity to grapple with the deepest questions of human existence. That has to be worth something!

          • MagnusMino says

            My personal disdain for philosophy majors is from my physics undergrad, after having a “debate” about quantum mechanics and chaos theory with a philosophy major which went nowhere, with a person who couldn’t even solve a partial differential equation. It’s like being a climate scientist and you get pulled into a debate at a bar with some right-winger know-nothing, about how all this data all a big conspiracy from “Big Science”. In yesteryear the same argument by the religionists was that fossils were put under the ground by God to test ones’ faith. The ludicrousness of this argument should be immediately apparent. Anyway, I do think philosophy majors are likely much smarter than Gender Studies, but that field is quite subservient in the past four decades or so to advances in physics and math so IMO if you actually want to be a philosopher you need to get a ph’d in physics first. And maybe a Nobel Prize, too.

          • Jarhed says

            As do I. Philosophy is a decent degree for business, perhaps not as good as economics, but close. As for an AI taking my programming job, I have been hearing that canard for 25 years. If a server ever wakes up and stirs my coffee, I will be astonished, much less take my job.

      • Constantin says

        To which I would add: a value rapidly and inexorably decreasing!

        No country needs 100 million people with bachelor degrees. When the numbers get there – you realize that some really dumb people must have gotten trough – it is simply a matter of intelligence distribution. As the diploma value drops and its price skyrockets, alternative choices become more attractive by necessity. Much of the character traits glorified by other commenters (such as resilience, patience, ability to stay focused and organized, and so forth) can be demonstrated way cheaper (indeed making money rather than spending money not yet earned) in so many ways, that it is not even funny. If you drop out of school out of boredom – I am perfectly fine with it, so long as the alternative you went for was sitting in your parents’ basement doing nothing. Employers know how to appreciate results – but you have to be able to show some, or else!

    • Jarhed says

      IQ tests have been ruled discriminatory by the courts and are illegal as employment tests. That is why many employers require college degrees for jobs that don’t need them.

  8. Stephanie says

    A transition to an online education system for undergraduate degrees seems inevitable. It can be done so much better with modern animation, and most professors consider teaching a burden. I’d love to see it starve the administration.

    The author is seriously misunderstanding the value of a PhD if he thinks it can be replaced with YouTube, at least in STEM. Doing original research without laboratories is not possible. PhDs you can do from what you see on YouTube have no value and should not exist.

    • If you expect the online education to be free, then you’ll get what you paid for, or they’ll be selling/tracking/advertising to your every move.
      But it is true that we probably only need a few alternatives for most classes — more than one to prevent a failure in ideas, relevance and overall quality — and video can be far more engaging that a professor or grad student giving the same lecture yet again.

    • dellingdog says

      Online education has advantages but it requires students who are well-organized and self-motivated. It definitely isn’t for everyone.

    • MagnusMino says

      “Where did Bill Gates receive his degree?”

      Ugh, not this one again.

      Microsoft requires CS undergrad degrees for lower positions and Master’s and Ph’Ds for higher level positions, so using the “Bill Gates didn’t finish his” canard proves nothing. The fact is, CS degrees are useful, especially if you work at a company where you are required to do more than just scripting. Microsoft might have made C# easy to use for Unity script-monkeys to use, but writing the backend to .Net, let alone Windows, requires one to understand things beyond O(n) (and many dropouts don’t even know that much, pathetic.) You hear people whining on twitter all the time that they won’t want to learn “advanced” CS stuff but all they’re doing is proving how ignorant and entitled they are. I wouldn’t hire such people with a ten foot pole.

      A degree in your field is useful for any job beyond your basic low hanging fruit, which is why you need it. It’s not Microsoft’s or Apple’s or Amazon’s or Google’s job to teach you that stuff, and they need a way to filter down the applicants which number in the thousands and the competition is fierce. If you drop out before graduating, your CV goes to the bottom of the pile, or even thrown out.

      It’s not even easy to get hired even with a CS degree, often requiring months of prep. The thing is, as annoying as that is, it’s still good to refresh all that geek knowledge that you likely forgot the day you graduated, because it’s still useful (even to know off the tip of the tongue, so you can work faster and more efficiently when tackling much harder problems).

      I look forward to reading more life advice articles from Quillette like this, such as “hit your head with a hammer repeatedly to make yourself better looking”. That’s basically what this article is.

      “Life isn’t fair, who ever told you that it was?” -The Princess Bride. Solution: Deal with it.

      • Follow Bill Gates if you can, but that’s like saying to work as a patent clerk so you can be like Einstein. It wasn’t the dropping out that made him successful.

  9. Exilio says

    An interesting article for sure. I enjoyed reading it and think that Samuel brought up some valid points but didn’t really address the title of his article: The Case for Dropping Out of College.

    I saw a good argument for re-imagining of how people are educated at the university level or even the examining of companies’ requirement of degrees, even if entirely irrelevant to their job.

    Unless Samuel goes into business for himself, I predict he’s be darkening the doorways of Fordham once again.

    Good article though; thank you!

  10. Kevin says

    Stephanie, the author did not in any way suggest that the knowledge or training required to attain PhD degrees in such pursuits as medicine, relevant and legitimate scientific studies etc, can be assumed, studied, acquired or even hinted at on YouTube. Nobody thinks that. I can learn how to dance on YouTube, but I am not about to let a “college graduate” with a PhD in “Dance Theory” remove my spleen, or slice through my neck and install a titanium cage around my vertebrae. The author simply makes the very relevant overall point that “going to college” is in most cases, worthless and actually harmful. I know a lot of graduates that I order hamburgers from at McDonald’s who can’t even speak correctly, much less figure change. Ask a college graduate at your local market for 3/5 of a pound of cod, and watch her eyes glaze over. The push for “college” that began fifteen or twenty years ago was/is as effective as the magnificent marketing campaign as was/is the campaign that made/makes, coerces/convinces people to pay thousands of dollars for a little diamond, the equivalent of which you could probably dig up in your own backyard in twenty minutes. Marketing, stupidity and utter ignorance. That’s why most people go to college. Mr Knoche is spot on.

    • Stephanie says

      Kevin, the author says: “As long as titles such as B.A, M.S., PhD remain the primary currency within the job market, the revolution will never succeed.”

      Sorry, I should have quoted him for clarity earlier. He most certainly implies that online learning can replace a Master of Science or a PhD.

  11. Kevin says

    Exilio, I think he made his point for “dropping out” of college when he explained that most people in “college” (with of course exceptions) are not actually being “educated” in any way commensurate with the exhorbitant tuitions and fees that they pay, and that most of their (at least his) “education” is available on the internet for free. I also think he well illustrated the hypocrisy of the so called “value” of a hundred thousand dollar college “education” that can be learned on the internet for NOTHING, and the terribly foolish srupidity of the requirements of so many professions requiring a “college degree” as a condition of employment. In other words, his article is implicit…blindingly clear to me.

  12. Circuses and Bread (Solutions, not politics??) says

    This was a fantastic essay, and I appreciate the thought that went into it. The value of a university degree is increasingly dubious. While 30 years ago the economic benefit of a degree was obvious, it is much less so today. Smart employers are going to figure out a way to get around the university-political complex and hire non-degreed talent for less.

  13. Ashley Squishy says

    I was lucky enough that I went to a unit of the City University of New York back when it was tuition-free, so I only paid an opportunity cost of lost income.

    I’m retired now after a so-called professional career which never got much beyond entry-level work and was punctuated by several lengthy periods of unemployment. Someone with a prole background like mine without the social finesse to negotiate the minefield of corporate politics (and these days, POLITICALLY CORRECT corporate politics) had no business being there in the first place. I very much regret that I went to college, let alone obtain an MA at a Big Ten school later on. I would have been far happier in a blue-collar (and possibly just as remunerative) job and more likely been able to start my family much earlier if I had realized this back then.

  14. Quora or Reddit? I’m a thoughgoing autodidact, but I do hope any building, car, ship, or plane I’m in is designed by someone with a real degree!

    • I know it would put my mind at ease to see my surgeon googling the latest YouTube video of my proceedure just before the anesthetist puts me under…

  15. Sarah says

    Education is not a product. Universities are not factories. It is better to think of tuition as of “membership fee”, like the one you would pay to join the gym. Then how you get training in that gym is up to you…

  16. annaerishkigal says

    Students can ALREADY test out of their first year of college, either by taking AP (advanced placement) classes in high school and taking the AP Placement Exam to get college credit if their high school offers that program, or they can buy the CLEP Exam (college level equivalency placement) test booklet while they’re taking those classes in high school and co-study the exam to make sure they can pass the CLEP exams for those subjects. You can CLEP out of all of your general education requirements. has free online lectures as well as the class textbooks for each general education requirement class online, 100% free. I believe they have uploaded these exact same subject lecture to EdX to reach a broader audience. The CLEP exam itself is $87 per class (versus the $800-$3000 you will pay per class at the university).

    It gets better. You can then go to DSST (formerly DANTES) and test out of a lot of mid-level college courses (these are not a repeat of high school, most likely). DANTES was the college equivalency test for the US military, but it’s now renamed DSST and available for the general public.

    All-told, you can CLEP out of pretty darned close to 1.5 to 2 years of college, and then spend that tuition taking upper-level courses.

    Also, many high schools have a “dual enrollment” option with local community colleges where you can skip senior year and go directly to college for your senior year of high school for free (to you).

  17. Michael Jefferis says

    I attended an inexpensive small state college starting in 1964. I was in desperate need of more education, and by and large I did receive it. Of course, some classes were better than others, just as my performance in class was sometimes better, sometimes worse. I majored in English. I never taught English, but it was a good choice. Today, at 72, I could do what the author Samuel Knoche did. In 1964 I was not prepared to direct my own education, and students were then not expected to do so.

    Years after graduation I had need to learn new skills, acquire new knowledge in the medical aspects of AIDS and HIV transmission and I was able to do this on my own. Lots of people did, because it was a new disease, and they were on the job. I’ve acquired quite a lot of skill and knowledge on my own–but that took years of maturing and lots of practice.

    There are students who can effectively self-direct, but I feel there are a lot of young college students who need directed study, and need solid content. It isn’t worth any amount of money, but it is worth quite a bit.

  18. Taieri says

    And all this wisdom found on youtube just appears out of nowhere, does it?

    • And without an education or experience, how do you sort the valuable information from the dross? There are YouTube videos explaining that the earth is actually flat and the moon landing faked, after all.

  19. John Jones says

    People seem to forget that an employer is not forced to hire someone with a degree. It’s an option, albeit, often executed. For the employer, formal qualifications often simply acts as a heuristic. A quick filter which if it did not exist would mean greater overhead cost to absorb in hiring resources. The current system has many virtues as well vas vices. The market, on average, weighs this balance predominately in favor of reliance on university qualifications as acting as a preliminary filter when judging labour hires . If this changes, either en mass or otherwise, then the behaviour of those searching for work will adapt accordingly.

    How someone decides who to hire is wholly the decision of the person paying. If the person paying decides they wish to discriminate, based on qualifications or otherwise, they pay the cost of doing so. It’s their right to pay that cost or not….

  20. The alternative of the BA degree by test seems attractive. The young new president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, thought so too. He instituted such a program in the early 1930s, allowing students to obtain their degree at the age of 16

    • E. Olson says

      The problem with this solution is that only the super bright and motivated would pass the tests, which are exactly the kind of students that every university is fighting to get as many of as possible to offset the majority who are typically not too talented, motivated, or mature. On the other hand, if tests are made easier and too many students pass, then the schools are left only with the idiots and go bankrupt. The other problem of course is what do you do with a bunch of 16 years holding a BA degree? What firm will hire them? Graduate/Professional school? How many 19-20 year old doctors, lawyers, engineers, MBAs, MAs, and professors does society want?

  21. Johno from Sydney says

    I remember back in the early 1980s as an undergraduate in Sydney applying for a weekend job as a “DJ” for a company that provided music for parties, weddings etc.. Arthur, the owner of this successful business told me that it did not matter what degree I did at university, what mattered was that I finished it. Having a university degree showed that one was able to start something and complete it. According to him, that was what employers wanted…

  22. E. Olson says

    The author brings up some interesting points, but is guilty of assuming his own background, experiences, and abilities are “typical” and can be adopted as a mass-market model of higher education. His ability to finish high school through self-study, his apparent ability to breeze through expensive college exams paid for by his father with minimal lecture attendance and by watching a few videos suggests he has a very high IQ and is high in conscientiousness, and comes from a family with high socio-economic privilege. Other people questioning the value of university degrees also tend to share many of those same characteristics, although interestingly they often have strong academic backgrounds themselves (e.g. Peter Thiel – Stanford BA and JD, Bryon Caplan – UC Berkeley BA and Princeton PhD). For example, I would be shocked if Thiel didn’t make a lot of social connections at Stanford that later proved to be helpful in his PayPal endeavors even if the classes didn’t. The important point I’m making, however, is that you could lock people with 140+ IQ and high conscientiousness in an unlighted closet with a textbook in Chinese and they would come out 2 weeks later with a mastery of the material, so it isn’t those type of people you should be designing educational programs around. Thus MOOCs will be very effective for people like the author, Thiel, and Caplan, but are proving to be very ineffective for 95+% of the people who enroll in them and drop out – likely because they have closer to average IQ and are almost certainly much less self-motivated. And guess what, I would bet serious money that MOOCs are highly discriminatory as statistical analysis would almost certainly find that blacks, Hispanics, transgenders, single moms, coal miner’s daughters, and any other “victim” classes you might care about are less likely to enroll, and much, much, much more likely to drop out, and Dept. of Education and Justice lawyers would no doubt be on their case if such courses ever became a mainstream educational model.

    In fact, such Leftist social engineering is why college is so expensive and ineffective, and such an entrenched major industry. Until the Griggs v. Duke Power Co. decision in 1971, many employers gave prospective employees aptitude tests before hiring or promoting them, but such tests were found to have disparate impact on the hiring and promotion of blacks, and were ruled as discriminatory by the Supreme Court unless the tests could be demonstrated to be directly related to job-related tasks. This is what caused the major shift to college degrees as a screening device for making hiring decisions, as firms became afraid of lawsuits if they continued with cheap and effective aptitude tests. Employers knew that colleges were legally allowed to screen students for intelligence (SAT tests) and 4 years of college meant the student had decent conscientiousness and conformity that made for more effective employees. But guess what? Blacks, Hispanics, transgenders, single moms, coal miner’s daughters, and any other “victim” classes you might care about also had trouble getting the college degrees that were “sure” to lead them out of poverty and into the middle-class. Thus schools were pressured to become more diverse and entire federal, state, and University bureaucracies have been created at great expense to ensure under-performing groups get their college degrees. The unacknowledged problem of course is that true university level course work requires an IQ of 110+, which means about 75% of the population is not really college material, and groups with below average IQs (e.g. black, Hispanics, poor) are going to have even fewer members with 110+ IQ and hence be “under-represented”. Yet there are lawsuits awaiting any school getting state money who don’t let in “sufficient” members of “victim” groups, and lots of scholarship and grant money from governments and private charities devoted to helping “victim” classes get a college degree. Thus schools are highly motivated to do what they can to boost the numbers – i.e. lower entry requirements to let in people with 90+IQ, offer lots of remedial coursework that “victim” students didn’t master in Jr./Sr. High, “easy” majors are created, and pressure is applied to professors to not fail weak students. Which leads to to the situation today where about 70% of high school graduates start at universities bloated with worthless diversity and inclusion administration, lots of weak courses and majors, and even these aren’t enough to prevent high drop-out rates and lots of 4 year degrees squeezed into 6 years. And of course employers move on by putting even more emphasis on the quality of the school (Ivy League premium goes up), quality of the major (STEM premium goes up), and graduate degrees to filter out the many weak college graduates that will make unproductive employees.

    So yes the university system is broken, but fixing it requires everyone to accept that higher education will create outcome disparities that reflect disparities in ability, motivation, and interests among the population. In the meantime, however, as many commenters have ably noted, there are lots of cheaper and more effective ways to get that degree already available from taking college credits in high school, going to CC for the first 2 years, and of course good students and “victim” students will typically get scholarships and other aid that substantially reduces the full-retail price. Just don’t forget to mark the “correct” racial/gender group boxes of your application to reflect your 1/1000 drop of Native-American, black-slave, or Hispanic blood, or transgender/gay background in your otherwise white bread family/personal history.

    • @E Olsen, very well stated. Agree 100%.

      And those touting IQ tests here would be wise to remember IQ statistically varies considerably depending on the group; screening using this now would definitely yield a lawsuit as we are unwilling to consider the possibility that groups of humans are actually diverse with diverse skills –even as we shriek about their affect of ‘diversity’–that is, they are ‘diverse’ in only a handful of acceptable characteristics (skin, ethnicity, hair, culture whatever that means) and magically a total clear blank slate in ability/intelligence/character traits. In other words, as E Olsen says, until we admit that outcome cannot possibly be equalized in all areas (we recognize this for sports, music and other areas that URM folks do well in), we are doomed to continue down the rabbit hole of exorbitant bloated indoctrination centers/quasi-finishing-schools/occasional training centers/social connections and internships bases. And since this is a static uncompetitive goal, we will inevitably see “investors” married to gov’t propping it up and sucking at its teats. It furthermore allows the upper class to maintain its power in a genteel see-no-evil fashion (by using an “elite’ schools badge as a means by which doors open). I don’t see this changing any time soon.

    • Timm W says

      @E Olsen – very good response.

      But be careful talking about the benefit people such as Thiel received through college. That goes back to an argument presented in the original article; was Thiel already exceptional, or was it the result of his education? Would he have made those same contacts anyway? I’d be willing to argue he was already exceptional.

      The challenge in our culture is to find those exceptional, creative people at all levels who might be overlooked – those people whom the entrenched inertia from college, politics, and business management would seek to squash so their interests are protected.

  23. This thought provoking text let us rethink the value of formal education.
    From my perspective, as an instructor in a public university in Brazil that is fee free, the problem raised by this article has mostly to do with the costs than with the content provided by unis.
    While it is true that one can learn most subjects with the help of the internet, this wasn’t true 10 years ago. There is a higher education revolution going on which outcomes are unpredictable.

    Incidentally, similar arguments could be raised against high school education or even fundamental education. Should children be forced to attend 12 years classes in a school? What is the cost of it?
    Clearly not everything could be measured under the light of economical cost-benefit.

    • E. Olson says

      BENY – of course “free” schools such as you have in Brazil are not actually free, but paid for by taxpayers and perhaps some private donations, thus the cost-benefit analysis still applies, but is less directly related to the student. My experience with “free” university in Europe is that students are very often in no hurry to finish since the only skin they have in their education is their time away from the job market not earning income, but the soft job market for young people that much of Europe suffers from means this cost is not very high. Since they don’t have full-time work, and they use 5-7 years to finish a 3-4 year degree, they also often end up with a lot of student loans even though they don’t pay tuition (i.e. the loans are used to pay for books, beer, travel, and housing and food if they don’t live at home).

      I think college and high school to a major degree have become baby-sitters for a large part of the students who have little academic interest/talent, but are too young to be hired for any interesting job. High school used to be a real achievement in large part because most kids dropped out between 5th and 8th grade to work as unskilled laborers on farms and in mills to provide extra income for their poor families, but such work is much less available, needed, or attractive in today’s advanced welfare-state economies. Thus the question becomes what to do with the 14, 16, 18 or 20 year olds who aren’t college material – are you going to trust them to operate expensive machinery, supervise people, interact with important clients? Some sort of babysitting is likely required, but perhaps apprenticeships and/or vocational training and/or military service would be a smarter allocation of resources than trying to put most through a college track.

  24. Marcus says

    So there is an apparent dilemma here: many, perhaps most, jobs require applicants to have a college degree, yet many, perhaps most, jobs (a) don’t actually use whatever knowledge or skills applicants will have learned or studied in college and (b) therefore don’t really rely on knowledge or skills gained in college. The increasing, and already high, cost of college makes this dilemma even more acute.

    I’m a professor at one of the expensive and highly-ranked (at least by U.S. News & World Report) universities, and so I am of course grateful that so many people are willing to spend, or borrow, $60k+ per year to attend or send their children to my university. But here is an option that I don’t know why more people don’t avail themselves of: first go to a community college for a year or two.

    A student can take introductory-level courses at a community college for a fraction of the cost of a four-year college or university, often at a tenth the cost. Take all your distribution requirement-satisfying courses, and pay for it while working at a part-time job. Then, if you want the premium of a sheepskin from a four-year institution, transfer in for your final year or two, just in time to take courses that count toward a “major.” That allows you to get the validated degree, still get a year or two of the “college experience,” and also get the “signaling” effect Caplan discusses–all at a substantial discount.

    In many states (like mine), state colleges and universities are required by law to accept credits from accredited community colleges. Many colleges and universities (like mine), happily accept transfer students. And many professors (myself included) treasure those students–they’re more mature, more serious, and more focused, having had a couple years to grow up, face some responsibility for themselves, and figure out what matters to them.

    This is exactly the path my oldest son took. He spent two years at a community college, then transferred into a four-year state university (which accepted all of his course credits), and will now complete his four-year degree in two years, likely with no debt. To any prospective students, or parents of prospective students, I would highly recommend considering this option.

    • dellingdog says

      As a community college instructor myself, I second that strategy. Although I’m admittedly biased, I would argue that the quality of instruction is often better at two-year colleges than at large state universities. Virtually all of my colleagues teach at the two-year level because they’re passionate about teaching. Students benefit from relatively small classes (25 – 40) and direct contact with instructors, as opposed to being in giant lecture halls and attending a discussion section once a week with grad students.

    • Thomas Maigret says

      @ Marcus – Good advice. To expand a bit, many CC courses are now taught by highly qualified faculty who have essentially indistinguishable credentials from faculty at tradition four-year colleges.
      In fact, I personally know several CC professors freshly retired from private sector or gov’t agency work. These folks are often well-suited to provide employment advice and network connections to motivated students, in ways that lifetime academics are often unable to.

      Additionally, the diversity in economic background, age, and, let’s say, ‘life history traits’ of students at CCs can provide important context for curious students before entering an often economically homogenous cohort at a four-year institution. Perhaps as a consequence of this economic diversity, and of employing faculty with experience outside the academy, social justice mumbo-jumbo is usually much less common at community colleges.

      As a drawback, I’ve always heard that scholarships are few and far between for transfer students in comparison to incoming freshman. It does seem to be the case at the university where I teach, which is a public, land-grant university. The bottom line might still be better for CC transfers without these scholarships, but it’s worth noting.

    • annaerishkigal says

      I live on Cape Cod (an ocean-resort area), where a high proportion of elite university professors own second homes. Our local community college has become a magnet for professors who wish to retire from the stress of their “big university” early, but then they are bored stiff, so they hire on to teach at 4C’s (as it is called) as either full-time or adjunct professors. The caliber of professors there is on-par with the education you’d get at an elite university, all at a bargain price. We’ve already sent one kid off on the 2+2 track, and have three more kids that’ll be heading off on that path over the next 5 years.

  25. TheSnark says

    Steve Jobs did not finish college, but almost everyone who works at Apple did. Organizations may have been founded by a bright, self-motivated free spirits like Mr Jobs (and the author). But they don’t want their employees to be free spirits, they want them to get their work done. And, as many commentators have noted, having a college degree is a good “signal” that you are able to do that.

    I now have two kids who are applying to college. I accept that it’s way more expensive that it needs to be, but is necessary for them. What appalls me, however, is the number of third-tier colleges that spam them and me with “apply here” emails. And most of them prominently feature how easy it is to get student loans to go there.

    As others have noted, not everyone is able to benefit from college. And if the odds of dropping out are high, they shouldn’t go at all. A good trade school can lead to an perfectly fine career. Being a plumber might not be very sexy, but it pays the rent as well as working at a coffee shop, but without the student debt. And if you work your way up and wind up running a plumbing business you are likely to have a better retirement than most of the people who read Quillette.

    • annaerishkigal says

      If your school doesn’t have an AP exam program, then you should have your kids look into the CLEP and DSST (formerly DANTES) exams, have them CLEP out of their General Education Requirements as they are finishing up those classes in high school. They can eliminate at minimum the entire first year of college, sometimes 1.5 to 2 years of college depending on what their final college major will be, for a tiny fraction of the price (a HUGE savings to mom and dad if you’ll be subsidizing their “ride”). has free CLEP prep curriculum to help them plug in any gaps in their high school curriculum so they can pass the exams.

  26. “You can give them all sorts of examinations, you can ask them their high school grades and SAT scores, you can ask their work history, but if you ask them if they have a degree then that’s illegal class-based discrimination.”
    Nope, that’s precisely as crazy as it sounds. Why would a grade or other test result be more meaningful than weather you completed a degree program? A 4.0 GPA doesn’t make you a doctor or engineer or lawyer, but degrees in those fields do.
    Signaling is used pejoratively, but that’s how humans communicate, via signals.

  27. Oscar says

    Lots of persuasive points in this piece. Author neglects to include what is probably the most valuable return on investment: The network you create and take with you after the degree has been earned.

    • Erica from The West Village says

      Unless you’re attending an IVY League school, the networks you establish in college aren’t nearly as important as the networks you establish in your professional life. I get dozens of LinkedIn requests a week and 90% of them are void of any context on why they’re wanting to connect with they get ignored. Make a sale..make the pitch..make it relevant..and perhaps I’ll let you into my professional network, This isn’t Facebook..and people who conflate the two are destined to learn that there’s a reason sex, religion and politics have been verboten in the workplace for 80 years.

  28. I worked as a machinist for twenty years and found it mostly miserable, as did 98% of the machinists I worked with. Machining is probably the least miserable trade. I hate when people act like trades work is “a great way to make a livin!”. No, it’s fuckin miserable, that’s why people don’t want to do it. “Plumbers make great money!” No, they make jack shit to fairly decent money if they’re fast and work a lot of over time. There’s nothing fun about plumbing unless you’re too dumb to know it sucks. The same goes for every other trade.

    • Aaron says

      The thing about trade jobs, or any job really, is how much control you have over your work day. If you have control over what your day looks like it is really enjoyable, if your being told what to do all the time it is miserable.

      To counter your experience, I work “trade job” and I absolutely love it. I make a good living and I take three months a year off. Many of the people I know who work in white collar fields express to me that they would rather be doing something similar to what I do. I just tell them they need control over their own time not a career change; get off the corporate ladder.

  29. martti_s says

    It is absolutely fantastic how much YouTube can teach you from changing a Porsche headlight to opening a broken washing machine latch. I work as an anesthetist (MD) with 35 years of professional experience. When I am facing a situation that occurs only rarely, I do Google. If I have to learn new techniques, the first thing to do is to search YouTube to get a quick general idea and then see what’s on MedLine.

    Textbooks? You must be kidding! They cannot follow up with times and the stuff they tell us has very little to do with what really matters cinically. This is to be expected as the writers are usually academic authorities with little practical experience.

    Jordan Peterson published hundreds of hours of his lectures for no compensation.
    He chose another career that has served him well. The 200 colleagues of his who signed the letter to get him fired must be happy, too. (Though black of jealousy)

    Does everything reflect back to the Bell Curve?
    That people who do not have the necessary abilities to process academy-level education (whatever that may be) go to college anyway. Or should we just follow the money and see how the administration has swollen out of proportion and all kinds of leeches suck the money that is supposed to go to teacher-student interaction? Could it also be that there is no room for young people in the job market and they have to be stored somewhere to wait for their turn? The Soviets used the Army for this purpose and the Chinese still do.

  30. Coffee Klatch says

    OK — I went to college for ten years and will be going back to get a Ph.D in 1-2 years. For my BA, I double majored in communication and a social science, for which I racked up a slate of “grievance”-based electives. Went on to get an MFA in one of those dastardly, wasteful arts and then another master’s in education. I will make almost $160,000 USD this year.

    Education is the *single* greatest variable in how much money you make, your overall health and quality of life and your ability to contribute to critical thinking based on a broad survey of knowledge. It is also one of the greatest intangible assets to a nation’s GDP — those who are educated improve the lives of all people — just by being educated.

    The number one thing I value and hope for my children is to be well educated.

    You people are fucking crazy. If you are a young person reading this, these people are lying to you. Every statistic shows that those with college degrees are better off. There are outlier stories, but the evidence is clear.

    I could literally list hundreds of links.

    I will say this, as a caveat, because I think people get things confused because of this point: If college is not an option for you because you do not have the patience & mettle for, proclivity toward and desire to attend college, that doesn’t mean you have to turn to a life of shooting heroin in the trailer park. Unskilled, skilled and specialized labor, as well as entrepreneurship have immense value to society. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to tackle, learn, practice and conquer these domains. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — the income that comes from being excellent or an outlier in these fields can and do have the same positive benefits that income from education does.

    So go for it — be good at whatever you can be good at — but people who tell you not to get an education if you’re thinking about getting one, or that’s what you want — are literally insane.

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  32. Erica from The West Village says

    The Democratization of Knowledge is good for learners; it’s good for educators; and it’s particularly good for legacy institutions of higher education who’ve become fat and happy on the largesse of easy student loans. Games up. Time to pay the piper.

  33. Emanuelle says

    ‘“signaling” function of a diploma: Because employers lack any quick and reliable objective way to evaluate a job candidate’s potential worth, they fall back on the vetting work done by third parties—namely, colleges.”

    I’ve known this since the 1980s. I was working as a technician–actually doing a specific job and getting outstanding yearly reviews for the quality of my work. My employer insisted that they could not give me the same title or pay as the other technicians doing the exact same work because I didn’t have a college degree (at that time). Explain the logic of that? I can do the work, do it well, but can’t get the title or pay because of a piece of paper?

    I eventually did get a BA and an MA–in a subject that has no relevance to my profession and whose subject matter has never been a factor in my employment.

  34. Interesting and a lot of excellent points.

    One problem with not having a bachelor’s degree is often the screening question on job applications is do you have such-and-such degree? If yes, you can apply, if no, you can’t. Or often software scans the application for the prerequisites necessary. If you know someone, those prerequisites can get waived, but if you do not, you’re stuck. Even if the job description says “degree in —– or equivalent work experience” the scanning software will turn you down.

    • Absolutely agree with the screening problem that is an unfortunate by-product of the ease of applying for jobs on line now. Employers are inundated with resumes and almost all use screening tools that will kick non-degreed applicants to the curb and only pass through degreed candidates and even then the right buzzwords have to appear on the resume. Two STEM BS graduate sons are currently fighting this system trying to get entry level jobs.

  35. Pingback: The Case for Dropping Out of College – Institute for Natural Gas Research

  36. Frank Ch. Eigler says

    You’re neglecting to connect the dots between credentialism’s disparate impact on minorities and the innate difference gaps between college-bound and not-college-bound cohorts.

  37. Mirelle says

    My son dropped out of a computer science program in 1994. I cried about it. He is now making nearly half a million a year, while I, with my PhD and 30 years of teaching barely reach a six figure salary. ,

  38. Ezzy Black says

    I had a conversation with my daughter about this six years ago and the similarities are striking.

    Your problem is you don’t want to be a computer scientist. You went to college to take a course of study to get a job, not to learn. That is why you failed, and you have failed. Employers will certainly see it as failure simply because you couldn’t finish what you started.

    My advice to you is the same as to her. Forget about college as a job machine. In the end, you’ll only end up working in a field that doesn’t interest you. Instead, use college as a learning machine. Pick what most interests you regardless of what the apparent job market or prospects are.

    You are certainly correct in that the degree you have is ultimately not the most important thing. Who you are is more important. But it is AN important thing and having one is certainly a leg up in the world.

    Ask yourself what you want to do, not necessarily what job you want to have. Then study that. For her, she wanted to become a writer. I asked why then, she wasn’t studying writing or English. “Those degrees are worthless,” was the reply. But they aren’t worthless to a writer are they?

    Don’t ask what college can do for some mythical future job application young man. Ask what college can do for you personally. Ask what it can teach you to make your life richer and more rewarding. Then go back and study what you want to learn, not what any outside force is telling you to learn. Then finish your degree.

    She did just this, switching her major to English and graduating two years later. The difference was she was doing what she wanted and getting out of college what she wanted out of it, not what some outside expectation wanted.

    Don’t finish college for some future employer, finish it for you and it will change your outlook on the whole thing.

    • Right on. I put my lecture notes on line so that students that already knew it all wouldn’t come to class. In an upper level class there were always ones who wanted to know more or argue after the class. Those are the ones I was teaching. Mind you, I had another strategy for eliminating them: I made the exams hard and graded hard. It means you have a smaller class (the administration doesn’t like that), but it sure keeps the bozos who are only there for the degree out.

  39. Aaron says

    One thing not often considered in this conversations is the fact that many intelligent, hardworking, and otherwise competent people do not do well in a school setting. The trend toward requiring degrees for almost any job is excluding potentially highly productive people from the workforce. A degree is a positive credential but lack of one should not be a deal breaker. I would count myself as one that has been restricted due to a lack of a degree. I have always been a poor student but I have always excelled in the jobs I have had.

    I struggled in school because I always question knowledge. How do we know what we think we know? Can we be sure that we are not wrong? My experience was that this kind of thinking will cause you to fail in school. In the real world where the only measure is efficacy, it allows you to excel.

    My experience has been a college degree shows conformity in general. Of course not all degrees are the same, some are what they are billed to be and are a sign of competence, many are just a glorified game of Simon says.

  40. Your excellent writing ability and resourcefulness aside, you have quit two significant life milestones, high school and college. Hiring managers shy away from quitters because in the longrun, they cost the organization too much. I strongly urge you to complete the degree you started (in your style) and get it done as soon as possible. In the interim, you might benefit from spending some time with those you trust most and consider the meaning of your life and how your gifts and talents can help you answer the calling you appear to be searching for. Best wishes for future success.

    • Wow, @Rick – generalize much? So “managers” ask not WHY someone chose to quit something and care not how valid those reasons might be, but only that someone wasted resources to finish something regardless of how ultimately useless it is. Understood. Glad I’m no, “manager.” Also, that explains the poor state of management across most fields.

  41. Andrés says

    In my field (translation), clients care more about skills and very few about credentials. They usually ask you for a short sample translation, which they evaluate before hiring/contracting your services.

    Actually, I am an English into Spanish translator with less than 2 years of formal language studies. I did take an ATA (American Translators Association) test, after studying a couple of months with a tutor, but this was more to prove myself and have something to show to potential clients.

  42. Mark Smits says

    If you want a real world example of what a complete JOKE a college degree is in a particular field, look no further than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Wow. An “Econ major” that understands zero about economics, zero about world affairs.

  43. Leonardo Da Vinci was an out-of-wedlock child and therefore unable to join his father’s law/notary firm. He was instead placed in an ’apprentiship/trade school’.

    Had he gotten a formal education, i.e., ‘gone to college’, he would have become a notary/lawyer like his father and maybe never realize his artistic potentials.

    There is a lot to be learned from Leonardo’s life.

  44. Pingback: WHAT IS REAL LEARNING? Ex-Student Makes Brilliant Case for Dropping Out of College -

  45. P. Lavin says

    This is a great article that has given me a lot to think about, as I pursue a career in higher education. The only thing I had trouble with was this one parenthetical remark:

    “While the average graduation rate at four-year colleges after six years is 59% (an already appallingly low number)”

    Why are you appalled that the number is so low? If college is going to achieve its stated goal, namely to improve the cognitive abilities of its students, then it will necessarily be difficult. Not everyone is cut-out for higher education, and given the extremely high number of Americans who go to college, I would argue that this number should be even lower. In fact, I believe that if colleges were to actually regain some of their value, they will have to make the courses more difficult. (This probably won’t happen because it means they will lose money, but one can hope.)

    Of course, I don’t want students to have to drop out for financial reasons. But I do want them to drop out. I want college to be hard, so that finishing is seen as an achievement.

  46. Pingback: Dinosaurs vs. Decentralization | Fire Breathing Christian

  47. To the author:
    I see you’re a SlateStarCodex reader. The college education impasse you discuss looks to me like a classic Inadequate Equilibrium situation (

    Essentially, the current higher education system stinks; but we can’t seem to escape the system because for any one individual to drop out of it means that he puts himself at a competitive disadvantage. To fix the problem, we would need huge numbers of the most valuable minds to all skip college at the same time (unlikely).

  48. chowderhead says

    I can’t argue with the author, but I can offer one thing in favor of university, albeit this comes from experience with research universities. The variety and accessibility of resources, in the form of physical and knowledge assets, cannot be matched in any other environment, save, perhaps, national labs like Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, etc. You’re not going to have that in your garage, basement or local makerspace. The universities I’ve attended and worked at have placed a high priority on hands-on learning, in many cases with extraordinarily expensive instrumentation. Good luck simulating that on Youtube…

  49. Jarhed says

    I adored my state university education and I would trade it for nothing–but I graduated in 1984. Back then, kids went to college if we didn’t know what else to do. Those days are gone. For men, a college campus is a hostile environment with very little to offer. The only reason to go to college is if you are certain of your profession and it requires a credential. Go to college, keep your grades up, and for God’s sake do not date the coeds. For all others, especially men, go to trade school, use your credit to buy a truck, and build your wealth. Do not neglect your education but take it online for free.

  50. Kathie Mihindukulasuriya says

    A true Wildean cynic. College is more than accumulating grades or proving mastery via tests. It is a time of questioning what you think you know by interacting with others with different backgrounds and perspectives that help you to better understand your fellow human beings. It is a time to discover what you have to contribute, often through the help of mentors who can see potential in you that you do not have the wisdom or experience to see. It is a time for passionate discussions about everything from the meaning of life to the meaning of Hotel California. It is the opportunity to use electives to learn anything that you are curious about from foreign languages to math; history to literature to cutting edge science. Refusing to take advantage of these opportunities is like going to a restaurant known for its world class cuisine and asking for a glass of water and bowl of oyster crackers and then letting it be known that the restaurant is overrated.

    • Aaron says

      I’m inclined to think that this kind of experience (A) can happen outside of college (especially at that age), (B) is not self-evidently superior to alternative paths to adulthood, and (C) does not worth the student debt crisis it creates on a national level. It’s a safe way to do better than roaming aimlessly and getting in trouble, but there are perfectly good alternatives.

  51. Michael says

    First, a question: could the author of this article have written it without the benefit of an education which in part included the college experience?
    Second, a comment: I hold a bachelor’s degree comprised of 60 hours of science and math and 30 of economics, the balance in philosophy; I strenuously avoided courses in which the professor’s opinion mattered a whit. My MBA was a breeze because most business courses are merely applied economics. My law school experience was a waste of time; I would have done better to apprentice in a lawyer’s office for three years. However, in practicing law for 30 years, I found my undergraduate education very useful, and my graduate business education very useful; I could not (or at least would not) have acquired this education by self-selected, self-acquired education. Furthermore, the subjects I studied were of interest to me, and have given me a basis for continuing study over the course of the last 40 years.
    As to the “signaling” value of degrees, I agree with the author’s analysis, but would note that there will always be a “signal” involved in everything to do with one’s life (including race, gender, what school one attended, how one speaks, how one dresses, and on and on). If people could signal the required virtues by completing a standardized educational exam, that would be wonderful. In acquiring a legal education, whether by attending a law school or apprenticing, one must still pass a bar exam before being permitted to practice law. A foreign-trained physician cannot gain a license to practice in the US without first passing a US medical exam. I fail to see why such an exam cannot be offered in any substantive field, in lieu of the acquisition of a decree.

  52. Charles Gardner says

    In 1968, David Harris, Stanford University student body president, addressed his fellow students to explain “I am leaving Stanford now so that I may continue my education.” [not exact, from memory]. IMHO, it’s not the education per se, but the experience, that makes college important. Not just the best years of your life, making friends, getting laid, and exercising your brain. I spent 10 years at universities in the U.S. and Germany, but my real education has issued from a lifetime of pursuing my thirst for knowledge. Still, the experience, especially the law school experience, of being forced to learn and be called upon to explain 24/7 for three years straight is not something one can or ever would want to do on one’s own. It’s the discipline and work ethic imposed from the outside! Even if one didn’t need the diploma to take the bar exam, one would unlikely be able to pass the bar without the discipline of law school. Sometimes the college experience is helpful because of the friends and connections one makes, especially in the Ivy League, which launches your comrades, if not yourself, into rich and powerful careers. If I added up the money spent and the time not earning during my ten years of formal education, and the fortune lost by not being invested (stock market, real estate…) during those years, I might be wealthier today. We all went to college except Eric, who stayed home and got himself into real estate. Today everyone works for Eric. But not everyone is like Eric, who loves the wheeling and dealing and is very good at it. Even this law school graduate licensed in two states, worked for Eric. We’re just not all cut out to have his natural skills, goals and work ethic, so we need that formal education and diploma. My father was a metallurgical engineer from MIT, while my mother, with only a 2-year business school diploma, worked first as a secretary for a real estate broker, then got her own broker’s license, and became a millionaire while my father died a paycheck working stiff. Her frienemy in town, also a secretary turned realtor, exactly the same age and starting at exactly the same time, ended up worth over 300 mil. Being in the right place at the right time and, above all, wanting it above all else, is key. The rest of us go to college.

  53. Oregon Jon says

    Many companies hire only the credentialed in entry level jobs not only because it simplifies selection, but also because requiring that piece of paper that says credentialed is one way to minimize the risk of being accused of discrimination. Hiring the experienced is a different matter as they come with a track record, a reputation and possibly unwritten recommendations from mutual acquaintances. I’ve fired new hires who faked their qualifications and retained experienced hires whose c.v.s were discovered to be overly burnished simply because their abilities and performance were what counted. As the author recognizes we don’t live in a perfect world.

  54. John Ziraldo says

    Having three pretty bright young grandsons enticed me to read all of your replies to this excellent article in order to understand the pros and cons of saving for their education. I think I concluded that most of the information provided here does not take into consideration the very obvious facts of trillions of dollars of student debt and many useless degrees provides a great deal of pressure to find new answers that few people may have considered nor discussed here.

  55. John Ziraldo says

    Oops. Wrong button.
    I have no doubt that within a few years there will be many new options for acquiring an education degree that will look very different than the Ivy League stuff that is so expensive today. I wish I had the skills to add some startling new ideas, which I don’t, but many of the writers I follow are providing some very significant hints as to what may lie ahead.
    The members of the IDW for example spend a lot of their energy discussing the education problems of today and talk in broad outlines of what they see ahead. I highly doubt that all of the pessimistic thoughts outlined above will discourage them and others from finding new and better answers for the future of advanced education, including testing, qualifying, and providing degrees for future students.
    In the meantime I will use my time in retirement to point my grandkids towards any online material that will broaden their skills and prepare them for collage decision day.

  56. Xiaoyun Yang says

    Really great article. but it didn’t talk about the value of being in a community with other learners which enrolling in a university provides. There is tremendous value in going to office hours and study groups. Studying on your own doesn’t provide that benefit. However, there are free alternatives to college which lets you engage with a community with other learners, for instance, meetup groups dedicated to learning.

  57. Love the article! From my personal experience, the backlash of deciding not to go to college was eye opening. Now this was the best decision I’ve ever made for myself, but the criticism and judgements from friends and family were insane. I don’t believe college is for everyone and this really depends on what industry you want to work in. I always hear people talk about learning this and learning that but I rarely hear about people actually applying it. It’s one thing to know something, but it’s another to do something. College for me was going to be four years of stuffing my brain with information that held no real value to the life I want.

    Passion and experience will always hold more value than qualifications and I encourage everyone to go on the path that they see best fit.

  58. Garret says

    I think this author addresses some valid points such as the cost of education going up rapidly bit I disagree that this is an unsolvable problem and we must all encourage our children to “drop out of college.” I think the author has done a nice analysis of “average” costs and for him, he feels it makes sense to drop out. Is he going to find work as easily as somebody who stuck with it? Probably not. Personally, I would think it would make more sense to listen to somebody who dropped out and THEN went on to start a successful career through hard work and determination. There is no success story here, he is just choosing to drop out of college. In fact, he admits to watching videos and not paying attention during class and suggests that half the classroom was doing the same. Well, sure, many people may have been distracted during the class but I will bet a select few of the students were probably paying very close attention, if the professor was a good lecturer. If watching “spark notes” lectures on YouTube were a way to gain in-depth knowledge in a field, commercially successful companies would not be paying for their employees to go back to school and get new degrees. They would just tell their employees to watch YouTube. Sure, one can gain surface knowledge by spending 3 hours on YouTube but the author is showing his lack of experience as he claims that “almost all” the same material is contained in the 3 hours of YouTube versus the 29 hours of lectures. I do admit that a lot of knowledge can be gained online through watching videos, reading papers, and completing self-guided study but learning it in a classroom often makes the learning more structured and more likely to “stick.” Being held to somebody else’s standards within a classroom instead of your own does encourage conformity (which has both pluses and minuses in the workplace) but it also encourages accountability, methodical and organized learning, group problem solving, and interactive exchanges between students and their peers and the professor. I do admit that there is a large “signaling” factor present in the current undergraduate school system but I also argue that if some organization must do the signaling (because otherwise job interviews would have to test an unpractical number of things about each candidate), I would rather it be a university rather than only words on a resume.

    Could the current university system be improved? Sure. People could stop inflating the education market with so much money by taking out huge loans and instead take their business to academically rigorous small schools which happen to be cheaper but might not be the biggest names in the industry. That would signal to the higher cost organizations that people are no longer willing to pay large amounts for undergraduate education (except for the rich and influential people who can afford to). Additionally, the school loan system bubble will eventually pop when kids start defaulting on their loans and the banks will realize that this wasn’t such a good bet to loan kids so much money. This will make the gigantic school loans less available and maybe bring the rising cost of education closer to the rate of inflation. College education doesn’t have to be quite as dramatically expensive as this guy makes it out to be. Somebody can start out at a community college and after 2 years transfer to a slightly more expensive 4 year school. People can also work while in college and during the summers. Also, the author’s numbers take into account the cost of housing and food, both of which would be necessary to pay for regardless of whether an individual chooses to go to college or not (although for some kids who continue to live with their parents after high school, they may not realize this cost themselves). This makes his numbers unfairly high for the comparison he is trying to make (college versus dropping out).

    Basically, I agree the the college education system is messed up (as are many things in the US today) but I strongly disagree that that makes a case for “Dropping Out” when pursuing a degree in computer science. Maybe there is a case for transferring to a no-name school with a reputation for having a challenging CS curriculum and forget chasing the prestige of Fordham University. Dropping out limits the student’s direct exposure to professors who are often doing innovative new research in the fields they teach. Dropping out limits the students from possibly advancing to Masters or PhD degrees (which, by the way, are often made more affordable than undergraduate through teaching assistantship or research assistantship jobs made available by the universities). Dropping out also prevents the educational experience from being a real-life experience that brings people together into study groups (something that this student probably had no experience with, as he played on his laptop during lectures). Dropping out limits the student’s broad perspective on a variety of subjects. While different fields probably have different stories, most of my experience is in computer science, and computer/electrical engineering. I would argue that many science and engineering fields are similar. I work with a whole room-full of former undergraduate students who would not be able to do their jobs if they hadn’t paid close attention during their undergraduate curriculum and applied themselves throughout it. If somebody approached me for a job with no undergraduate experience or with a half-finished undergrad degree, I would have some serious questions about why that was the case. If the reason was due to financial hardship alone, perhaps I would offer them a rigorous programming test challenging their knowledge of the deeper aspects of programming and see if they have managed to obtain enough experience and knowledge without completing the degree. My guess is that many people who dropped out of a CS degree would struggle on such a test. If the primary reason for dropping out was defiance of the undergraduate program structure and lack of faith in the college education system, that would be quite concerning.

    I agree about free MOOC online courses containing a lot of good information but I have also researched some of them to investigate whether I would like to take one and found that they often provide similar information to what is publicly available online. They do offer more structure but with less human-to-human interaction. Due to their nature of not offering a very personal experience, many people drop out and do not complete them. There is also no accountability since they are free to sign up for and free to drop out of. There is also the problem of test proctoring which the author brings up but I think the lack of person-to-person interactions and group experiences (group projects, study groups) are a bigger issue. Also, the tests in these courses are often either very difficult, but offer little free support for people who struggle with parts of the material or in other cases, the tests are overly easy. Due to there being very little infrastructure to accredit and evaluate the quality of the education provided by a MOOC course, it is no surprise that they are not viewed by interviewers as being similar to actual college degrees. I do hope this will change in the future as the internet becomes a better place to form study groups and have person-to-person interactions but until then, traditional universities offer a stable alternative.

  59. Keith a says


    The ultimate truth here? The college degree is merely proof of your membership in the oppressor class. Welcome to Matthew Stewart’s meritocracy! Welcome to the club! No wonder it costs as much as a house. Or is it more that the college degree has replaced land ownership as the criteria for membership in the modern aristocracy. Very tricky. Note also that oppression via membership is the matriarchal approach to distribution of power. No doubt has biological roots. Woman understand and value family, belonging, membership. No wonder that institutions, even banks, are dominated by women. The patriarchal approach is on demonstrated competence through competition. Banks are not a place where you compete for someone else’s dollars. Imagine if the best college students paid nothing for their education by virtue of competition. Food for thought.

    Thank you, Mr Knoche for your invaluable insights.

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