I am often asked why I did the unthinkable and dropped out of a first rate school like The Georgia Institute of Technology. People tend to assume that I must either be on my way to founding a successful startup that will make me millions of dollars, or that I left due to some ingrained character flaw—stupidity, or laziness—that would surely have had me forcibly evicted from the ranks of academia had I not left quietly, and on my own terms. The truth is far less extreme, and comes in three parts:
The discovery that the common concept of educational value is flawed
A conflicting love of Georgia Tech and a dislike of its politics
Self dislike and the desire to improve the state of my life
Money and Value
Most of the time, when people demand an explanation for why I would “throw away my future like that,” I save myself this lengthy exposition by telling them that I simply couldn’t afford school any longer. While this is in some ways true, it wasn’t about the money itself—after all, there are hundreds of lenders out there eager to fulfill a juicy, government-backed, student loan. Rather, it was about the value of higher education.
I recently saw an old study which concluded that, despite rising education costs, the monetary return on investment for a college education still outweighed the cost of attending school in the long run. Clear cut and simple: If you go to school, you will get a better job and make far more money over the course of your life than you poured into your student loans. You will never convince me that this is still the case for most students. Undergraduate student debt in the United States recently topped 1 trillion dollars—that’s a 1 followed by 12 zeros ($1,000,000,000,000), an almost inconceivable sum. It’s a value so outside of our normal day-to-day experience we can’t comprehend it in any meaningful way. Think of it this way: If you made $7.25 per hour (federal minimum wage), it would take you 137.9 billion hours of continuous work to earn 1 trillion dollars—that’s 15.74 million years of 24/7 work. Even if you’re Warren Buffett and you make $62,855,038 in a normal work year, it will still take you 15,910 years to make your first trillion (but at least you’ll get 31,920 weeks of paid vacation to help pass the time). I know individuals with $100,000 degrees who are working in coffee shops for minimum wage and will never pay it all off, so why did they accrue all that debt in the first place?
Sometime during the last few decades we began to confuse that great American ideal that everyone should have the chance to get a great education with the staggeringly stupid idea that everyone must have a higher education. Hundreds of thousands of people are getting an education they don’t need or want because they feel that they won’t be worth anything until they do, and thus education becomes prohibitively expensive for many who do need or want it. If becoming an engineer or scientist is your dream, the best of luck to you, but if you’re just paying for a piece of paper that says, “you’ve done your time”: get out now. With all that in mind, I decided that I would stop being part of the problem and save several tens of thousands of dollars in the process.
My second reason is rather multi-faceted and vague: I love the idea of Georgia Tech, but hate the actual implementation.
When I first came to Georgia Tech, I was full of the usual Romantic notions typically associated with going off to school: I expected an unparalleled range of academic and intellectual freedoms (think bushy-browed professors sitting in a library sipping scotch, surrounded by an attentive group of pupils, expounding revolutionary ideas that would be considered nothing short of heresy outside the more enlightened academic circles). I expected tradition, balanced with progress; I expected 60’s-style activism where the forward-thinking students take up the fight to save the American way. I expected a haven where the petty squabbling of politics meant nothing, and where no one felt like lording it over anyone else (except perhaps that one grumpy old professor who always exists in such institutions). Though I exaggerate my naivety, it was still a monumental mistake.
My impression soon changed to one in which academia was a crumbling institution that’s ideals had been slowly eroded from the top down until it became no more than a complicated bureaucracy of administrators constantly undoing each other’s work and pandering to corporate interests. Even the student body, for the most part, had given up caring about anything but upcoming exams, and job placement prospects. In short, the school, and its students, had been weakened by those who run the show.
So my second reason for leaving school is a hatred of bureaucracy, the commercialization of education, and jumping through hoops just for the sake of jumping through hoops (rather like getting a degree just for the sake of having a degree).
A Better Life
Finally, I left school for the same reason many people attend it—I was dissatisfied with my life. I was beginning to dislike myself as a person and wanted to do something about it.
I, like the rest of the nation, was raised with the belief that unless you attended college you were wasting your life. When I was a child, I always assumed that I would get a PhD, at which point I would append those three little letters to my name and then I would become ‘somebody.’ But if this was the case, why did I become so damnably unhappy after going off to school?
I find that the only times I can look back on with fondness are a brief stint working an internship as a resource manager (whatever that is) at Amicalola Falls State Park, and whenever I was working at the theater—both career choices which, I am assured, are highly unsuitable as they don’t make enough money and don’t really require higher education. Sadly, now that I’ve gotten over that notion, I still can’t explore either option (because they don’t make enough money to pay off the loans that I amassed while pursuing higher education… funny how that worked out).
Not only that, but I find that I am still influenced by this deeply engrained idea that you’re worth nothing until you have that little slip of paper. In writing this I became uncomfortably conscious of the fact that I was insulting my coworkers at Amicalola Falls by stating that you really don’t need a college education to do their jobs. That’s the problem, you see, there is no insult, and I shouldn’t feel bad about it. Just because a job doesn’t need a degree doesn’t make it any less valuable, interesting, or important, and having one of those jobs makes you no less intelligent. However, I can’t help but feel that I’m somehow discounting the value of their work, or their mental abilities, by making that statement; the idea of college as a shining glory that makes you into a worthwhile member of society is too deeply ingrained. Some habits die hard.
So there, in far too many words, are my reasons for leaving a tier-one academic institution during a time when more and more people are trying to get into them. The college experience (that phenomenon so often confused with academics and football) was well worth some of the time I spent there; I came out a changed person, with better defined views in all things. Whether the changes in my life were for better or for worse I do not know. What I do know is that I got all I could out of school in the time that I was there, and that continuing, even for a semester more, was not worth the money, or the self-loathing, that would have accompanied it.
- Don’t go to art school by Noah Bradley
- Why Are So Many College Graduates Driving Taxis? by Peter Orszag for Bloomberg
- We must hate our children by Joan Walsh for Salon
- Your student loan isn’t really a loan by David Dayen for Salon
- College Grads Struggling to Enter Workforce by John Lorinc for WABE (and featuring me)
- I cannot afford to go back to engineering school by Ingrid Avendaño