Dropping Out and Finding Life: Until higher education improves, dropping out might be the right move

I’m reading a new 300-page book packed to the brim with strategies for college students to be the best college students ever. It’s actually a fantastic book that I’ll be talking about elsewhere, with useful tips for preparing study packets and taking notes in the classroom. However, as I was reading this book and scribbling my own notes on little stickies, a nagging voice in the back on my head kept thinking, “yeah, they’re not going to do that. And they certainly won’t do that.” 

Yes, there are high school students who are eagerly awaiting college acceptance letters at this very minute to the country’s top colleges. They have been honed by years of elite schools and tutors to be excellent students, if not terribly interesting ones — the excellent sheep as described by William Deresiewicz. Those driven students might want to read this book to fine-tune their already well-developed tricks for committing information to memory and reproducing that information neatly in a scantron exam. 

I’m certainly not knocking academic excellence. I loved college, so much that I hung around for an extra decade getting a PhD. I developed my own methods for churning through hundreds of pages of Marx and Weber and was extremely proud of my efforts. To gain entry to the best law schools and medical schools in the country, one simply must study hard and perform well; there is no other way to operate.

However, college perfectionism isn’t the only game in town. At war with this traditional ideas of college education is a growing nihilism about the whole endeavor. Students and professors are giving up on college, as we witnessed in our own home just a few months ago.

Read more Apt. 11D, The Newsletter


27 thoughts on “Dropping Out and Finding Life: Until higher education improves, dropping out might be the right move

  1. I have a 1st year and a 4th year in college and both have experienced the changes and disruption in the educational system. 1st year knows he learned less in HS than he might have otherwise, but that hasn’t disrupted his 1st year of college. His college has pass fail for all Freshman first term and he tells us that he would have worked for all As if they appeared (but says he has A-s). He has always said he needs concrete feedback (i.e. grades, winning games) to strive to do his best (as opposed to good enough) and we are seeing that play out. And, the nihilism you describe is translated into better balance for him, quitting competitive sports, for example that he isn’t enjoying in favor of pickup games that he does enjoy.

    4th year was always intense to the point of worry and has realized she has to balance her world better and is doing better (again, pandemic related), turning down activities (she learned she does not like being an editor of a publication) in favor of other activities. She has also made time for friends and trips.

    So, in my two, I’m seeing more balance, less intensity,, which, all in all, is a good thing for both of them, though it does affect their prospects. I was incredibly intense but joyfully so; without the joy, it’s no good.


  2. I’m glad J has found a niche he is enjoying and that seems to be a good fit for him and finding his love of learning as well.

    Mine have not yet found consistent work and I am seeing all of the reports of the “nihilism” of work, too. There are a number of enterprises (startups, science labs, some not-for-profits in my experiences) that rely on workers with committed intensity reaching for (the next big thing & the payout, the solution to big science problems & careers, serving as many as they can & the sense of doing important things — respectively). Those organizations do not function well without driven, intense, workers, as they are currently designed. So, I’m waiting to see how it all plays out.


  3. We’re experiencing the same nihilism with our two, who are first year college students. One crashed and burned, and the other only did well because he got pity As from the faculty who had been on strike at the end of the semester.

    From talking to other parents, we’re not alone. It seems to be more prominent among men, but I know a good number of women struggling too. My concern as we work to address that with our guys is similar to what bj says – that this is not just about school, the nihilism is broader than that. Our kids certainly like the trappings of an upper, middle class life style, so once they are out of college and on their own financially, maybe they will step it up. But not confident about that.


  4. My first year is male, so I do wonder whether the support at the SLAC made a difference though it isn’t obvious to me (I do appreciate the pass/fail which I also had as a freshman)

    Mine also like the trappings though one of them is very aware of costs and thinks she plans on having less money (which is easy to say when you come home for the perks) and know you have a safety net)


  5. “growing nihilism about the whole endeavor. Students and professors are giving up on college, as we witnessed in our own home just a few months ago.”

    You forgot the part about always having a nagging fear that you will get reported, then cancelled, for not having kept up with what is correct this month.


  6. This was certainy made worse by the pandemic, but has been in evidence for far longer — maybe 20 years or so. For starters, the large proportion of students who are passive-aggressively resisting college is unfortunate not just for themselves but also for their classmates and professors/instructors. They are there because high schools don’t advise any other next step for any student who is not actually cognitively disabled. And because employers use a college degree as a screening device and even as free job training. These are students who are perfectly capabler of learning stuff, but they are tired to death of classroom learning in a “school” environment. They are a drag on the whole system. I can’t tell you how many people in my extended family had already turned their attention to other things while still in high school — thngs like carpentry, auto repair, sales, elder care, and even entrepreneurship. Some later took college classes; one even became finance director of a huge county road commission.

    Plus, as you say, today’s high schools, even the good ones, do not foster independence and accountability.


    1. My kiddo who went to a private HS (complicated schedules, and by senior year a lot of unscheduled time that was supposed to be used wisely) says that was a significant benefit that she noticed from her HS (compared to other rigorous schools that did not have the degree of freedom college entails).

      Other kiddo went to a public school with a rigid schedule but, learned self management skills during the pandemic, when there were college-like schedules of zoom classes (3 days a week) and work to be done outside of class.

      So my kiddos seem to have gotten the independence, but somewhat accidentally.


  7. I’d love to hear Jonah’s recommendations on the collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age. In addition to history and archaeology books (Robert Drews is compelling but probably wrong, Eric Cline is more balanced but drier), I’ve really enjoyed the Tides of History podcast by Patrick Wyman and can certainly recommend it.


  8. Passionately interested in how this will play out. I have a teen with 3 years of HS to go (eeep! when did that happen!) – who is *not* an academic stand-out. He scores As when he’s engaged with a subject and has a strength in it – B/C in the mainstream academic subjects (ranging from As to a scraped-pass C and some not-achieved when he can’t be bothered to turn in the work – in individual areas) – and firmly not-achieved in physical education (he’s reasonably fit – but the tests all emphasise agility and short-term speed bursts – where he’s poor).

    He’s looking at a possible career in food science – which will require an undergraduate degree (at least, it will here in NZ). But is currently working (weekends and lots of extra days in the school holidays) at our local entertainment complex – running the laser tag – and acting as a general supplementary staff-member (anything from busing tables, to manning the till, to lifeguard supervision in the trampoline/ballpit areas). And is *really* enjoying the money (independent income of $21/hour is not to be sneezed at, when you’re 14/15 and have no outgoings!), and the camaraderie of the young enthusiastic team, and the freedom his bosses have given him to manage and improve the laser tag operation. He’s also (even if his Mum is saying so), personable, friendly, outgoing, excellent at communication, and a problem-solver – so is more than carrying his weight – despite being a couple of years younger than the rest of them.

    Luckily, right now, at least, he’s able to distinguish between short-term gain (minimum wage job) and long term income (potential for making tens of thousands more).

    But – he really doesn’t enjoy school – and a degree is a further 3 years of classroom study. If a job with some serious potential income came up, in a couple of years time – which did *not* require a degree – I wouldn’t be surprised if he took it.


    1. Speaking of food, in my family there is also a nephew who has exactly your son’s personality traits and work ethic. He has no degree — barely made it out of high school — but he owns a catering company that does very well. In the food industry, if you are smart and alert, you can do very well.


  9. The online learning thing is really interesting.

    I have several friends who are homeschooling – some of whom are predominantly using unschooling methods [they all have to do *some* English and Maths to get Ministry of Education authorization – but have a lot of freedom over which other subjects/topics to teach]

    For kids who are self-starters – this seems to work really well – they follow passions and dive-deep into different subjects – learning a lot of the ‘official’ curriculum in passing.

    I have to say that, observationally, they tend to be obsessively well informed in some areas, but have little breadth of knowledge – but that may be my bias showing. I suspect that many of them are on the autism spectrum to some degree – and this style of learning plays to their strengths, but does little to support their weaknesses.

    For these kids – the online resources available are excellent – and they seem to learn really well from them. Partly, I’m sure because the born-online resources are streets ahead of the recorded lecture style of thing that the universities were putting out.

    However, when they are *not* engaged (i.e. you just *have* to learn algebra, because the MoE says so) – online learning is no more effective than in person learning – and often less so (the in person teacher can see you’ve zoned out – and intervene). And for kids who are not engaged at all – it requires the parent to be really, really hands on – effectively one-on-one tuition – to get any learning done at all. [The only thing that makes this survivable for the parent, is that they only have to do about 2 hours of learning a day, to cover what would be achieved in the time-wasting school environment]


  10. Oh, and on the Harry saga – it’s pretty much a non-event here. When you think of the shocked headlines following the Oprah ‘interview’ (in retrospect, ‘piece of propaganda’ is probably more accurate – there were no journalistic standards being applied); this seems to be a pretty ‘meh’ response – reflecting the ‘meh’ content.

    “The UK media reacted swiftly to Prince Harry’s leaked memoir Spare, with headlines showing almost universal scorn or bewilderment.”


    What I do find interesting are the (unintentional, I’m sure) revelations which contradict their previous stories. The ‘truth’ has obviously moved on….


  11. Heard the middle of a clip about this podcast “Who do you want to be?” on Hidden Brain on NPR


    Starts with signing up for a signing up for a masters in existential phenomenonolgy psychotherapy (which is not going to work out, as didn’t the rock band plan). Oh my, I’m listening now and his next step is going to be EST (I don’t think that’s going to work, either)

    Seems relevant to our Gen Z kids



  12. My niece is really enjoying college but she is a nursing major so she has a foot in the world of work which I think makes everything feel more relevant. She works as a nurse’s aid at the local hospital one shift a week and picked up some great holiday pay this past Christmas and New Year’s.

    Her experience is very different from my liberal arts education and she’s very pragmatic about the whole thing. I remember feeling lost at times in college as to why I was there. Personality wise she may be less intellectually curious than me but she’s intelligent and a very good student. Nursing is very competitive these days, to the point that my sister, who is an NP, thinks is a bit much considering the nursing shortage.


    1. Thanks! I like a little rebellion so these young people dropping out of school and professions may lead to much needed adjustments.


  13. Very smart, well-connected dropouts like Jonah are probably in a good position to find interesting, creative work. Less smart and connected people may need college to avoid a life working at Walgreens or the pizza place or as an Amazon stocker. That’s not to say that they might not find their way into something, but colleges do present a lot of different ideas for career options that might strike someone’s interest.

    Nursing programs – at least ours – are hard to get into and very rigorous. We have tons of students who sign up for “prenursing” and then can’t get into Nursing but they apparently do a pretty good job of redirecting them into less academically demanding medicine-related majors.

    The non-“liberal arts and science” fields in our college tend to do pretty well – law enforcement (you don’t have to have a college degree to become a cop, but it may help); recreation, parks, tourism, hospitality (apparently it is very important to have separate named majors and minors for things like “event planning” – industries have basically outsourced their on-the-job training to colleges); things like accounting and other focused business degrees (the general ones can be pretty useless, but if you’re after specific skills it can be good). We get a lot of computer science students, including international ones. And of course if you want to get into elementary ed you have to have college – we train a lot of teachers for the region (desperately needed in a rural area) – English, history, science, math, of course, but also music and art. There are disciplines like music therapy or athletic training or dietetics that people find their way into through college.

    Even for smart, well-connected people college can point to a path out of a boring few years at an office job (or provide the connections past the boring jobs), but there’s no guarantee.


  14. This paragraph from your newsletter really jumped out at me:

    “My son, the college dropout, is super happy right now. He’s genuinely enjoying learning about sales and marketing at a sports apparel company, even brainstorming new product ideas with ownership. Outside of work he’s teaching himself about the Late Bronze Age collapse. Weirdly, he hated watching YouTube lectures, while taking actual college classes, but is enjoying learning about this topic on his own and passionately reciting his findings at the dinner table. Rather than studying all weekend, he and his girlfriend are taking trips, going to concerts, and enjoying life.”

    If your son’s employer is part of a trend where businesses acknowledge that an increasingly vague credential in a non-technical field says much, much less than whether a kid is motivated and open to training; and if your son himself is part of a trend of college-educated families realizing their kids have a shot at a good life without going into massive debt…then it seems like a big chunk of higher ed is essentially doomed. I’ve wondered how and when the higher-ed bubble might deflate, and this could be the very slow beginning.


  15. To be clear, I want Jonah to finish. He only has five stupid classes to go. He could take them at the community college, since he finished all his work for his major. But he just really, really, really hates school now and just can’t make himself finish right now. He says he’ll finish it when he’s ready.

    But I think even if he never finishes, he’ll do fine. Bosses love him.


    1. Yes I have a few friends from college who never finished. They are doing fine. Only one went back to finish after 10 years because she wanted to go to acupuncture school, which required a Bachelor level degree.


  16. I’ve always disliked the use of a college degree in a non-specific field as a method of credentialing undefined skills. I think there are some skills that are associated with particular degrees (physics usually means math skills, history writing skills, . . . .). With newly invented majors (which neuroscience was when I first entered the field), it can be difficult to know what skills are associated with the major. I, for example, had decent, though quirky programming skills, but not particularly strong stats skills. Psychologists, on the other hand (including social/cognitive/etc) can have transferable stats skills.

    I wish we could break the casual dependence on vague college degrees in favor of on the job training for jobs that require more general skills of learning and interaction, but am wary of seeing it as a real trend (independent of what happens to the higher ed bubble). The bubble could collapse while harming those who most need college to avoid an unstable economic future.


    1. My dislike of demanding college degrees for vague reasons has me sympathetic to people who lie, For example, Dave Reichert, congressman from WA, who reported a BA when he had an associate’s degree.

      Marilee Jones, MIT admissions director for 28 years who was driven out when it was discovered that she had liked about her degrees. She was outed when a disgruntled parent complained that she was being introduced as “Dr.” when she didn’t have a doctorate (and, then turned out to not have any of the degrees she had reported).

      (Santos is a different story because he lied about everything, but these guys, they could do their jobs and the degrees they claimed were irrelevant, though the lying made it a problem)


      1. I am frequently correcting people who get my degree wrong. I’m assumed to have a Ph.D. and even after correcting that most people think I’ve made a typo of “MA” and correct what I sent them to “MS.” It’s kind of annoying, but important that I not be seen as trying to defraud anyone even by failing to correct their error.


      2. Yes, Jones described the same issue in a more recent interview, of correcting people and the burden that it imposes. Of course, she had actually lied on her resume, so we can’t quite call it innocence in her case.

        But, I do think there’s a subset of people for whom the initial mistake is imposed, and then they just don’t correct it. For example, it’s quite possible that Reichert’s educational info was entered by an assistant, who changed AA to BA, resulting in a falsehood.

        I remember thinking about this when hiring internationally — if someone has a PhD, you can pretty much hire them as a post-doc in the US at a university, in a lab (i.e. get a J-1 for them), regardless of what lab work they are doing for you (they could be doing a job that you would otherwise staff with a technician). But, you can’t hire an international as a tech. Apparently there are universities that have programs where they collaborate with start ups pretty much so that PhDs can be hired by the startup without being sponsored for a H1B visa, which is harder to get and has a cap in number.

        (oh, and, its hard to hire a research tech who doesn’t have their BA/BS, unless they are a student, even when they have the right to work in the US).


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