We live in an era where some celebrate the idea of the successful college dropout. We looks to Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, Michael Dell, Matt Mullenweg, Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, and sometimes even Frank Lloyd Wright. These are people who stepped away from the pursuit of a college degree to do something else, and that something else just happened to work out for them. Then there is the Thiel Fellowship that offers people $100,000 if they want to drop out of college and build or create something impressive. I am not aware of any other time in American history when we gave so much respect to dropping out. The “successful dropout” is a new American archetype.
Even as some of these successful dropouts like Bill Gates discourage people from following their example, there is something inspiring about what they did. In some cases, these people dropped out because college didn’t seem to fit them, so they left to find something that fit better. Others got lost in a great idea or project, it started to gain traction, and they left college to see it through.
We don’t celebrate every dropout, only those who achieve some measure of what enough people define as success. After all, depending upon what source you check, anywhere from a third to almost half of those who pursue a 4-year degree do not get it. In other words, there are lots of college dropouts in this world, and many of them leave with an unpleasant reminder in the form of debt. We don’t tend to celebrate the unemployed thirty year old who dropped out of college her senior year to care for her sick mother. The twenty-five year old guy who partied his way out of school and all the way back to his parent’s basement is not usually the one who makes the magazine covers (although that does happen). In other words, it isn’t the dropout that we celebrate. It is the successful dropout, and by success, we are usually referring to financial success or a significant social impact. As admirable as it might be to sacrifice one’s college studies for family or others, we do not read about those dropouts, even as there is a compelling case for the nobility of such a path.
As a University administrator and professor, I admire the successful college dropout as much as anyone else (especially if we expand our definition of success). No, I admire the successful dropout more than most people. The American archetype of the successful college dropout is likely a modern derivation of the longstanding archetype of the self-made person. It is the one who chose the road less traveled. It is the pioneer spirit. It is the vision of going boldly where no one has gone before. It is noble sacrifice of self for the sake of another. As with each of these examples, there is a risk involved, but taking that risk and then succeeding is what resonates with many of us.
The first online dictionary that I checked, offered these definitions for a dropout.
a : one who drops out of school
b : one who drops out of conventional society
c : one who abandons an attempt, activity, or chosen path a corporate dropout
These definitions don’t capture the spirit of the dropout that intrigues many of us. It isn’t just that someone dropped out. It is what they did instead of persisting toward a degree. They pursued a dream. They created something. They helped someone. They explored, experimented, and discovered. They didn’t abandon learning. They just abandoned formal schooling and the preset curriculum determined by others. This is what I respect and value because many, even most (maybe all) of these successful dropouts demonstrated an impressive capacity for and commitment to self-directed learning. It was not about passing tests, showing up for class, writing papers, reading assigned texts, or doing a combination of these and more until you walk across the stage to receive that magical piece of paper that symbolizes (but does not equal) success. Compare the difference in meaning between a dropout and a college student on graduation day when each says “I did it!” That is no small difference.
In fact, I’m a self-declared college dropout who just happened to persist and get the degrees, and who works in a higher education institution. I’m a persistent advocate for the spirit of the successful college dropout even for those who, in the more literal sense, do not dropout. These are the people who take ownership for their learning. They ask questions. They push themselves instead of waiting for some professor or other person to keep them going. They devise their own methods and heuristics while being quick to learn from anyone and everyone who can help them along the way. They pursue their goals, and they turn the college experience into a massive resource for achieving those goals. Goals might range from learning to think and read deeply to learning how to start the next Microsoft. Either way, it isn’t a passive, submissive, and compliant mindset. It is the mindset of someone who is engaged, takes ownership, and gets lost in things that matter to that person.
From this perspective, the spirit of the successful college dropout is part of what gives flavor to life in our out of college. I’ll confess to thinking about joining the actual college dropouts. I think about it multiple times a year. At the same time, what I most value is the spirit of the successful dropout, and I’m convinced that this is needed in higher education.