Why We Need More Successful College Dropouts in College (From a College Dropout With Four Degrees)

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.

How Three Words Can Make a Difference in the Life of a Learner

Fourteen years ago, while pursuing a graduate degree in humanities (a Master of Liberal Studies), I gathered the courage to take a creative writing course with the South African novelist, Sheila Roberts. Each week, she challenges us to write a new piece, share it with the class, and offer feedback and comments to one another. She managed to nurture an incredible learning community and concluded it by teaching me the power of three words.
I still remember many of my classmates. At the end of the table there was a barefoot high school English teacher who managed to fit marijuana or intimate moments into almost every story, and included a healthy dose of language that clashed with my Midwestern protestant roots. Next to him sat a large man with a slow drawl and long black hair, always in a tight ponytail. He wrote wild, imaginative stories that reminded me of Gabriel García Márquez. Next to him sat an a guy who, if I remember correctly, spent his evenings on a full shift at UPS while pursuing his PhD in English. He wrote sturdy, familiar stories about the ordinary work of grocery store clerks and small town coaches; creating incredible but entirely believable moments that left the room laughing and crying at the same time. Across from him was a confident woman who spent much of the last decade volunteering and leading personally meaningful causes in the community. Unlike my sloppy and meandering style, she wrote like a Ninja; precise and graceful prose that would sneak up on us and leave us wondering what just happened. A half-dozen others, just as interesting and diverse, gathered around the table several times a week.
I loved writing, but I doubted my ability and was embarrassed by my awkward, sloppy, imprecise, simple sentences and stories. Nonetheless, I read and listened to others discuss what they heard. The experience of hearing people talk out loud about my writing remains one of the more formative aspects of my life as a writer.
I had many conversations with the professor before and after class, candidly sharing my goals, aspirations, and insecurities. At the time that I was working on this graduate degree in humanities, I was also writing a dissertation for my doctorate at a different school. As I spoke with Sheila Roberts, I always admired how she chose words carefully whether speaking or writing, and how she offered more questions and relevant personal experiences than anything else. She did not critique or judge our writing as much as she observed, enjoyed, connected with it and us. She explored each essay with us as if we were on a tour of some ancient ruin that she wanted to understand and experience with us. She invited us to think about why and how we wrote, helping us to discover and refine our voice, with little interest in our conforming to set standards or conventions.

I never saw a list of learning objectives. I don’t even remember seeing a grade, not until I looked at my transcript. Instead, she nurtured a rich and authentic community where we read, wrote, discussed, refined our craft, and learned from one another. It remains one of my fondest memories of a formal college course at any level.
Then, on the last day of this summer class, Sheila Roberts pulled me aside as others were leaving. She handed me a signed copy of her book, Purple Yams and said, “Please keep writing.” It took me years to commit to the daily habit of writing that contributed my travels around the United States and other parts of the world, allowed me to connect with countless people, and helped me to refine my thinking about life and learning in a connected age. Yet, leaving me with three simple words of encouragement helped me work through the doubts enough to finally discover and fully commit to writing.
What three words can you share with someone else on their learning journey?

Calling, Life Stories, Fears, and Learning

I do not usually get this personal on my blog, but something tells me that now is the time to share this story and struggle with you. What I am about to share with you is a story about calling, and I share it because I believe that stories, purpose, meaning, and calling are all important parts of our life and learning. When we stop thinking about these topics, education turns into something less interesting. It is in the absence of meaning, purpose, and calling for each learner that we start to see people use comparisons like school as a factory, school as a jail, or school as glorified babysitting. Or, we let it turn into a political battleground, a money tree, or a club that we can use to force our ideological opponents into submission. School can be so much more than that. It can be a place that helps young people learn about, shape, and live out their unique stories in life.

I believe that our lives are heavily influences by the stories that we live, learn, and tell ourselves, and I am going to tell you part of my story. This is not something that I share very often, but as you read it, I invite you to think about your own story and the story of the learners with whom you interact.

When I was twelve years old, only a week or two after our family moved to Laredo, Texas to be closer to some of my father’s new business clients, my life changed. It was one of our first days in this new home when my mother woke me up in the middle of the night. My father, suffering from a longstanding heart condition, needed immediate medical care. Within an hour, at less than fifty years old, my dad died of a massive heart attack, and I sat there, physically trembling as if I were sitting unclothed in an ice storm.

My dad was the definition of an entrepreneur: determined, driven, confident, quick to take responsibility for the outcome instead of blaming others, a bit stubborn but deeply curious, constantly looking for the third option when everyone else only saw two, unswerving amid risk, persuasive, and always ready to pick himself up after a failed effort. He also neglected his health, worked too many hours given his condition, and did not seem to listen to the advice of doctors.

Before my birth, my dad applied these same traits to a very different career as a Southern Baptist minister. He planted a church and worked long days in service to that church while also working a second job to make enough money to feed his family. My brother tells me that the elders of this church promised him a living wage once attendance at this church “startup” reached a viable number, but when that number came and passed, the elders changed their mind. My dad’s long work days were even longer, and it became increasingly difficult to feed and care for his growing family (a son and two daughters at the time). At one point my dad had enough. Bitter and burned out, he left the ministry, and headed into the business world, eventually becoming a broker, determined to never allow his family to be in want again. He delivered on that promise tenfold, but it caught up with him.

As an entrepreneur, my dad faced failures. He also celebrated plenty of financial wins and successes along the way. I do not know what happened to any of his assets at the time of death, but a modest life insurance policy provided my mother and me enough money to get by afterward (all of my siblings were grown and married by this time). Eventually, my mother married a widower who lost his wife around the same time that my dad died, and this man turned out to be an incredible anchor and mentor in my life. My stepfather, a farmer in Southern Illinois, lived a very different lifestyle than that to which I was accustomed. I soon learned to bail hay, shovel manure, load livestock, paint tin roofs of sheds and barns in one-hundred degree heat and almost equal humidity. I came to know my stepfather as a wise, compassionate, innovative, and incredibly hardworking man. He exemplifies a commitment to steady, focused, hard work in one direction for decades. He is a loyal family man, husband, father, and neighbor. He is the type of man who is quick to sacrifice for the needs of others. During his working years he showed no drive to change the world in some grand or global scale. For him, it was and is all about doing what is right, working hard, and caring for your family.

It probably became most apparent during my college years that I inherited a few traits and learned even more lessons from my dad.  Even with years of practice and effort, I do not know if I could muzzle the entrepreneurial drive that I saw in my father and I see in myself. However, most of my life, as much as I have incredible love and respect for my father, I found myself interpreting his life as a tragedy, a Hero’s Journey cut short, a little like Hercules dying in an unfortunate car accident on the way home from his fourth labor, never to finish the other six or the adventure.

If I am honest with you, I embraced this story as the defining narrative for much of my life, and it includes a series of lessons, ones that I do not necessarily suggest for others. I will mention some of them below and share how they shaped my past and present.

“You must keep that entrepreneurial spirit in check or it will be your undoing.”

Like my father, I am wired to look for the third way. The idea of being the first in the world to try something is stirring and inspiring, especially when it is something that I believe can have a positive impact in the world. Yet, I have spent my adult life in learning organizations because they have clear boundaries, are steeped in tradition, and they are slow to change. That is not the only reason, but I have begun to suspect that this is indeed one reason. As much as  I know that starting something new gives greater opportunity for some of my ideas to grow and flourish, I have admittedly kept that entrepreneurial drive in check by staying in safe and stable organizations that do not let me “take things too far.” This is rarely a conscious decision, but it is nonetheless something that I began to discover about myself.

This persistent tension is what shaped me into who I am and what I do today. Admittedly, I often wonder what would happen if I were to let loose of the restraints, venturing out on my own. However, unlike a true entrepreneur, I have a tragic story that keeps me from doing anything too “risky.” Ironically, some in education find it hard to imagine that I could become more risky or extreme in my ideas or actions. If only they knew.

“You must make sure that your family is taken care of financially in the case of your untimely death, but you must also be suspicious of wealth and its negative impact in your life.”

I spent a decade studying and learning about the role of entrepreneurship in education and, while I appreciate accountability and oversight, I celebrate the work of the educational entrepreneur. In fact, I suspect that some of the most important learning innovations will come from outside of the highly regulated confines of modern learning organizations. There are so many times when I want to found that next education startup, but I will confess a persistent fear of success that, too often, keeps me from taking the plunge.

A few times in my life, I received incredibly generous job offers. Taking any one of those jobs for ten years in my early adulthood could have set me up for spending the rest of my adult like taking some of those entrepreneurial risks without stress on my family. It took me a long time to realize that I was afraid of making too much money. It felt too similar to my father’s path.

“If you abandon or run away from your first calling, you will suffer an equal or worse outcome.”

There are many ways to look at my father’s story. You could see it as a story of a man who sacrificed his calling as a minister so that he could be faithful to the calling of a father and husband. You could also see it as a story of a man who abandoned his calling and experienced constant torment that affected all aspects of his life, eventually leading to his untimely death. You could also see it as the story of a man whose calling took him many directions, first as a minister, second as an entrepreneur, but it was a journey with a sudden and unexpected ending. Or you can just look at it as the story of a husband, father and friend who lived on his own terms while expressing a deep love for and loyalty to his family.

As much as I can intellectually see his story in different ways, I sometimes live in fear of running away from my callings. If I step out and take this risk, will it lead me down the same path as my father? It might seem foolish or unrealistic, but this is the fear that I sometimes find myself facing. I sometimes even risk undermining my own successes. If I do not reach some great success, then I do not have to face the difficult decisions, I reason to myself.

In fact, when I first graduated from college, I received two job offers on the same day. Not knowing what to do, I weighed the options. Then I chose the one that I wanted the least because I thought that would protect me from hubris. It did not, but I give myself a couple of points for a novel, albeit foolish, approach to decision-making.

Then there are two other stories that I have come to associate with my father and myself for one reason or another. On the one hand, there is the story of the prophet who ran away from his calling only to find himself in the belly of a great fish. This brought Jonah back to his calling, but what would have happened if he still kept running? Is that the story of my dad? Would that be my story if I uncaged the entrepreneurial side of my personality? How do I avoid living the same story? The other is The Parable of the Talents, namely the man who, afraid of the master, hid his talent instead of investing it. To that man, the master replied:

You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.

These stories conjure a persistent fear of not following my calling, wasting my gifts, and accordingly facing the earthly consequences. If such fears are not kept under control or overcome, they have a way of haunting a person. You are afraid to act and afraid to stand still, so you try to do a little of both. Some say that is certain pathway to mediocrity and perpetual discontent. Others say that it is a way of blending your passions, gifts, and interests; perhaps even preparing for some future but presently unknown adventure.

This is also probably part of why, throughout my life, I find myself working two or three jobs. When I worked on my doctorate, I had a full-time job in a Christian middle and high school, a 20-hour-per week graduate assistantship at the university, a part-time job at a church, and a part-time job at a college. Even today, I have a full-time leadership position that actually includes three distinct roles, maintain a teaching load, spend enough time on writing and related projects to count for a second full-time job, and I do other projects on top of that. Why? Part of it is because of my insatiable curiosity and love of learning. I enjoy all this. From another perspective, it might also be that I can feed the entrepreneurial spirit without giving in to it. I hold on to what I think is that “first calling” while embracing these other areas that sometimes feel like a “deep gladness” intersecting a “great hunger” in the world (ala Buechner).

This is part of my story. You have your own. So do each of the students in our schools. New events add to our stories each day, and they play a role in who we are and who we become. As I think about what I believe about education, reflecting on this very personal part of my own story reminds me about one of my core convictions when it comes to education. A good education is one that binds us together but also one that helps us go on a very personal journey, one that is unique to each of us.

Many students already come to school with stories very much like the one that I just shared with you: stories of loss and fear. Each day that a student is in school, that student is in the process of creating new parts of his or her life story.  These can be forgotten and ineffectual experiences. They can also be stories that inspire them, help them make sense of their lives, help them learn to persevere, empower them to discover and develop their gifts and abilities, help them tap into their passions, guide them on the path of discovering current and future callings, help them face and overcome their fears, and equip them for the challenges and opportunities of the future. School occupies too much of our lives to simply be about standards and tests even if that is what most people measure today. School is part of something much more significant, it is part of our life story.

Etale Year in Review – 185 Countries, 185 Articles, Top Articles, Top Searches, and More

At the end of each year, I like to look back over the last twelve months to see what I can learn from my writing and the readership at Etale. What resonated the most with readers? What articles received the most unique visitors and what were people inclined to share the most? Who was interested and why? Which search terms result in the most visitors? How did people learn about the site or article? What countries are represented in my readership? This year included more than a few surprises and interesting insights. As such, here is the 2016 summary by the statistics.

How many articles did you publish?

From January 1, 2016 to December 28, 2016 I published 185 articles on Etale.org (although I deleted 6 of them), averaging 3.5 articles a week. I published 3 articles a week steadily throughout the year, but there were a few weeks where I clearly had a bit more to say, publishing 8 articles in one week. Then there were the week when I only published a couple articles.

People ask me about how I manage to write so much, and I often explain that this is not a forum for polished articles. These are rough draft thoughts, a way for me to process and make sense of new and old ideas while also connecting with people around the world about those ideas. Most of my writing happens on the weekend, but instead of publishing 3 or 4 articles on a  Saturday, I schedule them to release throughout the week. In fact, I’ve been known to write 6 or 7 articles on a weekend, setting them up to release over the next two or three weeks.

Etale is just one of many forums for my writing. I guest blog on occasion, write for popular and academic publications, write white papers on occasion for organizations, and then there is the book writing that keeps me occupied most days. As the quote says at the top of my blog and I like to repeat, I’m fond of Isaac Asimov’s quote that, “Writing is just thinking with your fingers.”

What did you write about?

Scanning the articles from 2016, much of my writing focused on some aspect of nurturing agency and self-education. The future of education, education reform, education policy, the need for and role of educational innovation, and alternative credentials were also frequent themes. I don’t plan out themes in advance. What I write is what I’m thinking about at the moment. In fact, readers may notice patterns in my thinking before I see them (and I’m grateful when readers point them out to me).

What were the most popular articles?

I like to break this up into two categories. The first includes articles that are all-time top picks for readers, ut they also continue to garner the most traffic on the site in the current year. The second category represents articles that I published in 2016 that garnered the most readers.

For the all-time top picks that also topped the list in 2016, we have four.

Interestingly, each of these also connect to projects on the docket in 2016. I hope to have a new book published early in 2016 about self-directed learning. I also have a finished manuscript about grading and assessment, and I’m going to explain more about a new experimental form of inquiry for me in 2017 that will look at the letter grade system in education. In addition, I published a book in 2016 that was inspired by the last article, What Really Matters? Ten Critical Issues in Education.

The top ten articles published in 2016 are:

I have plans to expand on some of these in 2017 in a variety of forms, new articles, new books, and more. You are welcome to sign up for the Etale Newlsetter if you want to be the first to learn about these projects.

One thing that became evident this year more than any other was that list articles consistently get the most readers. 6 of the top 10 new articles and all the all-time most read articles include a numbered list. This says more to me about what captures readers attention online than it does anything else. As a writer who focuses much of his work on theory, philosophy, and think pieces, I confess that this is a little disheartening, but it does prompt me to think about how to best communicate my ideas in a way that is true to myself but also digestible for readers. I don’t ever anticipate Etale becoming a concrete “how to” site, but it is good to acknowledge the practical focus of many readers.

How did people discover Etale articles?

Google searches continue to be the most common way that people end up on the site or a specific article. Producing 180 articles in a year with a little SEO doesn’t hurt. Bing and Yahoo also direct a modest number of people to the site (but less than 5% of what Google did in 2016). After the search engines, Twitter and Facebook were even for the second most frequent referrers. After those two, we have Scoop.It, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Google+.

I also a few 2016 referrers coming from email servers, often school or University ones. I’m delighted to see that as it seems like these usually happen when someone reads an article, finds it useful or provocative, and sends it to colleagues as a resource or a discussion starter. I love to see this, as I often like to think of my writing as a form of kindling to fuel the fire of rich and substantive discourse about what matters in education today. Like all good kindling, it burns up in the fire, and I’m fine when my writing plays that role.

What keywords brought people to Etale?

It is always intriguing to see what people were seeking and how that led them to the site. What did they type into the search engine to get here? Part of this has to do with search engine optimization and ranking of certain articles. Then there is how much “competition” is out there on the same topic. Nonetheless, here are ten themes that show up consistently in the top searches that lead people to the site.

  1. self-directed learning lesson examples (and a dozen other derivations of searches about self-directed learning)
  2. critical issues in education (problems in education and many other related searches)
  3. educational documentaries
  4. letter grades (and many derivations)
  5. microcredentialing
  6. digital badges
  7. types of educational technology (I wrote an article which those exact words a few years back)
  8. teacher-centered versus learner-centered
  9. educational innovation
  10. the future in education

People end up at Etale when they want to explore self-directed learning, critical issues in education, and the role of credentials and assessment in education, education reform, and the future of education. This is consistent from 2015, with the exception that Etale is a growing destination point for people who want to explore critical issues and problems in modern education.

What countries are represented in the readership?

I counted twice on this one because I didn’t believe the results at first. Out of the 196 countries in the world, people from 185 of those countries read one or more articles on Etale in 2016. English-speaking countries are obviously at the top of the list. The largest number of readers in 2016 came from the United States. After that, there was a close second between Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and India. Then there is a third grouping that included the European Union, the Philippines, New Zealand, Hong Kong, South Africa, Malaysia, and Singapore. The fourth group included Pakistan along with individual naming of most of the countries in the European Union (I’m not quite sure about the rhyme or reason behind some visitors showing up by a specific country and others simply by the broader “European Union” label).

It is still amazing to me that an academic from Wisconsin can write and self-publish articles from his living room (home library, or the local coffee shop down the street) that reach people in that many countries around the world. Of course, now I need to figure out which 11 countries are not on that list and how to invite those people to join the Etale reading excitement.

How many people visited Etale this year?

Etale is still a niche site. Up to this point, I don’t get millions of readers each month or year. This year we had just under 140,000 visitors. There continues to be a slow but steady growth in readers from year to year. Etale was never about becoming a major news source, but I do aspire to expand the conversation about ideas that matter in education. As such, I look forward to finding new ways to connect with even more people in 2017, and I welcome your help in that effort by sharing articles that resonate with you.

Quick Reflection

I’ve been blogging for over a decade, but it is only in the last few years that I started writing over a hundred articles a year. During these last few years especially, I connected with people around the world and discovered countless new ways to invest my time and energy in sparking thought, conversation, and action around critical issues in education. Readers of Etale are the ones who encouraged me to put more of my ideas in writing, being the impetus for three books published in 2016 and much more to come. More than ever, I see education as one of the most powerful forms of social entrepreneurship in existence, and my resolve in promoting this way of thinking is stronger than ever. This brief year in review is yet another source of insight and inspiration on this lifelong calling to challenge people to consider the significance and relevance of ideas that matter in education and society. Ultimately, my work is and will remain an ongoing exploration of truth, beauty, and goodness in this world and beyond.