Why Skipping College Can Work – For Some

There’s a great article in last week’s Washington Post about Noor Siddiqui, a talented Afghan-American teenager who is skipping college to become a Thiel Fellow. It took her parents some time to get used to the idea – because as they make quite clear, and like many parents before them, they came to the US to give their kids a better education. Except that higher education, defined as anything past high school, is now becoming prohibitively expensive for far too many people. Parents start 529 college funds the second they confirm a pregnancy, fully expecting that their savings won’t be enough at the rate college tuition seems to rise and rise…

Indeed, a phrase you hear a lot in the US these days is that “higher education in the next big bubble.”

Created By: Education News

If you haven’t heard that, you’re definitely familiar with the phrase “student debt.” You probably know increasing numbers of students who are going to the less prestigious school, or the second choice with the better financial package. And it’s quite likely that you know people who are opting to start out at the humble, local community college – now given extra attention in the DC-metro region because Second Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, a lifelong educator, continues to teach at Northern Virginia Community College.

And then there are all the drop-outs who made good and give you hope – Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Nina Totenberg, Sandra Lee, Lady Gaga, Rachael Ray – the people who seem to demonstrate what everyone knows. That real life is about learning by doing, not taking notes in a classroom.

Except, what you don’t really hear about the dropouts is that they often start out with huge advantages. For example:

  1. Zuckerberg – The founder of Facebook didn’t just drop out of any school, he dropped out of Harvard, where he spent two years making connections.
  2. Gates – The Microsoft titan not only also dropped out of Harvard, he had the benefit of being born in well off circumstances and had a prep school education that offered computing – in the 1960s.
  3. Jobs – The Apple guru grew up in HP’s backyard, showed immense talent in technical tinkering early on, and could read before he went to school. He dropped out of college but continued to audit classes.
  4. Nina Totenberg – dropped out of journalism school but stayed in the field, and took a risk joining NPR when it wasn’t nearly the institution it is today.
  5. Lady Gaga – never attended college but had a very strict Catholic school elementary education and was playing piano at age 4.
  6. Rachael Ray – grew up in a family that owned four restaurants, which may have been all the education and exposure she needed to know her culinary future from day one.

The point is this: You’ll hear about people skipping a formal education, or taking unconventional paths to success. But if you look closer, every one of them has had a combination of circumstances; birth, inheritances, connections, luck, sheer talent, or force of personality; that helped them overcome the lack of a piece of paper. If you want to skip a formal education to head straight for entrepreneurship – a thought that applies to just about every one of us this time of year when we look at those mind-boggling tuition bills – ask yourself if a similar set of favorable circumstances applies to you. Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. Be honest about what you are gaining or losing by forgoing a formal education. And understand that sometimes, a successful person’s circumstances are perhaps not what you’d ever wish for yourself. The classic example would be Sandra Lee, whose drive comes from a tumultuous childhood where she cared and cooked for her siblings at age 12.

And finally, understand that even for everyone who graduates, gets the education, and follows the linear expected traditional path, life is all about showing up and simply doing the work. Ah yes, the work – all night coding sessions, days on their feet at farmers markets, hours spent doing research that amounted to nothing. …. that part doesn’t change for anyone. It won’t for Bill Gates’ children, who for all their advantages, aren’t going to inherit all their father’s wealth – he expects them to make their own way in life. And it certainly won’t be for the Thiel fellow, who will be expected to do real work before she leaves to either go back to college or go on to big things. Just as well she has a 4.5 GPA.



More Reading 

  • “People who made dropping out of college look good.” From Business Insider
  • Why Zuckerberg’s dropping out is a bad example for tech CEOs. From Network World