My son quit college, and that’s ok

Zach and I

Then: Zach and I, circa 2000.

Zach and I in 2016.

Zach and I in 2016.

A couple of months ago, my oldest, Zach, told us he was going to quit school.

If getting an A- was an Asian F, well, what does that make a college dropout?

And what does that say about my wife and I as parents, given that we hail from a culture known for overachieving kids and Tiger Moms?

As it turns out, it doesn’t say anything about us at all.  Or at least, it shouldn’t.

We raised him to think for himself, and think for himself was exactly what he did.

In fact, he had already made the decision and dropped out of the psychology major he was pursuing at the University of Washington.

The hardest part for him was figuring out how to break it to us.

For most people his age, parental blessing wouldn’t even matter. At 21, Zach had already:

  • completed his associates degree,
  • served time as a soldier,
  • moved out with his girlfriend,
  • ran an Amazon store that netted him a couple of grand a month.

Except Zach cared what we thought of him, and wanted to present his case to us.

It went something like this:

  1. I want to pursue my entrepreneurial dreams, first to build sales on my Amazon store, and then to find a way to help other people of my generation thrive and be happy. Being in college will hold me back.
  2. I do not need to be a clinical psychologist to help people. And what I need to learn I can do with self-study using books, blogs, podcasts, videos and most relevantly, my life experiences.
  3. It’s not going to be a good use of money, and if I drop out in the first week, I get all my tuition back except for a small administrative fee.

Like most people, myself included, Zach is pretty good at rationalizing away things with rose-tinted lenses.

Except this time, I actually agreed with him. In fact, his thoughts on higher education mirror my own, which could be why my wife thinks it’s my fault Zach decided to dropout.

My views on college in today’s world is non-traditional to say the least.

My perspective is that, unlike previous generations, a college education is no longer something that will make or break a person’s future.

In fact, it might actually cripple it, if botched.

My view stands contrary to what smarter people like Bill Gates have stated. I get that, but I’ll also add that my stance is just one parent’s view.

What follows is my take on higher education in the context of the United States. If you have dissimilar views and think I’m nuts, or if your own situation is just different, please leave me a comment below – I’d love to hear from you.

Reasons to go to college

Being a marketing person AND a business owner, I bring to the table a mix of hardnosed cost-benefit analysis and healthy skepticism.

The main question that needs answering is this: is the investment in money and time going to be a good one?

Used to be, the answer would be an unqualified and resounding yes.

In some cases, I would agree. Here’s a few of them:

  • Specialized Careers That Require Licensing: Want to pursue a career that requires some sort of license by the government? Want to be a doctor? A dentist? A lawyer? An architect? Then yes, go to college, complete it, get your license, and go from there.
  • Building the right network: Want to go to a college to network with the right people to get ahead in your chosen profession? Ok then. Note that this would make sense not just for the worlds of business and technology, but also, the fine and performing arts, for instance.
  • You’ve got money to burn: Have parents who can write a check for a four-year college party experience without missing a beat or taking a loan? Ok, have a good time, but I am assuming those parents have a more generous heart than mine.

With that said, there are reasons that college may be a bad idea for many people.

My perspective is that unlike previous generations, a college education is no longer something that will make or break a person’s career.

In fact, if not done in a smart way, borrowing money to get any college degree can actually cripple your prospects.

Think college will get you a job? Think again.

It used to be that you could go to college, get any degree, and it would help with getting a job.

Some have posited that with education inflation, a college degree today is what high school diplomas used to be a generation ago: something needed for the most basic, entry level jobs.

That 2014 piece in the Washington Post might seem contrary to the point I am trying to make.

However, I’ll double down on this notion and say that degree inflation is now so rampant, the Masters degree is the new Bachelors.

That’s a lot of money and time to shell out just to get your foot in the door.

The College Ranking and Accreditation Game is Rigged

Having spent some time in corporate marketing, I’ve grown somewhat jaded with the things companies will do to sell a service or move a product.

Done well, marketing is a win-win, helping a buyer find a product that is needed or beneficial.

Marketing in the higher education arena however is rarely win-win. This game is usually rigged.

One of the biggest ways that colleges market themselves is by paying for memberships to accreditation agencies, such as the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS).

Think there is nothing wrong about an organization getting an assessment from the very companies they pay? Think again – the incestuous relationship between bond-rating firms and the security firms was a reason for the financial meltdown in 2008.

This article spells it out in a lot more detail, but essentially, conflicts of interest are just the beginning.

Another way the higher ed game is rigged in the US mirrors the concentration of wealth and power in the 1%. If you or your parents are in the 1%, you probably stumbled onto this blog by accident. Go ahead and have your butler hit the “back” button for you.

For the rest of us, this piece captures how, along with power and wealth, a concentration in selectivity and preference has also taken place in favor of for-profit colleges.

And again for most of us, chasing this will probably mean crippling student debt.

Wanna go to college for the love of learning?

I‘m not going to touch on whether there is a direct correlation between what is taught in school and success in life. Lots of people have addressed those (the consensus seems to be, no).

What I do want to discuss is whether you actually need to be in college to learn, you know, for those of you who feel like higher education = higher learning.

Before picking and dropping out of psychology, Zach had thought about going to school to study, wait for it, entrepreneurship. Talk about a disconnect – it’ll be like going to a steakhouse to be a vegetarian.

In today’s world, learning and education can take place almost anywhere, anytime, in a medium of your choosing.

At least, that has been my experience.

My preferences is The Great Courses (I enjoyed the history, astronomy, nanotechnology, and geology courses). I also learned tons recreationally: photography, cooking, and gardening. These courses aren’t free, but you can probably get them from the library.

For languages, my go-to is the Pimsleur series. I now have some understanding of German, Japanese, Spanish and French. To become fluent, I’m going to need to immerse myself, which is why Mexico City beckons this winter.

For doing deep dives into modern marketing techniques and optimizing my investing life, it’s listening to hours and hours of podcasts, reading pages upon pages of blogs, and attending live events.

Wait, how much is that now?

All the above are good reasons to be discriminating about going to college.

But the thing that will really mess you up is if you have to borrow money to put yourself, or a child, through school for a degree that ends up not leading to a stable earning potential.

That means that loan is really going to weigh you or your kid down.

Here is an opinion piece that explores the issues.

What could you do with $100,000 in four years instead?

Start a business? Learn real skills as an intern in a company that is leading an industry you love? Pick up something in the gig economy?

It’s not going to be easy – heck, it might be even easier staying in school, where success, while artificial, is at least predictable.

But here are some tips to get you on the right track outside college:

  • Keep learning
  • Work hard and smart
  • Network with people who share your vision of success
  • Take calculated risks.
  • Learn from your mistakes.
  • Rinse and repeat.

If you choose to start your business, know that failure is likely, but rarely permanent.

The connected world we have today makes it easier to do research, try things out in a small way before going big, get funding, get heard, and build an audience.

You’ll learn a lot about running things, and about making things that people want, rather than what you think is cool.

You’ll learn about the worst in people, but also the best. And you’ll get better at figuring out the difference.

And you’ll learn to hire, and to fire.

And know that, if you change your mind down the road after attaining some measure of success, you can still go back to college.

But you’ll be wiser, more focused, and hopefully, have the money to do it without incurring debt.

Update: Zach decided to go back to school after a year. And that is ok too!

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