Recently, I made the decision to drop out of college. It’s not the first time I’ve done so, but it is the first time I’ve left school while still in good academic standing and of my own free will.
It was not a light decision. I’ve been trying to do the whole “finish your degree” thing since 2001, and after all this time, I only have one more semester left. The program in which I’m enrolled is populated by talented professors and razor-sharp students. It’s actually one of the more productive experiences I’ve undertaken in some time.
My advisor is dedicated and has made it clear he’ll bend over backwards to make sure I graduate in May, and—being what they refer to in the industry as a “broke motherfucker”—I’ve got boatloads of financial aid available to me. So why drop out?
Let’s start with the financial aid. Most of that is comprised of student loans, and under the current rules of the system, they are going to start (figuratively) knocking on my door six months after they figure out that I’m not a student. As to whether I pay them back, that’s my choice.
If I don’t pay, they can destroy my credit (which is already pretty shitty), garnish my wages, and generally make themselves a pain in my ass. They can’t throw me in jail (yet) but neither can I seek to address my student debt through bankruptcy.
So to avoid that, most people are faced with the choice of getting a job they hate so they can do the so-called responsible thing and pay their bills. And their life path is forced into the grind of the workforce, just when they are at the point where they should be spreading their wings and finding their path.
By the time they get out from under the loans, their lives are so entrenched in the enforced path of the student debtor—maybe a few kids, mortgage, whathaveyou—they couldn’t chart a new course even if they were motivated to do so. From what I’ve seen, most of the time, they’ve lost touch with what inspired them when they were young.
And that right there, that’s the happy ending.
For many others, the experience is soul-crushing low-wage job after soul-crushing low-wage job, bouncing between Craigslist room rentals and staying with family, wondering when exactly that generic liberal arts degree is going to start paying off, and begging the student loan collectors for more time on the next payment (or just straight up ducking their calls in shame).
My current loan amount is manageable, and adding one more semester won’t change things that much, but that’s not the point. The university system, as it currently exists, has little to do with higher learning. Professors are hamstrung by rigid curriculum standards (in a reflection of what is happening at the secondary education level with standardized tests), and often limited in how they teach.
Worse than that, most new professors are being brought into the system as adjuncts, which is essentially the academia version of a temp worker, and when you ask someone to do a job with little compensation and even less job security, you tend to get lousy results.
Students are herded into these classes—under the pretense that the university is doing them a favor by letting them be there—which are not really designed to open their minds and engage them in critical thinking. If anything, they are designed to train them to be good little gears, performing their role in the machine productively and efficiently.
When you write an academic paper at the undergraduate level, it’s not about whether you were able to contribute any original thought, or whether your point was valid. It’s about whether you used the correct margins and font size, whether you put your thesis statement in the right place, and whether you were able to passably imitate an academic sounding voice in your writing.
None of those things really matter, unless your goal is to produce academic writing for a living, but they are made the centerpiece of most classes I’ve taken (obviously, there are exceptions). And having been at this for some time, at several different institutions, I’ve had the chance to see how similar the game is, regardless of where you are.
None of this is by accident. The university system is doing exactly what it was designed to do, which is bring as many warm bodies through the door as possible, harvest as much cash from them as possible while they’re there (hello unexpected fees!), and send them out the door with as much student debt as possible. If they happen to be more confused when they come out than when they went in, all the better.
For my part, I want none of it. They can keep their stupid degree. Knowledge is what’s powerful, and I don’t need them to get that.