Degreed vs. Drop-Out?

KeyOne of the enduring topics of political and societal discourse is education.  A lightning rod for elected officials, parents, and others eager for lively (yet comparatively mild emotionally), the appropriateness of both current educational paths and necessary reforms makes the topic of education one that will remain on the forefront for years, decades, and centuries to come.  After all, it’s the key to progress or stagnation for any individual, organization, or society…

This weekend’s New York Times published an interesting op-ed entitled “Saying No to College,” in which Alex Williams discussed the controversy surrounding the expectation that one needs a college education to succeed.

As a college educator and lifelong learner myself, it would be easy to jump to the defensive, producing reasons why college is the best choice and why dropping out should not be encouraged.  And in some cases, that’s exactly what I’d do.  But there is some merit (and some inherent risks) in Williams’s argument.  So, let’s explore that a bit by looking at three initial questions….and then open this post up for discussion….

So, is a college degree required for or a guarantee of success?

Absolutely not!  As Williams points out, there are many famous examples of this, from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg.  And inevitably, there are many less famous examples that could be equally insightful.  But let’s not forget to factor in many of the less-known attributes each of these individual might have which led to their “drop-out success.”

Gates honed his expertise in the computer world through years of access to then cutting-edge technologies that many individuals (living in less socioeconomically blessed areas) may not have.  Zuckerberg similarly had received a fairly high level of intellectual “training,” and both had clearly demonstrated an innate intellectual prowess prior to leaving Harvard (itself, not exactly an institution with low admissions standards).

And simply because there have been success stories of high school and college dropouts does not mean that the percentage of success is particularly high.  For some individuals, with high cognitive ability, strongly entrepreneurial personality attributes, and  intense intestinal fortitude, dropping out of traditional educational pathways may be entirely appropriate.  For others, it can surely spell disaster, however….to paraphrase an old expression, the best of intentions, when lacking execution, will likely result in failure.

But there remains credence to the notion that formal education is not necessarily either required nor desired for all people.  Interests, passions, and goals should play a larger role in determining whether success (however defined) can be better attained through continued formal education or through other avenues.

For some, heading down the traditional college route is not advisable.  They’d be better served gaining trade school skills, or on-the-job training and experience.  For others, traditional higher education IS the right route, but the timing isn’t right.  Perhaps they need to first gain some work experience, or merely mature to the point that they can truly benefit from their college experience.  And for others, formal higher education is EXACTLY the route on which they should embark.  This is particularly the case for those who may not yet have figured out what direction their careers will take yet, as in the first couple years of college, most are taking general education courses, a liberal arts foundation, you might say, and so, individuals have the time to figure out the direction of their career pursuits.  And for those who are headed to professional careers in fields such as medicine, law, or engineering, where graduate credentials are required, clearly, dropping out isn’t the most advisable route.

successSo, is there anything wrong with dropping out of school?  Is a formal education needed to taste success personally or professionally? And should we actively promote dropping out or staying in school as the prerequisites for a happy and successful future?  No. No. And no.  You see, there are many pathways to success, and there is no magic formula for achieving it.  Indeed, the very definition of success is variable and individual.  Only in-depth introspection and individual guidance can help provide the right answer for the right individual.  Unfortunately, it’s there that we as a society are often lacking…in providing the coaching and mentoring, within a framework that emphasizes the benefits and drawbacks to each decision and that provides accountability along with opportunity to each individual.

Until we are able to do that, we dare not promote either an education or dropout recommendation…..

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