Tell anybody you know that you are dropping out of college, and they will almost always give you the standard rundown of the comically bad things that will happen to you if you don’t have a degree. Their words make you imagine yourself, if you’re lucky, a poor coffee barista stuck forever in minimum wage, or if you’re unlucky, picking your toes in the rain on the side of the street while you wear an old trash bag as a poncho. Maybe you even get splashed by a passing car. Life without college is cruel, they say.
I don’t intend to address those scenarios in this essay other than to repeat what Oscar Wilde said: everything popular is wrong. If something has near-universal consensus, that is the leper’s bell of dogma and you ought to look elsewhere.
The truth, at least as I’ve experienced it, is that there are a number of unsung advantages to dropping out of college. And I’m not alone. I’ve met far more people than I can count from the United States to Germany, South Africa and to Brazil who have experienced the same. These advantages, if you use them well, outweigh most of the theoretical downsides of leaving college by a large margin. They include:
Most fundamentally, time and experience — Dropping out of school gave me a 3 and a half-year head start on my career. I have more skills and full-time work experience now than most people my age that I know and the accumulated career capital allows me to get much better opportunities at this age than I could have gotten if I’d spent those years in school. In your late teens and twenties, time, not money, is your most valuable asset and it moves very slowly in school. 6 months working in the real world might be the equivalent of 2 or 3 years of progress in school. Another 3 years in school could very well have set me back 8 years or more.
Lowered expectations from others — Since I started my career at 19, a lot of what I did was given much more praise and reward than it would get now at 24. You have a chance to be the “whiz kid” when you’re 19 because people don’t expect as much of you and it can dramatically accelerate your career. Older, more experienced people will go out of their way to open doors for you if you do well because they want to play an active role in the life of an “upcoming star.” Try doing the same things at 24 and people will treat you like you’re average Joe. Likewise, mistakes that are made at 19 are much more forgiveable than at 24.
Income history — Having more years of income has translated into huge positive lifestyle benefits. Not only did I learn the hard financial lessons early on — the first year I made 6 figures I wasted most of it — but now I’ve got nice cash savings that allow me to have a great lifestyle and do what I want. I could lose my job and be fine. I know people today who are just starting the long road to financial security and their options are limited because of it, which brings me to the next advantage…..
Avoiding debt — Want to pick up and move across the country for a new opportunity? I can do that because I don’t have college debt payments. What about taking a job at a new company that offers low salary but equity with a huge upside? I can do that as well much more easily than people who have debt. Maybe you want to travel the world and not worry about money too much? I’ve done that as well because I have no debt. And yet the average graduate today has over $35,000 in debt. I know people who spent 4 years in college only to have to postpone their professional and lifestyle goals 4-8 years more because of debt.
Self-knowledge and confidence — I’m nowhere near the same person I was when I first started working. Earning an income, creating value for a company, being thrust into situations that require you to act way above your maturity level to succeed, these experiences change you for the better. Instead of spending those three years in classes, I spent three years developing that knowledge and confidence that I would have had to develop anyways if I graduated later. It’s another kind of head start and it’s made a huge difference in my life.
Avoiding bad habits in college — For many, I would say the majority, college is a 4-year vacation from real-world responsibility. If you think you’re going to come out on the other end of that time ready to go, you’re wrong. My two years in college were some of the most destructive years of my life in personal development terms. Leaving college was a reality gut check that I had a lot of improvement to do. 2-3 more years of that environment would have been terrible for me, as it is for so many people.
Building your own credential — When your degree status is not the most interesting thing about you, you have to get creative with early career opportunities. I was forced to learn how to signal value without a traditional certification and the lessons I learned allowed me to get opportunities that might traditionally require degrees and sidestep HR departments, resumes, and all the other barriers to entry that so many college graduates struggle with. I had to build my own credential in the form of podcast interviews I’ve done, my personal website, my writing, work experience, and testimonials. Nowadays nobody ever asks me about my degree because I had to spend three years making sure it was the least interesting thing about me.
So let the record show that whatever disadvantages there are, there are many advantages to leaving school early. I don’t regret it personally in the least and in fact, the only thing I wish I did was to leave earlier. Some of those advantages could have been even more useful if I’d had another year or two.