There’s a thought experiment I’ve posed to young students for some time to help them understand why they’re really in college.
Imagine you are an incoming freshman at a prestigious school. On your first day of orientation, the Dean comes to the microphone to make a special announcement. “Degrees will no longer be awarded,” he says with a smile. “School is about learning,” he goes on. “Tuition remains unchanged and students will be able to pay to take classes in their interests and desired fields like normal. Also, the entire world will follow this policy as well.”  
Do you think most students would still remain students? Would you yourself remain a student? Would your parents still tell you to stay in school?
Keep in mind all variables remain the same. Tuition costs remain the same. Education quality remains the same. The social experience remains the same. The expectation is still that you will spend at least 4 years as a student. You just won’t get a degree at the end. Nobody anywhere will.
The question tends to make people uncomfortable because it forces them to confront the lie that they have been taught to tell themselves since they were very young: that their interest in college is primarily about learning.
“Am I really in college to get an education?” they must ask. Is the education I’m getting here really good enough to justify 4 years and a small fortune? Am I here for any other reason than the piece of paper? And if I’m not here for the education, by what standard can I be proud of a degree that certifies my supposed education?”
The answer to the thought experiment — very few people would stay in school — leads to a scary personal conclusion: you have participated in a collective delusion and have chosen to spend 4 years of your life in an “educational institution” in which your education is subordinated to the certification. Further, that you might not find the experience all that educational after all, or that you didn’t even care about the education to begin with.
It is a dangerous but necessary pill to swallow. A few people actually leave school because of it. Most remain despite it but with the lingering feeling that they’ve sold out in some way they try hard to never define.
And we should not let off the hook just yet the vanishingly small minority of people who can honestly say they would choose to remain in school even if they were not awarded the degree because they genuinely do value the educational experience.
Since colleges cannot award degrees anymore, their institutional uniqueness must be called into question. If you are there ONLY for the education and never cared much for the degree, you need to seriously ask whether the college environment is the best, fastest and cheapest delivery mechanism for that education.
What if you could do in 1 year what college classes allow you to do in 2 or 3 years? What if for a couple thousand dollars or less you could build your own curriculum that rivals the best college classes? What if you could get through experiential learning what you previously thought could only be gotten in lectures? These are questions that most students never ask themselves before enrolling in a 4 year university but that this thought experiment demands they ask.
For me, it was this consideration that pushed me to leave school. College was never about the degree in my mind, it really was about education. When I realized it did a bad job at this, and that I could do a better job on my own, I left.
 I believe my friend Isaac Morehouse came up with this but I’m unsure. We have an unspoken agreement in our circle that we’ll all steal from each other at some point, so if I’m stealing from him now, consider it payback…you bastard.
 A fun variation on the thought experiment to propose to professors is the following: “How many of your students would pay for your class if it was offered as a stand alone course outside of school?” This usually satisfies one of Taleb’s requirements for a good day — humiliate an academic deeply.
Thanks to Alicia North for reading drafts of this essay.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]