This can't possibly be the first, or last, celebration of the college dropout. Like, did you know that the guy from Facebook, and Bill Gates, they never got their diplomas? Michael Ellsberg, Brown '99, has written the latest installment of 'Let's take this bit of trivia about a few who got lucky and at any rate had spent some time at elite colleges and project that onto a national population for whom dropping out would realistically mean video games and not entrepreneurship but you never know, right?' And the nugget of truth is that there are people who go to college because they're middle- or upper-class and that's what's done, but who'd be better-suited to some other endeavor. The catch is that this alternative might be lucrative and (to use the catchphrase) "job-creating," but it also might be low-level and food-service. It might be folding shirts at the Gap, or driving a cab. In other words, the controversial-ish platitude about how college isn't for everyone doesn't amount to, 'but fear not, a glamorous life awaits the drop-out.' The alternatives to college are (as conservative critics of academia sometimes sniff) often enough 'noble' pursuits (the plumber is always a favorite), but there will be a tradeoff in status and (often if not always) income. Unless what you do instead of finish college is found Facebook. But someone already did that.
So that's one problem. Another is that "college" isn't just about the coursework, something I'd think is obvious, but that Ellsberg completely ignores: "[V]ery few start-ups get off the ground without a wide, vibrant network of advisers and mentors, potential customers and clients, quality vendors and valuable talent to employ. You don’t learn how to network crouched over a desk studying for multiple-choice exams. You learn it outside the classroom, talking to fellow human beings face-to-face." Fine. But who are you meeting "outside the classroom" at Harvard, as versus "outside the classroom" at a community college in your hometown? Who are you meeting "outside the classroom" if you're not attending any school whatsoever, but are working at your local Target?
The point of college - college as social-mobility-promotor, as future-employment-boost - has never been just about grades and scores. Grades and scores are what get you into college. But elite universities in the U.S. aren't like European ones where you just show up for class (or just show up for exams) and otherwise are not connected to any college "community." After getting through how most jobs are filled via connections and so forth, Ellsberg explains,
In this informal job market, the academic requirements listed in job ads tend to be highly negotiable, and far less important than real-world results and the enthusiasm of the personal referral. Classroom skills may put you at an advantage in the formal market, but in the informal market, street-smart skills and real-world networking are infinitely more important.Fine. But college is where this networking first happens. And that's really, really important if you're trying to break into a career for which you have no family connections. If you do that networking in the first semester and drop out, and find that you're the next Zuckerberg, if you're the exception and you know it, great. But if you don't go to college in the first place? I saw the Facebook movie, and I have my doubts that there'd be Facebook if Zuckerberg had stopped his education at high school.