I couldn't agree more with your conclusions about the reverse-signaling involved in academic degrees. My father used to say that BS actually meant "Bullshit", MS meant "More of the Same" and PhD meant "Piled higher and deeper."

Harvard voted against offering Nabokov an associate professorship in Russian Literature after one of the incumbent professors asked the committee, "Do we really want an elephant teaching zoology?"

The greatest Shakespeare scholar, whose books I have but whose name escapes me, never earned a PhD. When asked by a student why he didn't just go ahead, submit his next book as his thesis, and get his Doctorate, he asked, "And who would examine me?"

Let's face it, especially these days, a college degree increasingly signals its owner to be a mid-wit.

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After my third time teaching at Princeton (2000, 2002, 2006), I asked the relevant person, a sympathetic professor who had written fulsome blurb for my ‘The Dustbin of History’ in 1995, if I could come back on a regukar basis one semester a year, as I’d been doing—I’m a Californian and had no interest in moving permanently to the east. He said really couldn’t be considered because I didn’t have a Ph.d. I had dropped out of graduate school at Cal in 1972.

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The other development I see is that the economic aspect of a four year degree has come to be emphasized at the expense of academics or learning. Why would anybody study Sanskrit at an elite university? The cost-benefit ratio makes such an endeavor tantamount to financial suicide.

Is the purpose of college to earn a good living or to learn how to lead a good life? If it's the former majoring in business, engineering, etc. on the way to a law degree or MBA is the way to go. If it's the latter time spent in the library reading poetry or listening to jazz might be more productive. Is there any question that in the modern university the balance has been tilted overwhelmingly in favor of career and profession? That's why humanities departments across the country are going bankrupt even as college enrollment has climbed.

And there's one final, even more pernicious effect: college as professional finishing school encourages conformity and acceptance of authority. Keep your head down, your nose clean, study hard for the test, pursue the right extracurriculars: that's the pathway to acceptance at a good school. I recommend _Excellent Sheep_ by William Deresiewicz as an exploration of this topic.

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I've been waiting all my life for your article about dropouts. I am a two-time dropout myself so I relate deeply to every aspect of your piece. What college meant to me was: showing everyone how much you can tolerate of conformity and professorial inadequacy while being expected to find truth and meaning in the mess they call education. I am therefore an autodidact and a nobody today. BUT, that is okay and it is a safe and quality way of life and being that rewards itself mightily as someone like me goes about a real education of life and learning.

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Brilliant essay. But, just as an aside, Bill Gates was the scion of one of Seattle's power-families. His father was a big-time attorney, mom was politically powerful and sat on the board of the UofW. And Bill sold IBM n operating system without ctually having one--instead, went down the street and bought the OP from a developer who wouldn't meet with IBM...a modern legend.

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My husband dropped out of college (a state school, nowhere fancy) after 3 years. He isn’t famous or a millionaire, but he certainly has a lot more intellectual ability and curiosity than many (most?) of his colleagues who do have degrees. Based on the work he does, he ought to be going places, but there is a ceiling of how far he can promote without a degree (which is honestly ok with me).

On the other hand I have 3 degrees (2 bachelors and 1 masters, also from a state school) and stay at home with the kids.

Neither of us have regrets, because we wouldn’t be where we are if we had made different choices, but I have a feeling we won’t be encouraging our kids to go to college.

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Hermeto Pascoal dropped out at 4th grade...

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Jan 3Liked by Ted Gioia

Seems to me you're a late-bloomer dropout success. Kudos to you.

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I could not read music when I applied to be a music major.

I made a deal with the music dean that if I was not at least a B in all my music classes, I would quit and change majors, no hassles.

I maintained a 4 in all my classes.

Upon transferring to ADSU I was put into an ongoing class that was being put together by two professors, a Dr. Fletcher, and Ronald LoPresti. I was an experiment in whether their ideas could be mainstreamed onto someone who was not a prodigy in music.

I maintained a 4.0.

I then won the first (and only) Arizona Composer Competition with first AND second place compositions.

At that point, the tenured Dr Fletcher became my worst enemy and described my music as "gay" and "unmasculine" (this was 1970, so not the same as today),and tried to have me moved to a lower orchestration level since, after hearing my award-winning music, he could see that I sucked at composition.

No one at the uni would help me, or call this rabid POS.

I left music school and composition.

I have recently, at age 75, begun composing again.

I have been quite successful in most all that I have done.

I have met many Harvard, Yale, and Stanford graduates through my career as a professional artist and creative director for my own ad agency.

I wouldn't give them an upper seat at all based on their education. Most of them were kinda, well, dumb.

Harvard had its day.

It blew it a long time ago, we are just seeing the last breaths.

But, then, today the AP let us know that plagiarism is a right wing weapon against those people too stupid to write their own stupid shit.

Plagiarism is a right wing weapon.

So it is OK now to plagiarize if you are not weaponizing it?

Hey, does that work for copyright violations? Is that "right wing" too?

The madness of arrogance mixed with the self-awareness of pond scum is breathtaking.

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How many Nobel Prize winners in Physics dropped out? You can name a few, but there aren't any from the last 50 years. Likewise Chemistry and Economics.

Your examples are from writing, music, and business. Bill Gates was a genius businessman. He is merely a good programmer, and probably a mediocre Computer Scientist. Likewise with Mark Zuckerberg. None of the CEOs of successful Silicon Valley companies I know of were great at being engineers, though it helps a lot to know something about engineering.

The other thing I notice is that your list of dropouts describes people who dropped out to do something specific and particular that they had a passion for. Start a band, start a company, write novels. That passion is a lot more important than going to classes you don't care about.

(Side note: I had very few classes in college that I didn't care about. But enough about me.)

I have never been a guy who wanted - as his primary goal - to make a lot of money. I wanted to be able to solve cool problems and make cool things. If someone is focused on making lots of money, and they have some ability, then they probably will make a lot of money, and a college degree won't matter.

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Jan 3·edited Jan 3

As someone staring at two kids getting ready to go to college in the near future and getting apprehensive about the financial commitment (thanks for quantifying it), this is compelling. And I'll admit, I have my moments of somewhat existential doubt as to the ultimate value of an undergraduate degree and whether attending at all is even worth it, depending on the discipline. I'll also stipulate that we have no future STEM majors in my household either (a path where I see no way around a formal college degree for all but a few gifted geniuses, more on that below). But, this article evoked a few things I keep coming back to on the need for and value of higher education for most people despite all of its flaws:

- Based on things like the Pareto distribution and just the bell curve distribution of human talent, the odds that you are an epoch-defining entrepreneur or artist (I mean, you named some of the most brilliant/successful people in recent history!) at the tender age of 20 are very low. They just are. So you are likely going to have to start out in the adult working world as an employee of some sort. There a college degree is a gating item in most careers still. With my kids, I'm going to play the odds. Give yourself as many options as you can; the entrepreneurial path in particular will (almost) always be available to you if he find yourself with that itch.

- It is true that school doesn't mix well with the minds of iconoclastic thinkers, scientists or artists. And the higher up you go, the more conformist it gets. But there is a difference between generational iconoclasm and/or latent genius and someone who is smart (but not brilliant) who doesn't like to follow rules and is maybe a bit too arrogant about their own intelligence and skills. The former might be able to get away with that if they truly are that gifted. The latter will find it tough going without a college degree in most fields (and maybe tough going anyway). College does beat some of the iconoclasm out of the lesser minds. But the intellectual humility that can develop from prolonged learning of a complex subject from others isn't necessarily a bad thing. Again, on the numbers, most people aren't self-directed autodidacts or polymaths. Now, I do have major concerns with what some of the academy (particularly the humanities) appears to be teaching right now. But that environment doesn't appear to be monolithic either. I do think some real learning and intellectual growth still goes on at colleges all over the country despite what the headlines may say.

- Being on your own for the first time forces most people to just flat grow up. And for parents, this justifies expending quite a bit of resources in my view. In college, I first learned things like real academic diligence, time management, the importance of work ethic, self-discipline, how to have more mature relationships with people of all kinds, managing money and household and other life skills. Yes, these can be learned without a college degree. But a lot of what is demanded of students at college of any moderate rigor requires you develop these things pretty quickly and in lockstep with the formal education. And when I went to professional school after college, I was ready for that when things came fast and furious with no room for error.

- Your point about taking the mantle, so to speak, on for the family rings true to my heart. I was one of those kids too. I didn't realize it at the time, but a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into getting me off to a four year public university of some standing. Not all about me, and funding an education is one of the biggest intergenerational wealth creators most people have. Some people don't have that kind of pressure, but education is still one of the more tried and true ways to social mobility in America even if it isn't the slam dunk it used to be.

- There is no question that families paying for their children's education have to be more discriminating buyers nowadays. This is not a "set it and forget it" investment. But it is an investment where human capital can have an outsized impact on the ultimate value of the investment.

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The problem with college now is that it's schizophrenic in terms of purpose. Is it there to teach people about Camus and quantum physics? Or is it a glorified finishing school that puts the final stamp of approval on a white collar professional?

If it's the latter then as a simple matter of arithmetic tuitions in the hundreds of thousands of dollars are justified. After all, that money will be made back over the course of a lifetime of work. The problem is that approach drives income inequality as college increasingly becomes the province of the haves while the have-nots can't muster the resources to attend.

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Out here in New Zealand, anecdotal evidence is that many employers hiring for positions for which a university degree would have been considered essential just a few years ago, are now willing to hire people who got no further than high school.

Part of the reason for this is illustrated by a person I know whose career it is to tutor English to people who have graduated - graduated- from university functionally illiterate. Most of his students are engineering graduates who somehow missed the class that would have explained how much of their careers would be spent writing reports, but he has also tutored graduates who wanted to become journalists but whose writing skills weren't up to it (given the quality of modern journalism one wonders if they could write in English at all). A lot of us have seen a certain highly liked YouTube video of a Cambridge Union debate on slavery which made it clear that at least some of the students had no idea of the history of slavery. I could go on in this vein.

Clearly educational standards all the way up to tertiary level have declined this century (interestingly, in lockstep with the growth in the number of administrators at universities). Because a lot of this, at least at high school level, has to do with the increasing emphasis on ideological indoctrination, this decline is a fact that everyone knows but none dare speak about. Even the students are aware of it. Our son who has always been homeschooled goes to the Air Cadets (an air force squadron for adolescents) and he tells us that whenever they have an academic test the cadets who go to school assume that the homeschooled cadets will gain top marks, which they do. When even students are dissatisfied by their teachers and syllabi and say they don't do enough useful learning, you know something must be wrong.

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I graduated from a community college with highest honors. I enrolled in a four-year school but dropped out almost immediately. I hated it, and what they were teaching in the computer science section was a bit obsolete, as this was the early days of personal computing. Interestingly, my first book was widely used as a college text in courses I couldn't teach because I didn't have a four-year degree!

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You would have broken your parents’ hearts if you dropped out. My Dad was the eldest son of 10 children, and had to help provide support for his family. I’m not sure that he even finished high school. But he always used to say, “Education is something they can never take away from you.”

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College, and school of any kind, is not meant for everybody. Your examples show that.

But I spent a lot of time and effort earning my BA and MA degrees in History and I don't regret that since they helped me establish what I wanted to do in life. So for some people, it works.

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