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Dropping out is probably not for you (jacquesmattheij.com)
326 points by vijaydev on Oct 25, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 150 comments



The simplest test of whether or not you should drop out is this one: If you have to ask someone if you should then you shouldn't.

I think I have a simpler test: Do you have a customer?

Of all the things that you need to do to start a successful business, I think that getting someone to pay you for your work is the hardest. Deceptively hard.

I've seen it all too often: Good technical skills. Check. Good design skills. Check. Work well together. Check. Building cool stuff. Check. Have passion and in the groove. Check. Sell something. Oh shit.

Let's not overlook the single biggest common thread to all those successful startups founded by college dropouts: they already had huge demand, often accompanied by people with checkbooks.

Don't forget the story of Bill Gates' parents telling him that if he dropped out of Harvard, he was on his own. By this point Micro-soft already had several $100K CDs in the bank and he said, "I don't think that'll be a problem."

That would be about the only way I would want to do it.


Don't forget the story of Bill Gates' parents telling him that if he dropped out of Harvard, he was on his own.

It didn't hurt that his mother was on The United Way's National Executive Committee along with then IBM Chairman John Opel.

I'm from Chicago, "the city that works," and that IS how it works.


http://articles.latimes.com/1994-06-11/news/mn-2837_1_mary-g...

"In 1980, she discussed with then-IBM Corp. Chairman John Opel, who was also on the United Way committee, the business IBM was doing with Microsoft. Opel, some accounts say, knew little about the venture, but mentioned Mary Gates to IBM executives who introduced Microsoft at a meeting of IBM's top-level management committee a few weeks later. IBM contracted with Microsoft, then a small firm specializing in computer languages, to create an operating system for its first personal computer."


>"I think I have a simpler test: Do you have a customer?"

Hopefully, a person's optimism and lack of experience still allows them to distinguish between actual customers and possible customers [Hint: until money changes hands a person is not a customer].

One thing which struck me after reading the article was the difference between today's typical customers and those of Jacques' younger days.

Although today's base of potential customers is much bigger due to the expansion of computing devices into the consumer market segments, their expectations about software costs approach $0.00.

Conversely, back in the day, the smaller market expected to pay real commercial money for software - i.e. one typical customer could sustain a person for a year whereas today one customer won't even get you fries off the $0.99 menu after the app store takes their cut.


I agree with you. Students have more disposable time than any other segment of the population except the unemployed/out of school. If a person in school cannot build and sell something while still in school, then dropping out isn't likely to help.

Getting an MVP build and finding those first critical customers (if they even exist) should be perfectly feasible while still going to class.


Time is rarely the limiting resource for a startup - attention is. Students (at least ones who want to somewhat keep up with their schoolwork) do not have more disposable attention than most working people. As a student, you need to balance your attention between 4-5 different courses, all of which have their own deadlines and assignments and new concepts to learn, and you'll probably be distracted by parties and girls and campus events and a social life. As an entry-level worker, you will probably be given a well-defined task to do and can focus on it, and once you go home, you don't need to worry about it.

I found it much easier to launch side projects once I got out of school, because I could leave my work at work and didn't really care about it anyway. I don't think I reached a level of distractedness equal to my college career until I made senior engineer (and hence have everyone asking me for advice) and started dating, 5 years later.


I'm really not sure if that is true for those in technical majors like comp sci. While I've never had a full time job working for someone else, I definitely had more free time during summer internships (40 hour workweek) than while in school. YMMV.


This.

Passing college is cake. It requires very few hours of time compared to a real job-- it's a GREAT time to spin up a side business to see if you can generate/find demand for what you have. It's also a great time to experiment with co-founders.

That said, necessity is the motherhood of invention and failure isn't going to sting THAT much. It's not terribly challenging to un-drop-out of college is it?

Finally, I suppose if someone is racking up debt and getting an art history or philosophy degree, you should advise them to drop out immediately whether they have a business idea or not. The common thread I see here ( http://wearethe99percent.tumblr.com/ ) is student loan debt.


Ha ha. That really depends on your Uni. I remember severe health problems due to the amount of study in my undergraduate.


I would have to agree. When I was working as a full-time developer (for internships), it felt like I had all the time in the world compared to homework and studying.


I think folks are missing my point. If you're considering dropping out, I think you can lower your class-load to the minimum, be willing to get barely-passing grades, and test out whether you really have an interesting opportunity before you take the plunge.

School CAN be a really free time. You live in a tiny room, Have access to a cafeteria, have a 0-5min commute to work, and are surrounded by an army of peers who are segmented by interest (field of study). As evidenced by the number of startups that started in college dorm rooms, it's a great place to start a company.


Again... wtf university did you go to? Slackers U?


This depends on your degree, university, and year of study. 30 hours/week of class is pretty normal in my program, and I've seen schedules with 40 hours/week. The rule of thumb thrown around is 1 hour in class == 1 hour studying on your own: 60 hours/week. There are definitely design project classes which eat up a disproportionate amount of time on top of that, so that's pretty conservative for some years.

Funnily enough, the time that I have to experiment with side project is during the summer months when I have a full-time job.


There was a course back in college that alone required 30 hours per week. And it was only the third most difficult course or so in the program, which was computer science.


At Caltech, the usual rule was 2 hours of study per hour of class. Sometimes it was a lot more than that :-)


That story is not true at all. Bill Gates's mother set him up with IBM years after he dropped out. https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Mary_Maxwell_...


> I think that getting someone to pay you for your work is the hardest. Deceptively hard.

Agree. That's why I think people aiming to make money from software should look more to advertising income. Much easier IMHO ;) Anyone can make a good income with a little effort.

I dropped out of uni after a year, with no idea what I was going to do. I dread to think what I'd be doing if I'd stayed. Probably some corporate drone at a bank.


I dropped out of school last semester, so I think I can add some (unique) perspective. Maybe I will flesh these thoughts out into a blog post later.

When considering dropping out of college, you're the one who is ultimately responsible for that decision, you're the one who will live with the consequences, and you're the one who has the best information for making that decision. It's all on you. You have to ask yourself if you really believe that you can live with the consequences and, if so, take the plunge.

Now, I've only been a drop out for 3 months, so it's impossible for me to comment on the long term effects, but -- if there's one thing you need to realize before dropping out -- being a drop out is hard.

For one thing, everyone thinks that kids between the ages of 18 and 22 should be attending college, and they'll be happy to tell you so. Lots of people attended college and, since it worked for them, they will believe that the system can work for you. Further, these people have a vested interest in telling you how important college is and what a worthwhile experience it is because, frankly, they are trying to justify spending however many years attending college and paying off their student loans

Basically, don't expect a whole lot of support.

In addition, being a drop out in today's climate is a little bit more difficult than it was in the past. Computer Science is now an established discipline and schools actually teach it, so being self-taught is less of a necessity and more of an oddity. Further, while the common wisdom seems to be that the current economic climate is not so bad for programmers, it's certainly harder to get a job now than it was during the dot-com boom.

The final, and hardest part of being a drop out, is that it's incredibly lonely and incredibly difficult to stay motivated when you're on your own. I imagine that it's similar to being a solo founder. There are days when it's hard to find the strength to get out of bed, when you'll be filled with self-doubt, when you'll wonder if dropping out was the right decision. Hacking on your own for four years and building a portfolio, instead of attending school, might sound great on paper, but without your peers to support and motivate you, it's very hard.


I also dropped out and I have quite a different experience. My experience with CS in school was that it was boring. The teachers did not teach it well and I was better off learning on my own. I think this is highly dependent on your own personal learning style. College is not for everyone.

If you're smart, you have support. I don't know what people were around you but generally the right people can tell if you'll make it in this world. Their support means a lot. Find those people to surround yourself with.

I think being a dropout is easier now than ever. There is a large collective who understand college is not what it use to be. You can definitely do well without it, and they know.

"Computer Science is now an established discipline and schools actually teach it, so being self-taught is less of a necessity and more of an oddity." I disagree. Computer Science is established for Computer Science. It gives you almost zero introduction into the industry. If you want to be a software engineer for a living then it's the experience of work and your personal drive that outweighs a degree.

This industry has gotten to a point where we realize skill outweighs paper trails. If you can prove that you can do the work and do it well, you will get hired. I rather hire and work with someone who does not have a CS degree and knows what they are doing versus the opposite. It's the only way to hire -- skill.


We're mostly in agreement.

My point is that dropping out isn't a particularly easy path to choose. It's not a good default for most people.

I'm not trying to say that you can't be successful as a drop out. If I believed that, I wouldn't have dropped out myself.


Interesting story.

Do you have any regrets about your decision? Were you making money before you dropped out and are you making enough to support yourself now?


I don't have any substantial regrets, but it's possible that those will come with time. I sincerely wish that I could have made college work for me, but I think that I'd have to be a substantially different person for that to happen. One thing that I do regret is that I'm missing out on the opportunity to engage in academic research. I would like to try it, just to see what it's like, and I'm afraid that I might not have the opportunity without attending university.

As far as money goes, I made some cash from participating in Google's Summer of Code, but currently I'm not making any significant income and I'm living at home. I've got some projects that I'm working on and I've had a couple of interviews so, hopefully, I will soon be able to support myself, but not currently.


From what I can tell, knowing several who have earned or are pursuing PhDs, is that an academic career requires a long-term commitment and a willingness to do a lot of hard work for rewards that are a long ways off (and not guaranteed).


As a dropout, I can tell you this: if you do drop out, you are choosing the hard way. Later on, even if you're wildly successful, you will wonder how much more successful you could have been if you'd finished. You'll also suffer from the impostor syndrome, and it will likely haunt you for the rest of your life, regardless of the outcome.

Young smartasses have a way of becoming old maintenance programmers ;)


As an autodidact (I never dropped out of anything, I just didn't go to high school after 8th grade) allow me to say that I have never, ever wondered how successful I could've been if I'd gone to college, nor yet suffered from impostor syndrome.


I would go as far as to say that, to an autodidact, structured education is akin to Chinese water torture. A Steady, predictable flow of bland facts hammered into your skull, while you cannot change flow rate, the subject or the scope. Also, you cannot escape.

I avoided the natural sciences throughout my entire secondary and post-secondary career, as I feared the catastrophic effects structured learning would have on my inherent passion for those subjects. The joy of reading Darwin and Hawking, and the resultant awe of the universe, could not have been manufactured in a structured learning environment.


I dropped out over 20 years ago, and while not 'wildly' successful, I'm happily successful. I have no regrets, I never wonder how things would have been different, and I don't feel like an impostor. Your mileage may vary.

If you're passionate about the work and reasonably good at networking and selling yourself, I believe you can still make it in the industry without a college degree. You must have the passion though. Some people can choose a career in IT by spending an afternoon in their high school guidance councilor's office, and after 4 years of hard work in college actually realize that goal. For those kinds of people, college is essential.


I should point out that all in all, it worked out great for me. I'll get around to framing my GED someday...


I work with PhDs. I assure you that nobody is immune from imposter syndrome.


It is true that dropouts in the past have had to work hard to point out that college is not necessary for success. However, given how many articles we have seen about not dropping out on HN in the last week, it seems the tables have actually turned. It is the graduates now working hard to restore value to their degrees.

College has no proven track record. The best we have is some loose correlation showing people who work hard to attain a degree are also likely to work hard in industry, and thus earn more money. No surprises there. Hard working people have always earned more typically.

I don't want to diminish the value of college. It comes with a lot of great experiences for personal growth. It is a wonderful passtime. However, these articles are starting to highlight that it plays no role in business else there would be no reason to argue for going to college.


If you could somehow determine the benefit of a college degree and graph it against the cost over time it would be obvious that college was a no-brainer for boomers, and is becoming quite dubious these days.

50 years ago a state college degree could be paid for by a part-time job at a gas station, and once you had it you were virtually guaranteed gainful employment. These days, easy loans are turning ignorant youth into indentured servants, and it's not even a guarantee of employment, so college could actually be harmful.

Personally I got a great deal out of my college experience, and I did it without debt thanks to 2 years of community college and 2 years of staff employment at a University that paid my remaining tuition (ironically it was my self-taught web skills that landed me this job). If I had had to take on $30k or $40k of debt the equation would have been radically different.


Notice that all the lauded examples of "well, X dropped out and made it big!" entail X starting the business during schools and being so wildly successful at it that school was just in the way. Michael Dell was spending all his waking hours building PCs in his dorm. Gates was well on his way to selling DOS to IBM. Each had already gotten to where college helps you go.

Remember Gladwell's "10,000 hours" rule of thumb for success? THAT is what college is. 50 hours per week for 50 weeks per year for 4 years is 10,000 hours. You graduate from high school, and realize you haven't mastered a marketable skill[1] - so you sign up for a four-year boot-camp that will drag you, kicking and screaming, through your obligatory 10,000 hours.

Thing is, most the successful dropouts were already "practicing" well before they started college. Gladwell notes that Gates was putting in hours a day, for years, of programming before getting to college (at a time that programming required connections and money, being a motivated kid he was allowed free use at 4am). By the time they dropped out (perhaps long before), they already had their 10,000 hours in. A grade-school kid has opportunity for about 5,000 hours of "practice" available...and most use that time throwing balls or acting, building unmarketable skills.


50 hours per week for 50 weeks per year for 4 years is 10,000 hours

Or for most students, 40 hours per week for 16 weeks per term for 2 terms per year for 4 years is 5,120 hours.

Which might just explain why students coming out of college tend to be at most half good at something.


40 hours per week? Sure, maybe if you're a total conch.

For me, undergrad was more like eighteen hours a week for fourteen weeks, then fifty hours a week for one week. And that was with a heavy physics/maths courseload.


I was trying to be generous. Some students come out of college nowhere near to being half-good at anything. ;-)


Grad school will give you the other half. But: Beware premature optimization. ;)


College does not qualify as ten thousand hours of practice of anything, except maybe note-taking or socializing, and this is probably why most people are not great at anything when they graduate. With all the “general requirements” and electives students take, they don’t spend anywhere near ten thousand hours practicing the field they major in, unless they’re practicing outside of classes. You can’t rely on college to give you the ten thousand hours and automatically push you to the top of your field. It can help to an extent, but, like you said, people like Gates succeed without college because they practice on their own, and there is no replacement for that.


Why do most of the commenters seem to dislike college? Those were the best four years of my life, taught me real skills, programming and otherwise, that I use every day, and granted me that all-important degree which has come in handy for me and probably will for the vast majority of people who don't build the next Facebook or Apple.

Unless you're in situation #5 that the article talks about, spend a few years to get the degree (graduate early if you can because that saves time and money) while working on your projects on the side. And maybe have some college fun in the process.


Yeah. I got my CS degree (at a big state research university), learned a ton of computer software and hardware and theory and engineering stuff I absolutely would not have studied on my own because they weren't immediately practical, but were nonetheless extremely valuable. And I took a bunch of other classes that made me a much better thinker, in general and about various topics. I'm a vastly better software developer and a slightly more interesting person than I would have been without those classes.

If you're not enjoying and getting value out of university, something's wrong.


I reached a hypothesis in yesterday's discussion about college being a substitute upbringing for those who may not have had many opportunities growing up: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3150390

The dislike comes form it being pointless busywork. It may not have been pointless busywork to you, depending on your upbringing. And that is just fine. Everyone comes with different experiences. College is just not for everyone, plain and simple.


The dislike comes form it being pointless busywork. It may not have been pointless busywork to you, depending on your upbringing.

Or from what university you're at, and what you're studying.

My advice to programmer types who come into university thinking they already know all about programming: forget CS and take as much mathematics as you can. That stuff is hard and you can't learn it anywhere else.


Or from what university you're at, and what you're studying.

I should clarify that it is pointless busywork with respect to a career. There's definitely something to be said about learning for the sake of learning and personal growth. Not having world class knowledge of mathematics is not going to hinder your wallet in any way though.


I think focusing only on programming skills and what will help you in your first jobs out of college is short-sighted. Being a college dropout entrepreneur may be some sort of badge of honor in your 20's, but unless you do something extraordinary or make FU money, its not something that will help you later in life. Will having that MIT CS degree help you get that lucrative job when you're 40 years old with a family, mortgage and other responsibilities (i.e. not so easy to do risky startups)?

You also learn other skills that come in useful in your career, though I agree some can be worthless. I hated some of my classes in college, particularly the writing class requirements, but even those are helping me today because almost everything requires some sort of clear and coherent writing.

Its only 2-3 years if you work hard to graduate early, during which you'll have many opportunities to try out various ideas and meet many of your lifelong friends and likely, cofounders. If you don't have much money, excel at a state school and graduate with a manageable amount of debt, or better yet, work hard and get a scholarship.


I think focusing only on programming skills and what will help you in your first jobs out of college is short-sighted.

I'm not sure this is even about programming, per-say. If your goal is success as rated by monetary gains, it seems short sighted to focus your learning on any specific subject ahead of time. You might find riches in programming, but you might instead find riches in producing a set of short Youtube videos, or maybe writing a how-to book about getting rich without going to college. Who knows what opportunities will arise? If your vision is narrow, you're going to miss them, that is for sure.

If you have a very specific goal of programming for a top corporation at the age of 40, maybe a degree will help you out. Again, who knows? You cannot prepare yourself for success. You might decide you hate programming when you reach 40. Who knows? Following in the footsteps of others will not lead you to success. That is one thing we do know.

I'm not arguing against going to college. I see that it comes with many merits with respect to personal growth and a is generally an enjoyable time for most people. I just do not see how it relates to business and why anyone would want to pressure someone else to go to college. Who cares what other people do with their lives? Whether or not one should go to college is a very personal decision and it is one that should not be clouded by misguided notions of future fortunes.


I think there's definitely some value in taking time off to figure out where you're going (and where you want to be.)

Keeping your head down and finishing for the sake of finishing is probably not going to end well; you'll be in debt, you will have lost the opportunity cost of your time in school, and you still might not know what you want to do.

Don't be the guy who's in debt from a degree in a field he doesn't want to work in.


> I think there's definitely some value in taking time off to figure out where you're going (and where you want to be.)

Do you really have to take time off to do that? Does college take up so many hours a week that it simply leaves zero time for you to "figure out where you're going"?

Seriously?


A lot of students spend 2-4 years "trying to figure out where I'm going and what I want to be". Insofar as they haven't figured it out, and won't figure it out in that time, perhaps best if they take some time off and stop spending huge piles of money they don't have getting to where they don't want to go.

To wit: the First Law Of Holes is "stop digging".


No need for the hostility.

My point was that continuing on along a path (staying in school) might not be the best action, and oftentimes it's hard to step back and get a sense of things when you're fulltime in school. Not to mention the debt you'll acquire and time you'll waste going down a wrong path.


Yes and no. It's not just about the time but about being in an environment that is conducive to those birds-eye-view thoughts, and stepping out of the environment you're currently in to gain perspective.


I agree with this. I left school because I realized what I wanted to do and it WASN'T I.T. administration. I didn't want to end up at a huge corporation wearing a suit and hating my life. Now I work doing what I love and I'm learning a lot from others using hands on experience. Eventually I will start my own business which is what I truly want. If you have a vision and the motivation; and you know you can do it without school, go for it.


> 4) You're in your last or next-to-last year and you're fed up with the system, you want your freedom and you want it now.

Don't do it. Why? Because dropping out is easy, getting back in later is hard. Sure, the system sucks, but you are this close to bagging that piece of paper, you might as well go all the way.

I fundamentally disagree with you on this one. Getting that piece of paper give you a quick escape plan for when things get tough. Lets say you graduate, and start your startup. In the back of your mind you'll be saying "If this doesn't work out, I'll just go get a regular, decent paying job". And then things start to head south. You can't raise money, or you have no traction, ect. That decent paying job starts to look more and more attractive.

If you drop out, you're burning your bridges and forcing yourself to stay committed when shit hits the fan. Graduating leaves open an easy retreat strategy; it makes it much easier to quit.


I don't think (2) is correct:

You don't like to learn, and you need more money...Don't do it. Why? Because that stuff you learn you will need later on, and you will need it badly.

Of all the stuff I learned in college, I needed very little of it. This includes many classes I enjoyed. Most of it I've forgotten already. Not only that, I didn't even take the traditional college -> job route - I stayed in academia for 8 years after college.

Some of the many classes I took: medieval literature, women's studies, chemistry (3 semesters), population dynamics for environmental engineering, 2 semesters of economics, optics, and all of this is just the stuff I can think of. Most of my college experience was spent learning stuff I don't need to know and have now forgotten.

Stay in school for the sheepskin so that you can signal conscientiousness to the world. But focus on networking, not learning. Most of what you learn is a waste of time.


Isn't this kinda like looking back after running a search algorithm and saying "look at all of those branches that were explored that had nothing of value in them, what a useless waste." You have to explore in order to learn. College helps one learn both how your actions affect the external environment but also the internal one - your goals, utility function whatever you want to call it. What is 'needed' will be a function of what you decide will be needed.


No, because there is no reason to search through all the branches beforehand. A lot of things can be learned later on, as you need them.

Even if there was a need to search through the branches early on, I could reasonably predict that medieval literature was a waste of time. But 9 semesters of humanities were required by my college, so I crammed for exams and forgot about it after the fact.


I guess it all depends on one's discount rate. Now that I am older I wish I had taken a few more 'waste of time' classes - esp in the arts.


You may not use "what" you learn, but the skills you developed to help get through exams, hit deadlines, learn complicated concepts and work in groups are invaluable.


I absolutely agree. I studied economics and people have asked about it - what do you actually learn? You learn maybe a couple actual skills (regressions being the big one) but more importantly, it was learning about how to think like an economist. The sciences had more practical skills I can say I learned about data structures, theoretical performance, etc, but the biggest thing I learned taking CS courses was how to solve problems and then how to solve them faster, more efficiently, planning my time, and other skills which aren't listed in a course description.


You don't think that economics helped you understand intelligent agents in AI? Or markets as a mechanism for efficient information exchange? Or constrained optimization - if you studied economics, it is intuitive for you to see the Lagrange multiplier as price/cost (shadow) in convex optimization. Whether or not it helped in implementation, that is another thing, but in interpretation and thinking about a problem I can't see how it couldn't be of value.


I'd just like to say that if you're too lazy for University, then you're fucked either way.


Lately a lot of people think they can earn a lot of money without working hard. I'm not sure why people think this way. Maybe TV told them you can get whatever you want whenever you want.


Not TV, The Social Network (seriously, how many of you had friends asking you about their "billion dollar" startup idea after seeing the movie?)


Having just watched it two days ago, the Social Network shows Zuckerberg working all hours of the day, every day. If that doesn't give people the idea that it requires hard work, I don't know what will.


The words were all about hard work, but the context was not. I bet the Zuckerberg character was drunk and/or at a party in a majority of the scenes he appeared in. Especially if we exclude the scenes where drinking would have resulted in punishment (e.g. during depositions.)


The words were all about hard work, but the context was not.

I'm not sure I agree. They made a point on more than occasion to show Zuckerberg at home on his computer while everyone else was at a party. Even at the depositions, he was working during every available moment. In the one scene he was falling asleep in the lab, so, instead of sleeping, he went home to work on Facebook for the remainder of the night.

I believe he was drinking alcohol during some of the work scenes, but there's nothing particularly abnormal about having a few drinks while coding. I even know of legitimate and profitable businesses who support the occasional drinking while coding days.


So many. I have a programmer friend who saw that movie and became obsessed with going and working for some hip tech company (like Twitter). I can't say this from experience, but I imagine working for twitter (or any other sexy tech company) isn't a big party. It's hard work. It's seventy hour weeks and a ball-breaking boss.


"Don't do it. Why? Because if that's your character you need every bit of structure that your school or university is providing you. Before you can even think of starting your own business you will have to learn self-discipline."

OR you can drop out and get a lousy, physical job - get the same structure you get from school, gain better appreciation for mental skills and abilities that university teaches you, and add to your bankroll (albeit, slowly) instead of your debt load.

This, instead of coasting through school with lousy character and no discipline and getting less out of it then if you appreciate it more.


Yeah, going to university in the hopes of learning discipline is like going to [some place not commonly associated with X] to learn [X]. [1]

If it's discipline you need, you'd be better off spending four years in the military. Perhaps you'll say that this is "discipline provided by others" rather than "self-discipline", but in practice I'm not sure there's much of a difference based on the ex-military folks I've met.

[1] Sorry, the metaphor subsystem of my brain is broken today. Insert your own metaphor here.


The only reason the idea of dropping out is getting so much traction is because of the debt that's now required to get a degree. I haven't seen anyone defending college reconcile this fact.

The point is that a degree is now extremely expensive and is getting more so all the time. Id like to make the point that holding all that debt is a lot scarier than the successful people with decent jobs trying to persuade us to start or stay in school think it is.


There's a lot more positive benefit to staying in school than dropping out. For one thing, making money is something you'll do for the rest of your life (unless you're the kind of fiscally-responsible freak that can save enough to retire by 30).

You have all the time in the world to start a company or join one. But right now, while you're young and have the time and resources available, you're at the best possible position to acquire the experiences and knowledge you'll need for the rest of your life. Yes there's debt; you'll pay it off. Yes it's tiring; you'll get used to it.

Is it easy to drop out? Yes. Can you make money (assuming you're smart enough and have learned enough to get a job now)? Yes. Does it make sense to cripple yourself for the future just to get a couple years ahead of your peers? Hell no.

Do whatever you have to do to finish school and try hard to enjoy yourself while you're there. Life isn't going anywhere that you need to drop out to get there.


No one will read this because I'm posting so late, but I'll describe my experience:

I was a stats major, emphasis actuarial science. On paper, I was set to go work for some insurance company and make bank.

Except...I couldn't make myself care about it. Done purely for money, that stuff is pretty boring.

No, I didn't drop out. The university did that for me as my grades plummeted.

I'd learned a bit of java, so I applied for a job out of the student paper and ended up working on an application for...wait for it...insurance agents. Exactly what I couldn't make myself care about in school. In Visual Basic.

Having read enough of pg's essays to somehow acquire the impression that I was a Great Hacker destined for startup greatness because I had played around with CL, I quit the insurance software gig to build....video conferencing software! I even found a customer willing to pay me for it. I was clueless and so was he, so we ended up negotiating a fixed-price contract. Cue the tragic cycle of I-didn't-realize-it-would-take-this-long-and-I'm-not-getting-paid enough on the developer's part, and it became a nightmare project that dragged on four months longer than it should have.

Cue some more inexperienced-at-software-and-inexperienced-at-contracting horror stories, and I was kind of sick of being on my own. I found the one cool company in my area and bravado'd my way into an interview. They were everything awesome the insurance company hadn't been: smart people. Great conditions. Clojure and Ruby as main languages. Tufte's Visual Display of Quantitative Information on the coffee table in reception. An engineer cofounder (vs. an insurance agent founder).

And...I wasn't qualified. I'd plugged some libraries together for the videoconferencing thing, and the Rails stuff I'd done on contract was pretty basic. Any my stats knowledge was poor. I'd dropped out!

So I decided to go back to school. Part of the reason I failed so badly in school is because I had a really hard time getting motivated when I could see how sucky most of higher-education is for actual education---many things are quietly optimized toward extracting money from the student's parents, or measuring things for future employers, or compensating for a model with many students and few professors. This is all true, but I can get a loan to attend school, while I can't get a loan to grab a bunch of textbooks and start cranking.

So if someone were thinking of dropping out, I'd say---do it. Absolutely do it. If you're sick of school and can't get motivated, no inspirational talk will cure that, and you'll stumble through half-caring, graduating with either a useless degree (because you didn't learn anything) or failing out like I did.

The only thing that will cure you of that is experience outside of school. That will be what tells you how off-base (or on!) you are. Since I left school my opinions on some portions of it being B.S. have only strengthened. But I have also gained an appreciation for certain parts that I took for granted. So if you leave, be cold-blooded about it. You may hate the system (it deserves it), but it might be useful to you later, so don't burn that bridge if you can help it.


I wanted to reply to this because my experience was somewhat similar to yours. I dropped out of school to do a startup and realized that I actually WANTED to learn my major (CS stuff). I also missed the academic environment. Luckily for me, I was far enough ahead with credit hours that the time I took off didn't mess up my graduation time.


Agreed. But I'll just add one option that worked for me. I dropped out after the first semester. Then I found a job as a software engineer. In 4 years I'm a valuable senior java developer that everyone is trying to hire. Have I graduated? Yes, from the school of real-world software projects. I didn't have a startup business (well, I had one which failed, and I'm having one right now, on the side), but it was still a better option to drop out.

Btw, I signed up for a external program at the University of London so that I could still get a BSc without actually doing anything academic - so now I'm 24 with 4 years of real-life work experience and a BSc (not that I need it, but it's there)

So, perhaps it is better to summarize it that way: if you clearly see opportunities for yourself that are better than staying in university - drop out.


Yeah, and you will also NEVER be a computer scientist. You will never be hired by a team building a compiler, or a team building a database engine. You condemned yourself to a programmer title for the rest of your life, doing mind numbing business logic for the rest of your life (unless you decide to go back to school that it).

Besides higher education is NOT about learning skills immediately useful for employment. It's about so much more. It's about mental gymnastics, about stretching your mind, it's about dedicating 5 years of your life to nothing but bettering yourself, reading and learning anything you can get your hands on, exchanging ideas with other great minds, and becoming better you.

This is a unique time, that can't be reproduced otherwise simply because you never will have the time (unless you are a millionaire and don't have to work) to do that any more, and when you become older you become less plastic and more set in your ways.

Dropping out of school is a tragedy really for any young mind. So is choosing easy school. If you are going to study anything, study hard things (Math vs English). They change you more.


While I fully agree with your point, the guarantee of developing software for a living and NOT building compilers or such sounds actually more attractive. Solving problems and designing systems is amazing but what you idealize sounds myopic and tedious to plenty of amazing and well-educated computer scientists. We don't need to get into the Scientist vs. Programmer debate but software can mean or be most anything. That too is a conversation left for the classroom.

There are plenty of amazing, rewarding, lucrative, and challenging projects out there besides the poles of Hard CS and bland Enterprise work.


I agree with both of you. As in politics, the two sides are talking past each other.

I think the dropouts look at people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, etc, and want to say "Look! You can be rich and successful and influential without requiring some silly piece of paper and a goofy hat!". Therefore, I don't need it!

The PhDs and Computer Science grad students are likely to look up to people like Turing, Church, Von Neumann, John McCarthy (as he's been in the news) etc.., and be satisfied pondering The Secrets Of The Universe and be stimulated by working on extremely pure intellectual challenges.

To the dropout entrepreneur/hacker, the prospect of working in an office proving the lower bound of a routing problem over ad-hoc networks is about as bland as you can get.

To the computer science professor, post-doc, whatever, the prospect of working as some web-app developer or "java engineer" and hustling for customers is completely vapid.

I tend to slightly side with the academic CS types, since many people can teach themselves to be successful hackers independently, few college dropouts are architecting the next generation of internet protocols, contributing much to computational complexity theory, producing the next RSA cryptosystem or homomorphic encryption, or contributing to the algorithms to make higher-resolution images from MRI scans. On the other hand, if you drop out of college, this isn't probably the kind of stuff that would interest your blood pumping anyway.


I don't see why I can't do compilers if I have to. I didn't take the "compilers" course in my remote study, because I wasn't interested. But when you reach a certain level of computing knowledge, you can learn anything quickly.

But anyway, I agree that "mental gymnastics", "stretching your mind" and "exchanging ideas" are very important things. And so I found ways to do these things. Yes, it's not the default case when you drop out, but as I said - if you have a clear vision how to proceed, including these important aspects, you should.


"I don't see why I can't do compilers if I have to. I didn't take the "compilers" course in my remote study, because I wasn't interested. But when you reach a certain level of computing knowledge, you can learn anything quickly"

Well, consider this. Here's an exercise, without googling for a solution (other than language documentation), do you think you could write your own grep? Write a reasonably performing distributed algorithm for routing over an ad-hoc network? Think you could write an automated theorem prover or model checker? How about just a frequency hopping protocol for congested wireless networks?

Some of these are not things that you can learn quickly with a "certain level of computing knowledge". Sometimes research projects like this take years and decades by huge teams and brilliant people, who often have to spend considerable amount of times formalizing and making consistent the underlying theoretical models, which can only then be effectively implemented.


I very much agree that defining those theories and algorithms is not for everyone. But they are already discovered, so if I need them, I'll (yes) google them and analyze if they are suitable. Of course, I'll need to know what I'm looking for, which is the "level of computing knowledge"

And if I have to do research projects - I agree I won't be able to start as a senior researcher. Perhaps a minor assistant, it is not impossible, if I ever need to. It's not like "I've missed my chance in life to ever do compilers".


Point taken. However, my point wasn't to play gotcha. Of course everyone googles for solutions, that's how things work. It's how they should work. The point was this: what if you need to innovate something new, that necessarily needs to draw from deep results in pure theory. Those without a formal background in CS, by and large, are not equipped to make these discoveries and breakthroughs. Among dropouts I think there is a certain cognitive bias of WIKIATI (What I Know Is All There Is) - they presume their success in their achievement, and in getting professional respect and a salary allows them to say "told you so!" to the weak-willed people who stay in school, without realizing they don't know what they don't know.


Or you could do both. I worked 15-20 hours a week while I was in school with a local software company learning all those things and doing the academic work. Most of my classes were in the morning and I'd work 3-4 hours in the afternoon/early-evening when all my roommates where playing video games. This lead to great summer jobs and I left college with a BSc and real-world experience. This lead to a higher offer out of school and looks great at the same time.


Recent drop out here. How did you find your first job?


I applied to 7 companies, got offers from 6 and chose 1 :) The thing is, I already had good programming experience and knowledge, so it wasn't that hard.


Surprised by the lack of support for dropping out.

Is a 4 year education and a degree valuable? Of course.

Is it worth $xx,000 in student debt and 4 year opportunity cost of doing something else? Rarely. Especially for this crowd.

If you are a 19 year old with some programming skills, and you are paying for your own college (via loans or with cash) dropping out is a GREAT idea. Spend the next three years working on your own projects, open source projects, crappy little free lance whatever.. you are going to be in a much better spot than if you spent the next three years going to classes and coming out with 50k in student loan debt.

If college is free, then yeah, you are crazy not to go. But if you are smart and willing to work hard anyway.. education is FREE these days. Save the cost of the house and the years.


I have to disagree. A college education costs about $26,000 for Florida residents here in Orlando for a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. Compare that to my first year's salary which was roughly double that, and the cost begins to look minimal.

The opportunity cost is relative, since the people you meet in college may very well be the best resources you have for maintaining your drive, innovative spirit, and will to keep on. Just the discipline of finishing something is worth the time and money spent. That said, it depends on _you_ and your situation.

Personally, I wouldn't be who I am today without suffering with my peers through classes like CS1, Discrete Structures, and Computer Architecture. My first piece of real consulting work, the first proposal I ever wrote, was for an ad on our local university's job board.

Disclaimer: The total cost of my education was paid by scholarships, so I do not have first hand knowledge of how this works, just providing my anecdote. $26,000 figure was calculated using my in state invoices from 2003-2007 so they may need adjusting for inflation.


26k + 4 * 25k a year salary you aren't earning (very conservative for someone who is going to spend 4 years trying to make money being a programmer)

And you have a 126k education.

That ~50k you are making a year is roughly the same as my first salaried position; except that I dropped out of college and spent that time jerking off and doing some free lance work.

Certainly there is a lot of value in college; I learned to program (even though I didn't graduate) primarily in college, and my buddies from there are some of my best friends (and potential networking opportunities).

However, at 26, with no degree, minor networking, and (in my opinion) an amateur portfolio I was able to get multiple 45k+ opportunities. At 28 with a better portfolio I can work as much or as little as I choose for $50+ an hour.

In this industry, no one gives a shit about your degree for 99% of cases. Can you hack it and show you can hack it? Then you can get a job.


In Idaho, the 4 year universities are about 3K per semester. Assuming a 4-year degree, that's 24K in tuition. If it's 5 years, that's 30K.

You can live on about 1K per month. So loosely, that's about 20K per year to get a degree here.


it's correct to think about the bigger picture, but you'd be paying rent anyway. I think the right number to look at is tuition + opportunity cost, e.g. 6K + 18K salary or whatever.


Opportunity cost was very little for me and all the other CS people I knew in undergraduate. The alternative for most people was doing tech support and making 24K/year with no growth potential (using local rates). Since the local rate for a BSCS is about 50K, there's no meaningful reason for the bulk of students to drop out. You'd have to have 20% year over year growth in income (not counting the bennies coming in with a salary job) to equal it.

In other words, for a computer science student - if you have a business raking in cash and you need to drop out to keep the money stream, you're losing out. Otherwise, stay in college.


Unfortunately Florida is much, much less expensive than almost anywhere else. A college education from a decent university in Pennsylvania will run you about 15k a year (University of Pittsburgh or Penn State). Throw in living costs and tuition increases, and you're looking at 80-100k easily for 4 years.


> Throw in living costs

I see the point you're trying to make, but I don't see why you'd calculate living costs into the cost of school.

If I'm working I'm likely to have higher living costs as most universities have subsidized housing and meals, not to mention most students live with room mates once they move off campus. I'd guess working people have far fewer room mates and much nicer/expensive accommodations :)

Anecdotally that's how it's been for pretty much everyone I know


Tuition at the University of Alabama is about $9,000/year for in-state students. It was half that when I attended in the early 2000s. It's not a highly ranked CS school but there are plenty of resources available and it's worked out well enough for me so far careerwise. I was working 40 hours a week throughout grad school, so my lifetime student loan total amount maxed out at around 1/3 of your quote.

On the flip side, my high school roommate dropped out of college as a freshman and he is doing just great working for a big-name Valley startup.


See I'm going the other way.

I'm in the process of applying for a Master's Degree in Computer Science. Historically I've been rather reluctant to do this since I can learn on my own, and have. However, I think the structure and the environment provided by school is worth the 25k a total cost. Having money on the barrel head provides a real sense of focus. Having a peer group that wants to really pursue the same topic is valuable and worth a portion of the 25k. Finally, it gets me to focus on a topic. Currently I'm flitting around from technology to technology, fueled by HN. I look at Node.js, then Mongo, then a plethora of JS libraries. I'm tired.

School will focus me on Software Engineering with a focus on Grid/Distributed computing.


I did a masters in CS for almost the same reasons and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Met a tonne of amazing people, learnt a stupid amount in one year (which I say with some authority in learning stupid amounts in short spaces of time) and had a really fantastic time. I found that it forced me to do things I wouldn't perhaps on the face of it have chosen, but turned out to be really interesting and influence my work in other areas (like predicate logic, which I initially hated but learned to love).


I completely agree, 4 years of learning leading technologies in IT will put you far ahead of 4 years of learning possibly outdated stuff. Education is FREE!


I'm 20. I dropped out of high school, studied for a couple of years in community college and am taking classes and workshops at an art school right now (no accredited degree). For me this provides a solid compromise between the extremes of fascist discipline and anarchist chaos.

The first extreme relies completely on papers, degrees, and the value of adderalled-up memorization of facts and focusing your life on passing the tests. Life isn't about passing tests and I didn't want to go that route. So I dropped out of high school.

The second extreme is an anarchist, 'fuck the power' immature, spontaneous chaos. It disregards discipline, it ignores the beautiful life-rhythm of doing something everyday. It glorifies chaos and disorder, and ultimately for me it would probably lead to jail and homelessness. I decided to ignore that, since I realized the value of discipline and the value of education in a classroom (but not for a degree).

I have very little interest in the opiatish dream of a 'start-up that will make me filthy rich' too. Hence why I avoid startups. In fact I am skeptical of everything that alludes to 'becoming filthy rich'.

I am not a typical successful dropout like Bill Gates (yet) nor do I think I will be, and I'm not a stereotypical dumb lazy fry-flipping dropout (yet). As an experiment to test my discipline and knowledge, I decided to spend a year working in a full-time IT job, and I have spent exactly one year there.

So yeah, I'm that other guy :) Your mileage may vary.


All this talk of dropping out or not reminded me of a characteristic I've come to recognize in folks with Phds. There is an assumption that if you don't have a Phd like they do its because you could not get one, not that you chose not to get one.

I think some of that flings back on people who drop out of college. Work, regardless of company size, is, to put it simply, work. That sounds circular of course but really the key is that if you can't find the motivation to get you through college then where are you going to find the motivation to get you through the 'last 10%' of a project which is what takes 90% of the effort?

As pg pointed out, and Jacques does too, if you're wondering if you should drop out then you shouldn't. You've got bigger problems and you need to deal with those. If on the other hand getting school stuff done is hard because your business is growing in leaps and bounds and you don't have time for both, that is a completely different story.

Work can suck at times, that is why you don't see travel agents advertising "Bankok Work Vacations." But getting stuff done rocks. You have to see the goal, if only in your minds eye, to get past the stuff that is lame and irritating.


"If those three conditions are not met, please ignore the rest of this post, you have already made some bad decisions and the question of staying in or dropping out is the least of your problems."

Jacques appears to have a very shallow knowledge into the value of liberal arts. It has nothing to do with a marketable skill (if you want that, go to a vocational school), and everything to do with refining the quality if your thought and mind.


I have a Philosophy degree, and there was definitely an opportunity cost associated with getting it. If my goal were to optimize my life in terms of income generation, it would have been a mistake.

Happily, that hasn't been my goal in life, and I wouldn't trade my philosophy degree in for the world. There turned out to be plenty of time to go back to school and learn the technical skills I needed after I figured out that programming was what I wanted to do with my life.

Having said that, I would be somewhat reluctant to counsel anyone to take a career-path-agnostic approach to college in the current climate. Times are tough, decent jobs for people without demonstrable technical skills are scarce, and college is even more breathtakingly expensive than it was 20 years ago.


As far as I can determine, a university education in the liberal arts does little to nothing to refine the quality of one's thought and mind. Someone intelligent, talented, and motivated enough to gain anything from a liberal arts education would undoubtedly achieve most of that on their own for the proverbial $1.50 in late fees at the local library. And someone who isn't will gain nothing but a now useless credential. Most 18 year olds would gain more perspective from two years in the Peace Corps or military than from a liberal arts education.


This is a very common argument, and it may have some merit. In the current economic situation, however, with high and increasing college costs, it is probably advisable to find a less expensive way to obtain the benefits of a liberal arts education.


Going to keep most of my crazy opinions to myself on this one, but a few points:

1. If someone dropped several thousand dollars in seed money in my lap today and said "Hire some people, establish a profitable business," I would feel more enthusiastic about an interview with someone who'd dropped out of CalTech, MIT, OTIS, Art Center, RISD, or Parsons than one with a graduate from anywhere.

2. Not that it necessarily matters, but whenever I encounter the argument that a university education is or should be considered a required component of "success" or "learning" my opinion of the person making the argument drops significantly. Specifically, I find myself treating their judgment of what constitutes "success" or a "learned" person with complete disregard. These feelings are especially strong when they're directed toward someone older than me. (Is there a fake formula to measure how forgivable someone's stupidity is, given their age?)

3. If you're between the ages of 16 and 24 and have convinced yourself that you must be "successful" by the time you're 25, you'll probably feel like a failure whether you drop out or not. In the event that you matriculate/graduate, you'll just be more likely to have picked up a lot of debt, and maybe a nasty alcohol and/or adderall habit. Worse case scenario: you'll be 21-23 with a fancy piece of paper, the false impression that you "get it," and not much else.

(To be fair, I met my best friends in college—which is now a huge pain in the ass since everyone's scattered across the country—and the majority of my favorite memories are from that time. But after meeting those people my freshman year, I could have dropped out, done enough design work to cover food, gas, and rent in Pacific Beach—I went to school in San Diego–and had largely the same experience.)


Definitely not for me. I need a good project manager AND a good business manager on hand. Learned this after some lean, depression filled, years.

Once I admitted this to myself and acted accordingly my income shot up from poverty levels to middle class levels. Now that I have kids and all of the uncertainty and financial hardship that can impose, I'll take what I've got. I'll never be rich but I'll still be happy.


This is interesting. I just read four points and was completely like: "Not me, not me, not me, not me."

Then I read the fifth point and just thought: "This more likely me. Except for the savings and the acing of exams without learning."

I was a little confused about the "Do it" since all other points ended with "Don't do it" but it has been fun.

Thanks for this article.

PS. I am about to pause studying for half a year to one year and than continue to study. I am 19.


Here is my plan: in a year I'm finishing my army service. I'll be 21. Instead of going to the university I'll take three years off.

Right now I practice my software development skills. I practice BDD, pick up new mainstream languages, practice writing good and concise code, working with people, etc.

When I'll finish the army I'll have three years experience in software development. I've worked at a couple of start ups already, I'm lead dev in the army and we are pushing a new project every month or so, I have my own start up and hopefully by the time I'll finish I'll have the elusive paying customers.

And then I'll learn whatever I want for three years. All the math I want, all the algorithms I'm interested at. I'll design a language, I'll write my own compiler, I'll meditate on data structures and work on large open source projects.

That's far better than university. And it's gonna be fun.


Would army service not be similar to getting a degree, in that you are focused on a daily bases on core learning? It sounds as if your service experience has been as valuable as some schools.


I think it it good for my career. I think it's better to learn theory after a good practice, not before. Otherwise you don't have the context, and you fly into to the clouds without keeping your feed on the ground of I Can Build Stuff With This.


I've been struggling in Uni for close to 5 years now. If I don't dropout then I'll just end up wasting more and more money. It looks like this semester my University may make the decision for me and kick me out for my low grades.

I know University is supposed to teach me dedication, perseverance, hard work etc but it seems all it does is make me doubt myself which makes me depressed and lazy.

I make reasonable money as a freelance web developer. I figure by dropping out of Uni completely, I can take on more jobs and focus on personal projects. This is what I want. This is what gives me excitement so why shouldn't I drop out if the only reason I'm in Uni is to finish a degree I don't even care for.


>"I figure by dropping out of Uni completely, I can take on more jobs and focus on personal projects."

I figure that if you graduate Uni, you can take on more jobs and focus on personal projects.

It's a false dichotomy.

After you graduate, the jobs will be better and the personal projects more deeply informed.


Why did you go in the first place? If you don't care about the 'system' why apply to college and waste a year or two on tuition? Or is it more about nurturing a chip? "yeah, I can get into your school, but here is what I think of it." Look, if you are trying to find an optimal policy in an unknown environment (w/drift) you are going to need to make the exploration/exploitation tradeoff. How you do it is your call, but if you think that the act of 'dropping out' is, in of itself, of positive value as signaling mechanism you are sadly mistaken.


"If those three conditions are not met, please ignore the rest of this post, you have already made some bad decisions and the question of staying in or dropping out is the least of your problems."

I could be mistaken, but I'm convinced that over 80% of people in college would not qualify.

If I'm mistaken, then I am saddened even more due to the existence of so many that could put forth so little effort for something they truly wanted to do. When I attended college I would not have qualified.


Peter Thiel doesn't seem to think dropping out is such a bad idea. He set up The Thiel Fellowship to give 20 students Under 20 $100,000 to get their business ideas off the ground and quit school.

http://venturebeat.com/2011/05/25/peter-thiel-pays-kids-100k...


That's a common misconception about the Thiel foundation.

Their main point is that they think that going into a multi-year debt in order to get an education is a losing proposition for many people and that because of that you might be better of dropping out.

The 20 under 20 program is for exceptional people, see #5 in the linked article.


No doubt Peter Thiel means well. Thiel Foundation is a non-profit organization. Today it announced Breakout Labs which aims to fund very nascent research proposals — opportunities that are too early stage or radical to attract dollars from VCs or government grants.


the success rate of the average first-time start-up is so low that it makes playing the lottery look like a good investment

People love lines like this, but a 20% chance is a million times better than any kind of lottery. Even here in Brazil, where it sucks to be a business owner, recent data shows that +50% of small business survive for over 2 years.


Yes, but that's not 'small businesses started by drop-outs'.

If it were then the odds would be substantially less. People start businesses at all points in their life, and the failures skew significantly towards inexperience.


My take on this is pretty much the same. Drop out if you have something else to do. Do not drop out to sit at home smoking, drinking and playing Xbox. or in more words: http://nerdr.com/should-i-drop-out-of-college-and-start-a-bu...


I psuedo-dropped out* a week ago. I think the thing that really stuck out in my case was that all of my family and friends responded with a sincere "congratulations!" when I told them about it.

* I've scraped enough credits together to collect my CS degree in May with my peers, though I do miss the english lit classes I was taking.


Let's not forget the happy medium: going on leave. Stanford lets students take 3 quarters off and many other universities offer a similar program. A few months may be enough time to decide if your side business is viable.


Much has been said about whether or not to drop out of school (or whether to go college at all.) How about those w/ limited technical skills going back to school to pick up a CS degree?

Regards, TDL


I don't think it really matters much either way. I dropped out and spent a few years doing a couple startup type things that didn't end up going anywhere. I ran out of money and got a job. The stuff I had put together + my various online profiles (Stack Overflow, Hacker News, etc.) seemed to be enough to get employers interested. No regrets here. I think Jacques' advice may be somewhat outdated. There are better ways to get educated and prove your competence these days.


"If those three conditions are not met . . ."

There are four conditions there, not three.


wow, amazing I wish I had a flow chart like this 2 years ago when my startup was making money..


Sage words.


Thank you. Excellent article that needs to be read by everyone who's considering dropping out for "a startup".

Let's ignore the complexities and focus on crude market value. A smart person with no college degree can probably earn $25,000 per year at 18. We're assuming a middle to upper-middle class background-- no special family connections-- and a reasonable work ethic. With a CS, math, or science degree from a good college, that jumps to about $80,000 at 22. That's a 34% annual growth rate in one's earning potential! (I'm ignoring the career prospects of Communications majors; a startup is much harder than getting 3.0+ in a CS program.) Typical income growth in the work world is 5-7% for average people and 10-20% (with ups and downs) for very ambitious people. I've been running at 17%/year since I left school, but that's likely to slow down as I trade off income acceleration for more interesting work and autonomy. My point is: being able to grow your earning potential at 34%/year, and probably have fun and learn a lot, while surrounded by intelligent people, over 4 years... is not something to walk away from.

Yes, everyone hates college sometimes. The lowest of the lows truly suck. Sleep deprivation. Drunk people. Final exam stress. Realizing that some idiots get in no matter how elite a college you attend. On the whole, though, if you struggle with college the problem is probably with you-- or more specifically, your level of maturity, and college is a great place to improve that.

Mark Zuckerberg could grow (in wealth and earning potential) much faster than 34%/year. College was slowing him down. Same with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc. Most of us are not in that league-- not yet, anyway.

That's just discussing market value. Here's another factor. Forget about the startup dream and focus on the reality (for the middle 90%) of the work world. College is more fun, interesting, and educational than the first 5 years of the work world for most people. Don't throw that opportunity away lightly.


I graduated with honors from a top 10% university and it cost a heck of a lot more than $25k AND I've now been working for 3.5 years and I haven't hit the $80k mark yet. Only a small subset of the skills that I'm marketing right now did I learn in college.

Furthermore, I'm doing better than a lot of my peers. Your numbers are suspect at best.

$25k x 4 = $100,000 opportunity cost for college.

$20k x 4 = $100,000 college debt load (if you're lucky).

8% over 10 years for interest payments = ~$45k.

$245,000 total cost to go to school.

If you figure a $55,000 starting salary after school and do $8,000 yearly increases because you're clever and smart, it will take you 4 complete years to make up the difference AND that's still assuming the same clever and smart person has been working without a degree for 8 years and is still only making $25k/year. (For the curious, the two cross path around $350k total salary earned)

ALSO, that same clever and smart person could have been accruing a whole host of assets with the money they were making every year and could be well north of net worth $250k by the time the college grad gets to net worth $0. That clever and smart person with 8 years experience in the real world could use those assets to do all sorts of things our college grad is still going to have to wait some years to do.

The financial benefit for a smart person going to school and not going to school, in my mind, is irrelevant. When you factor in opportunity cost and debt, that same smart person will have grayed the difference between a college grad and a non-college grad by the time the college grad gets to net worth $0.

And as college tuition inflation continues to outpace all other expenditures in society, I would move more firmly into the drop-out camp.


1) I like that you include the oppurtunity cost because people often ignore it (especially when it comes to graduate school), but you can go to school at night and that vanishes.

2) $25k x 4 is both high and low. It's low for 4 years at an expensive school, it is high for compared to going to a community college for 2 years and then graduating from more expensive 4 year place. My girlfriend went to a state school for a year and then a private school for 3, she definitely saved $15k in one year. That wasn't the plan at the outset but it was a result of the path she took.

3) 8% is way too high of an interest rate. Our loans are between 2 and 6.8%. I'm paying down the 6.8% fast, but at 2 or 3% it's almost free money once you include inflation and the tax rebate.

4) It shouldn't take 10 years to pay back

5) If you are making $25k and living outside of your parents house, you have no money left over to invest. Frankly the difference between $25k and $55k is the difference between sustaining yourself and building up wealth. No matter how frugal you are, it's nearly impossible to get ahead on $25k a year.


All points taken, except 5). In major urban centers, $25k is too little to save up. But in many other parts of the US (especially where I live in NE Ohio), a single person could save a good amount making 25k a year. People around here raise families on that.


Don't forget some people get free rides through college (I did), so they only have to pay for food for 4 years. Also, 25k a year seems a bit optimistic, IMO.


My parents paid for my schooling, so I had a free ride of sorts too. This obviously changes the numbers a great deal, and should certainly factor into decision making.

$25k a year is $12.50/hr. With proper job hunting, this shouldn't be too difficult to find with a high school education.


It depends on your ambitions and your skill set. Average college graduates are definitely not making $80k/year out of school.

CS graduates with decent coding skills can get that much. And in my experience, your major doesn't matter much if you can code. A CS major might make your CV 20% more appealing, and what you'll learn is certainly valuable, but technical skill (not major) is what matters. (I majored in math, not CS.)


Your back of the envelope is dubious. Where are they paying 22-year-olds $80k? Only at soul-sucking corporations and over-funded startups with no fiscal responsibility.

Also, the person with the capability to get a CS/Math/Science degree (from a respectable program) will likely have other potential that fall somewhere between the typical dropout and Gatesian success.

I think the strongest argument to stay in school is that most 18-year-olds don't have the discipline to fulfill that potential, so they'll get more out of a structured environment. I know I was certainly this way. However if you are the exceptional 18-year-old that is driven in some way (whether it be code, art, music, business, whatever), then you probably won't regret jumping.


Many people at Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and others have retained their souls along with their $80+K new-grad salaries.


Yeah, you might be able to get a high-paying recent-grad job but odds are you won't, either because you don't make the cut technically (the bar is high) or because your job-finding, interviewing, and negotiating skills are crap.

Often, it's both-- because you don't make it through a college-assisted placement program into a high-profile company that likes to hire recent grads, and the college hasn't provided any reasonable training on how to go about getting a good job and compensation on your own, you flounder and struggle up a ladder of mediocre tech jobs until you figure that stuff out. You are probably not making $80k/yr during that time.


In other words, the pick of the litter can get that much.


Sleep deprivation. Drunk people. Final exam stress.

Sleep deprivation and final exam stress is mostly our own making. If you use SRS and study regularly, I am sure the college life is no problem.


Oh, I don't know about that. I don't want to get all Kanye about highed ed, but I never understood why university teaching methods are so dependent on the final exam. All the work students do throughout the year is worth very little compared to the final exam. Its a system, imho, that encourages skipping class and binge studying.

It rewards people who can cram well and have good memories, but punishes those who do good work and who aren't good at last minute cram sessions. I've always thought it borderline cruel, especially when the workplace doesn't reflect this. I rarely jerk around M-F and stay up until 4am on Sunday to perform some big task. Its all about rationally addressing problems, breaking them into chunks, and performing those chunks. At universities, its all about irrationally fucking around and doing a last minute cram to get by. I can see why so many talented young men and women would consider dropping out to enter the startup workforce, especially in a down economy that isn't hiring and the sudden realization of having a huge loan debt for the next 10-20 years.

I remember more than a few classes that were structured as 90% final exam and 10% everything else (or more typically 80/20). I never felt this was fair to the student and only encouraged lousy study habits, procrastination, and cheating. Its almost as if the American college experience is one big exercise in not doing things the proper way.

I feel this made me a worse procrastinator than I already was and that it took me several years to shed these bad habits.


Or... it taught you to deal with procrastination head on?

Anyway, this is not universal. My CS program (University of Minnesota) tended to be about 50% assignments / 50% tests. It varied by class of course, theoretical stuff has to go by tests (numerical computing, discrete math, etc). The programming classes sometimes had competitions for bonus points, optimizing a C program in machine architecture, or a head-to-head game competition between programs (that was super fun, and really cut my cleverness down to size).


The technical school I went to gave finals a low weight. You could phone it in and not change much, or you could do really well and bump your course average up a point.


SRS?


Spaced Repetition Software. It's a technique to become dramatically better at memorization.

This Wired article is fascinating look at the founder of SuperMemo, one of the big players in that industry: http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/16-05/ff_woznia... Highly recommended, it's a great read.


I think he's referencing a spaced repetition system

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_repetition_system

they have software where you can set up a flashcard system if you know what you are doing, and it will time out when you should review what for optimal memorization


Maybe: "Spaced Repetition System"?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spaced_repetition


I would make it simpler than that.

1. Don't procrastinate and get distracted. Even if you're taking hard courses, a college course load is rarely more than 50 hours per week. Average in hard majors is probably 35-40 all-in. That's not onerous at all, especially when you're only working 40 weeks per year (including internship).

2. Concentrate on learning interesting stuff, not on the grades. Good-enough grades (3.5+) will come from this for most people in most circumstances. There are hard-ass professors and even unfair ones (although I never had an unfair professor) but they are very rare and their damage is seriously limited.

I find it odd when college students claim they're going to sue professors over grades. Really? In college you're judged on the average of 30-40 (!) mostly independent grades. If you flunk a class and ace the other 35, you have a 3.89 GPA. In the real world, manager as career-SPOF is pretty much the default.

That said, I dislike grade inflation because it adds to the stress of college. If 2.0 were average, then acing a course could cancel out a failure. (When my parents were in college, a 2.5 was a perfectly respectable GPA and 3.0 was actually good.) With 3.2 as the average, flunking a course cancels out 4 As. That sucks. It makes people risk-averse and stressed out.


although I never had an unfair professor

I've only had one, and it was in a math course (something I'm usually pretty good with). First, he barely spoke english. Second, he just wasn't a good teacher. He even apologized the last day of class saying how bad a teacher he was and that everyone would at least pass. Nope, he failed almost the whole class.

I retook the class the next semester with a different teacher and aced it.


Teachers like that should be banned from education for life.


I was earning $80k at 18. No college degree, no high school diploma... Long resume and a portfolio. I worked in UI R&D prototyping field.


the 18-22 years are periods of extreme income growth for anyone ending up in a skilled field. I didn't go to school and eh, my income had a similar curve during those years. Going from unskilled to skilled is going to make your income curve look pretty goddamn dramatic for a few years, no matter how you go from unskilled to skilled.

The thing is, a degree no longer guarantees a skilled job. I know a lot of smart and well-educated people working retail right now.

Also: do not underestimate middle-class connections. As a kid I mowed lawns to make money. Middle class neighborhood in the central valley. One of the yards I dealt with belonged to the sister of an industry notable; it got me an interview. (it wasn't my first SysAdmin/Programming gig, but it certainly was the most impressive one. For years after, if I really desperately wanted a job I'd use that guy as a reference, and I'd get the gig.) During the depths of the dot-com crash? I cracked under the stress of being the only sysadmin to not get laid off, and quit without another job lined up. My dad, a mid-level IT manager at a university got me an interview with someone who had worked for him as a student who had later done well with his own company.

Those two jobs, I think, made the difference between a pretty good career and a sputtering, so-so career. And really, if I didn't have a dad and a stepdad in the field and if I didn't have computers, compilers, books and people who knew how to use such things around the house from the age of four onward, well, I'd probably have ended up with a semi-skilled career. Whatever you want to call this situation I was born into has helped my career far more than any amount of schooling could.

That said, I think you are likely right about the cultural aspects of College; No matter how rich I become, I suspect I will never fully relate as 'middle class' even though I mostly am. My social skills have suffered quite a lot; I'm probably four years behind my peers who went to school in that area. The thing is, high school is such a horrible experience it leaves you overly misanthropic and cynical. I think College softens this outlook for most people- it took some time for me to soften.

But income-wise? I don't think a degree would have bought me anything. I mean, it might be different now, just because the job market is so shit, and going to school for four years is lightyears better than being unemployed or working retail for four years; but I just wanted to say that school is not what gets you that 30+% salary increase for four years; going from being an unskilled worker to a skilled worker is what does it.

It's also possible that people born without at least middle-class connections can gain those connections by going to college; that could dramatically contribute to the value you take from a degree.


Neither John McCarthy nor Dennis Ritchie was college dropout. Steve Job sort-of was.

2 vs 1! Don't dropout!


frankly I think dropping out is retarded.

1. You get your food paid for, you get your housing paid for, you have 0 expenses.

2. Schoolwork doesn't take up a lot of effort...hell you can throw it to the wind, and coast by to get all Cs, and still graduate with a decent GPA...it might not be stellar, but at least you'll have something to fall back on

3. Dropping out is fine if you are profitable and the startup is paying for itself. But if you are still at the idea stage, or aren't making serious coin...then you are frankly an idiot for dropping out when you aren't ready.

4. Startups are a case of hurry up and wait, you can launch, and 99% of the chance, a month in, you'll be getting a few hundred hits a month. Don't throw away your backup plan for nothing.


And where does this magical free food, housing, and lack of bills come from?




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