Luke Jacobs: Turn on, tune in and drop out?

Tuesday, September 26, 2017 - 6:01pm

Last year, I had what could be called a mid-college-life crisis. I switched my major four times, sliced my schedule down to eight credits and decided self-teaching was more valuable than going to class. I even considered dropping out of college.

While making a dramatic exit excited me at first, I decided to take a skeptic’s approach to college. I began to research alternatives. I found a vocal community of college dropouts — or, as some refer to themselves online, “opt-outs.” I read the rants of frustrated students that sounded just like mine at the time. Frustrated by required courses, irrelevant material and the slowness of academia, they pondered leaving for the fast-paced freedom of the real world. They loved the idea of learning, but wanted it on their own terms. 

A cocktail of crushing debt, competitive admission standards and a shift in skills needed for jobs in the new economy has led many critics to question the value of going to college. With the advent of online programs and the development of alternative credentialing, students now have greater choice in whether to attend a university or to go to an alternative institution. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2013 that of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next decade in the United States, only five typically require a bachelor’s degree. To fill this gap, the alternative providers have swept in, promising students a new credential to secure these new jobs in less time with little damage to your wallet.

These educators have a dynamic set of unconventional, experiential learning techniques, usually promoting personalized instruction, and focus on teaching 21st-century skills like online marketing, coding and data analysis. Some lambast the traditional college education as deeply antithetical to learning. According to Dale Stephens, founder of UnCollege, “When you go out into the world, there’s no structure. … A job doesn’t give you a syllabus.”

I caught up with one such company, Praxis, when I began questioning college. Praxis is run almost entirely by college-age opt-outs. Derek Magill, head of marketing for the startup, was a particularly enthusiastic ex-Wolverine, a Classics major who shunned Homer’s “Iliad” to train opt-outs like himself for jobs in the new economy. Magill’s frustration wasn’t sudden like mine — once head of the University of Michigan’s Young Americans for Liberty club, he sued the school for discrimination in funding of student groups before opting out.

While conventional wisdom holds that college molds you from a naive adolescent into a capable adult, Magill disagrees. He believes students party too much, make fake friendships and brag about being chronically behind on their studies. As he put it on Quora, instead of forging their way through their lives, “they actively sought opportunities to avoid class and patted themselves on the back for selecting the easiest classes.”

The research seems to back him up — his gripes have actually been quantified. In their book “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that 45 percent of undergraduates at 24 institutions showed no significant improvement in a range of skills — including critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing — during their first two years at college. Derek wouldn’t be surprised; this was just evidence of students memorizing material to maximize their grade point averages instead of truly absorbing knowledge.

Yet many students are, rightly, bound to disagree with these sentiments. College is often regarded as a time of self-discovery, providing a space to test out a diverse array of interests with a safety net to fall back on. Unlike a job, where responses to failure are harsh, college lets students retake classes and lean on the support of similarly aged peers struggling with the same issues. This unique opportunity in a young person’s life should be cherished, not attacked as a naive false reality.

As disgruntled students tune in to opt-outs’ messages, more and more will drop out of the system. Until then, however, the opt-outs have an uphill battle to wage against one of the most ingrained societal expectations of young people.

Agree or disagree with the opt-outs’ conclusions on college, they do make valuable points about the changing nature of our economy. While students focus on attaining the best academic and extracurricular experience, they should dedicate equal time to independent projects that build their portfolios in whatever they want to do once they graduate. This could mean coding a new app with friends, publishing content online or interning at a startup.

In today’s economy, students must build experiences independent of their college in order to signal employability to others — degrees alone won’t get you a job like they did for our parents. This doesn’t mean get the cookie-cutter, coffee-fetching internship at an accounting firm — it means build things in the real world.

Luke Jacobs can be reached at lejacobs@umich.edu.