Saying No to College

Saying No to College

Emily Flake
By ALEX WILLIAMS
Published: November 30, 2012

BENJAMIN GOERING does not look like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, talk like him or inspire the same controversy. But he does apparently think like him.

Benjamin Goering, in the office of Livefyre, where he works.

Two years ago, Mr. Goering was a sophomore at the University of Kansas, studying computer science and philosophy and feeling frustrated in crowded lecture halls where the professors did not even know his name.

“I wanted to make Web experiences,” said Mr. Goering, now 22, and create “tools that make the lives of others better.”

So in the spring of 2010, Mr. Goering took the same leap as Mr. Zuckerberg: he dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco to make his mark. He got a job as a software engineer at a social-software company, Livefyre, run by a college dropout, where the chief technology officer at the time and a lead engineer were also dropouts. None were sheepish about their lack of a diploma. Rather, they were proud of their real-life lessons on the job.

“Education isn’t a four-year program,” Mr. Goering said. “It’s a mind-set.”

The idea that a college diploma is an all-but-mandatory ticket to a successful career is showing fissures. Feeling squeezed by a sagging job market and mounting student debt, a groundswell of university-age heretics are pledging allegiance to new groups like UnCollege, dedicated to “hacking” higher education. Inspired by billionaire role models, and empowered by online college courses, they consider themselves a D.I.Y. vanguard, committed to changing the perception of dropping out from a personal failure to a sensible option, at least for a certain breed of risk-embracing maverick.

Risky? Perhaps. But it worked for the founders of Twitter, Tumblr and a little company known as Apple.

When Mr. Goering was wrestling with his decision, he woke up every morning to a ringtone mash-up that blended electronic tones with snippets of Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, in which he advised, “love what you do,” “don’t settle.” Mr. Goering took that as a sign.

“It’s inspiring that his dropping out basically had no effect, positive or negative, on the work and company and values he could create,” he said of the late Apple co-founder.

In that oft-quoted address, Mr. Jobs called his decision to drop out of Reed College “one of the best decisions I ever made.” Mr. Jobs’s “think different” approach to education (backpacking through India, dining with Hare Krishnas) is portrayed in countless hagiographies as evidence of his iconoclastic genius.

Indeed, ambitious young people who consider dropping out of college a smart option have a different set of role models from those in the 1960s, who were basically stuck with the acid-guru Timothy Leary and his “turn on, tune in, drop out” ramblings. Nowadays, popular culture is portraying dropouts as self-made zillionaires whose decision to spurn the “safe” route (academic conformity) is akin to lighting out for the territories to strike gold.

Bill Gates dropped out of college. So did Michael Dell. So did Mr. Zuckerberg, who made the Forbes billionaires list at 23.

Mr. Zuckerberg’s story is familiar to anyone who has seen the 2010 film “The Social Network,” in which Harvard seems little more than a glorified networking party for him. While the other Phi Beta Kappas are trudging through their Aristophanes, his character is hitting the parties, making contacts and making history. The dropout-mogul-as-rock-star meme will get a further boost with coming Steve Jobs biopics, including “Jobs,” starring Ashton Kutcher, and another one in the works written by Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay for “The Social Network.”

Such attitudes are trickling down to the small screen, too. In a recent episode of the Fox sitcom “The Mindy Project,” Mindy Kaling’s character, a doctor, grills a teenager about his plans for college. “I’m not going to college,” he tells her. “Why should I load up on debt just to binge drink for four years when I could just create an app that nets me all the money I’ll ever need?” Such tales play well in the eyes of millennials, a generation hailed for their entrepreneurial acumen and financial pragmatism. Why pay money if you can make money?

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