A typical Reed student; portrait by lafleur.
1) The permanent lesson about expectation versus reality.
I got into my dream school, and it sucked. Not because of the school, but because of me. I was completely unready to live away from home, or to handle the amount of work that college actually entails. For the month that I stayed at school, I was depressed to the point where I only left my dorm room to grab food. I attended maybe three classes, then holed up in my room, watching Malcolm in the Middle and crying.
I was eighteen, like most college freshman, but I had been a year older than my classmates in high school. I left as a junior, skipping senior year to attend Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Reed is best known for being the place where Steve Jobs tooled around before dropping out altogether. I was drawn to the “small liberal arts school” atmosphere—as liberal and artsy as you can imagine—and the rigorous academic reputation. Plus, I was desperate to get away from high school, which was intellectually and socially stultifying. (Did anyone like high school? Seriously, high school is the worst.) My admissions essay was about tattoos and spirituality. That should give you a sense of the vibe at Reed.
2) You must learn at your own pace.
Reed was great, with all the counterculture swirling around. The downside was that I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t force myself to read lengthy academic essays about ancient Greek culture and screeds on “the philosophy of the self”. Those topics are interesting, but it is hard to read complex, deep material. I didn’t have the energy. This was especially shocking to my system because I had breezed through high school. Soon I cracked under the pressure, as the cliché goes, and started falling apart. Now I can talk about it matter-of-factly, but this was one of the most painful times of my life. I condemned myself as an utter failure.
My mom drove up from California to bring me back home. Technically I took a leave of absence from Reed, but I knew that I wouldn’t return. Eventually I tried college again, this time setting my sights lower and taking a couple of classes at a local community college. Berkeley City College was definitely easier than tackling Reed, but the highest I would rate the experience would be “meh”. Two years later, AKA the present day, I am 20 years old and I’m not going to school at all.
Photo by CollegeDegrees360.
3) Experience is the best teacher. Do what you want to know.
Deciding to drop out of college, even without committing that I’d never go back ever, was a very difficult decision. I had been working on and off for a while, but I felt intimidated by having work become my main activity. It would be a shift in phases, a move closer to “real” adulthood. Like good upper-middle-class Baby Boomers, my parents disapproved, but they weren’t going to kick me out of the house.
Another terrifying factor was that a bachelor’s degree is mandatory for most jobs in my field. Never mind that you can write perfectly well without having graduated from college. Never mind that requiring an expensive “higher education” prevents many qualified people from professionally pursuing what they love. If you do manage to get a job as a writer without having a college degree, they’ll pay you peanuts just because they can. (Granted, being underpaid happens to writers of all backgrounds.) The whole system is utterly infuriating.
On the bright side, I have solid faith in my abilities. Sometimes I can convince people to share that faith. I have proved that my work is valuable simply by doing valuable work.
Photo by Britta Gustafson.
4) Commercial success isn’t the only metric. Find new priorities.
A few college dropouts become extraordinarily wealthy. New York Times writer Alex Williams ruefully explains that “popular culture [portrays] 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.” In other words, dropping out looks like a risk that pays off. I was disappointed to discover that like 85% of “self-made zillionaires” are dudes who started tech companies. Several ladies do make the list of “Whoa Famous People Who Didn’t Go To College”, among them Oprah, Lady Gaga, Coco Chanel, tech star Danielle Morrill, and business executive Susan Lynne. The College Dropouts Hall of Fame hosts an extremely long version of that list. It’s important to note that being white gives you an unfair advantage; Jamaal Abdul-alim’s essay “Dropouts Tell No Tales” illustrates the problem. Basically, being a super-rich college dropout is unusual, especially if you’re a woman, a person of color, gay, trans, disabled, etc.
I still feel guilty about the thousands of dollars my parents wasted on my brief attendance at Reed, subsequent floundering through community college, and stacks of textbooks. I wish I could pay them back, but I’m also incredibly grateful that my family had the financial resources for me to avoid student loans. I can’t imagine how much more difficult my situation would be if I came from poverty. Then again, if I grew up poor and managed to “bootstrap” myself to Reed College, I probably wouldn’t be the type of person to have a nervous breakdown. It’s hard to know, since people come from all sorts of diverse backgrounds.
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Photo via CollegeDegrees360.
5) My day-to-day happiness is better than any paycheck.
The actual experience of stopping school was mundane. Despite my lingering trepidations, it felt good. I was much happier focusing on self-directed projects that were productive and engaging. I hardly made any money—I still hardly make any money—but at least I wasn’t suicidal. “At least I wasn’t suicidal” may seem like a low bar to people who aren’t mentally ill, but for me it was revolutionary to spend more days of the week feeling normal than feeling depressed. Granted, that was also because of progress in therapy, but getting to spend my time in a way that felt valuable was important.
Assuming that I don’t go back and get a BA, I probably won’t earn as much over the course of my lifetime as someone who does have a degree. Luckily, not everything in life is about the money. In fact, nothing in life is directly about the money; money should be regarded as a means to an end. Accumulating wealth for the sake of accumulating wealth leaves a person morally and emotionally bankrupt. Working on projects that I care about, hopefully while being able to support myself, improves my character while simultaneously improving the communities that welcome me.