Lately I find myself feeling like a hypocrite. On the one hand, I write about “amplified individuals”—individuals able to bypass traditional institutional structures to do almost anything: get funding for their projects through platforms such as Kickstarter, do science in garages, like Eri Gentry, founder of non-profit BioCurious, obtain health information through crowdsourcing sites such as Curetogether and PatientsLikeMe. On the other hand, when my college sophomore son and many of his peers tell me how they really don’t see why they need to go to college and sit through lectures rather than easily read the same material online at their leisure, I find myself urging them to stay in and focus on the good parts of college—finding one or two amazing professors, making friends for life, getting a credential without which it would be hard to move to the next step in life.
On the one hand there is Peter Thiel, a flamboyant billionaire co-founder of PayPal, urging young budding entrepreneurs to drop out of college and offering them $100K to do so. On the other hand is data: in the past forty years the wage ratio of those with college degrees to those without grew from 1.5 to 1.95 (mostly due to wages actually falling dramatically in non-college populations, by 12% for high school graduates and 16% for high school dropouts).
I increasingly feel that we are at the proverbial “inflection point,” with the Millenials caught between the two worlds—one world in which everything is done through institutions (schools, universities, corporations, music labels, foundations, banks) and the other in which individuals are increasingly able to put together all the necessary resources to accomplish things outside of such structures.
And here is another piece of data: since 1963 we have seen what David Autor, MIT economics professor, calls “polarization of job opportunities.” Two kinds of job categories have seen growth—high-education professional, technical, and managerial jobs on the one end and low-education jobs in food services, personal care, and security on the other end of the spectrum. Mid-skill blue and white-collar jobs, from clerical, administrative, and sales to production, craft, and manufacturing, have declined precipitously. One can easily see that a college degree is increasingly a sine qua non for maintaining a comfortable standard of living and having a meaningful job in the future.
But what is it about a college degree that leads people to better jobs and higher incomes? Is a college diploma an equivalent of a Hogworts Sorting Hat that separates our youth into two “houses” leading to two different life paths? What is this piece of paper a proxy for–ability to think critically, the fact that you managed to study and pass lots of exams, testimony that you read lots of books required to be an informed educated well-rounded adult, proof of self-discipline and ability to navigate a system, both bureaucratic (college administration) and social (dorm life and classmates)?
If you look at a college degree as a proxy, albeit not a perfect one, for all of these, the appropriate question to ask is: can you gain these abilities and skills in some other way? The answer is clearly yes. There are more choices than ever to gain many of these and other skills and abilities—you can learn online; you can reach out and connect with lots of mentors and collaborators through meetups, open meetings, and collaborative projects; you can turn museums into learning spaces, you can read a lot, practice a lot, and think a lot on your own and with others.
You can probably unbundle the institution of education, pick and choose, and cobble together a highly personalized ecology that works for you and that may be far superior to what is being offered in many college settings today. But here comes the hard part and the other side of being “amplified”—the burden falls on you. You become the master and the slave of making sure that you get all the necessary skills for becoming a thinking, educated adult. What previously came to you in a convenient package, although not necessarily in the form that you like or appreciate, is now up to you to put together. It is up to you to know what is needed, to review myriads of possibilities, and make necessary choices, to filter, analyze, review, experiment with. The “burden of choice” and the responsibility for education fall squarely on you.
So if you are up to the task, go ahead and drop out of college (if you are one of the lucky ones to be paid $100K to do so, so much better). If you are not, stay in and enjoy the conveniences and the frustrations of a greatly flawed \ system. In the best possible scenario you will be like Vineet Singal, a junior at Stanford and a social entrepreneur, who told me that he wouldn’t leave Stanford for $10 million because of the relationships with his teachers and other students. In the worst case scenario you will have a degree that for now, at least, opens doors and serves as a proxy for many people that signifies that you have completed an important hurdle and are ready take the next step in this highly volatile and unpredictable world.