Monday, October 31, 2011

How to Drop Out of College

Being a smart student-consumer includes knowing when and how to drop out.

College is a big expense these days.  And increasingly, we are asking 18-year-olds to make the most important financial decision of their lives, at an age when they are still popping zits, trying to get laid, and trying to sneak beer into their dorm rooms.  Kids can graduate from college with staggering student loan debts - and little to show for it.

So it pays to be an intelligent student-consumer and look at your education from a consumer point of view.  How much does each class cost?  It is well taught?  Are you getting your money's worth?  What is the point of all this?  Are you learning something useful to you or in a field you enjoy?  And if you are not getting your money's worth, make some noise - or make changes in your college plans.

Just as you'd take back a broken iPhone to the Apple store and demand a full refund, you should be equally astute with your college or university - if you are not getting what you paid for, or decide you want to change your mind.

And if college isn't working out the way you thought, should you stick around?  Dropping out of college is not some far-fetched scenario, but rather a likely outcome for about 1/3 of all college students.  And yet, few of us are prepared for, or guided through, this difficult process.

And the answer why this is so is simple:  We are taught from birth that our lives have a story arc:  get good grades in high school, ace the SATS, get into a good school, graduate with good grades, get a good job, build a career, get married, have children, retire, play golf in Florida, then die.

Well, that "story arc" model of life is bullshit, let me tell you.  Few of us actually live that way.  But the story is still told, and the underlying message of it is this:  If you fuck up, even once, it's all over for you, buddy!  You'll be a "loser" for the rest of your life!

And that is a silly message.  In most colleges and universities, as I noted, about 1/3 of the students drop out.  And the way schools handle this is a scandal.  If you go to the school administration, they talk to you in hushed tones, as if planning your funeral.  Little help or guidance is given, other than to usher you off-campus as soon as possible, lest the stink of failure infect the other children. 

And in some situations, this sort of treatment has tragic consequences.  When I was a Pizza Delivery driver and going to S.U., we had a fellow who was flunking his courses.  Rather than deal with this in a rational manner, he bought into this "story arc" bullshit, and thought himself a "failure" in life.  Too ashamed to face his parents, he jumped off a building.  What a waste!

Let me tell you, dropping out of school is no big deal.  Bill Gates did it.  I did it.  You can, too.  In fact, there is a 1-in-3 chance you will!  So instead of viewing this as some sort of horrible, unpredictable outcome, let's treat it as the realistic possibility that it is, and do it in style!

Here are some hints on how to drop out, if you want to or have to:
1.  Memorize those Add/Drop deadline dates:  You can get a full refund of tuition if you drop a course by a certain deadline date. If you sign up for a course, and feel completely mystified and flunk the first quiz, maybe it is better to drop the course and take it later, rather than pay money to get an F.

2.  Explore the "Incomplete":  I took Thermodynamics three times.  Yea, it is a hard course.  The second time, I did not take the final exam, and got an "incomplete" for the course.  As they say, third time is the charm - I aced it with an "A".  The professor who was advising me at the time noted that I hadn't taken the final the second time around and helpfully turned an "F" into an "incomplete" and also filled out paperwork to get my tuition refunded.  Professors are not all hard-asses, and it never hurts to ask if you can drop a course later in the semester and get an "incomplete" rather than an "F".

3. Don't wait for failure, take action:  If you are not happy in school and your grades are dropping, don't wait until you bomb all your courses before dropping out.  While a bunch of F's on your transcript are never helpful, they aren't the kiss of death people make them out to be - particularly when you transfer schools later on (more on that later).  However, if you can voluntarily leave, take a leave of absence, take a semester off, or whatever, it works out in your favor later on.

4.  Don't Panic:  We are all trained from High School sports that "Failure is not an option"  However, in reality, failure is not only an option, but a predictable outcome.  While you should not be proud of dropping out of Party U., you should not let it psychologically damage you, either.  You will move on in life.  You will get a job, you will likely go back to school at some point, and the odds are, you will still be "successful".  In fact, you may be more successful than if you had stayed in the program you dropped out of.

5. Don't be afraid to seek help:  Most schools have a psychology department or a health center you can go to, to get help.  OK, so maybe you are not going crazy.  But, a letter from a kind counselor at the health center might make it easier to voluntarily leave school, rather than be kicked out.  I'm not saying you should fake being crazy, but hey, if you are thinking of dropping out, I'll bet you're at least a bit depressed.   Don't be afraid to ask for help - and use it.
So what do you do after you drop out?  Well, it will suck for a while, as no doubt your parents will "get on your case" as if they never failed at anything in life*.  The secret is, of course, to get out on your own, find a job, and move on.  Use this as an opportunity to change  your life, not a chance to move back in with Mom and Dad and smoke a lot of pot.

And speaking of which, now is a good time to take a personal inventory.  And drugs and alcohol are two primary reasons why kids drop out of school.  I know it had an influence on me.  I had a friend who was a super-smart guy who would have been a fantastic Engineer - but he got caught up in pledging a fraternity, discovered that beer was his new friend, and dropped out before his freshman year was out.

Fraternities, by the way, can be evil like that.  It is easy to get caught up in the "extracurricular activities" of college and forget why you are there.  Hanging out with the guys in the dorm, or hanging out at a Frat house starts to seem to be the big deal - and studying and learning come in a distant 3rd or 4th.  The good news is, as a returning student, you will be less inclined to be distracted this way.

Going back to college is a good idea - but this time, use your experience from the first time around, and learn from your mistakes.  I re-started my college career by attending night school.  Syracuse University had a night program for "adult students" and I was able to take a number of courses, including calculus, thermodynamics, circuits I & II, as well as some non-major credit requirements (psychology).  Check out colleges and universities near you - they may have a night program or adult education program as well.

Once I had established I had the ability to get good grades, I applied to the Engineering program and was accepted.  Funny thing, but schools need warm butts to fill the seats vacated by dropouts, so they court "returning students".  And as one of the Deans told me, they need students with good grades, to keep up their own certification standards.  Once I started getting A's, they really liked me and even offered me some small scholarships.  From college dropout to Dean's list - it can be done.

There are some basic rules about "going back", however.  Usually the school issuing the diploma wants you to take at least half the courses at their school.  So they will credit you only for about two years of work for a four-year degree.  Why?  They want the money.  They ain't about to hand out a sheepskin to someone taking that last 3-credit course to graduate.  And that's fair, of course.

Dropping out turned out to be the best thing that happened to me, in retrospect - although I did not plan it well.  I was attending General Motors Institute, wanting to study automotive engineering, and being pushed, by my plant sponsor, into plant or mechanical engineering instead.

Had I "stayed the course" and "not been a failure" I would likely be unemployed today.  The plant I was working at closed within a few years after I left.  And of course, General Motors ain't doing so well these days, either.  Had I stayed there, I would likely have been laid off - or facing layoff right now, at age 51, with few job prospects.

And perhaps I realized that it was a dead-end at the time, but was too young and too afraid to take action.  After all, the "smart" thing to do would be to not quit and "stay the course" - right?  I wonder, sometimes, about the "smart" guys I knew there, who got good grades and played the game.  I wonder how that worked out for them?  I am suspecting that it was not as they envisioned.

Sometimes it pays to listen to those "gut instincts" and act on them.  But it is hard to do when you are 18 or 20 and young.  You feel that you should listen to others - and older people are often the worst at giving career advice.

So, if you are struggling in school, just plain bored, burned out, or whatever, don't panic.  Life will go on, probably better than before.  And while college may seem like the end-all right now (just as High School was, a few years earlier), later in life, no one really gives a rat's ass about where you went to school.

Well, no one except for those losers for whom high school or college was the apex of their lives.  And you don't want to be one of them, anyway.

* * *

* When I dropped out of GMI, my parents gave me a hard time about it, of course.  It was only years later that I realized that my Mother was tossed out of prep school and college herself, and that my Father had dropped out of the Engineering program at MIT to switch to the Sloan "management" school after a run-in with Thermodynamics.  The irony was apparently lost on them.

Later in life, my Dad was telling some long-winded story and mentioned that "as an Engineer" he felt that such-and-such.  I told him, "Dad, there's only one Engineer in this room, and you aren't it!"   He didn't care much for that comment, but that was the truth.   Only one lawyer in the room, too.