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5 Reasons Why Dropping Out Isn't as "Cool" As You Think It Is

Posted by Ellen Chisa '10 on Sep 18, 2015 3:24:00 PM

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In technology, there’s always buzz around “dropping out.”

After all, lots of high profile people have done so — Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Alexa von Tobel. Peter Thiel encourages people to drop out with the Thiel Fellowship. Tess Rinearson wrote a thoughtful piece on what a “dropout” is supposed to look like — and how most of us don’t fit that mold. (I do not look like that).

This is not what dropping out used to be. It’s rarely about leaving high school. It’s definitely not about your parents needing you to work and support the household. It’s not about having a child, but no childcare.

It’s a new, optional, trendy type — and only available to a few people. The media likes to glamorize it. It turns out that even this type of dropping out is not as cool as it seems, and it’s not as big of a deal as most people think.

I’ve done it twice, and went back to school once. The first time, I left Olin College after my second year of undergrad to have a startup with friends. It failed, and I went back and finished in one more year. Because my college experience was “four years” (three of college, one of dropping out) people rarely realize it even happened. This time, I’ve left HBS after one year to work at Blade Travel. I have the option to go back anytime in the next five.

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1. If you are dropping out because it’s trendy, you are doing the wrong thing.

I cannot say this enough. The “dropout” status does not matter.

People think it’s important because the common belief is that education needs to be linear. It isn’t. One of the courses I got the most value out of was an information design course at UW (HCDE511). It isn’t part of a degree, a certificate, or anything else I have done. Likewise, there are engineering classes I got very little out of that count towards my degree.

Learning doesn’t happen in formal degrees — it happens in experiences. I believe overtime the world will shift to align with this idea.

In the meantime, the people who believe unconditionally in the current system think you can’t drop out. They are wrong. It’s about a calculation of risk and benefit.

The people who think it’s better to drop out believe that it’s always better to flaunt the system. Flaunting the system is not equally available to everyone, and they are also wrong.

Dropping out is not about what other people around you think you should do. It is about what is best for you. It is not a decision by committee. You should know what you’re hoping to achieve by dropping out. If you do decide to drop you, you need to make that decision alone.

2. The best thing you can do when you drop out is “go on leave.”

People seem to think there’s a huge difference between “being on leave” and “dropping out.” In either case, you stop going to class and stop getting resources based on your educational institution.

Forget the people who tell you it’s not really dropping out. They usually haven’t done either and have no way to know. Leave gives you option value. If what you dropped out for goes really well, that’s great, and you continue being on leave until it expires — and drop out forever. If it doesn’t, you can still go back. There’s no glory in closing a door when you don’t need to.

The number of hoops you have to go through depends on the institution — at Olin I remember it being quite a bit of work. At HBS I just emailed one PDF. If possible, I will aways recommend starting your drop out process by going on leave.

3. Seriously, you need health insurance.

Figure out your health insurance before you commit to dropping out. I wasn’t too worried about it the first time (I was 20 and healthy), but my parents insisted. With the wisdom of more time, I’m glad they did.

If you’re taking a full-time job, you should get benefits, including insurance. Hooray!

If you’re under-26, figure out how to stay on your parent’s insurance (if they can let you). The rules were different when I did that the first time, but my parents helped me figure out a way to make it work.

If that’s not an option, and it wasn’t for some of my friends, in certain states there are specific, inexpensive plans for young people. We were in Massachusetts.

Another way, if you have one, is through a partner. For example, at many technology firms you can get “opposite-sex domestic partner insurance.” Tom has allowed me to be on his insurance twice so I could pursue the career options I wanted.

These are the things I’ve found, but I am sure there are more. It isn’t worth dealing with the hassle after you’ve committed.

4. Think about your finances.

Another big consideration is finances — both yours, and if you’ll be working and living with others — theirs.

The first time I dropped out, there was a group of six of us. Three had relative financial support (parents, savings) and three did not. We were working on a startup, and had no income. It caused a lot of tension. We had a lot of conversations you wouldn’t expect:

Who cleans the bathroom? Is that a household contribution that helps alleviate financial burden? Does a Swiffer quality as a necessity? When is it okay to deviate from the typical grocery list? How warm can we keep the house?

The practical tension was detrimental to us working together on what we really cared about: the company we wanted to start.

Figure out how much money you’ll need for a year and how to budget it. This sounds obvious, but if you’ve never lived on your own before (like if you’re in a dorm and on a meal plan) — you want to think carefully about it.

On top of that, look into your student loans. Will you have to start paying them back if you drop out? How will you go about doing it?

5. The “fun” part comes last.

If you don’t have the patience to deal with the logistical side of dropping out, you also won’t have the patience for the day-to-day of dropping out. There’s a lot of stuff that isn’t glamorous.

That said, once you do get the logistics right, solidify the fun part:

  • What do you want to work on?
  • How do you work best?
  • Where do you work best?
  • What are your goals for this year? Next year?
  • What are the different things you may try?
  • What can you do with this freedom that you couldn’t do while in class?

The first time I dropped out I wrote a 20 page document detailing everything I wanted to do. I probably did half of it, but was grateful I’d created a plan. This time it is a lot more like returning to my working life before HBS.

Regardless, know what your goals are. If you do decide to take the plunge…

Good luck!

Ellen's post originally appeared on Medium on September 14, 2015

Topics: innovation economy, engineering education

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Insights from Olin's Educational Laboratory

Ideas, methodologies and experiments designed to further the revolution in engineering education. Posts will feature ideas and topics that are forward-thinking and top of mind for Olin College of Engineering President, Richard Miller, our alumni and several of our faculty members.

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