Erica Lee never decided to drop out of college.
But, after her sophomore year studying engineering at Johns Hopkins University, that's what happened. She noticed that most of her older friends who had already graduated were either unemployed, underemployed, getting rejected from graduate school or working in fields they didn't care about.
They were "lost, confused and feeling like failures," Lee remembers. "It broke my heart seeing intelligent, accomplished individuals feeling unequipped with skills for success in the professional world."
Lee wanted a different fate. She packed one suitcase, left the rest of her belongings in the dorms and took off a semester in search of her life's purpose and passion.
"Sometimes you can get stuck in the trees (micro view) and can't see the forest (macro view)," Lee explained. When she started working for an internet marketing startup, she began to "zoom out and see the forest". One opportunity led to another and, before she knew it, her class of 2015 had graduated. Meanwhile, Lee founded her first company at age 21, AstrX, an international digital marketing automation consulting company she grew to six-figures in less than a year. She'd also cofounded a virtual reality education app.
Of course, she wasn't the first startup founder to drop out of college. Other examples include Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Evan Williams (Twitter's cofounder), Julian Assang (Wikileaks founder) and John Mackey (Whole Foods cofounder and co-CEO).
We hear these names--now icons--and think, "Well of course they can. They're geniuses!"
For the rest of us, college seems mandatory despite its ungodly expense. In fact, if you Google "How to educate yourself without going into debt," four of the top six results are how to pay for college without going into debt. Even Google--the lump sum of our collective convictions--says you can't get a real education without going to college and, probably, getting into debt.
Fortunately, my generation has begun to see other options.
Alex Wolf, founder of the wildly successful millennial women's brand #bossbabe, dropped out of community college after the first semester. "College didn't add up for me," she says. Her parents were college educated and worked long hours, leaving Wolf with a babysitter most days after school. She dreaded going to class and felt it wasn't worth it to wind up like her parents.
She knew there must be a way to get well educated and make money and have time for things she loved--all without going into debt.
Sure, this seems idealistic. But it's only idealistic if it's undoable, right? Wolf, Lee and countless other millennials are turning the maxim "If you want a good job, go to college" on its head. How?
Wolf started with a goal: to make a sustainable income without a bachelor's degree. "I knew it was possible to make money online, so I used that simple possibility to motivate me to figure out how to do it."
When ASSET Education founder Tessa Zimmerman graduated high school, she knew she wanted to figure out how high schools could help their students mitigate anxiety using specific tools but had "no clue how to make that happen". But Zimmerman knew that "doubting yourself doesn't get you anywhere." So she forged ahead.
Research shows that audacious goals increase energy, disrupt complacency and promote new ways of thinking, Charles Duhigg sums in Smarter Better Faster. Zimmerman and Wolf are living proof.
Armed with a big dream, Wolf "tested (and continue[s] to test) the waters and see what works, what sells, what the people want." Wolf was an only child who grew up with computers as her "robotic sibling". She learned how to use them by "clicking until it made sense."
"In essence, I used the same mindset to learn how to build a business," Wolf says. "It's possible, you just have to play around with the pieces and be patient enough until you unlock it."
Maddy Maxey, a college dropout, Forbes 30 Under 30 winner and the founder of The Crated, an experiment in wearable technology that's worked on projects for companies like Google and Zac Posen, launched her business in the same fashion. "Curiosity drives my work," she writes on her website. She told me,
Ryan Baylis, best described as a professional learner, is the star of the Degreed YouTube series Ryan Learns Something. Part of effective curiosity, he says, is knowing where to look--and when to stop looking--for new information. He emphasized that not all rabbit holes lead somewhere. "The key is to move on from the bad things as quickly as possible and keep searching."
Acquiring tangible skills without a college degree requires, "breaking away from the syllabus and pursuing topics that sound interesting to you," says Baylis.
Baylis taught himself how to edit videos when he was 12 and reads a book every week and a half. "Nowadays, you can hop on YouTube and learn anything."
While Baylis self-educates, other millennials have successfully found structured learning that costs less time and money than college.
Zimmerman knew she didn't want to pursue a traditional college education, so she enrolled in Watson University, the world's first degree-bearing incubator. There, she built ASSET Education, which imparts teachers with social and emotional tools for their classrooms, and piloted the program at Denver's top high school. "Because of the education I received at Watson, this fall ASSET will be in 11 different middle and high schools in Denver, and we're just getting started."
Lee also immersed herself in unaccredited mentorships and fellowships, including Singularity University's Global Solutions Program (GSP) and MIT's Global Entrepreneurship Program. The programs accelerated her learning curve with "business strategy and mindset transformations." "Education doesn't have to come from a traditional institution," she explains.
The real world
Part of what made the non-college educated millennials I interviewed successful is they didn't hole themselves up. Instead, they made the real world their college. "My time getting real world experience has been incredibly educational," says Maxey.
Zimmerman, like many millennials, "didn't want to sit in a lecture hall and hear about [entrepreneurship] from some professor." Instead, she "wanted to talk to the entrepreneurs who had actually done the impossible." So she did. "Reach out to those who have done it before you [and] surround yourself with young people who are challenging big ideas and turning them into a reality," she recommends.
Baylis says he's learned "the majority of [his] skills outside of the classroom in real world situations," like talking with experts in the field. It's surprisingly easy to "cold call the big time guys," he notes. Make sure to do your homework though, says Baylis, "so you don't sound like an idiot."
Unconventional education isn't for everyone.
I personally did graduate college, and it helped form my life and love for learning in un-replicable, unforgettable ways. I also didn't go into debt. If I was still paying off loans three, five and ten years later, I might feel differently.
Instead of going to college now and begging for forgiveness later, I hope my generation will consider what it really means to be 250,000 dollars in debt and whether it's worth it.
Both traditional education and self-education are options, Maxey emphasizes. "It's important to acknowledge that both are available and there are pros and cons to either decision!"
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