Skipping College: Some Don't Attend College For Reasons Other Than Cost

NEW YORK -- Shawn Brody is a high school dropout -- he just didn't see the point in all that school.

Now 24, Brody crashes with his dad in Brooklyn and bounces between construction and farm jobs, sometimes cleaning up animals on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

"I didn't think I would learn anything in college," he said. "They don't teach you how to stand up for your beliefs."

As a young man who pairs boots with leather jackets and a marijuana legalization T-shirt, he says he saw more value in self-education: attending punk concerts, anti-war protests and making (and selling) tote bags out of pants he finds in the trash. It's all on his path toward the greater goal of opening a worker-owned coffee shop.

Brody is not alone. According to a report released Tuesday evening by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, he fits into a category of American and global youth that the authors characterize as "too cool to study," a sizable group of young people who choose to skip college for reasons other than cost.

And those "cool kids," Brody says, are the same ones who are upset about their lack of employment opportunities. "We're so caught up in other s***," he reflected, describing his millennial compatriots. "They just want everything for nothing."

While conversations about college attainment and access primarily focus on affordability, the McKinsey survey shows that the young adults who can't afford to attend college have a counterpoint. Some high schoolers think they already know too much to go to college. Some of them simply aren't interested in more classes, and others don't think the degree will help them find jobs -- even when, overall, degree holders have more job opportunities.

McKinsey surveyed 4,500 young people in nine countries and found that of those within the sample who didn't pursue postsecondary education, 57 percent fit into the "too cool" category. In the U.S., that number is 34 percent. "People in the too-cool-to-study group don't believe that education matters for their future," the authors wrote. Forty percent of people who fell into that category were unemployed, and a third of those with jobs are in "interim" positions (McKinsey's sample included more unemployed youth than the general population). "This group isn't even on the highway [to economic stability]," the authors wrote.

Unemployment rates for America's young adults have spiked, but college graduates maintain an advantage. Seven percent of youth with bachelor's degrees were unemployed this October, as opposed to 20.2 percent of high school graduates with no college experience.

"What drives the too cool category can be different in the different countries," said Mona Mourshed, the lead author of the report who directs McKinsey's Global Education Practice. "In the U.S., there is greater diversity in the types of reasons." She noted that those categorized as "too poor" and "too cool" came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

While the McKinsey data shows many "too cool" kids are adrift, some are doing incredibly well. A recent New York Times article chalked the trend of "saying no to college" up to techie dropout icons like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Apple's Steve Jobs.

Justin Waldron is part of that set. The summer after Waldron's freshman year at the University of Connecticut, he started an Internet company with Mark Pincus and took a year off. As the startup grew, becoming Zynga -- known for games like Words With Friends -- going back just didn't make sense.

"I worked with people who had education from the best schools in the country, so I just absorbed it for free," he said. "Being in school is just sort of procrastinating for some people where they could be getting real experience."

Not everyone who starts off on that path immediately ends up like Jobs or Zuckerberg or Waldron. Amber Gordon, a website designer, started in two different colleges but dropped out due to a lack of practical courses. And now, working in social media, she finds it challenging without a degree. After moving to New York, she recently left a low-paying job. "It's hard for me to find a job without a college degree," she said. "I'm competing with people who have degrees."

The emergence of the "too cool" set, said Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor, is typical of the millennial generation -- but he blames the "failure to launch" on the market. "If we're going to keep giving them jobs that only last a year, they're going to keep acting like people who only get jobs that last a year," he said. "They're casting about a bit and it's much more expensive for them."

While it would be expensive for someone like Magan Tyler, 17, to attend college, she's not sweating the cost, but the value. She's now developing SwiftSharing, her own social network to help students communicate better. "I haven't been to school this semester," said Tyler, a high school senior in Longview, Texas. "School can only teach so many things."

Even though Tyler is now "too cool" for school, she does worry about the disadvantages of not having a degree. "I might want to settle down and get into a stable job," she said. She hopes that by then, the labor market will have caught up with her. "My generation is at the point where they realize [a] bachelor's degree isn't really important anymore," she said. "A lot of startups are hiring people without degrees. As more of these companies take over, the more companies will hire based on experience."

Overall, the McKinsey report sought to figure out what, exactly, is broken on the pathway from education to employment: Globally, about 75 million youth are unemployed, but employers say they can't find qualified young employees with the skills they need.

"We believe there is too much talk about the youth and the employers as though they are monolithic entities," Mourshed said. The study found a major disconnect between the education systems and employers. More than one-third of education providers told McKinsey they didn't have estimates for the job placements of their graduates. The programs that work best, the study found, feature "education providers and employers actively step[ping] into each other's worlds."

Graduation Rates Nationwide 2010-2011