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Is College Worthwhile? A Two-Time Dropout’s Take

President Biden is tub-thumping for Congress to create new federal handouts to make college free for the vast majority of students. But as Ryan McMaken and other commentators on mises.org have pointed out, college is vastly overpriced and overrated nowadays.

My view on college stems from my experience as a two-time dropout. I was frightfully bored in high school and had mediocre grades. Almost immediately after my compulsory schooling ended, my long-lost love of reading revived. A month before I began attending Virginia Tech, a kindly neighbor gave me the University of Chicago Great Books list, which became my road map to the best writings of Western civilization. Reading authors such as Montaigne, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Emerson, and John Stuart Mill awoke portions of my mind that I never knew existed. I was unaware that I was loitering in mental neutral until those classics jolted my mind into a higher gear.

Early in my first quarter at college, I aspired to getting all As. But, after a few hooey-laden tests, I recognized that professors were demanding something different than what I was seeking. Many of the textbooks felt like heavy blankets smothering my mind. I was confounded to see most fellow students never venture beyond the books professors assigned them. They acted as if a secret zoning mandate permitted using only government-approved building materials for their own minds.

I spent far more time reading old books unrelated to my courses that quarter than I did on class assignments. The more active my mind became, the less I could endure tenured droning. I believed that I was more likely to develop my potential on my own than by hunkering down in a classroom. After sloughing most of my teenage years, I felt like I was far behind mentally compared to where I should have been.

As in high school, my grades that quarter were mediocre—Bs and Cs. When I dropped out after that first quarter, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. A few months later, I decided to become a writer. My ego was more robust than the articles I submitted, and my bedroom wall was soon papered with reject slips. Just because I could read a great book didn’t mean I could write a coherent paragraph. I belatedly realized that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to learn how to write. I needed expert assistance in my fight against my literary chaos.

I side railed my swagger and returned to Virginia Tech. For the second summer session of 1975, I signed up for three writing classes and banged out six or more papers a week. For a composition class, I chose to do a series of essays on philosophical topics that made the professor want to drown me. I haunted his office hours: “What am I doing wrong here?” and “How can I make this clearer?” were my constant refrains. On my final paper, he wrote, “It’s been a long summer, Jim.” For the fall quarter that year, I took an independent study on essay writing with the oldest professor in the English Department, Willis Owen. I quickly learned that there were no excuses for turning in any paper not clean as a hound’s tooth and my prose became less tangled thanks to his critiques. He was the only English professor at Virginia Tech who thought I had any potential talent as a writer.

By March 1976, I had taken all the nonfiction writing classes Virginia Tech offered—except for the journalism classes, which I dodged like a vampire flees sunrise. I had no desire to crank out stories about fire departments rescuing cats in trees. Most of the journalism I had seen resembled dump-truck deliveries of pointless facts upon readers’ heads. I had also taken a few good courses in history, philosophy, and economics. The criticism from some professors—including some who thought I had no ability—was invaluable. Happily, I never learned to write to please college professors, many of whom were appalled by my awkward lunging toward an epigrammatic writing style.

I exited college in part because I was intensely aware of the opportunity costs of staying. I figured my talents would ripen faster in the literary marketplace than in the classroom. I knew that the burden of paying off a college debt would deplete the time and energy necessary to maximize my intellectual development. One of my lodestars was the Roman maxim: “Debts make free men slaves.”

I strove for a “pay-as-you-go” lifestyle—which wasn’t difficult in an era when many people my age lived leanly. I recognized that “cash flow” was perhaps the most important verb for a struggling writer—or anyone trying to develop their potential outside the mainstream. When my articles were rejected, I worked as a Santa Claus, Kelly Girl temporary typist, giant costumed rabbit, and census taker. Plus, I did path-breaking work at the Harvard Business School—shoveling their sidewalks after a blizzard.

Most of my acquaintances were convinced I was wasting my time, as almost all my first submissions struck out. However, in mid-1977, Paul Poirot at the Foundation for Economic Education bought a piece I wrote on “Liberty vs. Equality” for The Freeman, and that kept me plugging away. The following year, the Boston Globe published my op-ed calling for abolishing the postal monopoly. In July 1979, New York Times op-ed editor Charlotte Curtis accepted a satirical piece I wrote on “The Failure of the All-Volunteer Congress” (also available here), followed up by another NYT piece in early 1980.

After I moved to Washington in mid-1980, I was looking for work and applied to the Heritage Foundation, an up-and-coming conservative think tank. I was interviewed by a trim, mid-30ish guy who was immaculately coiffed and, despite the brutally hot Washington summer day, wearing a formal vest from a three-piece suit. He sat in a swivel chair and, after the standard pleasantries, picked up the resume and clip of articles I had sent in.

“Hmmm…. So you’ve been published,” he said almost absent-mindedly, as if talking to himself. The dude sounded like he’d carefully studied my application before the interview.

New York Times … Chicago Tribune … Boston Globe … Nice.”

When his skimming reached the bottom of the page, his face brightened with a triumphal gloat. “Oh!” he happily announced. A pregnant pause was followed by judicious raising of eyebrows to signify astonishment, if not shock and horror.

“I see that you didn’t finish college.”

“Yep,” I replied.

He tilted back in his chair, crossed his arms, and, with a condescending smirk, solemnly announced: “Mr. Bovard, you’ve got to pay your dues.”

I struggled mightily to repress a Cheshire cat grin.

“Go back to college, finish your degree, and then contact us after you graduate,” he announced as if he were bestowing the most valuable advice I’d ever receive.

I burst out laughing but preserved a modicum of decorum by not falling out of my chair. The “interview” ended moments later. If employers were fixated on degrees and oblivious to other achievements, I was as happy to ax them from my list as they were to disqualify me.

Happily, writing does not require a government license or formal certification, and there were plenty of other places to try my luck. Liberal editors were less fixated on credentials. The following spring, I sold a piece bashing teacher unions to the Washington Monthly, probably the best investigative journalism magazine in the nation at that time. I followed that up with other op-eds and later began writing regularly for the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, and many other publications. After 1983, I no longer missed meals or had to hit pawn shops to pay rent. Books later helped secure a positive cash flow.

A careful selection of college classes was invaluable to my eventual success. I appreciated that Virginia Tech let me take a “Chinese menu” approach to classes without obliging me to slog through the usual freshman courses. It is a different world now than when I chose to gamble on my writing as a college dropout. Some top media outlets are far less open now to unknown writers than in earlier decades. But there are plenty of good online venues where aspiring writers can establish a beachhead. On the other hand, if someone intends to become an engineer, architect, or scientist, getting a college degree is probably an unavoidable career step. 

Colleges have become far more expensive since the 1970s at the same time that their intellectual standards have fallen. If Biden is able to cajole Congress into passing legislation to make college free for most students, the resulting surge in poorly prepared students will further depress standards. Colleges could soon resemble the Arkansas farmer who ran his own church and, as Huckleberry Finn said, “never charged nothing for his preaching, and it was worth it, too.” But regardless of whether tuition is abolished, individuals must recognize their opportunity costs for devoting years to college—especially when many individuals could have learned far more and developed valuable skills away from the classroom.

It is far cheaper to access cultural riches now than it was when I dropped out. As Paul Graham recently quipped, “It’s strange that student debt is higher than ever at the same time that educating oneself is easier than ever.” Most of the books on that University of Chicago list are now available online for free. Many of the books on that list are not worth plowing; life is too short to torment yourself with James Joyce’s Ulysses. But that list sent me to authors who captivated my mind while reading their books. That helped me acquire the habit of sustained concentration that is vital for writing.

Another big change since the 1970s is that many colleges and students have become far more intolerant. It is vital to have a strong intellectual and moral compass developed outside the college classroom to resist the latest wokeism stampede. It is possible to learn some good things in classrooms regardless of the nearby inanity. But if students are more concerned with getting approval from the herd than with self-development, they may be beyond redemption. As the heroic Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wrote, “Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.”

Individuals with an independent mind and free spirit can treat their college years as a flag of convenience. They should recognize ahead of time that professors are overwhelmingly left leaning or hard-core leftists. But in the same way that I survived dealing with plenty of editors with boneheaded political and economic notions (sorry, no links on that one), students can survive brief encounters with professors who seek mindless submission rather than permitting healthy wrangling in their classrooms.

The key is for individuals to continue developing their own minds regardless of whether they are college students or carving their own path. Pursuing one’s dreams without a degree requires more self-discipline than “paying one’s dues” and serving four years on campus. One of Nietzsche’s best lines offers both an inspiration and a warning: “He who cannot obey himself will be commanded.”

I’m glad I didn’t loiter at Virginia Tech or anywhere else to finish a bachelor’s degree. Aside from that Heritage dude, practically the only person who ever caterwauled about my missing college degree was my ex-wife—but she complained about everything, even the beard. Among other benefits of being a college dropout: I have never been dragooned into wearing a three-piece suit.