The short answer: If you have a great idea or job lined up and staying in college would prevent you from pursuing it, you should not be afraid to leave school.
Depending on the feasibility of your plans and the goals you have in life more generally, college can either be extremely helpful or present an expensive hindrance.
Think About Your Field of Interest
You probably already know that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Kanye West all dropped out of college yet experienced great commercial success. It's easy to say so in hindsight, but those guys all had good ideas, and leaving college was a perfectly sensible choice for them to make. In addition to being preternaturally talented and capable of working very, very hard outside of a structured environment, they were entering career fields in which one can prosper without formal credentials.
Kanye West's mother, a professor, was upset when her son dropped out of school to pursue music. But she later said, "It was drummed into my head that college is the ticket to a good life ... but some career goals don't require college."
The option to forego a college education varies by career — you can’t really pass the bar or become a doctor in the United States without a degree, but there are plenty of software entrepreneurs and people working in the arts who never completed a program. For instance, Miguel Gutierrez, who left school and now lives in Brooklyn, where he makes performances, says, “I have been very lucky in that, in most cases, it doesn’t appear to have been an issue at all that I didn’t finish college. Certainly this is a non-issue when it comes to making stuff or being presented or funded. I’ve never heard of a funder or presenter saying, ‘Well, we would give you this opportunity, but where is the BA or BFA?’ They could care less. The only people who care about that are stupid university programs if you’re looking to work … at the university!”
Consider Your Parents’ Reactions and Support
Of course, you may be more worried about your parents’ disapproval than that of future employers. Your parents may very well be upset if you choose to pursue your dreams without finishing a degree first. Their disapproval should be a concern — parents provide invaluable emotional and, often, financial support. Still, surviving without your parents' encouragement or money may not be as hard as you think: Millions of people work day jobs while they pursue their dream careers, and you could do the same.
If you are truly sure that you want to leave college and not return, this is one decision in which you may have to ignore your parents' wishes. Writer Charles Wheelan, in an essay called “10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won't Tell You,” explains that parents tend to be risk-averse: "Your parents don't want what is best for you. They want what is good for you, which isn't always the same thing. There is a natural instinct to protect our children from risk and discomfort, and therefore to urge safe choices."
Evaluate Learning Opportunities Outside the Classroom
And dropping out of college is a risk — all other factors being equal, it's easier to get a job with a college degree than without one. But you can also learn things outside of college that may prove more crucial to your eventual success than what you would learn in a classroom. Tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel said, "When I started PayPal, it was like a super intense learning thing. You learn a lot about managing people, the finances [of the business], telling the story of what your company is doing — you learn about a vast array of different things.”
One young entrepreneur who won a Thiel Fellowship (a program in which recipients who leave college to pursue business ventures are provided with $100,000 awards) is quoted in Forbes with this advice: "People ask, ‘Should I drop out of college?’ That’s a bad question. The question is, ‘Are you passionate and competent at something?'" Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Kanye West obviously fit this bill.
Keep Your Options Open
Jacob Gardner, a musician and part-time political organizer interviewed for this article, took a temporary leave of absence from the University of Nebraska to pursue music, but "once I got a taste of life on the road," he said, "I couldn't go back." Still, Jacob wasn’t sure if becoming a musician would be his career choice when he initially left school, which is why he decided to request a leave of absence rather than a withdrawal. And like Kanye West, Jacob comes from a family of academics who were not initially pleased with his decision. But Jacob is now doing well as a musician, and he has a day job fundraising for a progressive political group to support himself.
Instead of dropping out of school entirely, you may want to try a temporary leave of absence and see if life outside of college is what’s best for you right now. Talk to an academic advisor or dean of students first to learn how this step would affect your credits, ability to graduate, and financial aid. (Remember that you will have to begin repaying your student loans even if you don’t earn your degree.) Because graduation rates are an important metric in calculating college rankings, schools will often try to make it possible for you to explore an alternative path and leave open the option of returning to finish your program.
In fact, you may find it valuable to take time off and then return to college if you find your goals require further education. This step could involve finishing your degree or simply picking up a few practical skills. For instance, if you want to be a contractor, you could take a welding class to learn a new skill without having to fulfill all the requirements needed to earn an undergraduate degree.
Whatever you choose to do, be sure to have a defined plan in mind when you raise the idea with your college and parents. And while it’s useful to consider their advice as well as the experiences of tech entrepreneurs and famous musicians, ultimately, this is a decision you’ll need to make for yourself.
For further guidance, find expert advice in this collection of articles that respond to the question, "Should I Go to College?".
10 Things Your Commencement Speaker Won't Tell You. Retrieved April 24, 2015, from The Wall Street Journal.
Icons of Hip Hop: An Encyclopedia of the Movement, Music, and Culture, Volume 2 (Mickey Hess, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007)
When Is It Worth It to Drop Out of College? Retrieved April 24, 2015, from Forbes.