Dropping into the real world

More education equals more opportunity, right? Young college dropouts say no.

Alex Franke had it all planned out. He was going to dive back into the academic scene.

In January 2011, the plan was to go abroad to London in the spring, return to SU in the fall and take a couple television, radio, film courses. He had his London classes picked out, his roundtrip ticket booked and his suitcase packed.

But a week before he was supposed to leave for London, Franke had what he called his “movie-like epiphany.” He picked up the phone from his Jersey City apartment overlooking Manhattan, and dialed his parents’ number back home in Milburn, New Jersey.

Photo: Christopher Azar
The average yearly salary for college graduates is almost twice as high as that of non-graduates.

“Don’t pay the tuition,” Franke said to them. “I’m not going to London anymore.” ­

Franke dropped out of college. 

To leave, or not to leave

Our parents always told us going to college is the final “to-do” before the real world begins. Eighteen years of schooling have taught us education is the most vital tool you can have under your belt. So the social stigma surrounding the idea of “college dropouts” still strikes a nerve in American culture. It makes us squirm a little when we learn that someone’s dropped out. Higher education is part of the standard of-course-you-do-it equation: school plus college equals success.

But when young people stray from those parameters, the words “college dropout” stick like bits of old chewing gum, whether they had a choice to drop out or not.

In the past year, the United States has fallen behind other countries in the number of young people who have obtained bachelor’s degrees. Once the leader in education, the U.S is now in 12th place – behind Russia, Canada, Korea and Japan. On average, college graduates can earn up to $60,954 a year, as compared to the mere $33,618 for those without a college diploma.

In a time of financial turmoil and the highest unemployment rates among college graduates, advocates of higher education are wondering: why would someone want to drop out of college, if they had the choice to stay?

The Los Angeles Times ran an article, “College: Expensive, but a smart choice,” in August 2011. Writers Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney argued for higher education.

“The more education you obtain, the better off your job prospects and future earnings,” they wrote.

Some students have no choice.

No matter what, college dropouts face one of two paradigms: there are those who had to drop out and those who chose to leave.

A study in self-determination

Franke falls in the middle. His decision to leave was at first – like many dropouts – a financial one. The end of his sophomore year in 2010, his parents informed him they could no longer afford his tuition.

Once completely dependent on his parents, Franke now had to learn how to support himself. He decided to take a leave of absence from school, moved back home to Milburn and snagged a day job at a restaurant mopping floors covered with urine and eventually, waited tables.

“I still can’t decide which was worse – scrubbing other people’s piss and s–, or becoming a waiter and serving them their food,” he said. “I think I actually preferred the restrooms.”

But a semester passed, the economy turned and school became an option again. By this time, he had made some hard cash from the restaurant and got his foot in the door at COUP Entertainment, a small production company in New York City. He grappled with whether he should return to school or stay put at his job, where he was already working and making connections in his industry.

Franke ultimately decided school no longer proved to be necessary with what he wanted to pursue and continued working at the small production company – writing and editing commercial shorts. He said dropping out boosted his confidence.

 “I guess I wanted to make a decision for myself,” he said. “This is my life right now.”

The cost to schools

Apart from the financial perks college graduates receive when they are awarded their diplomas, when students drop out, colleges and universities are also affected financially. Because both the federal and state government put aside a certain amount of grants and loans for students who need financial support – when those students drop out and decide not to return – the governments have to overcompensate to make sure universities continue to thrive.

Kaye DeVesty, Director of Financial Services at SU, asserted that the office’s main goal is to inform students of their financial status when they decide to drop out. Most of the time when students arrive at their office, they have already decided what they will do, she said.

 “You’ve got to love the program, fit in on campus, learn and grow, and lay out what it costs,” she said. “Students may still decide it’s not for them.”

Their job at financial services, DeVesty said, is not to convince or change the students’ mind, but rather let them know the options they can take in case they ever wanted to come back, transfer out or remain dropped out.

When students decide to leave school, the university recommends that they take a “leave of absence,” instead of terminating their enrollment. Every student who leaves negatively affects the university’s cash flow.

Between 2003 and 2008, states appropriated close to $6.2 billion to 4-year colleges and universities to help pay for the education for students who did not return for the second year, according to a October 2010 Fiscal Times article. And the federal government spent approximately $1.5 billion on grants for students who did not continue their sophomore year.

In a national setting, statistics show each year, one out of four students who enroll in a university will drop out after their freshman year. The first-year student retention rate for universities across the board is close to 70 percent. The other 30 percent falls through the cracks – the forgotten few who fall into the abyss.

A chosen struggle

Keith Smith is now “Sir Jove.” And he’d like you to address him as that, please.

Smith dropped out in February 2011 as a second-semester junior, after what he considers a long, treacherous bout of “soul-searching.” Known for his top hat and bright purple vests with nothing underneath, Smith a.k.a Jove, considers himself an artist in every sense of the word.

Jove’s story is a peculiar one: he received a scholarship close to a full ride from SU and was accepted as one of the 35 students into the Bandier Program at SU, class of 2012. Since freshman year, Jove knew making music was the be all and end all. There were no other career paths.

“Adults don’t get it, when you tell them you would rather starve and suffer for art, than work a nine-to-five,” he said. According to him, being a full-time artist is the most liberating thing Jove’s committed himself to.

It can’t be ignored that there is a romantic implication in the idea of college dropouts. The list of famous dropouts goes for miles: Steve Jobs, Maya Angelou, Woody Allen, Patti Smith, and Bob Costas.

New York magazine’s recent piece, “The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright,” alluded to the insignificance of a college degree. The author’s friend Sam attended a top college, taking $50,000 in loans along the way.

The author Noreen Malone quoted him: “I have a lot of regret about going to college,” he said. “If I could go back again, I think I’d try … not going to college.”

Jove had, in his own words, his “f– the world” moment.

“I was burnt out, not going to class but still doing well,” he said. “I realized, this is bulls–. Am I staying here because I want to be here? Or am I just scared?”

When Jove felt he wasn’t being challenged, he stopped going to class. After losing interest, he began spending more time reading on his own, hanging out in coffee shops and making music.

 “It’s all just a piece of paper anyway,” he said.

Nowadays, Jove goes wherever inspiration strikes, he said. After he dropped out, he moved out to Chicago with his best friend for a couple of months, before traveling back to New York City to perform with other friends, always bunking on an open couch or floor.

Jove said it’s the happiest he’s been creatively since he’s dropped out. He’s writing, painting, and looking for an agent to represent his talent. But he’s been hit financially, but depending on the kindness of strangers and friends. He currently sleeps on a couch in Syracuse.

He doesn’t fret though; Jove is pretty certain his romantic life as a starving artist will be worth it. 

For many, leaving school before graduation equates to giving conventional wisdom the middle finger. It says that school isn’t necessary to have a viable career.

Maybe not going to college will be the thing to do in the next decade.

“I’m going to have the last laugh,” Jove said.

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