Should I drop university?
April 1, 2011 3:56 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a huge dilemma-- should I drop university and pursue a hot new start up or should I persist and finish the degree?

So, a bit of background:

I have been a network engineer for 10 years and have recently gone back to school to study. Recently, I've gotten involved with a new business venture and have been thrown into the heart of the start up scene. I still have at least three years of university left and will probably have to shell out another $100,000 in fees to complete the degree. I'm studying solar energy at the moment and while I find it to be an extremely topical and useful thing to have, I am not feeling engaged in school and I feel like I learn much more my extra curricular activities.

So long story short, I guess I need to ask, what is the intrinsic value of the degree? What might I be missing if I decide to drop? I've been grappling with this issue for months and a decision needs to be made soon.

I hope some of you brilliant people out there can shed some light on this problem!

posted by wandergeek to Grab Bag (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a little unclear... you're currently working on your undergrad degree correct? I think that the value of the degree would be dependent on 1) whether you are going for your undergrad or if you already have that and are now going for an additional graduate-type degree degree, and 2) how relevant solar energy is to the type of business you want to conduct.

Also, if getting that diploma is important to you, does your program allow you to be enrolled as a part-time student or can you take just night classes? OR alternatively, take a semester off to work on this new business venture and then assess whether continuing your coursework would be beneficial or just something you just plain ol' miss studying and/or whether you can balance being a part-time student with working full time in your particular industry.
posted by lovelygirl at 4:11 PM on April 1, 2011

Neither the degree (nor the loans) are going anywhere. If you would like to have the startup experience, go have it.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:24 PM on April 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

My school made it insanely easy to drop out for a year and come back if you wanted to. You might be pleasantly surprised if you go talk to the Undergraduate Dean or whoever is in charge of such things at your university. It sounds like you don't immediately need the degree for your career to take off, and it seems like you'll regret not taking this opportunity to be involved in the startup. So, go for it!

(I withdrew for 2 terms in order to go on a camping trip ... No big deal, just needed like 2 signatures.)
posted by Metasyntactic at 4:30 PM on April 1, 2011

There's no absolute intrinsic value to a degree. I'm speaking here as someone with multiple higher ed degrees in different areas.

However, people do talk about the value of a degree in terms of what value it has for what you want to achieve, however defined (knowledge, money, doing what you want to do, etc.). Also, doing a degree can be fun, especially the more advanced you get. However, you have to be 110% committed, in order to get the maximum benefits out of it.

To me it sounds like you really want to do this start up, but feel a bit guilty perhaps about quitting school; and if you were s student of mine, I would probably advise you to do the math carefully, but if there was nothing obviously bad on the horizon, then to do start up. You can always go back to school later. FWIW I think solar engineering is a terrific area to be in; it's not going to go away. So you can always go back later.
posted by carter at 4:43 PM on April 1, 2011

I've been in your situation...twice. In both instances, I've made the decision to go with the startup, and enjoyed both experiences tremendously.

Unless you feel like you've been there/done that with regards to startups, I recommend that you try it out. I'd attempt to make sure that it'll be easy enough for you to come back to school, though, if things don't work out.
posted by haykinson at 4:48 PM on April 1, 2011

Income is better than increasing debt.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:53 PM on April 1, 2011

Should I drop university and pursue a hot new start up or should I persist and finish the degree?

If the degree is successful, you may someday be invited to participate in a hot new startup. If the hot new startup is successful, the university will definitely be there when you get back.
posted by mhoye at 4:55 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

High tech is one of those arenas where a degree really doesn't matter THAT much, until you start getting really high up there. If you made it 10 years without having a degree, I think you can put it off a little bit longer without the world coming to an end.

Especially in this economy, I agree with Chocolate Pickle. It's better to be earning money than digging yourself a bigger financial hole.
posted by ErikaB at 4:57 PM on April 1, 2011

No, you don't drop out and close the door on going back. Instead, you take a leave of absence, leaving the door open when you are ready to return and finish the degree.

Bill Gates have been on leave from Harvard College since the late seventies. This is also the case for Michael Dell at the University of Texas at Austin.
posted by jchaw at 5:11 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

An UG degree only in solar energy? That seems odd to me, remarkably specialised for an UG programme.

I run an UG programme in renewable energy and I think it sounds like you should look into interrupting your programme.
posted by biffa at 5:11 PM on April 1, 2011

I went with the startup. It eventually crashed and burned but I learned much more in the process than I could have in a classroom.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:11 PM on April 1, 2011

9/10 start-ups fail. On the other hand you can always go back if things don't work out.
posted by delmoi at 5:52 PM on April 1, 2011

Go for the start-up.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 6:02 PM on April 1, 2011

what is the intrinsic value of the degree? What might I be missing if I decide to drop?

On one hand:

* The experience of a university education may be as worthwhile a consideration as the degree. I'd recommend reading commencement addresses by Bill Watterson and David Foster Wallace that among other things, serve as reminders that higher education (ideally) isn't just vocational training / generic workforce prep. Your feeling that the extra-curricular activities are contributing more to your experience may not just be a feeling. Participating in a university community isn't just about the coursework.

* School often gets hard to return to over time. It's not just that there's almost always something else competing for your time and attention, the older and more self-assured and cantankerous you get, the less inclined you are to put up with a certain amount of hoop-jumping and condescension and BS that are often part the path to a degree.

* There are some people who see degrees as milestone credentials that separate the wheat from the chaff, or at least as a mark of someone who can handle a certain amount of study and discipline and hoop-jumping.

On the other hand:

* Good startups aren't just jobs. They're interesting experiences in and off themselves. I've worked for a handful, never quite at the "center", but they've all taught me worthwhile things, introduced me to interesting people, and I consider them valuable education as well.

* The credential may or may not be meaningful in terms of securing future opportunities. It's only one of many things you can show people you've done, including being at the center of a successful enterprise.

* Time value of money. If you can be earning doing X now instead of spending on Y, you'd better have a good idea that the return on Y is going to be better than X plus returns you could get from reinvesting some portion of X elsewhere.

Overall, my own opinion is that the people who are saying "school will be there later" are probably right. The chance to be in the thick -- let alone at "the heart" -- of something cool, interesting, and profitable right now is probably worth postponing your education. If it's really important to you, you will find a way to return. If it's not, you'll save yourself some trouble.

But that's kind of an "on paper" thing. If after you've thought all this out, you do a gut check and feel like participating in the university just feels better right now, that's fine too.
posted by weston at 6:04 PM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

9/10 startups fail and you will not be allowed to advance beyond a set point in any given company without a degree. Furthermore, when the startup fails you will not have the credentials to move into another job. So, if a short term excellent paycheck beats out long term employment viability, take the startup position, otherwise stick with the degree.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:04 PM on April 1, 2011

Call the Uni admin office and ask for a deferment. Usually you can tale a semester off without dropping out entirely. When your company fails in 3 months you can go back in the fall.
posted by humanfont at 6:43 PM on April 1, 2011

I remember when new company called Netscape was all the rage prior to going public. I toyed with the idea of trying to get a job there but stayed in school for another decade and now make (a secure) $56k a year, not including summer teaching.

In retrospect, I have no idea what I should have done.
posted by mecran01 at 7:05 PM on April 1, 2011

Can't you work and do school part time?
posted by anniecat at 7:40 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seems like deferment is a good idea. Also, $100k? That is a considerable debt, even with an engineering degree.
posted by instantlunch at 8:58 PM on April 1, 2011

If you don't finish, you didn't go. That's all.

A degree is an indicator that you can make a long term plan and see it through. If you can prove that otherwise, you don't need it.

It also rounds you out and assists, but does not assure that you have a degree of cultural literacy in areas other than your work. It's a foundation. If you have the foundation (and there are presumably a number of lists available to test your foundations) then you might not need the expansiveness the degree offers.

Not sure I'd want to equate myself with either Mr. Dell or Mr. Gates based on the criteria of whether they went to college successfully. The more common story is that if you don't have a degree as a baseline, you are more likely to resemble the cashier at the grocery store, or the somewhat successful small business owner who thinks he knows everything because he manages to generate an income reliably.

It's not magic and there are lots of folks in history without one. Perhaps a good way to answer the question for you is for you to answer the same question to your child about the intrinsic value of high school, when there are compelling jobs available at Sears. Not quite the same in details, but similar in structure to your query.

Personally, I'd get prep out of the way before cooking. It makes for better dining.
posted by FauxScot at 9:52 PM on April 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Go for the start-up. Not only can school be placed on hold (unlike a job opportunity), but if you make some contacts in the field you will get a better understand of what degrees are required versus useful versus a waste of time.
posted by amicamentis at 3:59 AM on April 2, 2011

Well, knowing what I know about startups, I'd actually say get the degree. Not for the degree, but for the education; solar engineering is a fairly specialized field that will only become more important in the future. Even a tertiary understanding of geopolitics would tell you that. But engineering disciplines are easier to learn in school settings, not from independent study.

That said…

I am not feeling engaged in school and I feel like I learn much more my extra curricular activities

If you aren't keenly interested in what you're learning, don't waste your money getting a degree. These days everyone has a B+ B.A. from somewhere. The pool of competition for mediocrity is just too big these days to earn a decent living. You're going to have to want to be fantastic at something if you are going to want to get ahead.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:21 AM on April 2, 2011

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