Dropping out

Three years ago, I dropped out of university to found Stairway. Since then, I've been asked by many considering the same thing, about how I thought about this decision at the time, and why I still believe it is one of the best decisions I've ever made.

Opportunity Cost

In England, degrees are typically three years, and four years in Scotland. That is a lot of time to spend if you don't believe it's going to put you ahead compared to getting a job or going it alone.

I feel like I've learned considerably more by starting my own company than I would have at university. On any given day, I'm working on building the product, managing the finances, having discussions with our investors and customers, and working with the rest of the team. That breadth of learning isn't possible at university, or by reading about it in a textbook.

If you're worried about missing out on the social aspect of university by dropping out, you probably shouldn't drop out.

Incentive Misalignment in Higher Education

Within Higher Education, there is a lack of clarity about why it exists. Some believe that it is to further your learning, some believe that it is to raise the next generation of researchers at the forefront of innovation and discovery, while others believe it is merely part of the path to getting a good job.

I found it hard to believe that the majority of Higher Ed institutions could provide a good experience with this confusion about why they existed.

Common reasons for attending university

One reason people go to university is to get a better job on the other side. When assessing where to go to university, people commonly look at the % employment statistics. This holds very little value, for two reasons:

  1. When universities are selective, they are carrying out a hiring process. It is no surprise that the more selective universities tend to find that their graduates are more employable
  2. There is no counter-experiment. Because an increasing number of people have felt that they have to go to university, there is very little in the way of employment data for those who would have been accepted to certain universities, but opted not to go.

I've also spoken with many people who view university as a way to figure out what they're interested in, or give themselves time - that's valid, but often goes unsaid, and isn't the only way to do this.

I've found that it's much better to do this outside of university than within: you have the ability to learn and move between opportunities faster than a 3+ year degree programme. You can make sure you are interested in a field in practice, not just in theory. I've spoken with people who have spent four years at university, only to find they didn't enjoy the work that they'd spent so long aiming towards.

The world is changing, quickly

The pace of change is increasing, and I've seen universities struggle to keep up. Many jobs that exist today didn't exist 10 years ago.

I saw this first-hand in the one year that I was at university. The content that was taught on the Computer Science degree diverged significantly from the skills that are valuable in industry.

Going against advice

Back then, much of the advice I received was telling me to do the opposite. This advice was coming from many experienced people, who I respected.

The value of a degree has changed a lot in the past decade; in the UK, the cost has increased, but I believe the perceived value has also decreased. This has changed since the time when many of those sharing advice were growing up, and facing the same decision themselves.

It can be difficult to disagree with advice you receive. It's vital that you listen carefully, but ultimately decide yourself based on your own thinking.

As an employer

I've since sat on the other side, and interviewed many people for roles in technology. Some of the best people I've worked with don't have degrees in what they're working on, or don't have degrees at all.

Beyond medicine, dentistry and other professions that require specific specialist knowledge, I believe that the idea that someone's ability in a role will be improved for having pursued a degree will be widely debunked over the coming decade, if it hasn't already.

While not going to university might not be for everyone, I believe it is a sensible option for an increasing number of people, and expect that trend to continue.

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