I – Dropping out of high school

At some point in middle school I started to want to graduate from high school early. I didn’t enjoy school. Most subjects were boring. Lectures were uninspiring and exams stressful. But it was the subjects I enjoyed the most that were the worst. I wanted to become a physicist. And so I liked to read ahead in the math and physics textbooks. But then the lectures became even more boring since they didn’t teach me anything new. And if I made it known that I already knew the material taught, I was usually just told to stay quiet and probably seen as smug by the rest of the class. And so I spent the vast majority of class time sleeping or doodling in the back of the class.

What’s a teacher to do? Send you home until the exam? But then a lot of people would probably learn things on their own, and the teacher would be shown to be useless! Can’t risk that. Learning at a rate any different than the one dictated by the teacher is almost always actively disincentivized. And so I, wanting to know all there is to know about physics as fast as possible, found the situation quite depressing.

For some reason, I did imagine that college would be different; that the primary motivation in college wouldn’t be grades and exams, but genuine curiosity about the material; that in college you’d be treated as an adult. And so I asked a few times to skip a grade so that I’d get to college faster, but the request was always rejected by the school administrators.

By the time I had reached the end of the equivalent of sophomore year of high-school, I had hatched a new plan. I had seen that the EPFL, a Swiss university, had an entrance exam that allowed people to get admitted even without a high school diploma. I set myself the goal of studying for that exam over the summer, and then try to take it in the fall. It was a very ambitious goal, and I failed miserably.

I had this bad habit of not telling anyone about my plans. In part because failing at something no one knew I was working on felt much less scary than failing in public, and in part because succeeding at something no one was expecting seemed quite appealing. I lacked the discipline that was required to prepare for the exam, and the fact that I set myself the constraint of having to work in secret didn’t help. I wonder whether, had I told my parents about my plans and sought outside help, I might have been able to do it. I had yet to develop self-discipline, and to realize and value the importance of outside support and accountability.

At the end of a relatively unproductive summer it became clear to me that there was no way I was going to be able to pass that exam. I did, however, start to hatch another plan. I grew up in France, where the high-school diploma, the Baccalauréat, consists of a comprehensive exam over 2 weeks. It’s like the GED in the US, if everyone had to take the GED. And it’s possible to take the Baccalauréat even if one is not enrolled in high school. So the idea was to drop out, try to take the Baccalauréat one year early, and if that failed I could always try again the following year.

Despite the fact that dropping out of high-school seems unthinkable at first glance, I couldn’t find any concrete flaws with my plan that would provide a real counterweight to the potential upside I saw – one additional year of my life. So a month and a half into my junior year, (or “Premiere” in France) I dropped out of high school. It was a scary decision to take, and my plan ended up not going the way I had hoped it would, but I still feel proud of the path I chose.

A few weeks after my last day in a high-school classroom, when registering to take the Baccalauréat exam, I was met with an unpleasant surprise. In France, the French section of the Baccalaureat is taken one year early. In the last year of school, French is then replaced by Philosophy. My plan to finish one year early therefore hinged on the fact that I’d be able to take both the French section and all the other subjects in the same year. And according to my research, that was possible. However, when registering, I discovered that one had to be at least 20 to be allowed to take both in the same year. And so, finally, I had to abandon my ambition of entering university early.

Nevertheless, I stayed out of school. Which was the right decision. In the first year I ended up doing little to prepare for my Baccalauréat. I did prepare for the French exam, and learned some math and physics. But because the deadline was more than a year away, and because of my poor work ethic, I spent only a minority of my time studying. I progressively realized that the temporary rushes of excitement that usually fueled my learning outside of school weren’t going to cut it this time.

After reading a blog post on “fixed mindset” vs “growth mindset,” I also started to realize that at the core of my poor work ethic lied a perverse attitude towards work. In school, I had grown proud of how little I was working while still getting decent grades. I wanted to look smart, both to others and to myself, and so studying became something to avoid as it would be a sign that I wasn’t smart enough to get a good grade with little effort. It also gave me an excuse when I got a bad grade: I didn’t get it because I was dumb, but just because I didn’t study. This also relates to the fear of failing in public I mentioned above.

Getting from a fixed to a growth mindset was a slow journey, one I’m still on. But this alone made my dropping out worth it. I progressively learned to value work, discipline and organization. I learned to learn. And I would have never gotten this out of a normal high-school education.

This is not the only thing that I got out of these two years. I probably spent the majority of my time on the internet. When I dropped out of high-school, I was far from being fluent in English. But I thought it was important, and so I started watching English speaking TV including American satirical comedy about US politics, and so I got obsessed with US politics, started watching debates, interviews and talks on a variety of political, societal and cultural issues on YouTube. I became an avid reader of The Atlantic, regularly checking if there was any article in their top 5 that I hadn’t read yet. I started listening to English speaking podcasts, read English books.

In the beginning, I still struggled a lot to understand, and constantly had to look up words. But it took me less than a year to get to a point at which I could read long texts without the need to look up any word. In the fall a little over a year after dropping out, I took the SAT and got a 720 on the critical reading section. So by dropping out, and following my interests, I ended up learning a foreign language, which is more than anyone expects from high-school. And while all this may not have prepared me for the Baccalauréat (except for the English section), I cannot say it was wasted time either.

In my second year, I started to spend an increasing amount of time on preparing for the Baccalauréat. I started doing to-do lists, developed a morning habit, started waking up early, spent days with my laptop and phone hidden under the bed to avoid distraction. And I started making some real progress. On the whole, I probably spent significantly less time preparing for the exams than I would have had I attended high-school. But in the end I got my Baccalauréat with honors (“Mention tres bien”). It turns out, you learn faster reading and actively working on exercises and problems than sitting in a classroom all day.

These two years of near complete freedom were an almost unique education experience. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to everyone, but it did teach me valuable lessons, and allowed me to grow in ways that wouldn’t have been possible had I stayed in school.

II – Why we need standardized tests as an alternative to college

With my high school diploma successfully obtained, I enrolled at Fordham University. In college however, my dream of an educational institution that would treat students like adults were quickly dashed. I’m not sure why I had this idealized vision of academia. The fact that Fordham University had a policy of mandatory attendance for most classes, and a substantial common core, didn’t help.

But those classes with interesting material, non-mandatory attendance, and a good professor lowered my esteem for academia even more. In those cases, I typically didn’t attend lectures, just going when there was an exam, and learned on my own, often with the help of free online educational material that was far superior to anything I was getting at Fordham. So I was left wondering, why a class that would only require me to take a few exams cost more than $5k?

Another episode, among countless others, that left me wondering if college was in fact about learning occurred when I tested out of two introductory programming classes, by doing the final assignment of the second class. One thing I learned on that occasion was that to learn what I had taught myself using free online tutorials over a few months when I was 15, at Fordham one had to pay more than $10k.

The second thing I discovered was that when learning something outside of University, it doesn’t deserve credit, as despite being allowed to take upper level computer science classes, I didn’t receive the credits for the introductory classes. Had I paid to learn C++ at another university, I certainly would have received transfer credits, but I learned it for free, so it didn’t really count.

In the end I did come to the conclusion that Universities were in fact not mainly about learning. Rather, they are the arena of a zero-sum competition for signaling that favors the wealthy and hurts society as a whole. And I did end up dropping out after my sophomore year. But that is another story.

I rapidly started to wish that an exam like the Baccalauréat existed for college. Why not? It should be possible to test everything learned in college in two weeks or less. Math would be easy. Simply give a student the final exams of all 10-15 math classes a math major typically has to take. It may seem like testing a subject like philosophy might be harder, but it is far from impossible.

Have exam takers write, on their own time, ~5-10 high quality essays. An examinator is then tasked with asking questions, discussing and challenging the arguments of the essays. This, combined with a regular standardized test on general philosophical knowledge and the writing of a few essays under examination conditions should be enough to demonstrate someone’s knowledge and understanding of philosophy, as well as reasoning and writing abilities.

So why doesn’t this exist? By making these exams so difficult that at least a substantial minority of Ivy League graduates fail at them, they could become an equal or even superior sign of subject knowledge, intelligence and conscientiousness as a degree from a top University. I can see how the organization creating such exams could offer money to recent Ivy League graduates who pass the exam, and then anonymously publicize the results as a marketing ploy. Is it because passing such an exam rather than going the University route would signal non-conformity? Surely that wouldn’t be worth an almost 2 orders of magnitude difference in price.

I believe it boils down to a chicken and egg problem. Anyone trying to create such an exam would be hard pressed to find people who need such an exam. Non-college graduates who learned a subject up to a University graduate level, and now would be willing to pay to get their effort rewarded with a degree-substitute they can show employers, are pretty rare. But at the same time, the reason why no one learns a subject up to a college graduate level outside of college, is because there is no obvious path to a degree or degree-substitute and self-learning therefore becomes a seemingly pointless effort.

Arguments against college abound. 40% of University students never end up graduating, University has gotten more and more expensive, student debt has ballooned, and that while many students get degrees in subjects of little practical value. “We need more apprenticeships!” they say. I agree with these points, and have made them myself.

But there is one aspect of the disaster that is today’s higher education system that is missed by many: The fact that college is not only failing those who struggle to keep up, or have no inherent desire to learn the things taught in college, it is also failing many bright, curious and hard-working students for whom a different, more self-directed learning environment would be much more effective and enjoyable. They deserve better.

Unlike many, Peter Thiel does pay attention to those talented college students who might be better off outside of college. And thus he offers Thiel Fellowships for students to drop-out of college and start a company. But is this really the best way to demonstrate that bright young adults shouldn’t go to college? Wouldn’t getting students to drop out and then have them learn Physics or Mathematics to a graduate level, or write Philosophy papers, doing research, become a writer, prove the point much better?

An exam like I discussed above could provide the empirical evidence. The reckoning for Universities will come when it becomes evident that they are bad even at what they are supposed to do best, getting talented students to learn academic subjects. But it is hard to create an innovative alternative to college if there is no objective measure to compare it to.

It might even be possible that companies would end up preferring applicants having passed such an exam to those with a college degree. It is unclear what the difference in rigor between different degree programs and universities is. Even the difficulty experienced by two students in the same University pursuing the same degree can vary significantly. Did one manage to get all easy professors? Impossible to know. A challenging and comprehensive test, identical for all, would solve this problem.

There is one crucial question that I haven’t addressed yet. And that is the question of how and where people would study for such exams. It can be extremely hard to learn on your own, especially when all one is used to is the traditional model of education. And despite the fact that I have more experience than most with self-teaching, I still often find it quite difficult. And living with one’s parents for a few years just learning probably doesn’t sound like an attractive proposition to the vast majority of young adults.

I will address this in my next post (or the one after that), along with what I’ve been doing since dropping out of college, and what my plans are now.