Log On . . . Drop Out?

The Dotcoms Come Calling—Diploma or No

"I just kind of stopped in my tracks," she said. "This is why we want people to be a little bit more mature. We didn't hire him."

So is college just an exercise in cleaning your plate? Is all you really learn in college how to behave like a college graduate?

Wigglesworth dismisses college as "a playpen for young people while they're in that messy transition phase from moving out of their parents' house and moving into society," but others have faith in its inherent value.

Webheads Scanlan and Wigglesworth never finished college.
photo: Carla Gahr
Webheads Scanlan and Wigglesworth never finished college.

"I really wanted to finish. I still believe in a liberal education. It's separate from Web stuff," said Parul Singh, a senior at Harvard who worked for a Web design company this summer.

David Lehn graduated from Harvard in June and works in the Boston office of Razorfish, a Web design powerhouse where, he said, a degree still matters.

"There are very educated people here—a good number of people have graduate degrees. There's no proof that they [dropouts] are disciplined, capable, and motivated," Lehn said.

"Everyone talks about Bill Gates—that's the great example of someone who didn't finish college, right? But no one talks about [Microsoft president] Steve Ballmer. He finished Harvard, and he's still the fourth-richest man in the world."

But credentials matter less at start-ups, and Harvard students have been flocking to them. Singh said she knew of at least a dozen students who had left Harvard to work for Internet start-ups or to start their own. To retain these students, Singh said, some Harvard deans are pushing for a technology center.

"[Leaving college] just doesn't seem to be such a huge step anymore. It's something that the administration is really worried about," Singh said.

For her part, Emma Wigglesworth has just one regret. She went back to Bryn Mawr this spring and sat under a tent watching what would have been her own commencement. She admitted to some eye-rolling during the spectacle—"It's basically to make them feel that they've spent their hard-earned dollars on a worthwhile thing"—but said she realized she had sacrificed something very real.

"Your education becomes your social framework," she said. "I knew that I was giving up a big social thing. They have a social network that I will never, ever have."

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