As a bored Bryn Mawr sophomore, Emma Wigglesworth started looking for the escape hatch.
Her dissatisfaction began with the “hysterical” social scene but extended to the classroom.
“My interest just sort of petered out,” she said. “The more abstruse and intellectual the classes got, the more I was just, like, ewww. It was just sort of, frankly, masturbatory. It was an exercise that was not as exalted as it’s made out to be.”
And it wasn’t just Bryn Mawr. Even after visiting friends at other schools, “I just found their lifestyle so annoying,” she said. “I think I would have been a disaster no matter where I went—I never liked school because it was organized learning. It really was not doing it for me in a fundamental way.” But instead of taking a year off, Wigglesworth left college and began a career in Web design, finding in this infant industry the satisfaction that eluded her in college. As stories like hers become increasingly common, more students at liberal arts colleges may start to wonder just what it was they came there for.
“The Internet is doing a lot for the idea, What the hell is college, anyway?” Wigglesworth said. “What is it doing for us?” She moved to New York and started looking for work in 1997, before the Internet job market really caught fire.
“I was aware of it as an option,” she said. “I read that what you needed were skills—you didn’t need a college degree.”
She found a day job answering phones and worked evenings as an intern for smartgirl.com, a Web site for teenage girls. She picked up basic HTML skills and learned what it’s like to travel without papers in a world where the B.A. is both passport and visa.
“I remember feeling very green and very insecure and not really knowing that anybody would hire me at all,” she said. “People were still sort of trying to make me be a secretary.”
Even at smartgirl, where she had taken on more responsibility, her boss, a Radcliffe classmate of her mother’s, seemed unwilling to hire a college dropout.
“I was acceptable as an intern, but I would not be acceptable to hire as an employee—that was definitely the subtext,” Wigglesworth said. “She had given me a book—Overachieving Parents, Underachieving Children.”
Her parents, however, gave their cautious support.
“It was difficult for me to break my parents’ idea of me being another one of their wildly successful children,” she said. “My parents were Ivy League grads, my sister was an Ivy League grad. I’m sure it was really hard for them. But they never said, ‘We think you’re going to fail.’ ”
She didn’t fail. After a stint at ABC.com, in February Wigglesworth joined theglobe.com, a company that develops online communities and enjoyed one of last year’s most spectacular initial public offerings.
“It was never an issue that I hadn’t finished college,” she said, pointing out that she “presents” like a college graduate. Her résumé is ambiguous about how long she attended Bryn Mawr, and nothing in her demeanor marks her as anything but the product of an elite college. But even for someone from a less privileged background, the Internet offers some real opportunity.
Bill Scanlan, a 30-year-old Brooklyn native who works as a production manager for theglobe.com, left Edward R. Murrow High School at 16.
“I was very bored in high school,” he said. “Each semester I was coming back and starting over where I was before.”
Scanlan went to work installing phones and video-surveillance equipment before entering Brooklyn College at 21.
“A lot of it had to do with feeling that I had missed out on college,” he said. “When I took a class I enjoyed, I did well, much the same as high school.”
But he could not stomach sitting through other courses that bored him. He left after two years and worked in a Brooklyn computer lab, where he began designing Web pages.
“I loved it,” he said. “Whatever I was doing, I could immediately see results. I loved solving problems, getting it to work right.”
Like Wigglesworth, Scanlan took a chance on the promise of the Web. In 1996, he and a friend started a Web design company, but it failed within two years. Hundreds of résumés later, Scanlan resorted to working with a cigar maker and then a printing company. Eventually, a personal contact led him to a job last year at theglobe.com.
“The industry really isn’t looking for a degree,” he said. “The evolution of the technology is so quick, so fast-paced, that I feel most colleges can’t keep up.”
But Internet recruiters say there are real risks to leaving college. One human resources manager who specializes in dotcom businesses said that at a more senior level, “We want to rely on people who can complete things. At that point these things matter.”
She said others leave college with strong skills but a lack of maturity. She recalled one prospect who came to New York for an interview and, when asked what he thought of the company’s offices, compared it to “a wet dream.”
“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.
“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.”