Meet The Startup That Convinced Hundreds To Drop Out of College.
And Why I Almost Followed Their Advice
Five years ago, University of Michigan sophomore Derek Magill walked into his school’s advising center to announce he was going to drop out of college.
Looking around the lobby, he could barely contain the smirk on his face as his peers frantically shuffled papers and scrolled through course guides on their phones
College, he told his advisor, failed to provide any value for him and wasn’t worth his parent’s money. He had intentions to fly back home and focus full time on his marketing business.
The advisor closed the door and returned to her desk. An awkward silence passed. “Derek,” she whispered, “I think you might be depressed.”
“It was a pivotal moment,” Derek told me over the phone. “I became positive about my decision to leave the second I saw her look at me like I had some sort of mental illness.”
Far from being depressed, Derek tells me he’s felt like he’s been on top of the world ever since he ditched his finals in the fall of his Sophomore year.
In fact, he’s so convinced of the merits of dropping out that he’s made it his mission to travel around the country to convince twenty-somethings to ditch what he calls “perhaps the biggest scam ever perpetrated on young people of all time.”
As the director of marketing for Praxis, a startup which trains college dropouts and high schoolers to get jobs, Derek has become one of the poster boys of a growing college “opt-out” movement.
He has directly convinced dozens of students, many of them bound for prestigious universities, to put their faith into his company’s alternative approach to higher education instead.
While dropping out of college is by no means a new phenomenon, the “opt-out” industry certainly is.
Recently popularized by Peter Thiel’s $100,000 grant program to give cash to dropouts, the industry features a number of companies which offer apprenticeship-based education to high-achieving students.
Derek’s company, Praxis, is the youngest, loudest, and most ideological alternative provider to have sprung up for high school and college students who want to ditch the four year B.A for a fast-pass ticket to the real world.
If you haven’t heard of the opt-out industry, it’s likely because companies like Praxis don’t advertise to most college or high school students.
The companies in the space have carved distinct customer bases: Peter Thiel has the Gates/Zuckerberg prodigies, UnCollege has prep-school techies, and Praxis has its peculiar mix of libertarian activists and homeschooled teens.
Despite the obvious problems with college, the opt-out industry has remained niche because most young people can’t imagine forgoing the one major achievement expected of them in their twenties.
Though I’ve never been homeschooled or a cheerleader of unrestrained capitalism, I was once just three clicks away from forking over $12,000 to join Praxis.
Shaken by the idea that the work I produced in college was meaningless, I spent the latter part of my Sophomore year on the edge of dropping out.
At the time, I had become hooked on what many internet writers aptly call the “hustle porn” subculture of YouTube. To put it simply, I was addicted to videos which preached the virtues of living like a tech CEO.
Sounds strange, but it wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t laying off my friends or exploiting labor in some far away country; I was self-improving.
I’d workout daily and run back from the gym to devour books on business and marketing. I’d skip classes and fire up YouTube to take notes on SEO, blog writing, and pitching advice.
I ended up neglecting my school obligations so much that I cut two classes and switched my major history, which demanded the least amount of credits from me.
I was, in those final days of my Sophomore year, more content than I had ever been in college before.
I was about to launch my own life, I thought, with a two-year leg up on my peers. As they spent the rest of college producing useless work for their professors, I’d be getting paid to provide value to businesses and grow my skills in a career that captivated me.
Only later would I discover that a storm of self-doubt and fear of separating from a new home would be powerful enough to reverse my new lifestyle and send me marching back to college the next fall.
When you go out into the world, there’s no structure. … A job doesn’t give you a syllabus.” -Dale Stephens, Founder of UnCollege,
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2013 that of the 30 jobs projected to grow at the fastest rate over the next decade in the United States, only five typically require a bachelor’s degree.
To fill this gap, the opt-out industry has swept in, promising students a new credential to secure in-demand jobs in less time with little damage to their wallet.
These educators have a diverse set of experiential learning techniques, usually promoting personalized instruction and a focus on teaching digital skills like online marketing, coding, and data analysis.
Though their exact programs differ, all of the companies lambast the traditional college education as incapable of producing productive adults.
A post on Praxis’s website tells readers to “Throw Away Your Resume,” and describes how little companies care about the standard achievements of college students (leadership positions, internships, studying abroad).
While this may seem counterintuitive to the average student, Praxis claims that so few of them realize “that hundreds of others applying [to jobs] have the same, or similar, resume.”
“They’ve all jumped through the hoops, played by the same rules, interned here and there. They’ve all been told their entire lives that they’re the best and brightest — their resumes speak for themselves, they think.”
For opt-outs, colleges heard students into an antiquated, uniform way of looking for work that doesn’t highlight their individual skills or personality.
Despite their careerist rhetoric, opt-out companies believe deeply in the importance of education, they just think that students learn best when they direct their own studies.
That’s why many of them don’t provide courses. Instead, they ask incoming participants what interests them. After they compile a list, they’re hooked up with experts in their fields.
Praxis offers one-on-one video chats with experts in psychology, philosophy, and literature. UnCollege pairs its participants to work with a charity of their choice and a personalized career coach. Peter Thiel’s foundation tell students “how you spend your two years in the Fellowship is up to you — we’re here to help, but we won’t get in the way.”
On his personal website, Derek asks skeptical students to consider a thought experiment. It’s designed to rope them into the idea that their current education, in terms of course material, is largely pointless.
He calls it The Dean’s Test.
Imagine you are an incoming freshman at a prestigious school. On your first day of orientation, the Dean comes to the microphone to make a special announcement. “Degrees will no longer be awarded,” he says with a smile. “School is about learning,” he goes on. “Tuition remains unchanged and students will be able to pay to take classes in their interests and desired fields like normal. Also, the entire world will follow this policy as well.”
He concludes: Do you think most students would still remain students? Would you yourself remain a student? Would your parents still tell you to stay in school?
It’s an effective message, especially in the era of sky-high tuition.
For most of its existence, college was a place for young adults to nurture their intellectual curiosity. If a company recruiter walked onto a campus a hundred years ago, they’d be driven out of the halls for trying to corrupt higher education with the nasty business of commerce.
Nowadays, anyone who is willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of learning probably isn’t too worried about their degree getting them a job. For the majority of students, however, the cost of college needs to have a clear monetary return. That’s why Derek began to market Praxis’s fairly steep $12,000 enrollment fee as a form of “net-positive” tuition.
Praxis guarantees members a paid gig at a startup after the program ends, and claims that companies are not only willing to pay it’s 18–21-year-old newbies $15 an hour to learn but are actually eager to do so.
After their six-month apprenticeship ends, students make a net profit of $2,000, a swath of professional connections, and actionable experience in their chosen field.
It’s not hard to see why Derek sometimes struggles with convincing prospective members about the authenticity of his program — in 2018 the average young person left college with $30,000 in debt and took eight times as a long as a Praxis participant to do so.
Though Derek’s “Dean Test” seems to make enough sense, common knowledge suggests that you should go to college. Common knowledge also suggests that if you do go and drop out, it’s probably not because you’re the next Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, but a loser.
Of all the criticism that the opt-outs have had to hear, the “Zuckerberg Fallacy” reigns as the most irritating. The logic of it goes like this: College is necessary to succeed unless you’re a boy-genius who is already nurturing a billion dollar startup in your dorm room. If you’re like the average college student (poor, aimless, and confused) you should probably stay because you have nothing waiting for you if you leave.
Proponents of the Zuckerberg Fallacy point to the popular statistic that college graduates, on average, enjoy more than $700,000 in lifetime earnings compared to nongraduates. The vast majority of America’s 30 million college dropouts are, statistically speaking, more likely than graduates to be unemployed, poor, and in default on their debt.
This statistic poses a fundamental challenge to the opt-outs faith in individual effort. To rebut it, they’ve swarmed the internet. “Claiming the data proves college helps you make more money is like claiming basketball helps you grow taller,” Derek wrote on his personal blog.
In other words, smarter people attend college at higher rates than the less intellectually endowed. But the most effective rebuttal, opt-outs have found, is one about opportunity costs.
If you buy the idea that students could be building a career for four years instead of studying, then this often-cited statistic fails to include the potential earnings of someone with a four-year head start.
But arguments like these, whether they are true or not, sometimes attract even more anger and criticism at programs like Praxis. What value, if any, do they find in a college’s supposedly exclusive career resources, like campus recruiters or access to a global network of alumni?
The Golden Handcuff theory, a discussion topic popular amongst those going through a midlife crisis, says that for every year you stay in a job that isn’t related to what you want to be doing, the harder it is to leave.
The money, perks, and title bumps eventually tie you down into a lifestyle that becomes very difficult to exit. At that point, age and family start to become serious factors, limiting opportunities to change your career and start from scratch.
If there’s one massive advantage of being an opt-out, it’s the freedom of knowing that you are, at a very young age, already grinding your way into financial freedom.
Your peers, however, attend schools which tend to pigeonhole them into a select few careers, which makes entrepreneurial alternatives seem risky, low-paying, and dangerous in comparison to the stable six-figure role at a brand name corporate.
Some 50–70% of students graduating from Ivy league schools enter “the six”: finance, management consulting, law, medicine, Teach For America, and graduate school.
According to Andrew Yang, CEO of Venture For America, “we sometimes joke that smart people are doing six things in six places. If the strength of our economy and society was determined by the academic excellence of our coastal professional service providers, we’d be in great shape.”
On most of America’s prestigious college campuses, there seems to be a palpable lack of awareness to the variety of ways one can make a living in the new economy. On-campus recruiting, if you go, is pretty much a who’s who in professional services.
The Harvard Business Review, in a series of articles lambasting the ubiquity of recruiting, observed that recruiters “have become such a deeply entrenched part of life at top schools… that they have been referred by students and administrators as “the deluge,” “the onslaught,” and even “the path of least resistance.”
Former Yale professor Bill Deresiewicz recently published a book, Excellent Sheep, which argues that elite college students are being trained to advance and compete with little regard for higher concerns.
“When you take ultra-competitive students and place them in an environment where they can compete for prestigious spots in these six sectors, it’s no surprise when they do. Even students who once dreamed of becoming poets or business leaders tell themselves after two years, ‘I’ll go do consulting for a year or two, and then try something different’.”
Some sixers do end up trying something different once they’ve been spit out of the machine, but many do not.
Colleges recruit students on the premise that they will mold them into the person they were destined to be. But it seems students who once had the potential to churn out world-changing products now suit-up to construct credit default swaps and PowerPoint decks for layoff-happy hedge funds.
Even Peter Thiel cited this as inspiration for his un-college grant program. “For the privilege of being turned into conformists, students pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in skyrocketing tuition that continues to outpace inflation. “Why are we doing this to ourselves?”
Most college students think that they plan for their futures, but in reality, many are solely planning on landing their first job instead of deliberately thinking about their lives: how they want to live, where they want to travel, who they want to surround themselves with, and how to achieve financial independence in the long run.
Opt-outs, on the other hand, seem to practice relentless optimization. They pride themselves on nailing every hour of their daily schedules to some form of self-improvement. Activities which don’t inch them forward in life are axed.
But they aren’t workaholics; meditation, reading, and working out are as common in the opt-outs schedule as cold calls and freelancing.
Studies show that most millennials in entry-level careers want to work for themselves or leave their current job. If most students, like the opt-outs, relentlessly optimized their life while in college, would they have found themselves on a more suiting life path off the bat?
As Derek put it, “oftentimes the best opportunities, and incidentally the easiest ones to get, come from businesses that you’d never see doing any traditional recruiting.
“The truth is that most companies can’t afford the time and money it costs to recruit on campus. College students get funneled to the same opportunities and those opportunities thus become highly competitive.”
But recruitment’s ills don’t just linger as a mid-grade anxiety in college and disappear upon a successful exit. Many opt-outs believe they extend into the real world by softening employees into thinking like drones and searching for now non-existent hoops to jump through.
Zak Slayback, a founding member of Praxis and drop out of Penn, tells his clients about the necessity of “unschooling” oneself before even thinking about making it in the world of entrepreneurship.
In his view, the habits developed in school serve as obstacles to free thinking and creativity. “These little habits — waiting for assignments, looking for obvious rubrics and the way to the next level, feeling a tinge of resentment to those who get ahead when you are the one who has put in more time/work/has more credentials.”
To Zak, thinking like an opt-out starts with accepting one simple truth: “The world owes you nothing except for the value you create within it.”
If colleges really “brainwash” students into laziness or if it isn’t even necessary to start a career, then how much value should be placed on its social life? Are opt-outs discounting the value of college friendships, where 18–21 year-olds have a unique opportunity to meet other young people from diverse backgrounds and party every day with them
It’s a question that I asked Evan Le, a 23 year old former Praxis participant left the program early to live out his final year at USC.
I’ve been following Evan’s blog since my Sophomore year; he used to post daily to thousands of subscribers about every detail of his opt-out life. We were shooting the shit as he FaceTimed me from an outdoor cafe in USC.
The sun radiated through the screen as students walked past with longboards and frisbees in hand. It reminded me of the anger I once felt when I was rejected from this hometown school, where I was a double legacy and eager applicant.
I brought up the weirdness of Praxis’s program being mostly homeschooled teens and libertarians, and we got talking.
“I was raised in a public school and these homeschooled kids, who were like 17, haven’t seen enough of the world,” Evan tells me.
“You get that when you go to college. It’s not a bad thing, but the Praxis kids just haven’t been exposed to that.”
We paused. Then he added, “Dude, I don’t know if this falls outside the scope of your article, but like when I joined Praxis, I was like one of the only Asian kids.”
“So it was mostly white?” I asked.
“Definitely. They’re uh, I dunno, maybe more likely to take that risk to opt-out. The whole new-age white folk thing of ‘let’s try a new thing for our kid’ doesn’t exist in Asian parental culture.”
I laugh, asking him how he felt about it. I’m expecting criticism of Praxis’s culture, maybe even an accusation of racism, but Evan’s response seems fitting for someone who was recruited by Praxis at a libertarian economics seminar.
“Part of the whole reason I joined Praxis was cus, like, I wanted to prove that minorities don’t need [college]. We can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.”
“But I did sorta miss school,” he confesses.
“You have a lot of access to people when you’re here. The social thing is very important for kids our age. At Praxis, that was the hardest challenge they tried to get over. Occasionally we had a yearly meet up, but I found myself wanting to connect with these people so much more.”
“It was cool, I guess, but it was nothing like face-to-face getting to know people. That’s the best part about being in close proximity with people your age.”
“So if Praxis had that, would you have stuck with it?” I ask bluntly.
“Ohh, yeah. If they learned how to give that to everybody, I think that would be key right there.”
I’d later find out that the main reason Evan stayed was out of a sense of obligation to his parents. They were never comfortable with him opting out, and with the thousands they had already sunk into his three-year education, he felt compelled to ride the rest out, for their sake.
I thank Evan for his time and jump back on another call I had scheduled with Derek. I mentioned my conversation with Evan and Derek responds with a light-hearted jab at the ex-participant. “Yeah, screw that kid,” Derek laughs, “He blinked.”
Many parents love to tell their kids that college was “the best four years of their life”, but what accounts for that? Many adults who say this don’t self-reflect on why that seems to be the case.
From what I can gather from my own friends and family who used to tell me this, it’s usually because they left an exciting party-town for a job they just sorta stumbled into. It seems like they forgot to plan for their own path toward an interesting life which set them up for disappointment upon graduation.
Of course, the adults that I spoke to grew up in a different time; no internet to make it easier to work remotely, research alternatives, or gradually build an online business. And the “go-go” culture of the 80’s made corporate ladder climbing one of the top priorities of yuppie 20-somethings. Most of the jobs they flocked to hitched them to a supervisor and lengthy workweek.
Compared with the constant interaction most college students have, the “live for the weekend” ethos of professional adulthood seems like a miserable downgrade; it’s no wonder why so many adults succumb to the thought that they left the prime of their social lives.
But even today, many students treat college like a booze-cruise sailing toward the safe island of entry-level employment. They fall hook, line, and sinker for the “C’s get degrees” adage that students at a school like the University of Michigan can get away with saying.
When I made the decision to come back to college I promised myself that I’d approach it differently than the typical cynical student.
I had a plan to adopt what I thought were the two strongest elements of the opt-out/stay in debate. I’d treat school the way it was meant to be — as a sprawling exercise in intellectual curiosity — and hustle on the side to build my portfolio and wean myself off traditional recruitment.
Two years later, I can safely declare the experiment a “good try”: honorable in its intention, but modest in its achievements.
I’ve managed to craft a decent portfolio in marketing and journalistic writing but fell short in my attempt to romanticize my education. I didn’t engage in passionate debates with classmates, hit up professors in office hours, lazily stroll through graduate libraries, or join any honorary societies. I didn’t enroll in the classes I wanted, I chose the ones I thought were the most impressive.
Slowly but surely, I found myself slowly drifting into the cynicism I once was so proud to rally against.
A week before the add/drop deadline to enroll in courses this semester, I remembered that I hadn’t audited my transcript in over a year. In a moment of panic, I realized I needed to fit two more humanities credits into my semester in order to graduate on time.
I went to an advisor and left with a last-second enrollment in SLAVIC 301, a two-credit mini-course on Ukraine’s history.
I told myself it would be an easy A.
It’s my last day in my last “pointless” class. I walk in twenty minutes late and grab a seat in a crowded corner of the room.
The place is arranged in such a way that only half of the students are actually facing the lecturer at any given time, with the sixty of us parceled into a dozen separate desks.
No at my table bats an eye when I sit. A guy to my right grabs his backpack and darts out the door the moment our teacher turns toward the projector.
A few minutes pass.
Another guy at my table walks out and returns promptly with a bag of skittles in hand. “Want some?” he asks no one in particular. Two don’t reply or notice, their heads buried behind notebooks, ostensibly hiding their phones.
Enjoying the ridiculousness of the moment, he whips out a TI-84 calculator and notebook, plugging away at some math homework.
I give him a nod in solidarity, flashing him my own notebook of journaling and writing I’m working on to pass the time. It’s the only way I can stay sane in classes like this; I need to know that at least some of the minutes in this class will have been spent on my own interests.
Our lecturer is a short and hairy man with a knack for swearing and turning lengthy tangents into crappy jokes. He hits a key on his desktop and our screens turn to display the chiseled face of a Ukrainian war-criminal.
“Anyone think this guy has the worst buzz cut ever?” he asks. “I mean, I’m no fan of the death penalty, but I’d be there for this guy’s summary execution!”
The joke falls flat but manages to wake a few of us up due to the loud delivery. At my table, a girl slowly sinks her head back into her arms, clutching a cup of coffee in her right hand as she nods off.
If opt-outs had a better image of college, I don’t know what it would be.