I dropped out of University 5 times. Here’s what I learned.

Graduation optional

Minutes before I sat down to write this article, I printed, signed, scanned, and emailed the forms that withdrew me from my university program. I dropped out. I am 29 years old, and I have just left university for the fifth time. An experience which was a happier moment than the ones that preceded it, if somewhat bittersweet. This time I made it further than I ever did before. I reached the second year after averaging a first during previous semesters. This time I even have a “good” reason for leaving.

I have attended three brick and mortar universities. This included a campus uni on the edge of a village, a city university based in London on Oxford Street, and a university in a small city by the sea. I’ve undertaken distance learning twice with the Open University. I’ve studied six different courses, and applied for a seventh I never attended. I have tens of thousands of pounds of student debt accrued over a period of ten years. I do not have a degree. Here is the story of what I learned and how I learnt it.

In 2009 I was 17 years old. I had just finished my first year of A-Levels, and university hadn’t even crossed my mind. A friend of mine had her life planned out. She had picked her university, course (Law), job (lawyer), career (judge). She scared me.

The entire process was foreign to me.I watched her explain what a UCAS form was, fear engulfed me. She was educated at a private school, where they have expectations, and they prepare you for them. By contrast, the state school I attended was one of the most deprived in the country, where they were ecstatic if you got a C in English and Maths.

I put this conversation out of my mind as soon as it was finished. I wasn’t ready to think about the end of the summer, let alone the end point of my career. And I certainly wasn’t ready to reflect on the societal differences that left my friend equipped for her career. While I ended up not only unsure of what I would do with my life but not even able to put any thought into it.

Instead I started experimenting with alcohol, cannabis, and any other drug I could get my hands on. This was until my tutor at college mandated that I attend a university fair. We were taken to a warehouse, and on my way there I finally thought about universities, or at least the swag they would be handing out at their booths.

On arrival, I moved from booth to booth, grabbing tote bags, pens, and other useless trinkets. I was unable to engage with any of the university staff when they asked me questions like “What do you want to study?” or “Where are you thinking about studying?” Well, except by saying bland platitudes like “far away from home”. However I did pick up one thing which would change the direction of my life, a prospectus for Keele University. It was different from the others I’d seen. Its dark green colour pallet stood in contrast with the more garish offerings elsewhere, making it feel more grown-up, and it had an attractive woman on the cover. I asked where Keele was (a three-hour drive from my childhood home), and just like that, I was sold. A life-changing decision made on the basis of complementary colours, a pretty face, and 158 miles. 18-year-olds can make some really stupid decisions.

In these heady last days and weeks of college, I was experimenting a lot. Not with sex, though not due to lack of trying. With drugs, which I found much more readily available. I experimented with most things; alcohol, ecstasy, mushrooms, but cannabis was the one that really caught my attention, and the only one I bought with any regularity. There was something about that warm fuzzy feeling, the way the smoke made it feel like your lungs were cuddling you from the inside. Before I left for university my friends always had the drugs, and I’d chuck them a few quid for my evening puff. When I got to university that changed. I bought a large amount to get me going until I found a dealer, and from then on I was responsible for the usage. Or better said irresponsible for my own usage.

A toke with friends became a smoke on my own in the evening, which turned into a smoke to wake me up in the morning. Before long, I didn’t feel normal until I had smoked, and that didn’t work well for me. Lectures became impossible to follow, that’s if I turned up at all. Nights that were supposed to be dedicated to writing essays became nights of syncing up a youtube playlist of Dark Side of the Moon while talking online with a friend, who was also dedicating his nights to smoking weed.

I lied above. There was some experimenting with sex before I left for university. Specifically, the month before I left for university, the night we got our A-Level results night no less I met Gemma in a club. Gemma was a nice person, and we got on well, but after a few dates she told me she didn’t want to sleep with someone she wasn’t in a relationship with. And that is the story of how I ended up in a long-distance relationship a month before I left for university. Not a decision I am proud of in retrospect, but then this is a story about bad decision making.

When I moved to university, I didn’t quit my job with McDonald’s. Instead, I transferred. During my first week of courses, I also had to start work at a new restaurant. The job was 4 miles away, and took me about an hour to cycle each way, going up some very steep hills. This left me exhausted. It goes without saying that working at McDonald’s is tough, physically demanding work, in an environment usually ruled by petty tyrants. In 2008 at least, the job was also social suicide.

So there I was, 18, a burgeoning drug habit, a job at McDonald’s that I hated, and I had just moved hundreds of miles away from my friends and family into a room that closely resembled a prison cell. I was assigned to the Z Sheds. Unconventional student bungalows that spread across an area looking more like cluster of sheltered accommodation than student digs. They lacked the community you get in traditional halls of residence, and beckoned a sense of isolation that plagued my short time spent there.

Bad Decisions 2: Electric Boogaloo

After I dropped out of university, I made five bad decisions and one good one. The good one was applying for a course at a university that was much closer to home, and then deferring that place for a year so I could get my head in the right place.

The bad decisions are as follows:

You read point 5 right. After all my careful thinking and planning, I made yet another spur-of-the-moment decision about university that would change my life. After a month of working in a nightclub, I had found it was not nearly as glamorous as I thought. It was very fast-paced, you couldn’t get drunk, the hours were very long , and not enough to make any money. Worst of all, you had to serve drunk assholes. After one particularly bad night I quit, and used the clearing period to get a place at university. I had just 2 weeks to go before the new term started. And that is the story of how I ended up moving to London on a whim.

I ended up living in Tottenham, a month after the place had erupted into riots. My mother was so pleased. I was studying Politics because I liked following politics, though I cared little for dry theory. I got involved in left wing activism and spent more time at protests than I did at lectures. The rest of the story continues much the same as my previous attempts. I smoked too much weed, failed to make any meaningful connections, didn’t do the work, and I left.

University attempts three and four were with the Open University; they have informed me my third step up to bat with them will be my last, whatever the outcome. The OU is a fine institution, one that lets people of all backgrounds, educations, and life events access university in a way that works for them. It was also the hardest university experience I have ever encountered.

More than any other form of higher education, the OU requires willpower, grit, and a huge amount of planning. As it is part-time, there is no funding available for living costs. This means that without the bank of mum and dad, or a rich benefactor, you are probably going to be working alongside it. They say you will need to spend about 16 hours a week with your studies, not much more than 2 hours a day, so how bad can it be? Well, let’s say I have the greatest respect for people who can do that, because after an 8-hour day of work, all I could make myself do was play Minecraft until bedtime.

And it’s not just the time demands. Despite the online seminars and all the other efforts, the OU wants to make the experience be similar to a brick and mortar university. It’s not. You are in it alone. With in-person learning, you at least have the option of complaining about the workload with classmates, or you are kept present by the sheer physical reality of the lecture hall. With the OU it is you, the computer, and your diligence.

My most recent attempt at university was the most successful, though not without bumps along the way. I was 26 when I started the course, soon to be 27, though this advanced age did not stop me from making a grave error in regards to my course. Looking back on my previous failures, I misidentified the reasons for them; I blamed course choice. I flung myself into a different direction, and decided to study maths. I wanted my answers to questions to be either right or wrong. Turned out, this decision was wrong. Fortunately I identified this quickly, and switched courses within a week.

I learned a lot at university, much of it being of an unacademic nature. Here are my 7 short takeaways from my experience

The most important thing a school can do is help a child envision a limitless future for themselves, and then do their best to equip the student to get there. Without that vision, any attempts at enforcing academic rigour are pointless. My school shut a year after I left, but schools don’t have to be that bad to fail children. Obsessions with league tables and exam results cause harm to many students, but not allowing children to dare to dream is an even bigger failure

2. Are teenagers really equipped to make such important life decisions?

I know I wasn’t. I rushed into decisions, made them without thinking, and simply got it wrong. Maybe this is closely linked to point number 1, but it can be extrapolated to. As a teenager, I quit jobs on a whim, bought a campervan that damn near fell apart the next day, and made decisions in my romantic life that make me cringe to this day. Teenagers can’t be told what to do, I certainly wouldn’t have tolerated it, but does society have to push such important decisions, with such long-running ramifications, into the hands of teenagers? There has to be a better way.

3. Cannabis is probably not your friend

It’s not just the academic side. I wouldn’t have been the first person to go to university and flunk the first year. The problem for me was that cannabis made social interactions impossible. Fledgeling friendships I had made over vodka and orange juice at freshers’ week were squandered as I retreated into a cloyingly green haze. I remember leaving one gathering, where three of us were smoking weed, to go smoke on my own, where I was more comfortable. It was that isolation, rather than the impending doom of unfinished essays due after Christmas, that led to me dropping out for the first time.

4. Don’t have a long-distance relationship.

I’m not throwing any shade at anybody out there who managed to make their long-distance relationship work through university, and lived happily ever after. In fact, kudos to you. However, for the majority of you, it will not work. You will spend 6 months trying, you will miss out on social opportunities to make new friends because you stayed in to call your partner, and you will most likely cheat on them on a drunken night out. Take that energy you were going to use on a relationship that would have in all likelihood fizzled out like most relationships started before aged 18, and use it on building a social network that can support you through while you experience the rigours of university life. And trust me, your grades can do without that headache.

5. If at all possible, don’t have a shitty part-time job.

Now I know not all jobs are like this. But many jobs that are open to university students are going to be the kind of fast-paced, late-hours, can-you-come-in-right-now-we-are-short-staffed type of customer service jobs, where you get little recognition for your labour, especially in terms of pay. These jobs impact your social life, they impact your grades, and for someone whose mental health is teetering on the edge they can impact your consciousness.

I’m well aware that many people out there will have to supplement their student loans with work, and I know the position you are in. Experience means a lot when applying for jobs, so I still think summer jobs are a great idea. In my experience part-time work can have a negative impact on your university life.

6. Going to university without a plan is a bad idea.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do after university. I didn’t have a plan beyond using university as a vehicle for moving to a different place. And this was the second time I went to uni without a plan.

I drifted off without a dream or even a goal. So when I got there, I had no motivation to do any work. With no career in mind, I had no end game. So my end game became finding a group of people to smoke weed with, and thanks to Reddit that happened.

7. More people should go to university later in life.

My later years had not improved my decision making, but they had helped in other areas. First and foremost, they made the time commitment of university look less intimidating. Three or four hours of lectures a day at most, then an hour of reading, and another hour or two of writing a day. All of this whenever I felt like it, with nobody looking over my shoulder? Compared to working in a crappy office job, it was a breeze.

Secondly, I just knew more things. I had almost a decade of passively learning under my belt.That meant often having a basic grasp of what the lecture was about, and having relatable life experience. My memory included events that happened when my classmates were still in primary school. All of that gave me an edge that made writing essays a little bit easier.

Third, I had grown in confidence. During my first two attempts at university, both happening before I was twenty, I felt that I had something to prove and that I had to impress my peers. I felt the pressure of being in a social system where answering the teachers’ questions might not be cool. Aged 26, I had done more things to be proud of, and have had years of love and support from a good partner, whose love and admiration has made my confidence grow. This meant being able to engage with the teaching in a way that I was not able to do in my earlier attempts.

The End

On the 21st of December 2020, I dropped out of university for the last time. (Maybe?) This time at least I finished the first year, so I have gained a Certificate of Education. And this time it wasn’t my fault. I left because my partner and I had a baby, so maybe it was a little my fault — happy little accidents happen. This time, I felt secure in the knowledge that I could do university. I got good grades, and enjoyed the course. I didn’t fail because of a lack of aptitude, or social skills, or for taking too many drugs. This time I left because of the best thing that ever happened to me, my baby. On top of it all managed to get the highest paying job I’ve ever had, in part due to the year spent at the university beside the sea.

I’ve learnt a lot along the way, I’ve gained a qualification, (though not quite the one I’ve always wanted), but at the very least I have a good answer for those ice-breaker questions.

Say one interesting fact about yourself? I’ve dropped out of university five times.

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Craig Rossiter

A spreadsheet nerd who writes about life, history, sociology, work, and politics.