Columbia's legacy of high-achieving alumni is just as important a part of its allure as any other of its hackneyed attractions such as Nobel-winning professors, interaction with the nation's best and brightest student minds, and of course, the Core Curriculum. At a full cost of over $200,000, a Columbia University diploma is one expensive piece of stationery. But year after year, the applications keep pouring in. The door that leads to greatness can be a heavy one—the seduction of the Ivies is the belief in the schools' leverage in getting that door open. As evidence of its greatness, Columbia boasts such graduates as Attorney General Eric Holder, CC '73, former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo, CC 1889, and folk rock artist Art Garfunkel, CC '62. But among the hundreds of influential degree holders, some of the most famous Columbians never even graduated from here. In 2004, Spectator ran a series titled "The 250 Greatest Columbia Alumni." Musician Lauryn Hill, known as both a soloist and a member of The Fugees, comes in at No. 133. However, she left the college in 1997 after just one year to pursue her passion for music. Actor Jake Gyllenhaal followed a similar path in 1999 and ultimately became No. 237 on Spectator's list. The list's top 10, however, is remarkably populated by three dropouts. Coming in eighth is 1942 CC runaway and Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac. As No. 7, renowned poet Langston Hughes probably would not be as known as he is today if he hadn't dropped out of the School of Mines in 1922. Rounding out the list of greatest would-be Columbians is Alexander Hamilton at No. 3, whose King's College degree was hindered by the incoming Revolutionary War, which put a halt on degrees from 1776 to 1786. Three of Columbia's greatest realistically might not have been had they not abandoned these hallowed halls of academia. It's not just in the Columbia microverse that we see dropouts on top. Of the three richest Americans—Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Lawrence Ellison—only Buffett holds a college degree. Besides Microsoft, multibillion dollar giants like Dell, Apple, and Facebook were all founded by college quitters. Are we seeing a trend here? I hope it's not naive to say that today most rational people see a clear progression from education to success. If not, why would the roughly 50 percent of undergraduates at Columbia not on financial aid foot the full 50-grand-a-year bill? Such a large number of influential graduates, including over a dozen U.S. presidents, has done nothing to quell the elitist ego of the Ivy League as a whole, either. The mentality is that you get what you pay for, and it's all in the name. Not to be outdone so easily, their dropout and non-attendee counterparts send a tacit and subversive message to the young folk of today, summed up plainly in the words of University of New Orleans defector Ellen DeGeneres: "I'm not saying you wasted your time or money, but look at me: I'm a huge celebrity." And for those of us who dream of Columbia as our ticket into success, whether that be stardom or running a multibillion dollar corporation, the suggestion that you can still make it big without a college degree is a lucrative alternative to four years of readings and problem sets. I can see how the idea would be tempting to some, but I personally have no immediate plans to leave behind Columbia to pursue my dream of becoming the next great who-knows-what. That's exactly what separates the successful dropout from the rest. While many of us can barely commit to a major let alone plan our lives, these beatniks left the beaten path conscious of at least some risk but with a vision and a belief that the answers weren't in a textbook. Honestly, would a few courses in thermodynamics and a SEAS degree have helped Langston Hughes write "A Dream Deferred" any better? Though the admissions office may have deemed us worthy of Columbia, many of us have yet to reach—or may never reach—the worthiness of dropout status. The raw talent may be there, but determination can't be taught in the classroom. Had Hill or Kerouac never achieved stardom, they would have stood alongside not only the many unknown college dropouts every year, but also the masses of unsuccessful and forgotten degree holders as well. "Dropout" carries a negative connotation, but with the right ambition, it could lead to more than you could do within these gates. Who knows who among us may be worthy of the title. Derek Arthur is a Columbia College sophomore. Shining Bright Blue runs alternate Tuesdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff