To some, it might seem like a strange question. If you think of being college-educated as a marker of class (or personhood), the fact that I don't have a degree at age of thirty-six (!!) probably looks like a scandalous anomaly, which it would be only natural for me to want to remediate at the earliest opportunity.

I deeply resent that entire worldview—not because I've rejected education, properly understood. On the contrary. The study of literature, history, mathematics, science—these things are among the noblest pursuits in life, sources of highest pleasure and deepest meaning. It's precisely because I value education so much that I can't stand to see it conflated with school and its culture of bureaucratic servitude where no one cares what you know and no one cares what you can do; they just want you to sit in a room and obey the commands of the designated teacher. Whereas in reality, knowledge doesn't come from "taking courses."

How could it? Knowledge comes from quality study and practice. Sure, it's possible that someone could study in order to "pass" a "class" that they're "taking" in school. But once you know how and why to study, it's not clear what value the school is adding that can't be gotten better, cheaper, elsewhere. Just get the books. (And start a blog, go to meetups, chat to large language models, hire a private tutor—whatever makes sense to get better at doing the things you want to do, without having to worry about whether the thing that makes sense can be made legible to distant bureaucrats.)

The people who believe in being college-educated probably don't believe me. They probably think my pæans to the glory of self-study are the rationalizations of a lazy student who doesn't want to work hard.

I can understand some reasons for skepticism. Sometimes people really are lazy, and suffer from self-serving delusions. Probably there are some confused people out there who have mistaken consumer edutainment for production scholarship and—maybe, somehow—could benefit from being set straight by the firm tutelage of the standard bureaucratic authority.

But without vouching for everyone who calls themself an autodidact, I think I can present third-party-visible evidence that my self-study is for real? I worked as a software engineer for eight years; I have 173 commits in the Rust compiler; I wrote a chess engine; I've blogged 400,000 words over the past dozen years on topics from mathematics and machine learning, to formal epistemology and the philosophy of language, to politics and differential psychology, and much more.

This is not the portfolio of an uneducated person. If someone is considering working with me and isn't sure of my competence, they're welcome to look at my output and judge for themselves. (And I'm happy to take a test when that makes sense.) If someone would otherwise consider working with me, but are put off by the lack of a mystical piece of paper from the standard bureaucratic authority, that's their loss—maybe I don't want to work with someone with so little discernment.

If I believe everything I just wrote, explaining why I have nothing particularly to gain and nothing particularly to prove by jumping through a few more hoops to get the mystical piece of paper, then ... why am I considering it?

One possible answer is that it passes a cost–benefit analysis mostly by virtue of the costs being low, rather than the benefits being particularly high. I'm at a time in my life where I have enough money from my previous dayjob and enough uncertainty about how long the world is going to last, that I prefer having lots of free time to work on things that interest me or add dignity to the existential risk situation, than to continue grinding at software dayjobs. So if my schedule isn't being constrained by a dayjob for now, why not "take" some "classes" and finish off the mystical piece of paper? Continuing from where I left off in 2013 due to being rescued by the software industry, I need five more math courses and three more gen-eds to finish a B.A. in math at San Francisco State University, which I can knock out in two semesters. The commute is terrible, but I can choose my schedule to only be on campus a couple days a week. And then if it makes sense to go get another dayjob later, "I finished my Bachelor's degree" is a legible résumé-gap excuse (easier to explain to semi-normies with hiring authority than "I finished my 80,000-word memoir of religious betrayal").

In short, why not?—if I'm going to do it ever, now is a convenient time, and eight classes is a sufficiently small cost that it makes sense to do it ever (conditional on the world not ending immediately).

A less comfortable possible answer is that maybe I do have something to prove.

I often wonder why I seem to be so alone in my hatred of school as an intellectual. The people who are smart enough to do well in school are presumably also smart enough to have intellectual lives outside of school. Why do people put up with it? Why is there a presumption that there must be something wrong with someone who didn't finish the standard course?

I think part of the answer is that, separately from whether the standard course makes sense as a class or personhood marker, once the signaling regime has been established, it's mostly true that people who don't finish the standard course probably have something wrong with them.

Separately from the fact that I'm obviously right that my personal passion projects are more intellectually meritorious than the busywork school demanded of me, there's also something wrong with me. My not finishing the first time at UC Santa Cruz (expected class of 2010) wasn't just a matter of opportunity costs. I also had obscure psychological problems unrelated to my intellectual ability to do the work, which were particularly triggered by the school environment (and thankfully aren't triggered by software industry employment relations). Someone with my talents who wasn't crazy probably would have arranged to finish on time for pragmatic reasons (notwithstanding the injustice of the whole system).

This makes it slightly less confusing that the system hasn't been overthrown. It's not that school somehow has a monopoly on learning itself. It's that people who are good at learning mostly don't have problems getting the mystical piece of paper granting them legal and social privileges, and therefore don't have a chip on their shoulder about not having it.

If that were the entirety of the matter, it wouldn't present a sufficient reason for me to finish. There would be be little point in proving to anyone that I've outgrown my youthful mental health problems by showing that I can endure the same abuses as everyone else, when anything I might want to prove to someone is proven better by my history of making real things in the real world (code that profitable businesses pay for, blog posts that people want to read of their own volition).

But it gets worse. It may just be possible that I have something prove intellectually, not just psychologically. In 2010, after studying math on my own for a couple years (having quit the University at Santa Cruz in 2007), I enrolled in a differential equations class at the local community college, expecting to do well and validate the glory of my self-study. I was actually interested in math. Surely that would put me at an advantage over ordinary community college students who only knew how to do as they were told?

In fact, I did poorly, scraping by with a C. No doubt the people who believe in being college-educated will take this as proof of their worldview that nothing of intellectual value happens outside of schools, that anyone who thinks they learned something from a book that wasn't assigned by their officially designated instructor is only deluding themselves.

Ultimately, I don't think this is the correct moral. (If a poor performance in that one class counts as evidence against the hypothesis that I know what I'm doing, then good or dominant performances elsewhere—including in other school math classes—count as evidence for; a full discussion of the exact subskill deficits leading to my differential equations debacle is beyond the scope of this post.)

But even if the people who believe in being college-educated are ultimately wrong, I'm haunted by the fact they're not obviously wrong. The fact that my expectations were so miscalibrated about the extent to which my being "into math" would easily convert into proficiency at finicky differential equations computations makes it less credible to just point at my work online and say, "Come on, I'm obviously the equal of your standard STEM graduate, even if I don't have the mystical piece of paper."

If that were the entirety of the matter, it still wouldn't present a sufficient reason for me to finish. Desperately trying to prove one's worth to the image of an insensible Other is just no way to live. When I was at SF State in 2012 (having endured the constant insults of three-plus semesters of community college, and my father being unwilling to pay for me to go back to Santa Cruz), it was for the perceived lack of other opportunities—and I was miserable, wondering when would my life begin. Whatever resources the university might have offered towards my genuine intellectual ambitions were tainted by the bitterness that I mostly wasn't there to learn math; I was there because I felt coerced into proving that I could join the ranks of the college educated.

But now that I've earned some of my own money (and for unrelated reasons feel like my life is over rather than waiting to begin), the relative balance of motivations has shifted. Getting the mystical piece of paper is still a factor, but now that it feels like I have a real choice, I think I can seek advantage in the situation with less bitterness.

It helps that I only have a few "general education" requirements left, which I experience as insulting obedience tests that are wholly inferior to my free reading and blogging, regardless of the quality of the professor. In contrast, I can regard some upper-division math classes as a worthy challenge. (Yes, even at SFSU. I am not very intelligent.) Learning math is hard and expensive: I can see how it makes sense to organize a coordinated "class" in which everyone is studying the same thing, with assignments and tests for feedback and calibration. It doesn't seem like a betrayal of the divine to want to experience meeting that external standard with pride—now that I'm less crazy, now that I have a real choice, now that my life is otherwise over anyway. I'm not committed yet (the admissions office is supposed to get back to me), but I'm currently leaning towards doing it.

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I still don't get why you are even considering finishing the degree, even though you clearly tried to explain it to me. Taking eight college classes is a lot of work actually? "Why not" doesn't really seem to cover it. How is doing a "terrible" commute several times per week for two semesters and spending many hours per week a low cost?

You sort of imply that someone is judging you for not having the degree but you didn't give any examples of actually being judged.

If you really really want to prove to yourself that you can do it, or if you really want to learn more math (I agree that taking college courses seems like a fine way to learn more math) then I understand, but based on your post it's not clear to me.

I think I'm judging that schoolwork that's sufficiently similar to the kind of intellectual work that I want to do anyway (or that I can otherwise get selfish benefit out of) gets its cost discounted. (It doesn't have to be exactly the same.) And that commuting on the train with a seat is 70% similar to library time. (I wouldn't even consider a car commute.)

For the fall semester, I'd be looking at "Real Analysis II", "Probability Models", "Applied and Computational Linear Algebra", and (wait for it ...) "Queer Literatures and Media".

That schedule actually seems ... pretty good? "Real Analysis II" with Prof. Schuster is the course I actually want to take, as a legitimate learning resource and challenge, but the other two math courses don't seem worthless and insulting. "Queer Literatures and Media" does seem worthless and insulting, but might present an opportunity to troll the professor, or fodder for my topic-relevant blog and unfinished novella about a young woman hating going to SFSU.

As for judgement, I think I'm integrating a small judgement-density over a large support of time and Society. The immediate trigger for me even considering this might have been that people were arguing about school and Society on Twitter in way that brought up such rage and resentment in me. Somehow, I think I would be more at peace if I could criticize schooling from the position of "... and I have a math degree" rather than "... so I didn't finish." That peace definitely wouldn't be worth four semesters, but it might be worth two.


That's ... a lot.  And a lot of extremely diffuse inferred judgments from statistical or imagined others, rather than specific people (including yourself) who will care about it.  

You're absolutely right that the signaling game has enough truth behind it that it's generally best, for most people, to just follow.  You're forgetting that you're not most people, and it's quite possible that structured undergrad education is way harder for you than for most people with your IQ.   Some will judge you for that.  Most won't care. 

On a practical side, it is a hurdle.  I dropped out of college long ago, it slowed my career by a fair bit for the first decade, but stopped mattering at all once I had significant job successes.  However, I've just changed jobs, and even with significant time with Principal and Distinguished Engineer titles, I had to get my prospective new boss to change their req to say "or equivalent experience" on the job description or HR wouldn't let me interview.  And my background check took extra time because they had trouble verifying my HIGH SCHOOL transcript. 

So, I can't answer for you.  The costs (in terms of emotional work) are likely higher than you say, but you may be enough of a different person that they're not all that high. The benefits are real, but most of them are intangible, and far more about how you think of yourself than how others see you. 

On the angle of demonstrating that you can learn the material and the skills and generally proving your math mettle: Can you study the books, do a sampling of the problems in the back of each chapter until you think you've mastered it, and then take the tests directly, without being signed up for a class?  Maybe find old exams, perhaps from other institutions (surely someone somewhere has published an exam on each subject)?  Or, for that matter, print out copies of old Putnam contests, set a timer, and see how well you do?

As someone who never entered college in the first place, I consider it a prosocial thing to make college degrees less correlated with competence.  Don't add to the tragedy of that commons!

In principle, yes: to the extent that I'm worried that my current study habits don't measure up to school standards along at least some dimensions, I could take that into account and try to change my habits without the school.

But—as much as it pains me to admit it—I ... kind of do expect the social environment of school to be helpful along some dimensions (separately from how it's super-toxic among other dimensions)?

When I informally audited Honors Analysis at UC Berkeley with Charles Pugh in Fall 2017, Prof. Pugh agreed to grade my midterm (and I did OK), but I didn't get the weekly homework exercises graded. I don't think it's a coincidence that I also didn't finish all of the weekly homework exercises.

I attempted a lot of them! I verifiably do other math stuff that the vast majority of school students don't. But if I'm being honest and not ideological about it (even though my ideology is obviously directionally correct relative to Society's), the social fiction of "grades" does look like it sometimes succeeds at extorting some marginal effort out of my brain, and if I didn't have my historical reasons for being ideological about it, I'm not sure I'd even regret that much more than I regret being influenced by the social fiction of GitHub commit squares.

I agree that me getting the goddamned piece of paper and putting it on a future résumé has some nonzero effect in propping up the current signaling equilibrium, which is antisocial, but I don't think the magnitude of the effect is large enough to worry about, especially given the tier of school and my geriatric condition. The story told by the details of my résumé is clearly "autodidact who got the goddamned piece of paper, eventually." No one is going to interpret it as an absurd "I graduated SFSU at age 37 and am therefore racially superior to you" nobility claim, even though that does work for people who did Harvard or MIT at the standard age.

I went back to finish college as an adult, and my main surprise was how much fun it was. It probably depends on what classes you have left, but I took every AI class offered and learned a ton that is still relevant to my work today, 20 years later. Even the general classes were fun -- it turns out it's easy to be an excellent student if you're used to working a full work week, and being a good student is way more pleasant and less stressful than being a bad one, or at least it was for me.

I'm not sure what you should do necessarily, but given that you're thinking about this less as useful for anyone in particular and more for other reasons, fun might be a good goal.

As it happened I think the credential ended up useful too, but it was a top school so more valuable than many.

I’m probably typical-minding a bit here, but: you say you have had mental health issues in the past (which, based on how you describe them, sound at least superficially similar to my own), and that you feel like you’ve outlived yourself. Which, although it is a feeling I recognise, is still a surprising thing to say: even a high P(doom) only tells you that your life might soon have to stop, not that it already has! My wild-ass guess would be that, in addition to maybe having something to prove intellectually and psychologically, you feel lost, with the ability to do things (btw, I didn’t know your blog and it’s pretty neat) but nothing in particular to do. Maybe you’re considering finishing your degree because it gives you a medium-term goal with some structure in the tasks associated with it?

Plainly, being able to poke holes in the idea of the degree system doesn't make you immune from the socio-emotional effects of not having a degree in a society that values degrees.

This is one of those cases where it might be useful to list out all the pros and cons of taking the 8 courses in question, and then thinking hard about which benefits could be achieved by other means.

Key benefits of taking a course (vs. Independent study) beyond the signaling effect might include:

  • precommitting to learning a certain body of knowledge
  • curation of that body of knowledge by an experienced third party
  • additional learning and insight from partnerships / teamwork / office hours

But these depend on the courses and your personality. The precommitment might be unnecessary due to your personal work habits, the curation might be misaligned with what you are interested in learning, and the other students or TAs may not have useful insights that you can't figure out in your own.

Hope that helps.

I think once you're past a certain basic level in math, it's feasible to continue learning pretty much by yourself, just download problem sets and go through them. But it's a bit lonely. Going to classes lets you meet other people who are into the same thing as you! Shared love for something is what makes communities happen, I got this idea in Jim Butcher of all places. And the piece of paper itself is also quite nice, it can come in handy unexpectedly, and getting it now is probably easier than getting it later. So on the whole I'd lean toward getting the degree.

About the philosophical stuff, I think "the world and/or my life will be over soon anyway" is kind of a nasty idea, because it makes you feel like nothing's worth doing. That's no way for a human being to be! You're not a potato! Hence it's better to act on the assumption that neither the world nor your life will be over anytime soon.

Woah. I am in a very similar circumstance. Back when I was in college, my ADHD and depression weren’t yet diagnosed and treated. As a result I never finished the last two semesters of a Computer Engineering degree. I never really cared about hardware, and really should have gone for Computer Science, but I bowed to family pressure.

I have been writing code since 1983 when I was six years old, in one form or another. Like you, I became a software engineer. I feel super lucky to be one of those people who turned their hobby into their job, while still enjoying it as a hobby. I’m constantly learning, and likely spend at least an hour or so every day reading about new systems and ideas.

Also like you, I have hit a point in my career where I am paid well, and can afford to pay for classes.

Also like you, I want to study mathematics. Those classes were always my favorite in school. I have been focusing on learning Category Theory for a while, and I’d really like to go deeper, but short of a graduate degree program, that is becoming more difficult.

So it’s got me thinking. I would love to get a mathematics degree, but really for pure person enrichment. I love my job, and where I work. I’m not trying to change careers. Since I already met all of the requirements for a math minor, I doubt it would be too much more to get the BS, and then I could start on a graduate program.

I used to be a math tutor in college, helping students learn up to Calculus 3 and differential equations. I’m out of practice, for sure, but I have retained a good bit of it. I expect that I might struggle a little with the first class or two that I take just because I’m out of practice. I’m already spending time watching lectures, and reading, so I am fairly certain that I can fit it into my life.

Yet, I keep coming back to the question, “Why?” I don’t need to prove myself. I don’t need the status. I have the knowledge and experience to get any job in my industry. I’m good at what I do.

I have only been seriously contemplating going back to school for the past year. So far I’m mostly balking at the return on investment, given the time investment it will take. My son is 13 years old, and so I likely have less than a decade before he is on his own, and I’ll have even more time.

I also am considering it as my retirement plan. I can’t imagine sitting idle. I need projects. Once I am retired, and no longer need to work, then I can spend that time on personal enrichment. Spending my golden years working on a PhD in mathematics, while making contributions to OSS sounds positively dreamy.

As long as my brain holds out, of course. My aunt died of Alzheimer’s, so that’s a possible future for me. I’m 46, and so far, and I feel like my brain is doing just fine. ADHD makes things complicated and chaotic at times, but in terms of intellectual adaptability and cleverness, I feel as good as I did in my 20s.

So yeah, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll wait until I can have a full AI tutor and research assistant, and just eschew university altogether. Maybe this will remain an idle fantasy. Maybe I’ll find a community of folks that are in a similar place, and we’ll explore mathematics in some non-traditional setting. I don’t know yet.

Anyway, I feel ya, bro. If you decide to do it, I’d love to hear how it’s going. Maybe it’ll give me the kick in the butt that I need.

That does look like a rough commute, the kind that can use up the mental energy you want to spend on learning. One thing you could consider is staying in a hotel overnight near your school sometimes.

Also, consider wearing ear protection on the Transbay Tube. I wish I had done that when I commuted that way for a year.

School degree may not be a strong signal, but it is legible. If I don't know math, I have no idea whether your math articles make sense, or you're a crackpot. If I don't know programming, I have no idea whether your commits are good. But everyone knows what "I have a degree" means. So basically, school degree is better for "impressing a lot of people a little bit", while the things you did are better for "impressing a few people a lot". Neither is strictly superior to the other.

School typically tries to teach you a lot of things. You could learn any of them much better on your own, but it is unlikely that you would learn all of them, because there is too much knowledge out there. University-educated people will probably judge the knowledge they learned at university as elementary, so from their perspective, you have many gaps in elementary knowledge, which seems bad, even if you have deep knowledge in something else.

And there will always be the question: "if you are smart enough to succeed at school, why didn't you?"

So... if getting the degree is cheap, obviously go for it.