It's a question I get all the time. Those who know me know that I dropped out of film school at Hofstra University after my sophomore year and moved to L.A. two weeks later. Why did I do it? Would I tell others to do the same?
The quick answer is that it truly depends on your own circumstances. The decision to drop out should never be college-related. It should be solely about analyzing your own preparedness to move forward and your ability to succeed. The typical stay-or-go conversation is almost always based on the obvious truth: A film degree is worthless. Its true that being without one will probably never be a deal-breaker in your career, but the value of a film degree is the least important factor.
Here are the blueprints to deciding your college fate - Lets get right into it:
FILM SCHOOL PROS:
Your peers - The other students in your program will soon become your colleagues; An already built network of (most likely) 100 or more young & hungry individuals like yourself. These are the people who you will collaborate with, who will bring you onto projects, refer you work. Some of these kids you will develop strong relationships with, and their network will become your network. Don't be surprised when Johnny Whatshisname becomes a writer on your future favorite television show.
The internships - The best internships only accept applications from college students. These internships will open up the inner-workings of legitimate production, professional behavior, the proper procedure. Not to mention introductions to working professionals and obvious job leads. College dropouts don't get this luxury, as I learned after moving to Los Angeles.
Structured life - You may hate it now, but its the thing I miss most about college. The weekly routine, the responsibilities to others, the built-in workflow and requirement to engage with others. These not always enjoyable, but they are so important. Structured life, even in a school where you may not be happy or feel challenged, is a time in your life that you can focus on self improvement and your creative process. Don't think that free time and no schedule will boost the personal productivity you feel deprived of in college. The inertia of college life enables us the energy to better ourselves and hone our skills.
Mentors - Being in a structured environment allows us to build relationships not only with our peers, but our professors, most of whom have a lifetime of experience and connections that they are more than happy to share with students who engage with them. Their advice and perspective can shave years of challenge off the grind of your early 20's, and allow you to far surpass the head-start of a naive college dropout.
FILM SCHOOL CONS:
Expense - The cost of college is crippling to most middle-class families, and the reality of college debt, especially against the risk of a low-paying production career can be overwhelming. If finances are a struggle, don't feel guilty including that in your consideration.
Bad Programs - Sometimes we feel that our school is not challenging or failing to prepare us for modern day Hollywood. Consider that you and your peers will be likely be unfairly critical of your school, but the feeling of not getting your money's worth out of college is concerning and valid.
Degree Value - As we discussed, a degree itself may be worthless, but remember that this is not the reason a filmmaker goes to film school.
REASONS TO DROP OUT OF SCHOOL:
Trajectory - This is by far the most important consideration. Unlike everyone's "hopes and dreams," a trajectory is a realistic look into our future by reflecting on our past. Have we completed work? Have we released it? Was it successful? How has our work ethic, attitude and understanding of commitment helped us or hurt us? What have we achieved in the last year? What does that mean we're capable of in the next? Studying your trajectory will show you if you're prepared to move forward in your career based on what you've already accomplished.
Recognition of ability - The reason I was confident in dropping out was because I noticed that strangers were recognizing my work; I was already getting opportunities in Los Angeles, multiple films had gone viral, etc.
Is your work getting high viewership online? Published or reviewed by reputable sources? Awards from prestigious organizations?
Are strangers reaching out to you? Is your work affecting them? Are they offering their time, resources or money to help you? *Friends and family don't count.*
Are you getting consistent calls for work? Making a living wage doing work in film?
Support - Do you have the support system you need to take the next step in your life from family, friends and peers? Remember - There's a difference between support for you and support for your decisions. Loved ones who don't support your decision to drop out may be bringing in perspective that you are not considering, and their opinions should not be written off as uninformed or non-understanding.
Connections/Work leads - If you have connections or work leads, you already have in your back pocket what most film students go to film school for.
College relationships - Have you fully developed relationships with your peers to a point where you will remain in touch? Remember, they may be staying in school, but in five years, a handful of these kids will be having the jobs, the friends and the resources that you need.
Preparation for the struggle - Are we prepared to get a normal job to cover our expenses? To potentially move away and start fresh? To fall and pick ourselves up a thousand times, over perhaps years and years of our lives?
REAONS NOT TO DROP OUT OF SCHOOL:
The college dropout "Badge of Honor" - It feels like a rite of passage for us artists; the notion of dropping out of school and moving to the big city. Its glamorized and fun to tell people, but that in and of itself will do absolutely nothing for your career. We look to successful dropouts as inspiration, forgetting that their decisions were based on their own trajectory and solely their trajectory (as discussed above).
Disliking School - Whether its a bad film program, struggling to make relationships or being stuck in liberal arts classes, disliking your school is less of a reason to drop out, and more of a reason to transfer.
Confidence - My feeling is that as important as confidence is to following our dreams, it can also be a false indicator of preparedness. It is absolutely possible to be confident and have incredible ability while still needing more time to hone your skills.
Eagerness - We're all excited to make moves in our lives. We're excited to put things together before reading instructions, we're excited to play games before learning the rules. Its human nature, but as the saying goes, patience is a virtue. Never has patience been more important than preparing yourself for a lifelong journey of hustling in the entertainment industry.
Classroom confinement - Its very true that you cannot confine film education to a classroom, or even a capstone film. The best education is through real world experience, but college does not deprive us real world opportunities in tandem to our college education. Internships and summer jobs should supplement the necessary on-set experience.
So, you've looked at the pros and cons, applied the reasons to stay and reaons to go to your own life, and you've come to the conclusion: I want to drop out of school. The process needs to be done carefully, with months of consideration and preparation.
THE RIGHT WAY TO DROP OUT:
Keep your plans private from your friends and peers- The scariest part of dropping out is the fear of failure (or at least it was for me). If people don't know your plans as you consider your options, you won't have to worry about disappointment or returning your college dropout "Badge of Honor"
Develop a plan - What is your long term goal? Your short term goal? Break your short term goals into step-by-step plans that aren't contingent on replies or help from others. Keep the short term goals attainable, and recognize that failure to achieve them may result in returning to college.
Put feelers out - Contact the people in your network. Ask if you can meet for coffees, or if they have resources that may be helpful to you.
Begin the hustle pre-dropout - You don't need to wait until you've dropped out of school, and your network doesn't need to be confined to current contacts. Search the web for contacts introduce yourself. All writers, directors and producers have social media. Keep things professional, don't be overbearing and be careful about asking strangers for resources; People don't like to feel used.
Seek support from parents or mentors - This is incredibly important. If your parents do not support you dropping out, find a close mentor or elder whom can support your decision and provide you a safety net in times of need, even if its simply the permission to contact them at any time for immediate advice in difficult situations.
Segment the process - Don't drop out and move to L.A. in one fell swoop. Get a summer sublet in New York or L.A.. Make some friends, do a few gigs for free, and reanalyze at the end of the summer. If you're still confident in your decision, take a semester off, and then another, and then another until your school no longer allows you to do so. It's not until then that you truly will need to make the decision to cut ties with school.
This process allows you to test the waters carefully and efficiently. Before officially dropping out of school, reevaluate your trajectory once more; It will surely have changed. Acknowledge the short term goals you met and failed to meet, and base your final decision on what you've accomplished in your time off from school, not what you believe you can moving forward. Remember, you're not going to be a big shot in under a year or two, but if you're struggling to make money, create work or find gigs you can be passionate about, returning to school is not failure - It is a step toward success through a path different than the one you had hoped for. There is no shame in that. None of us are making it the way we thought or hoped we would.
You may have noticed a bias in my writing - One that encourages staying in college altogether. That's not the case at all. At the end of the day, its impossible to know whats right or wrong when making tough life choices, but our instinct - that inner voice designed literally for our survival - is the best guide we have. Listen to it.