Between 2008 and 2012, Guillaume Dumas took courses at some of the best colleges in North America—Stanford, Yale, Brown, University of California Berkeley, McGill, and University of British Columbia, among others—without being enrolled as a student. He then went on to start a successful online dating business in Montreal.
For four years, the 28-year-old from Quebec lived the life of a wandering scholar, moving from one university town to the next, attending lectures and seminars, getting into heated debates with professors. Sometimes he was open about his unregistered status, but most of the time, fearing reprisal, he kept it quiet. To pay for his everyday expenses, he worked at cafes and occasionally earned money by writing papers for other students. He lived at co-ops or other cheap student housing, but at Brown, when funds got particularly low, a kind soul let him set up his sleeping bag and tent on the roof. At the end of all this, he never received a degree.
It was a wild adventure, but to Dumas, it was also a political statement, meant to send a message. "I think of it as an act of political protest," he tells me, in his French Canadian accent. "I was angry at how university education excludes people who cannot afford it. What happened to the belief that sharing knowledge and great ideas should be free?" Attending these universities without actually graduating from any of them was also a kind of experiment to figure out what, exactly, a university degree can get you in life. Do Ivy League graduates get top jobs because of the piece of paper they leave with, or because of their connections? And if a college degree is just an expensive ticket to a job at McKinsey or J.P. Morgan, do students really even care what they are learning in the classroom?
While Dumas is now a strong critic of the higher education system, he first started campus hopping around North America because it seemed like good fun. His parents were never keen for him to attend college in the first place: they both started working right after high school and ended up becoming small-business owners. "My mother got it into her head that I should become a butcher," Dumas tells me. "Her friend’s son was a butcher’s apprentice and he seemed to make good money. My father thought I should become a lumberjack in rural Quebec." He’s happy he didn’t take his father’s advice, because the forestry industry in Canada has been tanking for years.
Instead, he applied to LaSalle College in Montreal and got in. "I started college like every other 18-year-old," he says. "It’s what I thought I had to do." But, like many other 18-year-olds, once he got there, he felt restless and unsure of what he wanted to do with his life. He couldn’t decide on a major. He liked taking psychology classes, but he was equally drawn to physics and philosophy. College tuition in Canada is partially subsidized, so he was paying about $4,000 a year for his education—a fraction of what American students pay—but he still felt it was an enormous waste for him to be spending money working through his indecision. (He is not alone—just ask Peter Thiel.) So, he left LaSalle and started dropping in on classes at McGill University, down the street. "It was so easy to look at the course listing and then just show up for a class," Dumas recalls. "I thought, Why couldn’t I do this at other schools?"
He saved up to travel to the U.S. where he attended schools on both coasts: Yale and Brown, then Berkeley and Stanford. And he wasn’t just interested in what was happening in the classroom; he also wanted to see what social life was like on campus. "I’m a pretty sociable, friendly guy, so I was invited to parties," Dumas says. "People just thought I was another student, so I just sort of went incognito."
And there’s another thing about Dumas. He’s fascinated with Frank Abagnale, Jr., the greatest impersonator of our time, who assumed at least eight different identities including that of a pilot, a doctor, a U.S. federal agent, and a lawyer. (Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed this character in the film Catch Me If You Can, which came out two years before Dumas started college.) When Dumas was hatching his plan to crash colleges, he was enthralled by the possibility that he could walk into any campus and blend in with the other students there. Seeing how far he could take the ruse became a kind of game to him. He picked up some valuable lessons along the way. For instance, showing up for a course at the beginning of the semester draws a lot less suspicion than showing up later on. Also, it is always better to keep your unenrolled status a secret, because you can never tell who will be sympathetic or hostile to a freeloader. Dumas was surprised that a professor of socialist history at U.C. Berkeley, of all people, was incredibly upset upon discovering his shenanigans.
Dumas does not regret any of it: he has learned a lot and his lack of degree has not hurt his career in any way, since he has gone on to become an entrepreneur. Here are his main insights.
Dumas stops short of recommending that other people also crash elite colleges. "I freely acknowledge that this is not for everyone," he tells me. For one thing, there are some careers where a professional degree is a prerequisite, such as becoming a physician or a lawyer. But Dumas also believes that society has overstated the value of a degree. There are many industries where what matters is your output. For entrepreneurs, freelancers, and tech workers, demonstrating what you are able to produce is far more valuable than where your degree is from—or whether you have one at all. "There are so many famous dropouts in the tech world—Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg," he says. "It seems crazy that even people who plan to become entrepreneurs or developers still obsess about where they will get their degree."
Degrees tend to matter more to big corporations with human-resources gatekeepers that vet resumes. But the economy is increasingly moving towards independent employment, in which people run their own businesses or offer services, like graphic design, consulting, or writing to other organizations. Today, 34% of the American workforce is self-employed, and by 2020, that number is expected to go up to 40%. Given the incredible cost of higher education, Dumas argues that a degree is not a worthwhile expense.
And speaking of expense, Dumas notes that U.S. college tuition and fees have gone up 1,120% since 1978, which is four times faster than the inflation rate. The average cost of attending a four-year private college could go up to $334,000 by 2018. At the same time, college graduates are not getting jobs. Dumas was crashing at colleges during the height of the recession, so he saw generations of recent graduates face a harsh job market, where many ended up either underemployed or unemployed. And since then, the problem has only gotten worse. In 2008, over 35% of college graduates were underemployed and by mid-2013, the number had risen to 44%.
One reason that elite colleges are able to charge so much is because they give people access to a powerful network of alumni and other bright, ambitious students who may go on to do great things with their lives. Dumas gets it, but he insists that it is possible to gain access to all of that without having to pay for it. He took the time to make friends in the classroom and at campus parties. In his conversations, he revealed himself to be an interesting, thoughtful, and pleasant person. As a result, he has built a community of friends that will be a valuable network throughout his career. Dumas insists that anyone can build lifelong relationships with smart, interesting people outside a campus environment; all it takes is going out to different social events, conferences, lectures, even bars, and taking the time to get to know people. After all, part of the reason that college students make friends easily is that they force themselves to be social, since they are away from home for the first time. Outside of college, the principle of leaving your comfort zone to make new friends can yield the same results.
Dumas loved being in a classroom, doing close readings of important works of philosophy and literature, and debating big ideas with students and professors. "There is nothing like the culture of the university," he says. "Being exposed to people from different walks of life and new ideas is so valuable."
But for Dumas, the problem is that this experience is becoming more and more exclusive, since today, only people who are wealthy or are willing to go into debt have access to this academic rigor. While campus hopping may not be for everyone, Dumas says that there are many ways to gain access to the culture of the university without paying for it. For instance, he suggests attending the free university lectures that are open to the public and get involved in the conversations and debates. He also believes anybody can contribute to the big debates of our time. He founded a think tank of sorts with three of his friends called Logomachy, where they hash out solutions to social problems.
And given that Dumas believes that the in-classroom and on-campus experience is so important, he’s not particularly excited about the wave of free online classes that are being offered through services like EdX and Coursera. "I think they are just a marketing ploy for universities," says Dumas. "It’s a way for guilty colleges to cleanse their dirty souls for overcharging generations of students. And there is no way that an online course will give you the experience of being in a classroom."
In the end, Dumas has been no poorer for his lack of a degree. In fact, given that he has not taken on any debt, he is far better off than many recent college graduates. He’s now an entrepreneur. "Starting a business is all about your intelligence and your network," he says. "None of your customers care where you went to college. All they care about is whether you can offer them a good product."
He’s launched a successful business in Montreal called Datective, in which he helps wealthy clients navigate the worlds of online dating by creating online profiles for them and then actually impersonating those clients in early interactions with prospective partners. In many ways, this is the perfect job for someone who has spent years impersonating a college student.