Billy Willson finished his first (and his last) semester at Kansas State University this week -- and in so doing has set off a debate there and beyond on the value of college and of general education in particular.
In a Facebook post, he announced that he was dropping out, despite having earned a 4.0 grade point average. He said that he would start his own business and learn more from that experience than anything he could hope to achieve at Kansas State or any college. He ran a photo of himself giving the finger to Kansas State, although he's since said he really wants to be doing that to all of higher education.
Many Inside Higher Ed readers will likely find his comments insulting and ill informed, and some faculty members and students at K-State have pointed out that he wrote some things that are factually questionable. But Willson is attracting many fans online as his Facebook post has gone viral -- and trashing course requirements and general education seems to be a big part of Willson's appeal.
"YOU ARE BEING SCAMMED," Willson wrote on Facebook. (The wording, grammar and capitalization quoted here and later in this story are verbatim from Willson's and others' social media posts.) "You may not see it today or tomorrow, but you will see it some day. Heck you may have already seen it if you've been through college. You are being put thousands into debt to learn things you will never even use. Wasting 4 years of your life to be stuck at a paycheck that grows slower than the rate of inflation. Paying $200 for a $6 textbook. Being taught by teacher's who have never done what they're teaching. Average income has increased 5x over the last 40 years while cost of college has increased 18x. You're spending thousands of dollars to learn information you won't ever even use just to get a piece of paper."
He added: "Colleges are REQUIRING people to spend money taking gen. ed. courses to learn about the quadratic formula (and other shit they will never use) when they could be giving classes on MARRIAGE and HOW TO DO YOUR TAXES."
Willson had been studying architectural engineering -- and now is pursuing the path of starting his own business. His first venture is selling T-shirts that express his views about college (an image of someone giving the finger on top of the word "college").
On social media, Willson's campaign is attracting support (much of it containing repeated expletives). Partial comments on Twitter include "I have never related to someone more" and "I have two degrees and only use knowledge from two classes I've taken. That's 6 credits out of 120."
But the debate has gone beyond those posting inflammatory statements to social media.
Jason Kidd, a senior at K-State, wrote a column for The Collegian, the student newspaper, in which he questioned the value of general education.
"As a journalist, I understand completely the purpose of a well-rounded education and see the importance of having an understanding in several fields," he wrote. "However, many gen ed classes are overpriced jokes that do little to teach students anything they will remember after finals week."
Others on The Collegian's website have been far less generous to Willson.
Wrote one student: "First of all, thanks for continuing to destroy the millennial reputation with your entitled, everything-should-be-easy, get-me-rich-fast mentality. How can you possibly think that you are going to be able to live off selling T-shirts? … Second of all, if you are going to quit school with your 4.0 (oooooh wow, a 4.0 after ONE semester -- what a joke), because you have to 'wait until you're 35 to own your own engineering company,' you have some seriously delusional thoughts of reality (again) … Third, you have completely just destroyed your reputation. When you fall hard and fast with this little business of yours, you are going to need a real, big kid job and guess what? Something called Google exists and even my grandma can dig up dirt on you (flipping off a well respected university who has a very well-connected alumni group). This is not only showing how lazy you are, but how disrespectful you are to those who do work for a college degree. You know how many underprivileged kids would kill to have the opportunity you have?"
Others have noted that Willson's criticism of Kansas State for not offering the courses he wants (on marriage and taxes) is wrong. Kansas State has a School of Family Studies and Human Services with numerous courses on marriage and personal finance.
Andrew Bennett, a professor of mathematics and president of the Faculty Senate, said that the end of the semester means that professors are leaving campus and he doesn't have a sense of faculty sentiment over all on the debate. Personally, Bennett said, it doesn't bother him if a student changes his career plans and finds that Kansas State no longer makes sense for those plans.
But Bennett said he does worry about people on social media declaring Willson a hero -- and not understanding the concept of curricular requirements.
Bennett noted that Willson said he had been studying architectural engineering -- and yet complained about having to study mathematics. "The notion that an engineer doesn't need to learn mathematics is incorrect," he said.
For Willson to tell the world general education isn't useful, when he has finished just one semester of college, also seems questionable, Bennett said. There is no way that Willson could really understand what Kansas State is hoping to accomplish with general education based on one semester, he added.
"To say college is a scam because I changed my mind about what I wanted to learn strikes me as not supported by the evidence," Bennett said.
A spokeswoman for the university said that she could confirm that a William Willson was enrolled for the fall semester, but said she could not comment beyond that.