“It’s not a lack of knowledge. It’s about creative people needing a creative outlet to pursue for the future.” — Brad Jay, 55, of Ventura, professional announcer

A large part of society puts tremendous pressure on young people to earn college degrees, but to what lengths should a person go to obtain one? The recent college admissions bribery scandal, also known as Operation Varsity Blues, is a reflection of just how far, with parents of college applicants accused of paying more than $25 million to fraudulently inflate their children’s entrance exam scores and bribe college officials at several prominent American universities.

This criminal conspiracy forced a wave of heated discussions, with one college advisor stating “It’s disheartening because it would be a mar on those who are really ethical,” and another emphasizing, “If mommy and daddy buy it for you, you’re probably not going to appreciate it much.”

But what about some of the most successful people who legitimately earned their way into college, but dropped out and still reaped success? Bill Gates, the multi-billionaire who founded Microsoft, dropped out of Harvard, earning the reputation as “the most successful college dropout in the world.” Mark Zuckerberg, also a multi-billionaire, dropped out of Harvard to launch Facebook, and Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College to become the tech visionary of Apple. There are also many successful high school dropouts, including Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, and David Karp, developer of the social network company Tumblr.

Successful individuals like these are living proof that high school and college are not for everyone, and that grit, determination and resourcefulness can be just as powerful as earning a degree. The following Ventura County residents are solid examples of people who dropped out of high school or college, each for their own specific reasons, and still manifested success.

“College is not for everyone”

Josie Hirsch, 47, of Simi Valley, owner of Orphan Audio

Josie Hirsch attended certification workshops at San Francisco University and San Jose State University and attended classes at Pierce and San Francisco City colleges before she dropped out of Pierce College in 1992.

“I was not interested in general education studies and had not performed well on my placement exams,” recalled Hirsch, 47, of Simi Valley, adding that due to poor test performance, “I was placed in remedial classes that move very slowly and felt very redundant.” She grew quickly frustrated by the instruction and the materials, and realized “I was not the type of student of traditional education.”

At the time, AOL online service had just started, and the worldwide web was starting to grow as a useful tool for research. With that, “I found I could look up information from home instead of traveling to the public library and it forever changed my education process,” she said.

Today, Hirsch is an independent business consultant and owner of an audio engineering company, Orphan Audio, which supports discrete transistor and hybrid audio equipment from the 1960s through the early 1980s with complete modules, parts, service, custom packaging and more.

Looking back on her decision to dropout, she said “college is not for everyone,” and “human beings learn in different ways.” For instance, “some need methodical repetition, some need project-based, and some just need to research independently to learn.” Having her hand in manufacturing, “this is an area that needs skilled labor. I work with manufacturers who cannot find help, and these jobs pay very well.” 

She emphasized that it’s a myth that a college degree guarantees a successful future. “It does not. It is one path to a career, not the only one.”

Her advice for youth of today is “to know themselves,” and ask the question: “How do I learn best?”

“I have learned over the years that there are unlimited opportunities, but there is one way that has better chances of finding these unlimited opportunities than any other I have observed: hard work,” Hirsch added. “If you show commitment, dedication and loyalty, someone will see it and open doors. Present yourself as you want to be seen.”

“A conveyor belt system”

Brad Jay, 55, of Ventura, professional announcer

At 55 years old, Brad Jay of Ventura has the job of his dreams as a professional announcer for the X Games, the Olympics, U.S. Snowboarding, RedBull, and other major sporting events. He also hosts an evening show on 99.9 KTYD Santa Barbara.

As a teenager, he dropped out of Lompoc High School in 1982 to pursue surfing fulltime and later, after earning his GED and moving to Santa Barbara a young adult, dropped out of Santa Barbara City College, where he was studying communications, after landing his first radio job.

His enrollment at SBCC “lasted about a year-and-a-half before I started surfing more than going to school; that usually never works out very well,” Jay recalled. Instead of finishing college, “I started making radio tapes to send to radio stations to try and get hired as a DJ. I also started volunteering at a local radio station doing the surf report — my big break came from volunteering.”

Referring to people who have dropped out of high school or college, he believes “it’s not a lack of knowledge.” Rather, “it’s about creative people needing a creative outlet to pursue for the future.” Jay has always felt that regular schools “operate in a conveyor belt system,” adding that “interesting and creative people do not seem to do well in these types of environments.” For him, “it was not about going for a huge student loan; it was about working in the field I want to work in and working my way to the top of my field through hard work. Why go to school to study a field that I already had a job in?”

Looking back on his choice to drop out of both high school and college, he said “dropping out for me was the best thing ever. I have raised three kids living just off the beach in Ventura, and I am an avid surfer living the dream.”

For others out there who don’t fit the traditional high school or college setting, he advises, “volunteer, and pursue your passions. Find jobs in the field you want to work in and pursue those jobs and work your way up from there. I truly believe in loving what you do.”

“Schools don’t have a monopoly on education”

Ben Dolenc, 42, of Ventura, a director, producer and filmmaker

Ben Dolenc, a director, producer and filmmaker who has also been working in broadcast for a decade, dropped out of college for multiple reasons, including the cost, and because “I didn’t see the value in what I was learning as equal to the cost of college.”

As a hands-on learner, “it didn’t seem like what I was learning was directly applicable to what I wanted to do,” continued Dolenc, 42, of Ventura. “I also had begun making a fair amount of money working on whitewater rivers and wanted to do that full-time.”

He did attend classes at the University of Colorado, where he completed two years in the film department, and in 1997 took a year off to be a whitewater guide in Guatemala. He ended up hurting his shoulder and spending the winter working at ski resorts, which led him to ski patrolling and professional skiing. “That put me in front of film cameras, and then I transitioned to behind them.”

For individuals who drop out of high school or college, he said the biggest misunderstanding is that they struggle with school. In his case, for instance, “I just wanted to do, not talk about doing. It felt like an in-between place, not an active place for me.”

Looking back on his choices, he said his only regret “is that it limits the options of teaching what I have learned in my career. Other than that, I have never stopped learning in or out of school, and wouldn’t trade the experiences dropping out of school afforded me.”

He added that we have a huge wealth of knowledge at our fingertips due to technology and the Internet, therefore, “stay curious and invest in yourself through learning what you are interested in on your free time. Schools don’t have a monopoly on education.”

Schools, however, can connect you with people who can be resources throughout the rest of your life, he added. “If you’re gonna drop out, make sure to pursue and put energy into creating these connections on your own.”

A lifelong learner

Timilee Hunt, 52, of Ventura, owner of a travel franchise, Cruise Planners

At age 52, Timilee Hunt is the owner of a travel franchise, Cruise Planners, where she runs her business from her home-based office in Ventura.

“I really enjoy how you can achieve one’s travel dreams,” said Hunt, who has been involved in the travel industry for more than eight years and business development for 15 years.

Before she launched her home-based business, she dropped out during her senior year at San Diego Senior High in 1985. Leaving was due to several factors, including being uprooted to another high school outside the area, having no peer support, being separated from her twin sister during the transition and her mother being hospitalized. This “wiped my ability to stay on course,” she said. “I simply found it was easier to give up than deal with the realities in my world.”

She eventually applied to take her GED, “as I could not get a job without it.” And over the course of 15 years, she earned a bachelor’s degree in social service administration, and a master’s degree in organizational management. Looking back on dropping out of high school, she says, “Sure I regret it . . . I felt shame for many, many years,” adding “carrying shame around with you is a horrible thing.”

Hunt believes that the biggest misconception about high school or college dropouts is that “the student is troubled, a problem or just plain stupid.” The truth is that “the student may have a learning disability that was never properly diagnosed, and/or a child is simply bored and not intellectually challenged,” she said. “It could be a student having to take care of a mentally ill parent, working fulltime to assist with covering basic living expenses, putting food on the table.” Therefore, “school becomes a secondary and sometimes third and fourth priority. In turn, this so-called problem child or dropout is a hero, a savior in their home life.”

Hunt added that she’s been able to achieve, and continue to achieve, her educational goals “by plain old hard work,” and considers herself a lifelong learner. But each person’s journey is different. “Take one step at a time; find great local resources to ask all the questions until you are satisfied with the correct answer.”

“People leave high school early for a number of reasons”

Doug “Dougie” Michie, a Ventura resident in his 60s, a triple-licensed as an attorney, real estate broker and a registered investment advisor who provides legal services and financial advice and planning, dropped out of high school to go into the military

Doug “Dougie” Michie, a Ventura resident in his 60s, is triple-licensed as an attorney, real estate broker and a registered investment advisor who provides legal services and financial advice and planning.

In 1972, he dropped out of Los Altos High School in Hacienda Heights, when the country was engaged in a conflict in Vietnam, “and I felt it was my patriotic duty to fight for and serve my country,” recalled Michie, who joined the military after obtaining his parent’s permission at age 17. “Also, as a member of a household of nine children with limited resources, at the time I did not see any path to college.”

While serving in the military, he took night courses and completed his high school diploma.  After discharge, he remained in the reserves and used his pay from the reserves and the GI Bill to pay his way through college, and graduated in 1978 with a bachelor of science in biochemistry from U.C. Davis. He then went on to earn his Juris Doctorate law degree cum laude from Pepperdine University in 1980, passed the bar exam on the first attempt, and began his practice of law in 1981. He also earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in New York in 2001, a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University in 2002, and an MBA from International Institute for Management Development in Switzerland in 2003.

He believes a common misunderstanding is that dropouts are not smart enough or ambitious enough to complete the schooling, which he said “is most often wrong. People leave high school early for a number of reasons, including their family situation, their maturity and the impact of outside events.”

His decision to leave high school to join the military “has provided me with a very interesting life,” he said. “It also provided me with the resources to complete my college degree, which I did with no financial support from my parents and without incurring any student loan debt.” 

The beautiful thing about our education system is that there are inexpensive opportunities to further your education, he noted, adding that community college “is a great way to do so,” with the ability to take night classes and to complete a course of study at each individual’s pace. “And now, with the opening of online degree programs from respected universities, there is no reason why that education could not continue and end in a college bachelor’s degree.”

Education is not just about getting a better job or earning more money, Michie further emphasized. “It is more importantly about opening your mind to new ideas, thought processes and ways of understanding. It makes for a much more rounded individual, and a much more interesting one as well.”