“Growing up in Taiwan, it’s hard to find our fields of interest before entering college because we are bombarded with exams and grades in high school and middle school,” said Jing Yien-liang (金彥良), 20.

Two years ago, Jing dropped out of college midway through a degree in statistics at National Chengchi University (NCCU, 國立政治大學). He left because it was difficult to juggle the numerous graphic design projects he was working on and maintain a good academic record.

Jing is a self-taught freelance designer. But while he has left university, he hasn’t stopped learning.

He has hosted many design workshops, been contracted to design sales kits and launched an online graphic design course — the course has already had close to 2,000 purchases at NT$1,500 (US$50) each, roughly 10 times more than the average salary for college graduates.

He is not alone.

Jing and fellow dropout friends are currently also hosting monthly workshops for self-taught graphic designers. The series is called, “A Night for Autodidacts (自學者之夜),” and is promoted on a Facebook page, “Possibility (可能性),” which has accumulated nearly 18,000 followers since May 2016.

“Similar to entrepreneurship, dropping out of college has become a trend in Taiwan,” says Hu Chun-lun (胡均綸), 21, a friend of Jing’s. Hu left NCCU’s information management program at the end of his sophomore year, only a few months after Jing.

In 2014, 43,030 undergraduate students quit college before graduating in Taiwan, up from 40,029 in 2010 — a seven percent increase over five years — according to Ministry of Education statistics.

A survey conducted by the ministry in 2012 found that only about half of the dropouts left their degrees early to start work.

“When I dropped out near the end of my sophomore year, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I just knew where I was at the time, was not where I wanted to be,” said Hu. He eventually learned how to code and now interns at AppWorks in Taiwan, the largest startup accelerator in Asia.

Ku Tien-ya (古典雅), 20, has a similar story.

“I always thought nursing was for me when I was growing up; or at least all the personality tests I have taken in school have told me so,” she says with a laugh.

Her first year of university was disappointing; the rigid teaching methods and isolated learning environment made Ku feel like she was back in high school again. When she quit her nursing degree as a sophomore in November 2015, Ku did not know what lay ahead for her. She lied about her future plans when asked by administrators, fearing that her application to leave the course would be denied.

She now works as a freelance videographer and part-time employee for On The Road Film Studio (言聲影音).

Hu believes that nowadays a person’s ability is far more important than an academic degree. “Either you can do the job or you can’t. What’s on paper doesn’t seem to matter that much.”

A recent survey found 88 percent of job hunters said that graduate degrees were not necessary for their work. The survey was conducted by online job-hunting agency yes123 with 1,472 respondents.

Low starting wages, diploma devaluations, and Taiwan’s brain drain problem

“Students with good grades should not be automatically equated to being recruitable talent. People need to change their mindsets,” said National Taiwan University (NTU) President Yang Pan-chyr (楊泮池), in an interview with CommonWealth Magazine from February 2015.

As the world changes rapidly, what is being taught in classrooms often cannot keep up with the real world, Yang said. He encouraged students to become entrepreneurs and learn from working in the real world.

“Not everyone needs to go through four years of college. If students feel ready, they should go out and explore,” said Yang.

Jing believes that future employment trends may become “less reliant on organizations.” For him, working as a designer, his portfolio is valued far more than his degree.

The decrease in starting salaries in Taiwan only exacerbates the devaluation of college degrees.

Average university graduates earned a monthly salary of NT$28,116 (US$932) in 2016, an NT$100 (US$3) increase from the average starting salary in 2000, according to a survey conducted among 9,786 companies by the Ministry of Labor. The incremental increase in starting salary has clearly failed to match inflation prices, reports Central News Agency.

Statistics from the National Development Council show that the number of Taiwanese working abroad doubled from 340,000 in 2005 to 724,000 in 2015. Taiwan is also predicted to have the highest level of “talent mismatch” by 2021 — referring to the gap between the growth in demand and the growth in supply of talent, according to Oxford Economics Global Talent 2021 Report.

When asked about future plans, Ku doesn’t plan to return to college in Taiwan because “the curriculum is too rigid [in Taiwan] [...] I’d like to go abroad to learn,” she said.

Editor: Olivia Yang