College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Who Needs College?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 16, 2014 4 min read
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Gaps and Dreams

A Business Insider article entitled, “These 19 Insanely Successful College Dropouts Prove You Don’t Need A Degree” creates another unintended consequence of a one sided view. Its title misrepresents. It does not prove “You” don’t need a college degree; it proves some didn’t. There are some college dropouts who didn’t need degrees in order to become insanely successful. For consideration, from this article, all are white, only three are women, and are all quite intelligent. The schools into which these folks were admitted indicate they were pretty smart to begin with. Harvard, University of Southern California, MIT, University of Houston, Stanford, and Bronx High School of Science are all very competitive schools, selecting the best and brightest. The article submits:

College still pays off in the long run, but as tuition prices continue to climb, debt loads are higher than ever. And the first years out of school are extremely tough.

Success Has Some Common Factors
There are well-known stories about the lives of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates not finishing college that cause us to search for patterns. Both came from families who supported and encouraged them. Both came from families in which education was valued. Both had hard working parents who supported their families. Both were curious as young men and never lost that curiosity. Both were smart and interested in computers. Not all of the students are built that way. Not all students have supportive families, or extended families. Not all students receive encouragement from their families. Not all students have hard working parents for a variety of possible adversities. Not all students have the resilience to respond to adversity with determination. And not all students have maintained and developed the natural curiosity that young children have as they have grown into their teen years. Schools try to make up the gap. Teachers work to teach the value of hard work, the information of the course, and the skills needed. Teachers encourage and counsel. And for some, teachers mentor.

Some Need More
The role of public education is to educate ALL children and to prepare them all for their lives as adults who are informed and productive citizens in our democratic society. In the age of dreams and start-ups, college may not be the only path but it is likely only a few who will become hugely successful without it.

It is not a good idea to tout the possibilities for success in business without attending college. It misleads. College offers so many opportunities for young people as they grow into adulthood. For some it is the first time they buckle down and truly become learners. For some it is the first time away from home. It offers the opportunity to define yourself, accompanying self-sufficiency, and a more independent learning environment. Others maintain jobs while attending at night or online, developing their work ethic and determination. Certainly, it may be their last formal opportunity to learn about the subjects in which they are interested, a formal training of sorts. And yes, a few may be ready to be innovative risk takers and entrepreneurs.

There are plenty of careers that require a body of knowledge to be learned before stepping into a classroom, a uniform, a courtroom, an operating room, or the computer that diagnoses engines. Suggesting that these 19 people prove you don’t need a degree to be successful in business is tantamount to the fantasy some teenage athletes hold, that they will successful in their sport and make tons of money with a major team contract. The majority of the millionaires and billionaires discussed in the article found their fortunes in technology. Familiar companies like WordPress, DropBox, Facebook and Tumblr are on the list of companies founded by these young innovators. There were a few, like Whole Foods and Jet Blue founders, who are not in a technology field. One of those profiled began his work at 14 years old. The measure of success here is financial. The value being hyped is that there is money to be made that doesn’t require the investment of time and money that college requires or the education students receive. We are certainly beneficiaries of their choices. But, we wonder who they are, at the core will they make us a more successful and humane society?

There Is More Than Money at Stake
The entrepreneurs highlighted in this article are not teachers, or doctors, lawyers or nurses, accountants or pharmacists. They are innovative young people with all the necessary personal assets, who know enough to take the risks, and have a new idea and know how to make it come to life. Those are the few. Ironically, they were also the few who in a short time made mega money and who would have been able to pay off their college loans far more easily than most others.

The article reported that PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel was giving 20 bright young people $100,000 each to start a company instead.” It is laudable to invest in the futures of 20 bright young people. Hopefully they will be successful and make lots of money and make society better for their dreams coming true.

We wonder the impact if Peter Thiel invested $100,000 each for these bright young people to become a think tank, partnering with professionals in any field, to solve the bigger problems we face; poverty, equity in education, hunger, health, you name it... The $100,000 can be used for living expenses, and then for a formal education, if they need it, or as a start up of their dream company. Pay them to bring their minds and capacity to the table and innovate, to see beyond what is, to what can be.

If we continue to value making money over social responsibility, we further extend the already existing “American gaps”. We don’t want that to replace the American dream for all.

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