My friends, my followers on Twitter, and people who’ve read my previous posts know that I have a very strong opinion about education: that it is absolutely necessary in order for you to build a foundation for success as an entrepreneur (and for success in almost any endeavor). Despite having appointments at five elite universities, I am not a proponent of elite education. Rather, my research led me to conclude that ivy-leaguers may be able to get their buddies from Sequoia and Kleiner to return emails, but aren’t going to be any more successful at building companies; that what matters is gaining a basic education and completing what you started—which school you graduate from doesn’t matter.

I am one of the people who Sarah Lacy predicted would be “pissed” when they read her post quoting Peter Thiel as saying “we’re in a bubble and it’s not the Internet. It’s higher education”.  Peter Thiel may have made the right calls with Paypal; he certainly made a smart decision by investing in Mark Zuckerberg.  But he is no expert on education.

The message Thiel is sending to the world with his fellowship, which rewards students for dropping out of school, is wrong.  The best path to success is not to drop out of college; it is to complete it. Yes, I know that Thiel is targeting exceptional students and is rallying against elite, expensive education. But as the title of Sarah Lacy’s piece shows, as does the controversy it has generated, the message that is getting out is that all “higher education” isn’t cost justified—for any student.

I brought up the Thiel Fellowship in a panel discussion at the American Society for Engineering Education Engineering Deans Institute, yesterday. Most of the deans in the audience were aghast.  They couldn’t believe that there were debates like this happening in Silicon Valley. I told them that more than a dozen students had approach me over the past few months asking for advice on whether they should drop out; that students took people like Thiel very seriously. I asked three of the deans at the conference to help me quench this fire. Here is what they have to say.

Stanford Schoolof Engineering dean, Jim Plummer:

I don’t have any problem with the experiment Thiel wants to run. I hope that the 20 individuals he selects are wildly successful and create new companies that all of us will be amazed by. But I’m not sure at the end of the day, what the experiment will prove. Many universities (Stanford included) have a number of undergraduates who drop out to start companies. Those individuals generally have a great technical idea and a passion to see that idea put into practice. Many of them fail, of course, as is true of all startups. But the students who drop out learn many life lessons and move on to either the next venture, or in some cases they return to school. A few succeed wildly—and those are the extreme examples we all look at in amazement. Thiel’s experiment will increase the probability of success for the students he selects because of the mentoring and the financial help they will receive. But most will still fail: such is the nature of starting a new company.

The more interesting question is what this experiment will teach us about the value of university education. My guess is that it will teach us very little. There is no control group. Why not pick 40 very bright young people and give half of them $100K to start a company and the other half $100K to stay in school and complete their education? Then track them over 5-10 years and see which group is more successful. Twenty is probably too small a number to draw any real conclusions from, even in such a controlled experiment, but it would be a better experiment than one without any controls.

The suggestion that students should bypass university education and jump immediately into the entrepreneurial world strikes me as equivalent to suggesting that all college athletes should simply play their sport for a couple of years, take no academic classes and then go on the NFL, the NBA etc. The vast majority of college athletes compete, and then they have careers in other fields.

Most young people I encounter, at Stanford and elsewhere, are not ready to start their own venture at 18 or even 20 years of age. Certainly there are a few outliers that we can all point to, but they are the rare exceptions rather than the rule. A university education gives the large majority the tools to become innovators and entrepreneurs throughout their lives. Engineering majors also get a technical education which will serve them well throughout their lives, whether or not they have a career in engineering. It would be a very good thing for this country if more of our doctors, lawyers and politicians had undergraduate training in engineering. They would think quantitatively and practically about how to solve problems, wherever their career might take them.

If universities, today, are not providing the kind of life skills that will serve their students well (a point I would debate), then universities should change what they are doing. In today’s world, universities need to be held accountable for providing real value for the investment students or their parents make. In talking with very successful people in business and other fields, many of them attribute their success at least partially to skills they learned at their university. These skills were not always learned in the classroom. For many young people the years between 18 and 22 are their first experience away from home and they learn a lot about life from their university experience. I believe for most, what they learn is a cost effective investment.

Duke University Pratt School of Engineering dean Tom Katsouleas:

First is the problem of argument by testimonial or individual example.  By this argument, one could look around at lottery winners, and there are plenty of them.  One could easily conclude that there is no reason to go to school or even to become an entrepreneur; all one needs to do is buy a lottery ticket.  The corollary to that is that the statistics on entrepreneurial success don’t bear out that it is better to drop out.  Most successful entrepreneurs are not drop outs.  It is just that the successful drop outs are newsworthy and get disproportionate media coverage.

Of course, the other reason one should not take Peter Thiel’s advice is that the value of education is intrinsic and an end in itself rather than something to be measured by its career financial return.  It is during one’s undergraduate years that one discovers oneself, where one fits into the world and what it means to be human.  Not to mention, there is value in the network of lifelong friends one makes and there is even measurable lifelong happiness associated with education according to studies by economists like Richard Easterlin.

Finally Thiel’s question reminds me of a story of a high school teacher confronted with the same question from his students: “Why do we need to learn this?”  The teacher replied, “You don’t.  There is only one thing you need to learn to ask.”  The piqued students implored him to tell what that was.  His answer:  “Would you like fries with that?”

Drexel College of Engineering dean Bruce Eisenstein:

For the very talented and very ambitious, dropping out is a good idea. But Zuckerberg and Bill Gates were already vetted and educated by Harvard before they dropped out.  They both needed Harvard for credibility; they just didn’t need four years of it.

If you knew a well-coordinated student, 6 ft. 9 inches, with a 50% 3-point shot, advise him to take a chance on the NBA and not engineering school.  Likewise, someone who is an outstanding and ambitious computer geek.

Getting an engineering degree reduces the variance in your career outcomes.  You might not get the billions, but you also won’t get into poverty.

 

I find it particularly amusing that two of the most vocal advocates of dropping out of college are Peter Thiel and Mike Arrington—both of whom completed Stanford Law degrees. College dropouts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are strong proponents of finishing your degrees. Even Steve Jobs talks about the importance of liberal arts education.

Try getting a job at Microsoft, Facebook, or Apple. If you don’t have a degree, there is almost no chance that you will make it past HR.

 

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  • AP

    I don’t ever want a University to start providing value for the services it provides because I don’t want
    pursuit of education commercialized. The world would stop producing physicists, biologists, chemists, economists because all these pure science subjects don’t necessarily provide a calculable dollar value. The only take away you get from a fine education is just that..a fine education. Not a promise to get a job or be an entreprenuer. Someone please stop these onslaught of self-made coffee shop enterpreneurs who think making web based tinker toys is providing value or changing our lives in a drastic way. Modern day online achievements are hardly breakthrough and frankly make us all look immature as a civilization as we rejoice at the news of an iPhone 5 and yet have no handle
    on Cancer, HIV or even the common cold!. We are light years (pun intended) behind in space travel. We have not mastered the oceans and we still marvel at the sight of a Tornado and a Hurricane when we should be better at taming these natural disasters!

  • Kvn_dms

    Are you freaking serious?  Just because you have chosen a certain path does not make it the path for everyone. 

    You are part of academia, and as such you derive money & power from this little world.  And trust me, if anyone thinks inside a bubble…it is the college is important crowd!

    Fact:  Higher education is not an indicator of future monetary success or of success as an   entrepreneur!  

    Fact:  Higher education is not an indicator of life happiness.

    Fact:  Higher education is mostly an ever hungry beast that needs to feed on “new meat” to sustain itself.

    Fact: Of course your college deans are aghast…lol  They are being exposed.

    Fact:  Finding one’s self is generally done from within…not because you are spending tens of thousands for an education that you will likely never use fully.

    Fact:  You are part of a system that feeds you.  Of course you will defend it.

    Fact:  Your research and your numbers are presented just the way you want….in a self serving manner.

    Finally, The reason that we are in such a mess in this country is mostly due to folks like you that are educated from an institute of higher learning.  Please do the math on that one.

    We would all be much better off if after high school, young people were given training on the job….regardless of the field.  Perhaps with a bit of classroom for the technical/clinical aspects.

    The thought that you must be part of the biggest scam put upon young people in this country to be successful is a joke…and you should be ashamed of yourself.

    By the way, when did you sell out, and decide that having your thoughts and words published made ya look good? 

    If you took every college away from the planet today….and gave everyone about a week to adjust, the increase in happiness, fiscal stability, as well as the future of our great country would be increased ten fold.

    “Those that can…do  Those that cannot, teach! ”

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  • Autodidact

    College should not be the only way to prove you know what you are doing. We need to end this foolishness. I have a B.A. in Philosophy with Ancient languages (did the liberal arts gig) and a degree in Management Information Systems (did the technology/business school gig). I’ve earned A’s in everything from ancient Greek to Java.

    I appreciate the value of education but know quite well that I could have learned far more on my own and saved money doing it. I don’t care where or how you obtain your knowledge just as long as you have it. There is more than one way to solve the problem of knowledge acquisition (just as there is more than one way to solve many programming problems).. not all require expensive bureaucratic instructions.

    If you want to be a well educated human being then go to the library and read! Let’s not keep pretending that these institutions are required for that. Let’s develop community based open source style models of educating and save young people from crushing debt. Socrates by the way had a word for people that sold formalized education. He called them sophists.

    And the only reason that Gates, Jobs, and Zuckerberg are exceptions is because we live in a society drunk on the myth that degrees equal intelligence. Many other people will succeed just as soon as we stop HR departments from making degrees preqs for jobs and instead move to a skills based approach. It takes a Zuckerberg and a good deal of luck to jump over the massive hurdles that a foolish society has constructed.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Mark Twain
    “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Aristotle

    By the way, I created a Facebook page for the reform of higher education for any interested.
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Reform-Higher-Education-Now/113357102074689

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  • anon

    I’m a Thiel Fellowship Finalist. I was accepted to a top tier university for CS, but I have come to agree with Thiel’s views on higher ed, and wont be pursuing college. However, I wanted to say that, at the very least, that last line got me thinking.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_L2N6WVT6X7MKQEDCDIUYGNCZ2E YourMaster

      Which “last line” got you thinking?
      (a) Was it the Vivek’s funny last line of “Try getting a job at Microsoft, Facebook, or Apple. If you don’t have a degree, there is almost no chance that you will make it past HR.”
      (b) Was it the my even funnier last line of “Try submitting your resume with a Tier 1 Engineering Degree at the Microsoft, Facebook, or Apple website. Good luck finding out what happened to it. Did a human look at it yet? Did the hiring manager even see it. Try remembering what job you applied for weeks earlier, when you are cold-called by the recruiter.”

      So you defer on attending the “top tier university for CS” … you become a Theil Fellow (i.e. cool resume bullet). Your brilliant start-up idea dies/fails/etc. Most start-up die anyway. Would Theil’s Founder’s Fund funded companies hire you after a glorious failure? Today there are 604 jobs at companies funded by Founder’s Fund … http://www.ventureloop.com/foundersfund/ … check them out.

      My crazy prediction is if you fail gloriously, rather than blowing your wad on beer, cars, and the like, then you have a better chance of getting picked up by a Founder’s Fund company than a Tier 1 grad with ten-years of work experience. Call it the resume, web submission black hole phenomena vs Peter Theil et al making a phone call.

      Furthermore, since you were already admitted to that top-tier CS program, ask the school for a one-or-two year deferred admission. If your brilliant start-up idea fails, you can always crawl back to that same CS program, albeit a year later with some awesome real-world experience and some awesome VC connections.

      • anon

        anon here again. It was (b), but they both fall under the same category. It mostly got me thinking because I was offered a job at two out of the three examples listed, turned them down of course. This is less pointless bragging(hence anon) and more stating that rare cases are in fact noticed by these companies, it’s not all about the degree.

        If my startup fails, and it probably will, I’ll likely work for one of the Founder’s Fund’s companies. I met several of their owners, and they are fantastic projects.

        Thanks for your input.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_L2N6WVT6X7MKQEDCDIUYGNCZ2E YourMaster

          Did you get your fellowship or were you the one who listened to your parents bailing out for the east coast version of Caltech, but not as good as Caltech ;-);-);-)

  • http://www.nycresistor.com William Ward

    I’m disappointed in the Dean Katsouleas’s anecdote about the high school. Aside from the disagreeable tone of “our way or the highway,” I detect in much of the Dean’s written statement, the adolescent years are far too late to be denying explorative questions of relevance in educational material. While young children continually challenge their parents’ authority with endless questions, older students should be entitled to a mature explanation of relevance in the tasks they are asked to undergo.

    Much of the material introduced to students in all levels of formal schooling bears little obvious relevance to future endeavors outside of it’s stated role as a prerequisite to successor classes. Even in my graduate level education, the interdependencies of material are not always clear cut – but experience has taught me a great deal about the contours of pedagogy and why learning material is divided and compartmentalized to suit timelines, expected outcomes and an overall path to understanding. Those in the pipeline may see something more featureless and a sort of educational fatigue sets in, turning them off to the riches of learning otherwise drab material.

    Perhaps it is not enough now to say “you must carry a degree if you want to be successful” (for some value of success) but rather to say “we can offer you a greater chance of succeeding at your goals by providing you a time-proven path to understanding your market and tools to work there.” Followed by a meaningful exploration of that path, with questions answered and mentorship available.

    That attitude would address some of the sentiment of the value proposition. I do believe there is substantive value there, but I cannot abide by the arrogance that university is somehow a gatekeeper and exclusive arbiter of merit in the workplace. I think that’s the business plan, but not the reality.

    I agree that the examples of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are unlikely outliers and should not be used as evidence or encouragement to drop out of school (or avoid it entirely,) but there is a large population of technically adept and well-employed Americans who do not hold college degrees, and for most measures of middle-class success, are successful (significant incomes, property, respected positions.) I have experience in this area, and I also understand the complete value proposition of higher education.

    Based on my own experiences, my position, and my current endeavors – I think it is reasonable for a young person to examine their goals in life at that time and make the decision to pursue them without the accreditation of a degree. I think they will come to value the skills they would learn from higher education, and with experience it becomes clearer that a degree provides real value for many pursuits.

    They can go back to school – and with a clearer idea of what they want and the freedom from struggling to break free of home, perhaps they’ll maximize their time in school.

    For those of you, including the Deans and the author of the post, who have the benefit of hindsight and experience, the face value of a higher education may be significant. You know where those skills have supported your goals, and how they’ve opened doors. To the young, fresh out of the warzone of highschool, coming off the hormonal rush of learning to love, to live beyond their parents and to make their way in life – the pressures may be much more significant. While young they’re still adults, and they should be given realistic guidance rather than a social stereotype of the drop-out as a rogue winner or a foolish gambler. Let us share a deeper experience with them than the simple admonishment of certain failure and regret for passing on higher ed.

    • Tom Katsouleas

      Dear Mr. Ward,

      Point well taken. With this generation of students who are used to more information and are more motivated by impacting the world than solving puzzles compared to my generation, it is important that we take advantage of learning moments to engage them with the relevance of the knowledge and not merely transfer facts. That said, the point that this anecdote supports, and I hope people will not take the anecdote too seriously, is that the value of learning is both intrinsic to personal wellbeing and extrinsic to certain life objectives, and not every moment can be mapped to either of these two outcomes.

      Tom Katsouleas

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_L2N6WVT6X7MKQEDCDIUYGNCZ2E YourMaster

        The Engineering School Deans, lacking any authority to “at-will” terminate a professor for any reason or no reason (like all of Silicon Valley’s Directors of Engineering), need to clean their house of the dead-wood.

        Inside Hire Education recently published “First, summon the image of a tweed-clad, gray-haired professor exiting
        the halls of academe at the end of his career — only to be replaced by
        an underpaid adjunct, whose credentials and teaching skills may well be
        far better than those the newly emeritus had when he started.” … http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/05/16/life_for_college_professors_is_no_longer_what_it_once_was

        More people are noticing what is and is not being delivered. Time you notice too. Cumbersome non-academic work practices having no value add to L-E-A-R-N-I-N-G? Real nice your faculty have published papers and received various mutual admiration society awards, but shouldn’t they have the ability to verbally communicate information or do they need teleprompters too? How about the ability to edit the textbook publisher provided power point (from four-editions ago!!!) to make it more current?

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  • Digpen997

    “Quench the fire”? You need to go back to Basic English classes first.

  • Huo Yuping

    The real problem is not whether to dropout or not. It is what is the university education offering to us. Certainly, the knowledge and the skills that universities provide for students are highly valuable, but the recent system of university education may be chaining not only the students, but also the whole society at the same time.

    Mr. Tom Katsouleas said “It is during one’s undergraduate years that one discovers oneself, where one fits into the world and what it means to be human.”

    But the truth is that students have to decide which school they want to apply for before they enter the university, the undergraduate education actually doesn’t give them time to discover themselves. When they find what they really want, they’ve wasted a lot of time and money already. Mr. Tom Katsouleas is the dean of the School of Engineering, not the School of Discoverying Yourself. But, seemingly, he didn’t realize it, he didn’t realize the fact that though a university can offer the knowledge of almost all aspects, what it provides to a single student with the recent system is very limited. So, how funny it is to see some of those deans even count “making friends” into the value of university education!

    The knowledge and the way of educating are different. Dropouting is not saying “no” to the knowledge but to the education system that claims to provide it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Сергей-Хващук/1353840786 Сергей Хващук

    as the person who drop the university for 2 years and than came back, I may say that it was really hard and no sense to come back. But it was really stupid to drop the studies. I was successful in developing my business but if I never attended the university I’d never build my company. I’m from Ukraine and studied in best Ukrainian university – “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”. It is the only one really liberal educational institution in the country – all others are post-USSR institutions where you’re fought only how to retell what was written in the old books (I also have 2 years experience of studying in such kind of institution). But even dropping the post-USSR university will not make you happy.
    I think that universities everywhere in the world must develop some business incubators inside the campus but completely independent – that will be real school and real practice. I think most of the students will see how hard is to to build a compny and that 90% of new start ups become broke very soon.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_L2N6WVT6X7MKQEDCDIUYGNCZ2E YourMaster

    FUNNY – “Try getting a job at Microsoft, Facebook, or Apple. If you don’t have a degree, there is almost no chance that you will make it past HR.” Hardy-har-har

    FUNNIER – “Try submitting your resume with a Tier 1 Engineering Degree at the Microsoft, Facebook, or Apple website. Good luck finding out what happened to it. Did a human look at it yet? Did the hiring manager even see it. Try remembering what job you applied for weeks earlier, when you are cold-called by the recruiter.” Are you laughing? Many are not laughing.

    Your blog post should be read in the context of:
    (a) Forbes Magazine blog “Gales Of Creative Instruction” by Jerry Bowyer … http://blogs.forbes.com/jerrybowyer/2011/04/13/gales-of-creative-instruction/
    (b) “The Unexamined Veil of Tenure” by Steve Cohen … http://chronicle.com/article/The-Unexamined-Veil-of-Tenure/127067/

    Suppose my cube buddy is trying to go back to school part-time in the evenings to get a technical masters degree from [redacted state run degree granting institution] here in Silicon Valley? Is this ivory tower institution “with-it” in the sense that my cube buddy can avoid:

    (a) CUMBERSOME WORK PRACTICES – why must any working tech professional have to stand in line with immature kids in the middle of the working day, to get a signature on a dead tree piece of paper at a registers office? Could the registers office be open at 9pm in the evening for the working professional? Did it occur to the valley’s engineering schools that working adults don’t have time for high school crap? Did it occur to engineering schools that maybe there are some bright kids out there that also don’t have time for high school crap when attending college?
    (b) DEADWOOD INSTRUCTORS – why must a working tech professional sit through a death by power point academic lecture where the Professor regurgitates the same power point the text book vendor provided four editions ago because the Professor is too “busy” to do his job and update his teaching material. The four editions out-of-date power point also looks like it was off-shored to some Tier 5 MBA program where a slave labor grad student tossed together some slides (1 ruble per slide?). Likewise the Prof not being aware of Guy Kawasaki’s “Power Rules”. Did it occur to engineering schools that maybe there are some bright kids out there that also don’t have time for this?
    (c) UNPREPARED INSTRUCTORS – why must a working tech professional sit through what amounts to technical training from Professors that is not as smooth as technical training by service providers. Either I’m paying for this or my employer via tuition support is paying for it. Compare an academic university course lecture to an Altera/Xilinx/Cadence/big-company delivered device lecture or s/w tool lecture. No comparison. The company trainers ‘deliver’ the material far better than the academics.
    (d) INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN & DEVELOPMENT – how often are the Professors videotaped delivering their material? how often does a learning professional (not an academic peer but rather a learning professional) critique the Professor’s delivery? Ditto the delivery of the lab classes? How often are the quiz & exam questions looked at statistically by a third party (i.e. learning professional?) to evaluate the quality of the question relative to the delivered material? If you take the time to visit a large multi-national CPU manufacturer with a learning & development center of excellence in Chandler, AZ you can get quite an earful about learning & training. They might even school you on the meaning of “copy exact” with respect to learning.
    (e) FEES – why as a working technical professional with zero interest in student body politics or activities have to pay a “student body fee” or a “student health charge” or anything else not germane to learning. Did it occur to engineering schools that maybe there are some bright kids out there that also don’t want to pay for frills?
    (f) PROTESTS – hello kiddies, shouting about this or that, I paid for a class and you are interrupting it. Will someone refund my money? If such happened during a Cadence training session we’d get our training credits back and a airfare/hotel refund. Did it occur to engineering schools that maybe there are some bright kids out there who need not tolerate such unprofessional crap.

    • http://twitter.com/annmariastat annmariastat

      In the interest of full-disclosure, I’ve run a business for the past twenty years but I have been a professor, I have three graduate degrees, two of which I obtained after I had been working as an engineer, then went back to school full-time. I have taken courses as a professional both from commercial vendors and universities.

      ONE school I attended did have a nightmare registration process, but as for the rest of what you mentioned, it doesn’t really fit my experience.

      I attended some VERY expensive but outstanding commercial training and learned a great deal.

      I also learned a great deal in university courses taught by extremely knowledgeable professors. Yes, some of them were not exciting, but I was interested in learning how to design a system, write a program or solve equations. Actually, many of them were fascinating – they didn’t always have the best graphics on their powerpoint but they knew how to solve problems I’d been puzzling over.

      I think you need to get over yourself – ‘a working tech professional shouldn’t have to …” Courses should be well-designed and taught well to everybody not just people who are working tech professionals.

      Maybe I was really fortunate or it was because I attended pretty selective schools, or because at a senior (okay, old) level, I can choose pretty much what I want to attend, but I haven’t had anything like the negative experiences you mention.

      MUCH of what I learned in my BS, MBA and Ph.D. has helped me in founding and running a business.

  • http://sheynkman.tumblr.com Kirill Sheynkman

    The notion of being an educated person and a successful entrepreneur have little to do with each other. Dropping out of school won’t guarantee entrepreneurial success and staying in school does not doom you to a life of corporate malaise. There is no cause-effect relationship.
    But, given a choice of being an educated member of society, given our brief lifespan, I would much rather have a great education than all the success in the world.
    Cogito ergo sum.

  • http://twitter.com/toddwshaffer Todd Shaffer

    Your closing line says it all.

    “Try getting a job at Microsoft, Facebook, or Apple” when these are the kids trying to start a Microsoft, Facebook, or Apple. All of which were started by college dropouts.

    The caveat is that each of them dropped out when their company movements made it obvious that school would be more of an obstacle than asset.

    So to a college student trying to rationalize “I’m going to drop out and start a company” the simple response is “start a company and see if the company trajectory requires you to leave school.”

  • http://twitter.com/Brooklyn365 Brooklyn

    Your closing line says it all.

    “Try getting a job at Microsoft, Facebook, or Apple” when these are the kids trying to start a Microsoft, Facebook, or Apple. All of which were started by college dropouts.

    The caveat is that each of them dropped out when their company movements made it obvious that school would be more of an obstacle, not an enabler.

    So to a college student trying to rationalize “I’m going to drop out and start a company” the simple response is “start a company and see if the company trajectory requires you to leave school.”