For some, entrepreneurship proved to be a better route to financial success than sitting in class.
Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard before finishing his degree in computer science. He's one of the better known Ivy-league dropouts next to Bill Gates, who coincidentally spoke to Zuckerberg's Harvard class many years ago, encouraging Mark and his classmates to take time off because Harvard could always be a fallback. Gates certainly turned that notion on its head.
Similarly, two of the four NYU students who have been working on Facebook-rival social network Diaspora are planning to leave school to work fulltime on the project. And now Facebook-backer and PayPal co-founder, Peter Thiel, is offering teens $100,000 to put school on hold to focus on developing innovative tech ideas.
Thiel (who will also be a keynote speaker at Thursday’s Vator Splash event) announced Tuesday his new “20 Under 20” program, which will award grants of $100,000 to 20 entrepreneurs under the age of 20 for developing interesting new tech business ideas.
The two-year program, which was announced at a TechCrunch Disrupt event in San Francisco, will begin accepting applications early in the third quarter. The Thiel Foundation website says the program is open to anyone under the age of 20 who wants to pursue an entrepreneurial interest in any tech field, although Thiel is partial to artificial intelligence, space exploration technologies, biotech, and aerospace engineering.
But the under-20 mandate essentially requires applicants to forego college, if not dropout altogether. Thiel refers to it as “stopping out of college,” but let’s face it—if some 18-year-old suddenly hits it big with the next Facebook or iTunes, he or she probably isn’t going to care too much about that nebulous degree in philosophy (sorry liberal arts majors, but you're the easiest to pick on).
In his on-stage interview at TechCrunch Disrupt, Thiel explained that while in college, students “do learn a lot, but the don’t really learn much about entrepreneurship.”
Personally, I find this a little disconcerting. Why does a teenager have to choose between college and entrepreneurship? Why not establish the same grant for college seniors under the age of 25 under the condition that they must finish school first?
Thiel clarified via email: “The big problem with colleges and startups is that the amount of debt people are taking on in college is becoming prohibitively large and is preventing students from doing anything risky (or not well-paying) after college. I’d like a world in which people could do both, but I think this is increasingly difficult because of the out-of-control college costs.”
While I agree that the skyrocketing cost of college poses a very real problem for young entrepreneurs who may be too saddled with debt after school to want to take anymore financial risks, I don’t agree that encouraging them (with lots of money) to choose starting a business over school is the solution.
Of course, there is the argument that it is possible for someone without a college degree to be a successful entrepreneur. Just look at Mark Zuckerberg. Now the 35th wealthiest person in America (Steve Jobs comes in at number 36) and one of the youngest billionaires on the same Forbes list, Zuckerberg is hailed as a dropout success story.
Or look at Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard in 1975 to focus fulltime on Microsoft (in 2007 he was awarded an honorary law degree from Harvard). He has consistently made number one on Forbes’ list of America’s wealthiest people (although for all of his money, he still doesn’t appear to be willing to spring for a snazzier haircut).
So is college really necessary to be a successful entrepreneur? Based on Zuckerberg’s and Gates’ stories: no. But that’s a pretty oversimplified approach to the issue.
Entrepreneur-turned-academic, Vivek Wadhwa, who teaches at Harvard, Duke, and UC Berkeley, argues that not everyone can be a Zuckerberg or a Gates, and that if you look at the people that Facebook employs, Zuckerberg is the only college dropout. In fact, all of Facebook’s top employees have undergraduate degrees from fairly prestigious schools, and most have advanced degrees as well.
Of course, this is the very point that Thiel makes regarding to the “20 Under 20” program. Young people should be encouraged to take risks and endeavor to become the next Zuckerberg or Gates. The burden of student debt in addition to what Thiel sees as traditional education’s habit of preparing students for safe, stable jobs as employees is ultimately preventing those same students from trying out something new and dangerous. Maybe they won’t become the next Zuckerberg, but they might come close and come up with a pretty good idea nonetheless.
What is the value of a college education?
But the problem that I have with this idea isn’t that young applicants might fail miserably or even that students need a college education to develop the skills and experience needed to ultimately run a successful business (which is also true—Zuckerberg isn’t running the Facebook show on his own. His highly-educated comrades are bringing in the business sense), but the fact that it pits a college education directly against entrepreneurship.
Comparing college to entrepreneurship in terms of long-term payoff doesn't take into account the fact that a college education offers so much more than skill-development and number-crunching experience. It offers students a comprehensive understanding of social and cultural issues, as well as civic responsibility and what it truly means to be an engaged and informed citizen.
I can think of classes that I took up until my last day of college that changed the way I viewed the world. Even something as simple as a college-level Algebra class made me realize that I can do math and that there is no such thing as a brain that simply can’t do something (I still probably shouldn’t be the one calculating up the tip at the end of a group meal at a restaurant, but I digress…).
What if one of those students who drops out of college (or “stops out” and chooses not to go back) ends up missing out on that Ethnic Studies course that would have changed the way he or she views the current situation for Mexican migrant farm workers? Or never takes the Gender Studies class that would have made him or her realize that there is an unhealthy dearth of women in the fields of science and technology?
True—those students might never have taken those classes in the first place, but they never will if they are told that college is incompatible with entrepreneurship, and they must choose before the age of 20.