Is College a Waste of Time for Young Entrepreneurs?

Last Updated May 31, 2011 9:33 AM EDT


Last week, Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, announced that his foundation had just chosen its first class of "20 Under 20 Thiel Fellows." It's a group of wiz kids that will receive $100,000 each over two years to pursue their entrepreneurial ventures, all of which are in the science and technology fields. Sadly, only two of the awardees are young women, but that's another subject for another post. What has the media buzzing is Thiel's requirement that his fellows either forgo or drop out of college. As someone who chronicles the journeys of young entrepreneurs, I do understand that college requirements and costs can be oppressive to anyone who is trying to start a business. But as a mom who is a believer in higher education (and has the dwindling bank account to prove it), I also cringe at Thiel's audacity. College is not, after all, just about setting the stage for a future career.
I wondered how others felt, so I posted a link to Thiel's announcement to my Facebook wall and, much to my delight, two friends who don't know each other but who both know me well, had a spirited debate. Lanny Goodman is an entrepreneur, author, consultant, and my contemporary. Max Samis is a 23-year-old graduate of Ithaca College and is the marketing and e-commerce coordinator at G-III Apparel Group. Max is also starting a company called Housing Valet. I'm posting their conversation here because it's smart and thought-provoking. Give it a read and tell me where you stand!
Lanny Goodman: What we don't need in this country is more uneducated entrepreneurs with no sense of history, culture or values other than making money. I'm sorry, but business is about living. Life is not about business. Without education and a larger context than making money, how are we to make rational decisions that benefit society and the planet for generations to come rather than just what will benefit our shareholders for the next quarter?

Max Samis: College will always be there. The social norm that it MUST come immediately following high school or in the form of a four-year/120 credit degree should be challenged. I have a lot of respect for companies whose job board descriptions read "college degree OR really cool drop out story!"

I think the experience of starting your own business is invaluable. Personally, success/failure in my own ventures has taught me much more than success (good grades) in many of my undergraduate classes. Think about the large percentage of students judged mostly on their GPA who happen to perform poorly on tests. Can you imagine the increase in innovation our nation would see if for one of the four undergraduate years students interested in starting their own business could invest $40,000 (let's say one year's tuition) in a personal venture with a fraction of that going towards mentorship and guidance?

Lanny, I agree with your statement that life is not about business but education as we know it in this country is an extremely broken system largely responsible for that way of thinking.

LG: Max, I sense in your comments and underlying presumption that is common in this country: that higher education is about vocational training. Graduate school is vocational training. An undergraduate degree is about becoming an educated human being able to read the newspaper with a sense of historical context, critical thinking skills to protect us from political or other demagoguery, problem solving skills so we don't have to rely on rote solutions or fall back on dogma.

Do these skills always lead to financial success? No. Do they lead to a more enlightened society where open dialogue can be maintained around difficult issues such as foreign policy, energy policy, the meaning of separation of church and state: issues that will powerfully impact the lives of future generations? I argue that they do indeed.

Do many kids go to college to party and waste their precious opportunity? No doubt. Then shame on us as parents for failing to imbue our children with a love of learning, reading, and intellectual curiosity about who we are and where we are going as a species. Without that self-awareness, what's left is make money, buy stuff, throw stuff away, make more money, buy more stuff...

MS: Thank you, Lanny. I know many graduates from top-tier universities who have still failed to become educated human beings according to your definition as well as an equal amount who have, yet value financial success more than social responsibility.

That's not to say for a second I don't agree with the importance of all of those skills. I love the idea of those defining moments in the classroom where students become teachers through discourse under the guidance of an enlightened, unbiased professor. The reality is that those moments (and professors) have become rare, astronomically expensive, and out of reach to a majority of those who need them most.

My argument is simply that we have outgrown the cookie-cutter definition of an undergraduate education. It is no longer one size fits all. Skills such as critical thinking and problem solving can, and should be attained and perpetually developed outside the classroom so that a connection between them and the world we live in today can be uniquely formed by the individual.

LG: Points well made, Max. No one would argue that the education system needs a serious overhaul (except probably the educators themselves). But I don't think Thiel's approach is the answer. In fact, it has spawned a blog post, if you're interested. Thanks for the intelligent conversation!

So what do you think? Should our most promising young entrepreneurs bail out of higher education to start and grow their companies? Should colleges and universities do a better job of making it attractive for entrepreneurial kids to stay in school? Weigh in!

Image of Peter Thiel courtesy of Flicker user TechCrunch50-2008, CC 2.0

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  • Donna Fenn

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