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Should You Drop Out of College to Start a Business?

Last week, Seth Priebatsch, the CEO and founder of SCVNGR, wrote a post over at The Huffington Post encouraging young people with entrepreneurial aspirations to drop out of college. "Ten days before my 20th birthday, I received a check for $750,000," he boasts. "On my 21st, I received a check for $4 million. As for my 22nd birthday, well ... that's a long ways away. Who knows what'll happen?" Priebatsch is talking about investments that Highland Capital Partners and Google Ventures made in SCVNGR, a location-based gaming platform. And he seems to feel pretty certain that none of this would have been possible had he remained at Princeton. He may be right. But that makes me sad.
I've been stewing about Priebatsch's "drop-out" advice because for the most part, I think it's dreadful counsel. Except when it's not. As a parent who pays two college tuitions, I'm a strong believer in the importance of higher education not just because I think degrees will help my kids get good jobs (fingers crossed), but because the college experience is making them better, smarter, and more interesting people. They have the rest of their lives to start companies if they choose to do that, but when else will they be free to study art history, read great books, learn to write well, or become fluent in another language? And from a more practical standpoint, they're creating relationships with peers and professors that will enrich them personally and professionally for a lifetime. Alumni networks span generations and college loyalties, for better or worse, are often deep and passionate.

But what happens when a college student has an entrepreneurial itch that just can't be scratched within the confines of an institution of higher learning? When I was writing Upstarts!, I heard many stories of students leaving school to focus on their companies. Among them are Tom Szaky (TerraCycle), Ben Kaufman (Quirky), Caleb Sima (SPI Dynamics), Brendan Ciecko (Ten Minute Media), Brad Weinberg and Rajiv Kumar (Shape Up the Nation). Some were clearly not academically inclined from the get go; others just could not manage a company and school at the same time, and the former took precedent. I doubt that any of them regret their decision, but I wish that they had not been forced to make it. And for that, I blame the colleges and universities that they attended and left.

Entrepreneurship as a career path is now wildly popular and it's my view that GenY will emerge as the most entrepreneurial generation in history. But colleges and universities are way behind the curve on this trend. Sure, there are now over 400 endowed chairs in graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship programs with more than 200,000 students, according to the Kauffman Foundation. But if you're well on your way to starting a company as a freshman, a class or two in entrepreneurship is not going to keep you happy and it's probably not going to help you grow your company. Unless you've got someone on the outside helping you run the show (Catherine Cook at had her brother at the company while she was attending Georgetown; Sean Belnick attended Emory while his step father ran, I guarantee you'll be headed for the door before the end of your sophomore year.

Here's my radical solution: colleges and universities need to come up with a whole new curriculum for young entrepreneurs so that they can continue to learn the skills they need to succeed in business but still have access to the incredible resources that higher learning offers. Maybe that means more on-campus incubators and business plan competitions, opportunities for students to work with and be mentored by local entrepreneurs, and more flexible grading and semester systems because businesses rarely evolve according to the academic calendar. And while they're there, it's my fondest hope that they'll also learn a language, read a little Shakespeare, and study with just one amazing professor who peaks their interest in something totally unexpected. It would also be great if they would learn the proper usage of your and you're (see image at left, which I'm pretty sure was created by an entrepreneur who dropped out of college).

Did you leave college to start a company? Do you have any regrets? Tell us about it.

Free Falling photo courtesy of Flickr user LaertesCTB, CC 2.0