Home Why You’d Be Insane To Skip College For Startup Dreams

Why You’d Be Insane To Skip College For Startup Dreams

Given the gold rush going on in Silicon Valley right now, it’s not surprising that some young entrepreneurs think it’s time to drop out and start a company. Nor that billionaire VCs like Peter Thiel have started paying kids to skip school and build startups. 

Not surprising, but still stupid.

It’s not just about money, though that’s an easy reason to stay in school: Not graduating from college will cost you $500,000 over the course of your life. But the bigger reason for me comes down to experience—rather, the lack thereof—in unstudied entrepreneurs.

Serious Experience Deficiency

There’s no question that education pays. College graduates across the economy can expect to make significantly more than their diploma-less peers. As the economy becomes more competitive and more people sport degrees, this will only increase:

Credit: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

Which is why I found John Meyer’s farewell to NYU (“It’s not you, it’s me!”) a bit troubling. He writes:

In my field of work, a college education is not necessary. You do not have to go to college to be an entrepreneur and you do not have to go to college to develop software.

All true. But it’s also irrelevant, at least for his first contention. While I’d be the first to argue that the best place to learn to code is to download and use open-source software, it was at my university that I was first forced to grapple with foreign concepts and others’ opinions. 

In other words, I learned a little empathy. 

MongoDB’s vice president of business development, Vijay Vijayasankar, also points out the networking advantage of having college classmates:

One of Silicon Valley’s biggest problems is that too many waste time building stuff that doesn’t matter. Such “thin” products derive from entrepreneurs with thin life experience. What kind of meaningful products are you going to build if your life struggles so far don’t extend much beyond optimizing the speed of pizza delivery?

Silicon Valley already has enough of this, as software engineer Jeff Goldschrafe indicates:


Experience matters. Of course, there are different ways to gain experience. For example, when I was admitted to Stanford Law School, I was (pleasantly) shocked to discover that the school had given me a fellowship to help with tuition. As the financial aid director explained to me, it was part of their diversity outreach.

Now, I’m a white male from a middle class background, but I had something that set me apart and gave me a very different perspective from my peers: I had kids.

In my experience, the best entrepreneurs are those that build with empathy for their potential users and customers. Obviously, there are exceptions. But for every college dropout that makes it big, there are tens of thousands who don’t.

Employers Conspire To Create Robots

In fact, being able to skip college to play entrepreneur may require a certain socioeconomic status, one that most people don’t share, as Twitter’s Chris Aniszczyk intimates: 

Not that this has stopped employers from encouraging would-be entrepreneurs to join them. As Meyer writes of a conversation he had with an Apple marketing team lead:

She explained to me how in recent years, Apple has had more success with interns who are either college dropouts or in their first two years of higher education. She explained a trend the company had become very familiar with recently: when a college grad is hired, he or she tends to come in with a “textbook based mindset,” and is incapable of learning the unique ways in which things work in their marketing department.

I get why it might be better for Apple or other tech companies to create automatons in their image, but how can this be good for the entrepreneur? Instead of studying Steinbeck you instead learn how to optimize marketing collateral The Apple Way™?

But The Future Is Being Built Right Now!

There is a sense, however, that no matter how much it might make sense to stay in school, the reality is that SOMEONE ELSE MIGHT BUILD THE FUTURE! So Meyer feels that the opportunity cost of staying in school is way too high:

The startup space has never been more vibrant or exciting than it is today. I feel as if I have a duty to build all that I can during this time.

The funny thing about the future is it’s always being built today. I remember living in Silicon Valley in 1999, feeling like I was the only person that wasn’t making a billion dollars, and feeling just like Meyer, that the world was passing me by. 

Fifteen years and several startups later, I realize that there is always opportunity to build great things. In fact, it may be easier to do that when the industry isn’t so saturated with noise. 

Rather than feeling a “duty to build all that [he] can” at this time when his life experience is low, Meyer would be far better off to expand that experience with the diverse people, new thoughts and academic trials that school brings. In short, he’s right that “the best thing you can do is throw yourself out there and learn from experience,” but he’s wrong to think he’ll gain that breadth of thought from networking with like-minded entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

Lead photo by capture-the-light.at

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