Tech Culture vs Universities

When reading tech-twitter you can get the feeling from time to time that a lot of people lost the trust in colleges and universities as places to obtain the knowledge for a successful career in tech. Drop-Outs get worshipped and are presented as proof that no one needs a university degree. People considering a masters or even a bachelor are often confronted to just “join a company” or “start your own company” and learn along the way all they need. In general there seems to be a general discontent with the education status quo that leads many people to declare universities as useless.

I fundamentally disagree with this Assessment and I will explain in this article, why universities still are education powerhouses and why it is a good decision for most people to study at one even if they plan to start their own company or join a startup.

But first let’s take a step back and put the criticism in perspective. Most criticism can be put in two categories

  1. University Education is too expensive for what you get
  2. You won’t learn what you need to start your own company / be successful in a startup

Expensive University Education

Going to university is not free, this is definitely true in case of time cost but in most cases also financially. There are mostly two types of costs associated with attending a university:

  1. Tuition Costs
  2. Opportunity Costs

I will start with tuition costs and come back to opportunity costs at the end of this article for the sake of comprehensibility. Tuition costs is mostly a US problem. The overall startup world and tech scene, especially on twitter, is heavily dominated by the US, thus people mostly speak about US problems and view things through the US lens. So it makes sense to look at this from a broader perspective:

  • Tuition averaged >10.000 USD (public) and >36.000 USD (private) (only tuition) in the US in 2019/2020 per year [1].
  • Tuition can be much higher for high end universities

Only Chile (second most expensive country for university) is close to the United States in this. For all other developed countries the costs for attending a university is around half of that (like Canada, Australia), way less (like Netherlands, Spain), or its even free (like Germany, Norway) [2].

…the problem of tuition cost is rather a local bias of the US and not an such a big problem in most other countries…

On the other hand the US is also home to the worlds best universities. Like for all products if you want to have the High End product you will pay a substantial premium for the very best compared to a Good option. Whether that premium is worth it, is another question. It might be depending on your industry but usually more in terms of network access than in terms of actual hard skills learned.

The academic world is quite open and most people (including US Citizen) can attend a university in another country if they want to — the costs of a flight will be way less than what you safe. Taking a broader view on this shows us, that the problem of tuition cost is rather a local bias of the US and not an such a big problem in most other countries. Costs of 0–4000$/ year is negligible compared to the general costs of living in most developed countries.

University does not teach you the necessary skills

This point of criticism is even more crucial. If you don’t learn useful skills, then, no matter the cost, whats the point of visiting university? The answer to this question is hard to answer for all universities because programs and quality of teaching obviously vary but i will give my point of view on why the generalisation of this is false.

If you drop out of college, you still went to college.

People providing this argument usually refer to drop outs as well as successful founders who never attended a university (Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, …). This is a really bad argument for multiple reasons:

  1. If you drop out of college, you still went to college you just did not complete your curriculum. But your time at college almost certainly had an impact on that idea you dropped out for.
  2. It is pretty much the example case of survivorship bias. Yes there are successful founders that did not attend college but this says nothing without comparing it to the number of founders who failed and putting it in perspective to the relation of successful graduate founders. Also the pure existence of a success case doesn’t mean it is the ideal way for that success.
  3. Correlation does not equal causation. Just because two attributes occur at the same time does not mean that one is the reason for others. Close to 100% of successful startup founders ate bread during their youth, still no one goes around telling everyone they have to eat bread to successfully found a startup.

Despite this, the argument usually goes along the lines that college is too theoretical and you will be much better off by just working for a startup or going ahead and starting your own and learning along the way. There is a point to be made that a lot of university programs are theory focussed. But this is exactly the point. University is about teaching concepts, broadening your horizon and teaching you how to learn. They will teach you the tools you need for that as well (eg. coding) but its not the point to master these tools. Take computer science as an example, you will probably learn how to code in java during the first semesters. But that is not the point of studying computer science. The point is to learn how to structure and solve big problems, java is just a tool you might use along the way. Just like a gardener does master “gardening” in general and not “shovelling” but will use a shovel a lot along the way while doing so.

Just going ahead and focussing on the tool eg. as a self taught learner will give you faster short term benefits. You will become a java master quicker, people will be impressed by your fast coding and shipping. You will ship that first version of your app business faster. But the bigger things get the more important the theoretical underpinning becomes. The job of steering or working in a 500 people company is drastically different from steering or working in a 5 person company and significantly more abstract & theoretic.

It is fascinating how many scale-ups struggle with problems that academia has concepts and solutions or — their reaction usually is to hire experienced people to bring more structure and solve their problems. Interestingly a lot of these people have degrees. There is plenty of Research on how to build large Organisations for example. Also on a technical level don’t forget that the roots of silicon valley lie in research, which to a big degree happens at colleges.

Opportunity Costs

Opportunity costs describes basically the costs of not doing something else. If you spend your time on some activity A with a return of 5$ while not doing activity B which would earn you 7$ the opportunity costs of activity A is 2$.

The average bachelors is 4 years. To evaluate opportunity costs, one needs to assess what else they could do during these four years and what the potential upside of these activities would be.

  1. Learn on their own
    Learning on your own is a good option. There are a lot of offers online by now that help with self guided learning for technical skills. There are tons of books and material out there and costs might be lower than university. However there are a couple of drawbacks. First of all online programs are usually much more short term focussed and focus on tools “learn java script in x months” rather than concepts — depending on your goals this might not necessarily be a drawback. In addition not everyone is learning in the same way. There are different types of learners and a fully self guided form of learning might not work for a lot of people who lack motivation, are easy to distract or simply do not fully know what they want to do yet. Of course you will also not get a diploma (yes i know its BS, and shouldn’t really matter but the reality is it still does due to lack of a signalling replacement). And after all nothing prevents you from learning on your own in addition to attending a university.
  2. Start working for a company
    You will rarely get the opportunity to get a job in the same field that you wanted to study for. Few positions are filled only based on soft criteria or personality characteristics, and even for positions where hiring managers mostly rely on these over diplomas and hard skills (like its often the case for startups) someone without anything on their CV is unlikely to pass any initial screening.
  3. Start your own company
    Depending on the business this is rarely a good option unless (1) happened before. Building a company requires skills that are in demand. The basic education that school provides does usually not provide these skills nor do most people right after school have the life experience to assess business coherences sufficiently. If you do it as part of option 1, you could do it as part of your university studies as well.

University is a good investment for most people

I know a lot of people will have different opinions on my line of argumentation. I fully acknowledge that for some people there might be better options than going for that diploma. But few people really have a plan and are 110% motivated when they leave school. University helps people to get to know their skills, build networks with other intelligent people and learn skills as well as grow as a person at the same time. Universities, although teaching methods might be outdated, are still education and research powerhouses. Humanity would not be where it is today without them and it is simply wrong to view them as institutions to simply provide qualified workers to the economy as fast as possible. Go to university, study what you want, if you have a great business idea along the way or meet great co-founders: Do it, feel free to drop out. But “don’t waste your time by studying at a university” for most of the time was and still is a bad advice for most people and a dangerous denial of academia and science. Universities are to a large degree responsible for what moves us forward economically as well as from a cultural / human perspective, having more people pursue a higher degree of education ( I mean all sciences) is usually a very good thing for all of us.

Sources
[1]collegeboard.org
[2]businessinsider.com

Leading Product @ Klar.mx, formerly Onefinance, N26. Sharing my learnings from working in different startup ecosystems around the world.