Should Gen Z Entrepreneurs Skip College?
A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.
Should Gen Zers go to college? Given the stellar startup careers of non-college graduates like Zuckerberg, Ellison, Disney, Gates, Jobs, Branson and Dell, my opinion might surprise you.
In sports, outliers generate headlines. Basketball stars LeBrone James and Kobe Bryant achieved immediate success in the NBA as 18-yr old high school graduates. However, what about Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry? Ever heard of Jonathan Bender and Darius Miles? Like James and Bryant, these talented players opted to skip college, in favor of a professional career. Unlike James and Bryant, they were journeymen, not superstars.
The same is true in business, where outliers are given an outsized amount of attention. If you believe the mythology surrounding the handful of entrepreneurs who did not obtain a degree, you may think that the path to entrepreneurial success is enhanced by avoiding college. I must admit, I furthered this anti-college narrative with a provocative article about college dropout successes.
In my role as a Professor of Practice within UC Santa Barbara’s entrepreneurial Technology Management Program, I am confronted by several students each quarter who ask me if they should quit school to work on their ventures. My response is almost always the same; I think dropping out is a very bad idea.
Should I Stay Or Should I Go?
Here is an excerpt from an email I wrote to a student who asked me if she should drop out of school to run her business full-time because she was anxious “to do great things.”
“You are not the first student to pose this question to me. I have had the opportunity to communicate with several students who felt as you do, yet they remained in school and graduated. In each case, the students were glad they remained in school and snagged their diploma before launching their startups.
As a young person, I shared your desire, ‘to do great things.’ Rest assured, you are not currently wasting your time getting a degree. You will have ample time to make a huge impact on the world, after you graduate.”
Get More Than A Degree
College teaches young people many things beyond textbook facts and case studies, including:
Discover What You Don’t Want To Do — College affords students a chance to satisfy their curiosity by exploring areas of intellectual interest and learn not only what they want to do with their lives, but also what they don’t want to do. Once a graduate enters the work world, she loses this luxury of time and flexibility.
Learning To Learn — A sound college education includes gaining the insights into applying logic, researching data and assessing the veracity information. Wise students focus on taking advantage of college to learn how to learn, rather than focusing on simply regurgitating facts.
Peer Management — Group projects, albeit painful, are an extremely effective proving ground for a startup career. In their early stages, startups are generally meritocracies in which strong-willed, highly opinionated people must be encouraged to act in a certain way, rather than ordered to do so. College group projects force students to develop a diplomatic leadership style, in order to encourage their peers (whom they cannot order around) to accept their suggestions.
Mini-ventures — Remaining in college does not mean that students must put their entrepreneurial dreams on hold. Small ventures that can be run part-time allow students to gain hands-on experience. In addition, many college ventures have blossomed into full-fledged startups after graduation.
Network — Young entrepreneurs can call upon their alumni networks for advice, recruitment of key employees, partners and even funding.
Resources — Many campuses offer entrepreneurial students a variety of free resources, such as: incubators, accelerators, maker studios, mentor programs, venture competitions (with meaningful prize money) and even seed funding.
Maturity — For most people, the emotional growth that occurs between the ages 18 and 22 is significant. A college education provides young people with a safe environment to mature and learn from their mistakes during this critical time in their maturation. I lieu of college, a stent in the military or Peace Corps affords young people a safe, structured environment to develop emotionally and gain valuable, real-world experiences. In contrast, startups are highly unstructured and chaotic and not particularly conducive to self-reflection.
Although a number of notable entrepreneurs either dropped out or never attended college, they are the exception, not the rule. Yes, Kobie Bryant skipped college and had a stellar career. Yet, most successful NBA players earn a college degree, just like the majority of successful entrepreneurs.
Gen Zers: go to college, grow up a bit, establish a network of like-minded entrepreneurs, learn from your bad choices, do a few keg stands and graduate with the life skills that will equip you to change the world.
Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse.