Friday, August 27, 2010

Why I Don't Ditch College: An Entrepreneur's Opinion

By Tyler Mahoney

There is an old argument for avoiding higher education: "Bill Gates dropped out of college and he's one of the richest men in the world." Isn't that convincing? Along the same lines, many students and parents have noted that Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college to run Facebook, and have marveled at how successful he is now.

In the past week a battery of arguments against attending college have sprouted across the Internet. Columnist James Altucher at Daily Finance wrote "Seven Reasons Not to Send Your Kids to College" and fellow Huffington Post blogger Danny Wong wrote a personal treatise called "Why Ditch College?" Wong says grand life experiences await those who beat their own paths. Altucher says college is a scam and not much more, and one's time would be better spent working, volunteering, or reading.

With the soaring price of college education, these arguments make some sense. Yet Altucher throws the baby out with the bath water when he says, "the entire college degree industry is a scam, a self-perpetuating Ponzi scheme that needs to stop right now." I offer a defense of American post-secondary education. Simply running the tuition numbers and telling people to be entrepreneurs in no way makes up for the personal development and career advantages you can gain by attending college.

College education, especially at private institutions, is prohibitively expensive. But an education should not be judged solely on return on investment: personal growth and achievement cannot be measured on an investment principle. I'm highly critical of our education system: it's outdated and often forgets to put students first. But a quick survey of the facts makes it clear that college isn't as bad a choice as Altucher and, to a lesser extent, Wong would have you believe.

James Altucher and Danny Wong have both presented scenarios where becoming an entrepreneur makes more sense, but they fail to demonstrate how plausible it is for someone straight out of high school to get a business off the ground. Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gateses aren't born every day. Boot strapping a start-up is time consuming and emotionally draining. You have to be prepared for high stress and very little income for a year, maybe two. All the while you have to keep a positive attitude, network, and push aside all the snake oil salesmen who promise you the world. It's difficult work and even the best and brightest fail. You might learn a lot about the limits of how long a person can go without sleep, but you'll miss the chance to delve into truth, meaning, and character.

In my college experience at Seattle University and my continuing studies at Duke University, I've been able to explore who I am and where I want to go in life. I hung out for four years digging into the minds of St. Augustine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Albert Camus. Most importantly, while attending a Jesuit university, I got to learn from the master of discernment and self-actualization himself, Ignatius of Loyola.

Was it expensive? Yes. Could I get that same experience on my own? Probably not. Running the tuition costs should only be one metric of the many that inform your decisions about college. Yes you'll find debt, but you also get a chance to find out who you are, network with future players in countless industries, and master the all-important art of critical thinking (assuming, that is, you don't spend four years with a blood alcohol level high enough to constantly keep you from the wheel of a car).

The doors that have opened up in my own start-up, Churchrater, continue to swing wide because of my education. I walk, talk, and write about religion and I learned those skills while getting my B.A. in Theology at Seattle University and my M.Div at Duke. That's how I landed my company in the pages of USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, and ReadWriteWeb.
I got internships because I went to SU and now people return my emails because I go to Duke University. You can be an entrepreneur without college, but be prepared for an uphill battle on the highest difficulty setting. If you want people to take you seriously, silly letters like J.D., B.A., M.S. or Ph.D at the end of your name help. But what helps even more is if you know who you are and where you want to go in life. If you treat college like a tool to enter the middle class that's fine, but you can also treat it like an incubator to make real waves in this world. Observe, learn, and gather as many skills as you can. Student debt won't be a problem after your first venture capital round goes through.

Those of us who do go to college could bypass our education and start working straight away. For instance, I could follow in the footsteps of my favorite religious figure and become a carpenter. It pays well, and though the work is hard I know I could one day establish myself as a business owner. But I don't want to be a carpenter: I've found a field that challenges, enriches and fulfills me, that helps others, and that allows me to build the world I want to live in without ever having to lift a hammer. College makes this possible for many young adults who don't measure their success in dollars and cents but in the kind of careers they hold. Social workers, teachers, and journalists rightly use college as a springboard to the jobs they want, not the jobs that pay the best.

Mr. Wong is taking time off from school to focus on his start-up, Blank Label. As a full time graduate student with my own start-up, I fully understand the time demands it takes to do both. Power to you, Mr. Wong, I respect your choice to define yourself and grow along with your company. Yet Mr. Altucher's advocacy to not attend college is a shortsighted attempt to explain the real cost of college. If he had some creativity he'd tell parents to send their kids to state school and use the money they save to recruit a few business majors to run their child's start-up. For a generation of team players, colleges are the new incubator for entrepreneurial advancement and personal growth.

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