Most parents dream of seeing their kids graduate from a good college. The assumption is that the vaunted degree will guarantee a successful career, the closest thing to being financially stable, and ultimately, a happy, fulfilling life.

But a number of authors and high-profile businesspeople and entrepreneurs are debunking the notion that college is the best solution. They’re questioning whether paying tens of thousands of dollars and investing four or five years in an institution should be the default for young people when so many more options exist. With free, high-quality education available to anyone, is college necessary? These folks say no.

  1. BILL GATES. “Five years from now on the Web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world,” said the Microsoft founder, famous Harvard dropout, and controversial figure in education last fall. In 2007, he told the Harvard graduating class in a commencement speech, “I’m a bad influence. That’s why I was invited to speak at your graduation. If I had spoken at your orientation, fewer of you might be here today.” Gates has said that learners of all kind should be able to receive credit for any kind of learning they do, and college shouldn’t necessarily be “place-based.”
  2. PETER THIEL. The co-founder of PayPal is giving $100,000 to 24 people under 20 years old on the condition that they drop out of school for two years and start a business. Thiel’s offer was intriguing enough to attract hundreds of applicants and to even lure a few away from Harvard and Stanford. Check out who made the cut. The youngsters have big plans, too — from decentralizing banking in the developing world with a mobile payment system to bringing Web-based videos and mobile apps into the classroom.
  3. RICHARD ARUM. The author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, maintains that going to college does little to develop an important life skill: critical thinking. Arum and co-author Jospia Roksa presented a study involving 2,300 students at 24 universities that showed “more than a third of students showed no improvement in critical thinking skills after four years at a university.” “Our country today is part of a global economic system, where we no longer have the luxury to put large numbers of kids through college and university and not demand of them that they are developing these higher order skills that are necessary not just for them, but for our society as a whole,” Arum told NPR.
  4. DALE STEPHENS. He’s just 19 years old, but that might make the founder of the UnCollege movement even more convincing a figure. Stephens (who recently discovered he’s one of Thiel’s funded proteges), is working to create a site called Radmatter, where people can compile all the formal and informal education and work experience on a site that verifies the information for potential employers. “What a college degree says is, ‘I’m arbitrarily trainable, I’m competent in specific areas, I can follow directions,'” Stephens told me in a recent interview. “You can demonstrate those three things in nontraditional fashion.” Read the Letter to Parents, written by his mother who applauds Stephens for his courage and ambition.
  5. JAMES ALTUCHER. The hedge-fund trader and former software writer did go to college, but he says that gives him the right to criticize it. “[People] say, ‘Look, college teaches you how to think, network, write.’ Personally, I didn’t learn how to do any of those things in college,” he told New York Magazine recently. Altucher encourages young people to veer away from their prescribed path to college and start living a little first. He recommends starting a business, writing a book, working at a charity, even mastering a sport before committing to spending time and money in an institution that doesn’t guarantee future success.

Whether or not it’s intentional, this point of view seems to be gaining traction among college students. According to New York Magazine, the U.S. now has the “highest college-­dropout rate in the industrialized world, and in terms of 25-to-34-year-olds with college degrees, it has fallen from first to twelfth.”

But in the current job market, how do employers perceive those who don’t have a college degree? What happens to the vast majority of people without degrees who don’t strike gold with a winning entrepreneurial scheme? And what of the social benefits of going to college? Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, recently said at a conference that he’s conflicted about his decision to drop out of Harvard.

“We have this culture that everyone should go to college, but not everyone should,” he said. “I dropped out of college, but college was awesome. I don’t know, it’s valuable. The most valuable thing for me was having that time with other students. If I had a chance to finish college, how many more awesome people would I have met? It’s not that I’d want to go back to take specific courses. But if we as a society can afford to make that investment, it’s a good investment. Other socieities can’t.”

  • Carlson Antje

    I heard the interview on NPR…. excellent and I could not agree more. Vocational Ed is synonymous with “doesn’t have what it takes” and I could not be more outraged about it. Somehow the country is missing the message that we need skilled labor and those who have skills don’t have to be ashamed. I listen to parents telling me, a high school teacher, we expect (!) our daughter / son to go to college and the decision is already made. No ifs, ends or buts. Having taught some of these children and seen them struggle, I point out the possibility of vocational ed school. I emphasize and tell the parents that vocational ed is a laudable and valuable education but I only get confused looks and in one instance the principal received a complaint letter. I have been promoting exactly this message for years now but I feel I am talking to a wall.   

  • Anonymous

    Sing it, Sister! I wish I had gone to college for the “collegial experience,” but not having attended university has not hampered me. I did a 9 month tech school for computer programming in what are now very dead languages, and then took a 20 month vo-tech electronics associate degree program.

    I was hired by Bell Laboratories (back east) not because of my education per se, but because I showed critical thinking skills, problem solving skills and trainability. I continued to develop my ad hoc tech skills becoming a technology generalist. That coupled with my critical thinking skills landed me in San Jose and comfortably paying a mortgage in 1992 when I was 28.

    Find something you enjoy doing, and do it well. I also have to recognize that what I enjoyed doing was very fortunately part of the oncoming technological boom. So I was also very lucky.

    If you put any weight into Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, Mr Gates needs to recognize his luck as well as his pluck. Nothing can beat being in the right place at the right time. 

    I think that can be the other plus of critical thinking skills: put them to use in keeping your eye out for the right places during your own times, and maneuvering to be there. I don’t think there is a course for that at university.

  • I spent 10 years working on my undergrad degree while I struggled to make enough money to take care of myself.  I went on to complete my Master’s and PhD, and can definitely confirm that a college degree has made all the difference in my career.  I easily acknowledge that this isn’t the best path for all individuals, and in my teaching, encourage my students to follow their passion, wherever it leads them.  There are many careers, and passions, that would be extremely hard to achieve without very focused study and resources to support that study, such as a doctor, cancer researcher, bioengineer, or world class performance artist.

    I’ve always had an entrepreneurial side, and left academia for five years after I became tenured.  Eventually, I returned to the “institution.”  Even in today’s society, people still associate a university affiliation with a level of quality and objectivity that you don’t always achieve in the private sector, oftentimes making it easier to be successful.  When used wisely, college can be a location to develop a critical network that can be used throughout life to achieve success and work toward fulfillment of your dreams.

    Gates is correct that learning doesn’t need to be “placed-based,” and
    there should be mechanisms for awarding credit for informal learning. 
    We’re working on a project now called 3D GameLab that helps achieve this
    end.  However, Mr. Gates comments about finding the “best lectures in
    the world” on the internet are a very limited way of thinking about
    quality education in the 21st century, as lecture format, in schools or
    online, is a very limited and passive approach to learning.

  • Nghia-Piotr

    I applaud and send my deepest regards to those who have done great things without college. However, from my personal experience and from my family history, I firmly believe that education can help most people who do not have the drive or the talent to achieve the great things in such a young age such as those in the Thiel Fellowship. Me being one of those who need college and the education it provides. 

    I think that Mr. Gates is correct, there is a great wealth of lectures from MIT, UC Berkeley etc that one can access. However, when one graduates from those institutions one can sport a degree, while a self taught, Will Hunting persona, will not. Reverberating the scene from “Good Will Hunting” where the aforementioned main character encounters a conceited Harvard student. The truth of the matter is that for most of people, that I know of, will need a college degree to fruitfully pursue a career. Without one, an employer will not even look at our resumes regardless of how many high level math problems we can solve. 

    That is the sad truth. I agree that college may not be for everyone, I believe that if one has the conviction and the know-how to do great things without college, they should do it with all of my most sincere wishes. However, college, for most people, is necessary to breakthrough into a better life. My father being the prime example of a person who broke through from crushing Vietnamese, rural, poverty into prosperity.

  • Im an enterpreneur here in Brazil and, like many examples from the text, also dropped college. Actually I tryed 4 different ones but dropped then all. Im taking a chance since nowdays you cant get a job without a college (you can but its REALLY HARD), so im building my own business (have 1 running and 2 others on the way). 

    The thing is, if they dont work im going to get in some serious problem. The funny part is that knowing this is allowing me to be even more efficient in what im doing, my life depends on it.But the main reason that made me drop the college? I saw that I could learn twice as fast by myselft on the web. So I felt like wasting time… well at least not all the time sincei can say that i have gained a lot in social skills, dealing with different people, living by myself and such.Anyway for me a college degree values depends on what you pretend to be and what is your dream. If you want to be a doctor theres no other option, a college is going to offer the knowledge you going to need to work and you cant get that from nowhere else.
    But if you are like me, I think you have to take a chance and chase your dream and a college is nowhere near the top in the Important Things list.

  • I’m doing it, meaning I am an entrepreneur without a college degree, and I see the importance in furthering my education inside and outside the classroom.  I have a sister in her late 40’s that went back to college and graduated the top of her class.  I might do it sooner than later, meaning obtaining a college degree for personal reasons (everyone has to have a reason to go to college in my opinion), but I also strongly believe that my decade of trial and error, building, growing, understanding life, running a business, and staying alive is worth any degree from any university, with honors.  Common sense, innovation, the ability to create is not just for those with degrees from college, it’s for everyone.  I think jobs should look at the whole person and their particular experience and judge it fairly and openly so the best person for the position has the chance to be hired, with or without a degree.  Ok.  Sunday sermon

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