Personal Website and Blog for Akash Badshah

The Case for College

Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. Steve Jobs. All three of them reached a point in their lives when they felt it was necessary to drop out of college and pursue something more important that would eventually award each with billions. These three men, and others like them, beg the question: why go to college?

The simple answer is that you need to go to college to get a job. Many will argue that the technical things you learn in the classroom are just too valuable to let go. Others, that the name of a college on your resume is what prevents your job application from being thrown away on arrival. But with tuition skyrocketing and the status of the educational system under constant questioning, more and more people are wondering whether or not it is worth it.

In dealing with the college application process myself, I had to rationalize a college education to a lot of different people. I had to rationalize it to people who would look specifically at me and ask “why not just go straight into research?” More importantly, I had to rationalize it to myself when I encountered the general debate with other people and online.

I encountered that debate in articles like this one from FastCompany, about PayPal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel. The short story is that Thiel is giving $100,000 to around 20 different students to skip or drop college and go straight into the business world. Each of these kids is a prodigy, and there is no doubt that each of these kids will be immensely successful in their work, but I was immediately, and remain, skeptical of projects like these and more importantly the message they send, that college can be skipped.

I think that dropping out of college might work for some people, possibly these kids too, but for 99.9% of people I think college is necessary and important. The trouble with using Gates, Zuckerberg, or Jobs as examples is that they were outliers, in very special conditions (and they all did go to college for at least a short time). Each one of them encountered an opportunity, an urgent one that could not wait. That sense of urgency allowed them to look at college as it related to them, what it was offering them and what it wasn’t, and decide that something else was more important. Without that sense of immediacy, that need to leave college to pursue something bigger, I don’t think college can be ignored. By adding the incentive of a $100,000 grant, Thiel is taking a decision that should be difficult, and making it easier.

So what exactly makes college valuable? Its not necessarily the traditional reasons, about the value of the education or the importance of a name on your resume. College is valuable because of the opportunities provided by being at an intellectual institution, specifically with people of the same age.

On any given day in college you could find yourself attending a lecture by some prominent politician, or scientist, or philosopher. That kind of intellectual immersion could only be achieved in the real world with intense devotion to finding lectures like those. The same goes for the student competitions sponsored by companies and conferences that attract great minds from around the world. Any time you spend looking for those opportunities in the real world is time spent away from work on a specific project, from the end goal, but in college these opportunities are provided effortlessly, giving students the opportunity to really explore. The value of that exploration cannot be understated. That kind of exploration allows kids to find new ideas in their own field of study and to be exposed to other fields so that they might discover other interests, or at the least be a more aware person. If you drop college and begin working on a project, the only world you know is that project. What if that doesn’t work out?

What is most important about college, however, is the ability to spend time and build relationships with a lot of people of the same age. These people are not just friends, these are the people who will become your business connections and potential partners. At some point, everyone realizes that whatever great project they have going, they can’t do it alone. And finding partners, qualified partners who you can count on instead of just friends, is incredibly important. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg  both found new business partners in college, that would be pivotal to the success of their business. Attending college means meeting new people, from all walks of life, from every background, and with all types of skill sets, and that network is invaluable later in life.

The age of that network is what makes it most valuable. Every generation defines themselves in a different way, ours with social media for example. By learning, struggling, and working with people of the same age, it ensures that students are actually in touch with the current generation. This makes them competitive for later life. Students can only succeed on the opportunities provided to them by mentors and bosses for so long. After that point, they need to break off and succeed in their own right, at their prime. The relations that matter at that point are those of colleagues, not mentors.

Simply put, college offers a lot of opportunities. Opportunities to immerse yourself in new things in an environment loaded with free time. Opportunities to meet promising young people and build a network for the future. Opportunities to build yourself, rather than just a project.  Those opportunities can and always will be sacrificed by a select few students who have ideas so pressing that they cannot wait. For the rest who skip out on college, they simply don’t know what they are missing.

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Comments on: "The Case for College" (9)

  1. Rick Bhardwaj said:

    Nice post! Pretty much agree I guess.

    The thing is, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates never planned to drop out of college in the first place- otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered attending such expensive places. I can honestly be skeptical of college’s worth in some fields, but for engineering, it’s more or less necessary. Going into research without the background is going to be very difficult, especially considering it’s these very same colleges that are the premier institution for these research.

    As far as for entrepreneurship, Gates and Job came into the field when it was brand new and there was obviously a huge market to tap (namely, personal computing.) It was through no deficiency of college that they dropped out- they had a pretty extreme circumstance. If you’re talented enough to see an entire engineering field as untapped as Gates and Jobs did, then you are an exception. Otherwise, I don’t think their stories really are a knock against a good engineering education, especially now days with the superb computer/electrical advancements in teaching since then.

    Mark Zuckerberg, though, is another type of exception. He was just insanely good at making his idea into something big (unlike Gates, Jobs, or the Google guys, I don’t think Zuckerberg’s idea of Facebook was a really revolutionary engineering concept, it was just implemented and sold really well.) But like you said, he’s one of those really lucky 1%. The rest of them would benefit from the education, connections, and maturity you gain at college- as long as you look at college as more than a degree factory.

    I agree that Thiel’s idea is kind of non-sense. Even the brightest high school engineers have something to gain from the top engineering professors and the top engineering communities. College is a great place to cultivate opportunities like that (pretty much insert your last paragraph here haha.) I actually read about the guy when he was talking about investing in bioengineering. I don’t want to get involved in character assassination, but he was one of dozens of guys that claimed they founded PayPal, used that money to invest in a bunch of start-ups, got lucky with Facebook and is using that as his claim to fame (also, the Social Network might be involved.) I don’t think most investors would agree- they all value some college.

    Looks to be a great blog!

  2. “Without that sense of immediacy, that need to leave college to pursue something bigger, I don’t think college can be ignored.”

    Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed because of the financial stress it was putting on his working class parents.

    Your ideas are solid but if I was your English teacher I’d be discontent with your grammar. Alexis Ohanian agrees with your thoughts on connections: http://www.bloomberg.com/video/69911808/

    • You are completely right about the financial thing. That is one thing that I didnt go into in the piece. Financial concerns are a whole other beast all on their own, but if financial aid is forgiving (and it is much better nowadays as opposed to when Jobs was in college) then college is probably the better option financially in the long term. It is a really tricky issue when money is an immediate and pressing concern, as it sadly is for a lot of people who financial aid does not cover.

  3. So I strongly object to one thing you’ve mentioned in the last paragraph. “Opportunities to immerse yourself in new things in an environment loaded with free time.” Honey, if you’re going to MIT, you should reconsider your definition of “loaded.”

    • Right!!! But more free time than in the real world. Especially if you have a family in the real world. College kids find time to socialize and tend to want to go to things like these so they can put off work :) You probably have time to go to lectures and such. Correct?

  4. Rachel Sherman said:

    Well said, Akash. You’re going to be missed at Mudd next year.

  5. To what Kai said, in the real world (without kids, and maybe even with kids once they reach a certain age like 5) you have way more free time than in college. For example, everyday i come home from work, and chill by the pool for hours because I have nothing better to do.

    • I can’t really argue with that! But I know plenty of people that would disagree given their situation (my brother for example). I guess it all depends on your job and in college on your school. So then the most important factor is the immediate access to those resources without having to look for them.

  6. Olivier Fontenelle said:

    Totally agree. On a personal note, I wouldn’t have gotten my internship at Amazon without BEING in college. And Amazon is an incredibly innovative and entrepreneurial company, which is still constantly changing its day to day business. If I were to become an entrepreneur, I would use the opportunity to discover different companies and how those entrepreneurs did it, to then jump start my own ventures.

    And when you look at it, as a percentage of the whole, the number of successful entrepreneurs who didn’t graduate from college is actually pretty small. Gates, Jobs and Zuckerberg are just the “biggest” and most media-covered. Doesn’t mean that the guy who graduated from college, launched Zappos and made $500M didn’t do well ;-)

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