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.