Is College a Waste of Time?

Author says his elite college did nothing for him and recommends skipping school to go into business.

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College is getting a bad rap these days. Despite the fact that research repeatedly shows that people with college degrees earn more and face lower unemployment rates compared to people without college degrees, more people are questioning the value of the degree—and whether it’s really worth the staggering cost of tuition. Businessman and philanthropist Peter Thiel offers young people fellowships to start their own businesses instead of going to college; one of the first recipients is Dale Stephens, founder of the website uncollege.org. 

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Even Madeline Follin and Brian Oblivion, two 22-year-old indie-pop musicians, take a shot at the institution this week in New York magazine, summing up many of their peers’ frustrations: “A lot of my friends who are college graduates are not doing so hot right now. We had an opportunity to start our own business, and we had to take it.” (For author Daniel Pink’s more traditional take on the college question, see How to Create a Career in the New Economy.)

Michael Ellsberg, author of the new book The Education of Millionaires, also argues that for many people, self-employment in lieu of college is the ticket to success today. US News spoke with Ellsberg, who attended Brown, about why he thinks college is such a waste of time. Excerpts:

Why did you feel like you needed to write this book?

I had two reasons. One was personal. When I was 32, two years ago, I was taking stock of my life. Everything I liked about my life came from me having learned it in the real world. I was in a wonderful relationship, my health was in good shape, my career and money were coming together. All of this happened because I learned to bring those things into my life. I started to think, “Why do we place so much emphasis on young people learning abstract academic stuff, and then don’t give them any way to learn real world things?”

The second reason is that my wife did not complete college. She dropped out her junior year and became a successful entrepreneur. She feels a lot of guilt and shame about her educational status, and I thought that was crazy. I wanted to tell the story of people like her so that people like her, including her, would not feel shame.

Do you want to discourage people from going to college?

It’s not my place to tell people whether they should or shouldn’t go to college. They have to make that decision themselves. Young people get exposed to almost no alternative view other than to go to college, and I want to open up the dialogue. There are so many other ways to educate yourself, and to have this be the single option that we give kids is crazy. If you want to go into law, medicine, or become an engineer, accountant, or dentist, it makes sense. But for the typical kid like I was, who isn’t really sure what they want to do and is trying to figure it out, and just wants a general introduction to becoming an adult, $50,000 a year is a very expensive price to pay for that.

Did Brown really do nothing for you?

Zippo. Zero. I had a great time there, but we should be asking more of our kids than did they have a great time. Brown actually hurt me as a writer. It thought me to write in a very academic way.

Didn’t it teach you skills such as critical thought?

I was a very passionate reader starting at age 16. College forced me to do reading I didn’t want to do. My message applies more to kids who are highly motivated. Being in such an extremely structured environment can actually hold you back. There are kids who don’t have a lot of motivation, and they should probably be in a more structured environment. The people who are going to found major companies and make major innovations in business, technology, and art—those are the kind of people who will probably do that no matter what, and college could be holding them back from making those contributions earlier, especially if they have to pay off a lot of debt to go there.

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What about all the research that suggests the unemployment rate is lower among college grads, and they earn higher salaries?

There is a big problem with those statistics. Correlation is different from causation. The fact that people who do better tend to also have college degrees doesn't necessarily mean that [the degrees] caused their success, it just means that smarter and more ambitious people tend to go to college. So if you're one of those people, you should question whether you need to spend $200,000…What if instead, you start a business? Then you could have a whole portfolio to show potential employees.

Are you saying that having a college degree doesn’t help you get a job?

It does in specific areas. Obviously if you want to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. The question is, can [a college degree] help you as much as going out and getting work experience, instead of spending four years racking up debt and writing papers on Shakespeare. About 80 percent of the job market happens informally…. through networking. You don’t need to go to college to build up a great network.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer


Corrected on 10/13/2011: A previous version of this story misidentified uncollege.org.