Earning a college degree, taking an entry-level job, and slowly working your way up the promotion ladder has long been considered the safest path to success. But a slew of book authors, popular bloggers, and academics are increasingly urging a more do-it-yourself approach to getting ahead, and more young people appear to be following their controversial advice.
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In The Education of Millionaires, Michael Ellsberg argues that many young people would be better off skipping college altogether and going into business for themselves. "For the typical kid who isn't really sure what they want to do … and who just wants a general introduction to becoming an adult, $50,000 a year is a very expensive price to pay for that," he says. His own degree from Brown University, he says, proved useless in the real world, and in fact, he says his experience there made him a worse writer. Many of the most successful people in today's economy skipped college in favor of self-education, he writes.
Businessman and philanthropist Peter Thiel recently launched a fellowship program for entrepreneurial young people; the $100,000, two-year fellowship allows them to pursue their business idea instead of going to college. One of the first recipients was Dale Stephens, founder of the website uncollege.org, which encourages self-starters to look for alternatives to a traditional college education.
Meanwhile, Richard Vedder of the American Enterprise Institute has argued that colleges are failing to educate students while getting more and more expensive. Andrew Sum, an economics professor at Northeastern University, has pointed out that many young college graduates, age 25 and younger, are forced to take jobs in customer service and retail that don't make use of their college degrees, while these students are still paying dearly for them.
Not everyone is joining the movement, though. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce wrote: "Skipping college and settling for a lower-paying career simply is not a smart trade-off, despite hype to the contrary from pundits… They are just handing out bad advice to other people's children." Staying in school still pays off in the long run, he adds, especially if it gives students a way to avoid facing the high unemployment rates in today's job market.
But Ellsberg argues that's not a good enough reason to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, and says studies showing that unemployment rates are much higher for those without a college degree are misleading. "Correlation is not 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," he says. "What if instead, you start a business? Then you could have a whole portfolio to show potential employees," he adds.
Instead, Ellsberg urges people to educate themselves, and perhaps most importantly, to learn how to market themselves. "About 80 percent of the job market happens informally, and there are factors far more relevant to success than having a college degree—mainly being a great networker, knowing people who know people, and knowing people who have a pulse on economic opportunity," he says.
He acknowledges that in certain training-intense fields, such as medicine or law, a college degree is necessary. But for motivated young people who plan to go into business, art, or technology, there are better and cheaper ways to learn the necessary skills, he says.
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The debate between DIY-ers and traditionalists continues into the post-graduate career world, with a vocal group of entrepreneurs urging young people to break away from the corporate world and launch their own businesses instead. Bloggers and authors such as Pamela Slim (Escape From Cubicle Nation) and Chris Guillebeau (The Art of Non-Conformity) urge their followers to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams instead of following the conventional, step-by-step progression of old-school careers.
"There has never been a better time to go it alone… It's extremely cheap to start a low-cost business venture. If you can open shop without debt and without investing a ton of time, why wouldn't you?" says Chris Guillebeau. Among his micro-business suggestions? Start a coaching business based on whatever your skills are. Simply create a website and describe your offerings.
Now, the backlash to that movement has begun. In her new book, Blind Spots, career expert Alexandra Levit argues that too many young people are getting swept up in the self-employment trend, and that the vast majority would be better off simply working hard and making the most of their day jobs. "Running a business is harder than it looks, and the idea that entrepreneurship is the best solution for everyone is a myth," she says.
Ellsberg says that even people opting for a Levit-style, conventional approach need to learn how to be creative and sell themselves in today's job market, which he calls being an "entrepreneurial employee." Says Ellsberg, "If you don't know how to sell yourself, you'll always be begging for a job…. Everybody does some form of marketing. It's called sending out cover letters and resumes … A job interview is a sales session where the product on sale is you."
Welcome to the new economy.
Corrected on 10/13/2011: The previous version of this story misidentified the website uncollege.org.