Caterina Fake recently wrote a post entitled “Want to be an entrepreneur? Drop out of college.” You may know Caterina better as the co-founder of Flickr, or more recently of Hunch.com. And she certainly has some good points. I especially like her observation that “College works on the factory model…” while “Entrepreneurship works on the apprenticeship model.” If you have a moment, her article is a quick and insightful read. However, I think she glosses over some facts that make her advice to drop out of college short-sighted at best.
Keep in mind that I understand and agree with Caterina’s view that there is no better way to be an entrepreneur than to get out there and do it. For this post, I am focusing on her end advice, rather than her motivation.
College Is More Than Academia
If you’re focusing on college as an institution solely to teach you academia in the classroom, then yes, it wouldn’t much further you on your path to entrepreneurship. However, college has many other, less quantifiable benefits. For instance, it vastly expands your network, teaches you how to relate to people with whom you have very little in common, and helps you improve your ability to learn.
I wrote an essay discussing the misperceptions of the purpose of college, involving the Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I think that applies perfectly here, so I won’t delve into it again.
Drop Out For a Concrete Reason, Not Some Abstract Concept
There is one thing that Caterina seems to have glossed over concerning every one of those people she mentioned that dropped out of college to become great successes. Each one had a very immediate and pressing need to drop out. None of them randomly said, “I don’t feel like staying here, I think I’ll drop out and spend some more time becoming an entrepreneur.” They each reached a tipping point in their careers where they needed to decide between one or the other. They reached a point where college legitimately got in the way of their companies and their opportunities.
I’m going to go out on a limb here (though I would never presume to speak for Caterina, as I do not know her) and assume that Caterina is not advising young entrepreneurs to drop out of college before they have some idea of what they’re trying to do. And for my part, I would never advise anyone to pass up an amazing opportunity just to stay in college. If I had ever been forced to make the decision, I would have dropped out as well. But I never had to choose. And I think many people don’t need to choose. There’s often no reason you can’t do both.
For some, dropping out of college may indeed be the right thing to do. I personally couldn’t and didn’t need to, so I finished college while running my companies.
College Can Create Opportunities
Furthermore, when you’re a young entrepreneur, you face a lot of skepticism from older, more experienced entrepreneurs. Try introducing yourself as the founder/owner/CEO of anything at the ripe-old age of 23 and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Having a degree or two goes a long way toward building credibility for yourself and your endeavors. It shows that you do, indeed, have the wherewithal to follow long-term struggles through to completion without giving up. In many ways, it can create opportunities for you that you couldn’t imagine.
No, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did not need the credibility of a college degree. But they were also very fortunate to have amazing luck throughout their lives. I’m not saying they aren’t extremely intelligent; they were able to take advantage of their luck in ways most are not. Just give Outliers and Founders at Work a read for a chronicling of their amazing luck (and the luck of many other famous founders).
Sure there are some great entrepreneurs who dropped out of college, but there are also great entrepreneurs who earned a college degree. How about Warren Buffet, Dan Gilbert, and Donald Trump just to name a few? Just because there are a few high-profile entrepreneurs who dropped out of college to find their success does not mean dropping out was the main cause (or even a contributing cause) of their success. This causal oversimplification is known as the Fallacy of the Single Cause.
Understand the Real Benefits of College Before Dismissing It
I suppose it’s time for some sort of point here. What am I trying to say exactly? I’m saying that college is an amazing learning experience for anyone fortunate enough to have the opportunity. It doesn’t just allow you to grow, it teaches you how to grow.
No, college isn’t for everyone. Great arguments could certainly be made both for and against finishing college. But it can be a great experience if you make it a great experience. Don’t get so caught up in the academia and the grades. Go ahead and start a company (or two). Start a rock band. Join as many clubs as possible. Play some sports. Go to house-parties. Begin new relationships. Build a network that you can keep for the rest of your life. Keep your eyes open for opportunity. Drop out if necessary. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to finish college and get your degree.