That’s how Steve Jobs described his decision to drop out of college, speaking in his now-famous 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University — and presumably striking terror into the hearts of parents who had always assumed their children’s successful futures would include a college degree. And who can blame them? After all, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics at that time was reporting that someone with a college degree could earn twice as much as someone with just a high school diploma, and that a high school graduate would be twice as likely to be unemployed as someone with a degree — figures that still hold true today.
But tell that to the college student who hears the siren song of entrepreneurship and longs to follow it to a future filled with the megabucks that dropouts like Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Mark Zuckerberg have earned. With commencement season upon us now, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to that impulse to leave college that so many students experience — especially students who’ve been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. When you’re young and brimming with ideas and dreams, it can be tempting to rewrite the script of your life to dispense with the ho-hum college scenes and just cut to the chase, where the hero founds a wildly successful startup and lives happily ever after. Sometimes the risk pays off. But data tells a different story, in which companies started by more highly educated founders tend to have more sales.
I think the important thing to remember in this scenario is that the choice doesn’t have to be quite so black-and-white. I advocate for a middle ground — one that honors both the ambition of today’s generation of budding entrepreneurs and the prudence of their parents. And I believe that education and industry can stake out that middle ground by working together to both support the entrepreneurial spirit and honor the educated, well-prepared mind. Also, completing a degree can work as one of the first and greatest lessons in setting a goal and achieving it, which is tested constantly when running a business.
Fortunately, I think we’re already seeing a trend away from the either-or mentality around entrepreneurship and education and towards a more mutually supportive relationship. In a 2013 survey by small business insurer Hiscox, 66% of small business owners around the world said that they believed their education system did not encourage individual ideas and dreams, two of the key ingredients in any recipe for entrepreneurship. That statistic is borne out by another study in which 81% of young people surveyed said they wanted to pursue entrepreneurship, but 62% weren’t offered entrepreneurship classes in college.