Should Millennial Entrepreneurs Skip College?


A version of this article previously appeared on Forbes.

Should millennial entrepreneurs go to college? Given the stellar startup careers of non-college graduates like Zuckerberg, Ellison, Disney, Gates, Jobs, Branson and Dell, the answer to this question might surprise you.

In sports, outliers generate headlines. Basketball stars LeBrone James and Kobe Bryant achieved immediate success in the NBA as 18-yr old high school graduates. However, what about Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry? Ever heard of Jonathan Bender and Darius Miles? Like James and Bryant, these talented players opted to skip college, in favor of a professional career. Unlike James and Bryant, they were journeymen, not superstars.

The same is true in business, where outliers are given an outsized amount of attention. If you believe the mythology surrounding the handful of entrepreneurs who did not obtain a degree, you may think that the path to entrepreneurial success is enhanced by avoiding college. I must admit, I furthered this anti-college narrative with a provocative article about college dropout successes.

In my role as a Professor of Practice within UC Santa Barbara’s entrepreneurial Technology Management Program, I am confronted by several millennials each quarter who ask me if they should quit school to work on their ventures. My response is almost always the same; I think dropping out is a very bad idea.

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Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

Here is an excerpt from an email I wrote to a student who asked me if she should drop out of school to run her business fulltime because she was anxious “to do great things.”

“You are not the first student to pose this question to me. I have had the opportunity to communicate with several students who felt as you do, yet they remained in school and graduated. In each case, the students were glad they remained in school and snagged their diploma before launching their startups. 

As a young person, I shared your desire, ‘to do great things.’ Rest assured, you are not currently wasting your time getting a degree. You will have ample time to make a huge impact on the world, after you graduate.”

Get More Than A Degree

I recently spoke to an international group of entrepreneurship professors at San Diego State University’s Lavin Entrepreneurship Center. I asked them to devise reasons an entrepreneur should remain in college.

Nearly all the Professors agreed that students should stay in school, even if their venture is doing well. Their most persuasive argument was that college teaches young people many things beyond textbook facts and case studies, including:

Discover What You Don’t Want To Do – College affords students a chance to satisfy their curiosity by exploring areas of intellectual interest and learn not only what they want to do with their lives, but also what they don’t want to do. Once a graduate enters the work world, she loses this luxury of time and flexibility.

Learning To Learn – A sound college education includes gaining the insights into applying logic, researching data and assessing the veracity information. Wise students focus on taking advantage of college to learn how to learn, rather than focusing on simply regurgitating facts.

Peer Management – Group projects, albeit painful, are an extremely effective proving ground for a startup career. In their early stages, startups are generally meritocracies in which strong-willed, highly opinionated people must be encouraged to act in a certain way, rather than ordered to do so. College group projects force students to develop a diplomatic leadership style, in order to encourage their peers (whom they cannot order around) to accept their suggestions.

Mini-ventures – Remaining in college does not mean that students must put their entrepreneurial dreams on hold. Small ventures that can be run part-time allow students to gain hands-on experience. In addition, many a college venture has blossomed into a full-fledged startup after graduation.

Network – Colleges are populated by motivated individuals, many of whom will excel in their chosen fields. Young entrepreneurs can call upon their alumni networks for advice, recruitment of key employees and even funding.

Resources – Many campuses offer entrepreneurial students a variety of free resources, such as: incubators, accelerators, mentor programs, venture competitions (with meaningful prize money) and even seed funding.

Maturity – A significant amount of emotional growth occurs between the ages 18 and 22. For many people who do not enter college after graduation, a stent in the military or Peace Corps allows them to develop emotionally and gain valuable, real-world experiences. The same is true of a college education, which provides young people with a safe environment to learn from their mistakes.

Although a number of notable entrepreneurs either dropped out or never attended college, they are the exception, not the rule. Yes, Kobie Bryant skipped college and had a stellar career. Yet, most successful NBA players earn a college degree, just like the majority of successful entrepreneurs.

Millennials: go to college, grow up a bit, establish a network of like-minded entrepreneurs, learn from some bad choices, do a few keg stands and graduate with the life skills that will equip you to change the world.

Follow my startup-oriented Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I’ll never tweet about underwater ballet or that killer burrito I am about to devour – just startup stuff. You can also check out my hands-on startup advice blog HERE.

Photo Credit: Harry How/Getty Images

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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