By Kip Kolson, Special for USADT
What do Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison, and Larry Page have in common other than being billionaires? Bill Gates founded Microsoft and Zuckerberg founded Facebook, and you know Steve Jobs if you have an Apple phone. Every time you start your Dell computer Michael’s name pops up, Larry Page started a little company called Google, and Mr. Ellison founded Software Development Laboratories (SDL) with two partners. In 1983 it became Oracle Systems Corporation after its flagship product, the Oracle Database.
To this group we can add Ted Turner, Richard Branson, Steven Spielberg, Evan Williams (Twitter), Oprah Winfrey, Rush Limbaugh, and a long list that would fill this article. It is a very impressive group of men and women, people every parent would hope their children will emulate. So, what is their common denominator—none of them graduated from college. Even if they started college, they left before completing a four-year degree; usually departing after their second year. This raises several questions; is a degree necessary to becoming successful, is the university curriculum teaching what is necessary to become successful, does the university environment help or hinder individual achievement, who determined four years and approximately 130 units are the right criteria for earning a degree and does that amount of time essentially delay starting a successful career, and is the cost of a college education worth the return it provides?
I am not in any way suggesting a college degree is not valuable. I have a bachelor’s degree and I am glad I do, and I have two son’s with degrees from Cal State University-Fullerton, but I am suggesting we, and especially parents, may sometimes put too much emphasis on children going to college when that may not be the best option for that individual. We must also recognize that going to college is not necessarily what it used to be.
The names I chronicled above came from 100 Successful People Who Succeeded Without a College Degree. It is obvious success is possible without a degree if success is measured by individualism, innovation, risk-taking, and having substantial wealth. I am sure there is also a long list of people with degrees who are innovative risk-takers and have wealth, so again the issue is not whether a degree is an absolute must, but is it is the only path to success? It depends on every individual’s personality, motivations, drive, and desires.
Is the curriculum conducive to achieving success? For this answer I rely on what I see in society and families and the children who will eventually inherit the family business and wealth. The statistic I quote constantly of 70% of a family’s wealth being lost each time it passes to the next generation and gone in three generations is ample proof most young people exit college with a degree and no ability to manage money and wealth effectively. That is hardly a prescription for success.
It is also obvious from the list of billionaires that most are entrepreneurs. Colleges offer degrees in business and finance, and may provide a few classes in entrepreneurship, but in my opinion, entrepreneurship is an inherent quality and cannot be taught to anyone who does not naturally have that trait. Reading the backgrounds of some of the people on the list proves those with an entrepreneurial bent left college early because they perceived much of the curriculum was holding them back from satisfying that desire.
The truth is universities promote groupthink rather than individualism. This is understandable because of the mass of students enrolled in any university at the same time. Three hundred students sitting in a lecture auditorium cannot get individual attention and professors and teacher do not have time and resources to deal with the volume of students parading through their classrooms.
Unfortunately, I must tip toe around politics and economics, but my purpose is only to identify the facts of what is happening in society and the economy currently, not to promote a political agenda. Notice that most of the people on the 100 list are capitalist. They invented a product or service and created demand for those products and services that masses of people were and are willing to buy. It has been a long time since I sat in a college classroom, but it appears to me capitalism is not the primary teaching in schools anymore. If that is true, then students are exiting universities ill-equipped to perform in the economic arena and success will elude them. Parents and students are paying big bucks to achieve mediocrity.
Obviously, not everyone can or should be an entrepreneur or capitalist. The greater number of university graduates are managers and workers who make our economic world hum and thrive. They too must have a good grasp of capitalism because they are the producers and consumers who make and buy the products and services, the automobiles, cell phones, houses, food, clothing, televisions, computers, and entertainment. These consumers and producers create jobs for millions of other people, including those who do not have a college education. The college grads are the trainers and teachers responsible for passing on the knowledge and attributes of the prosperity capitalism produces, but how can they do this if they have not been taught the basics of capitalism?
Certainly, anyone pursuing degrees in medicine, engineering, accounting, computers, and life and physical sciences that require technical expertise should be in a university that provides the necessary skills, knowledge, and proficiency; but will many of the elective courses they are required to take make them a better doctor, scientist, or accountant? I do not know the exact ratio, but if 25% to 33% of the required units will be classes they will never use in their respective careers, is that a productive use of time and money and will it really contribute to their success?
Is the college environment conducive to success? Everyone who has experienced university life in some form spent more than a little time participating in activities having nothing to do with learning how to succeed academically. Living in a dorm, fraternity or sorority house might be a wonderful social experience, but does it promote the discipline and responsibility to study and succeed academically? Another issue, and again I am attempting to tread carefully on a political issue, is the protesting, suppression of free speech, and in some cases rioting on college campuses. Is paying $40 or $50 thousand a year to have your child marching and protesting some political cause instead of being in the classroom or the library studying, the reason you paid for them to go to college? Will that protesting and rioting help them be successful in life? Every reader must answer that question individually.
Regarding the 130 unit requirement (it could be more or less) and four years to get those units, if a degree could be achieved in two or three years by focusing on the specific classes needed for the desired discipline, would students start careers with a lot less student debt, get a jump start on their careers, and have a better chance of becoming financially independent sooner? Eliminating unnecessary classes and getting a degree in two years could make college affordable for students who cannot afford paying for four or five years of study.
The final question about the return on investment is difficult to quantify and depends on the type of degree earned and takes us back to capitalism. If the degree is in an industry where there is little demand for those services, then the ROI could be negative if the student can never earn enough to replace the educational costs. Success depends on meeting the demand for what other people want. A degree, or no degree, must provide for whatever the want is.
Making the questions I posed even more interesting is the current situation where students cannot physically attend a university and must take virtual or online courses. Many universities already offer degrees using only online courses. This can make customizing an education more practical and time efficient.
The issue is not whether you should go to college, it is whether the piece of paper is necessary to achieving success. It should be the knowledge and education that is important not the diploma. Some employers are now paying employees not to get a degree, preferring to pay for an education specific to the needs of the company. I suspect their reasoning is the students they interview do not have the necessary credentials and learning the employer needs for his or her company to be successful. It is more cost effective to have the company train them with the knowledge and skills the company needs. Billionaire Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal is doing just that. In so doing, the employee can focus on only the classes that are important to furthering their career and ignore classes that have no value for that career. They will not have a degree, but they will have the tools to get the experience they need to be successful in their chosen field or discipline.
I personally believe every child should bear some responsibility for covering the cost of their education, no matter if it be college, vocational school, or online class for a specific type of work. Only then can they truly appreciate the value of their education and enjoy the accomplishment of the work, effort, and dollars they had to spend to be successful. When there is no investment, there is no return on investment. They also need to work while going to college for two important reasons. First, to learn discipline and setting priorities. Second, to gain work experience. The work does not have to align with what they eventually want as a career, but employers want to see they were a good and responsible employee at whatever jobs they held, and it teaches them the basics of capitalism. Better they work than take a course in Ancient Aztec History to satisfy a required number of units.
Finally, parents too often force a child to go to college because they think they know what he or she should be, or worse, they cannot imagine what it would do to their image or status to have a child who does not have a degree.
Again, my purpose for addressing this topic is not to dissuade anyone from getting a college degree and certainly not to cast dispersions on any university, but to encourage parents to focus on what is best for each of their children. In any family with three or four or more children, it is likely at least one or more may not be suited to spending four or five years doing what they do not want to do, and would possibly keep them from, or delay, pursuing their personal dreams and being successful at what they love to do. I know the mechanic who takes care of my car, the plumber who fixes a leak in my home, the police officer, fire fighter, and military personnel who keep me safe, and the truck drivers and store clerks who deliver food and products and stock the shelves at my local grocery store may not have a diploma on their walls, but are just as important to me as a doctor, banker, airline pilot, and pastor or priest.
Parents must consider the personality, inherent talents, desires, and capabilities of each child and design their education to take advantage of those differences if each child is to fulfill their individual purpose, achieve their dreams, and find success. Pay big bucks for your children to be successful as they are inherently equipped to succeed, not to be unsuccessful because you determine what you think their success should look like. “Start a child off in the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”[i]
[i] Proverbs 22:6, (NIV)
Kip Kolson is the president of Family Wealth Leadership, a multi-family office and family coaching firm, and author of You Can Have It All; Wealth, Wisdom, and Purpose—Strategies for Creating a Lasting Legacy and Strong Family. You can order your copy at Amazon, the FWL website below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org