Does Your Success Require a College Education?

My parents, both of whom earned master’s degrees and were front and center in my school’s PTA, taught me that some of the best learning opportunities are outside the classroom – for example, when they let me skip class to visit a local criminal trial in 8th grade. Though I loved school, I was still anxious to finish college early and find ways to learn that I would not only be paid for, but that would have some use beyond my GPA. Some of the brightest, most successful people I know today are autodidacts, high school and college dropouts. And in my work with myGreenlight, I’m part of a rapidly evolving world of online learning options that lets individuals close self-identified skills gaps affordably and on-demand.

All this is to say that I’ve been thrilled and excited by recent public debate around the value (and cost) of higher education. The conversation has been fueled by economists (e.g. Richard K. Vedder of Ohio University and Robert I. Lerman of American University); by venture capitalists and entrepreneurs (Peter Thiel and Seth Godin); by online educators  (startups like Udemy and sprawling organizations like the University of Phoenix) and by writers — most recently, Michael Ellsberg, whose new book The Education of Millionaires (recently discussed in his myG Social Capitalist interview and you can get a free first chapter at his site) seeks to teach vital success skills in sales, networking, and self-marketing that are neglected by university degree programs.

This week, Michael’s book provoked a tart review in Time, which Michael then rebutted in The New York Times.

Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation and a former leader in several top universities, writes in Time that he welcomes “the kind of robust debate about the value of higher education that this book may engender.”

Unfortunately he doesn’t use his space in Time to contribute to that debate. After making the valid point that millionaire dropouts are outliers, he dismisses the book with an ad hominem (accusing Michael, more or less, of having dollar signs for eyes) and then reminds us of the deserving “men and women who deliver our mail, comprise our police force, serve in our military, work in our libraries, teach our elementary school children, and devote themselves to a thousand other jobs that, if not performed with responsibility, commitment and creativity, would undermine the basic structures of our society” – men and women who are not just ignored by The Education of Millionaires, but ostensibly somehow harmed since they “may not be reaching for the kind of stars that Michael Ellsberg and others would have them aspire to grasp.”

The essay felt reactive and beside the point – despite the fact that I can sympathize with Gregorian’s point of view. I believe in the value of education beyond earning money. (The question is whether a 4-year official degree is needed to provide it.) I’m not particularly interested in becoming a millionaire. Finally, I’m wary of a kind of myopia we can fall into in the heated NY tech and entrepreneurial scene in which Michael is a superconnector and I’m a traveler. Yes, there’s an entire world out there that isn’t up late at night agonizing about how to turn their passion into profit or looking to eke out space in the nouveau Internet riche. I recognize and respect that most people are out there are simply struggling with the task of doing “what needs doing,” to quote Gregorian quoting Marcus Aurelius.

And yet, none of these critiques make Michael’s case study of successful outliers less valuable or worthwhile to those who need it, and they distract us from what’s interesting and urgent: Education may be failing, and failing expensively, to grow our stock of wealth-creating innovators, meanwhile eclipsing more flexible, affordable alternatives for the rest of us.

As Ellsberg writes in his Times op-ed, “American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics and historians. It is also good at producing professionals with degrees. But we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors. America has a shortage of job creators.”

It’s not just the job market that’s changing our education needs. Hello, Internet. (Have you checked out Itunes University? You should.) We’ve got historically unparalleled access to information, along with the ability to join and create networks where what we learn can be discussed, debated, and deconstructed as readily as it could in a university lecture hall or campus hangout.

Vartan Gregorian no doubt has some interesting ideas about all this – and I would like to hear them.

In the meantime, what do you think?

Sara Grace is myGreenlight’s Program Director.

Comments (12)

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  4. I was raised with the guidance that getting an education elevated your level of thinking by giving you a broader view of the world, how different people think, and how and why our cultures differ. College also refined my problem solving and critical thinking skills. I think college prepares you for whatever you seek to pursue with the knowledge you’ve gained. College doesn’t guarantee you a job, but instead makes you more qualified to take on the responsibilities offered to you. What you do from there is up to you…whether that’s starting a job, establishing a niche for yourself within an organization, or starting or running a business. College also helps position you for a higher level of income.

    • I agree with you Penelope, especially that, “getting an education elevated your level of thinking by giving you a broader view of the world, how different people think, and how and why our cultures differ.” It did that for me – but it’s not the only way, and it feels like the right time for society to explore and support some alternatives. In the end of the day, the goal may not be to do away with higher ed, but to make it better.

  5. My father used to always remind me that school is about “learning how to learn.” And in fact, the best thing my time in those classrooms have taught me is how to navigate the process of problem solving, information gathering, and forced teamwork. One could argue that we learn these things everyday, but personally I appreciated an environment which provided me with ongoing, systematic and candid feedback; this is not something I get in the workplace.

    In the real world we are constantly judged but often don’t get the useful “teaching” we need in order to reach our full potential.

    For me, my dad was 100% correct (as usual!) Those initial formal educational experiences have transformed me into a lifelong learner.

  6. A degree speaks volumes of the individual. A degree represents a person’s ability to grind it out – to do what it takes to meet deadlines – week after week, year after year. A degree is a “vouch” – backed by the institution of which it bears the name.
    I refer you to Derek Bok’s observation (I think it still holds true today) – “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

  7. My degree hasn’t done a thing for me career-wise.

    I graduated with a business/finance degree with honors.

    All it has given me is $50k of debt… biggest mistake of my life.

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