Can Education Hurt Entrepreneurship?

Talking with some startup owners in Singapore recently, one question that came up was the impact formal education has on entrepreneurship. The concern that emerged was that the skills learned in a university might not be especially helpful for entrepreneurs, while the rules of the classroom — strict deadlines, a specific format for papers, that sort of thing — discourage the kind of nonconformity that leads to new and successful business ideas. Meanwhile, they worried, the university experience might not teach you what you DO need to know, like networking skills, or how to be comfortable with failure.

I thought the discussion was interesting, though I wondered how much of the concern might be due to the particular educational style in Singapore rather than the impact of a university education in general. Having taught as a professor in a graduate school in Singapore before, I had already learned that my students’ undergraduate experience had been very different from my own. As a student at the University of Virginia, did I learn to be comfortable with failure? Yeah, I did, after being at the top of my high school class and then coming to a university where EVERYBODY had been at the top of their high school class. I learned pretty quickly that I was not going to just naturally rise to the top and would need to learn new ways of studying, writing, and speaking, which is what failure is supposed to teach us. Networking? I was in 3 university bands, ROTC military training, and two student volunteer groups, so getting anything accomplished required creating a strong network of similarly-motivated people (and this was before cell phones and e-mail, so we actually had to deal with each other face to face). The university experience is as much about learning outside the classroom as it is about learning in one, and I am not sure the business owners in our discussion understood that.

Whenever this topic comes up, people often think of the patron saints of college dropouts: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. Those are the names I have heard during the last few years whenever anyone I know is thinking about quitting university. But in terms of dropouts, those guys are the exceptions. They left because school was limiting them, but most people I know who drop out (other than for financial reasons) do so because it’s too hard, not because it’s too easy. Also, there is no evidence that if the Jobs-Gates-Zuckerberg trinity had stayed in school, they never would have done what they ultimately did.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that not every employee, not even every creative or knowledge-based employee, needs a degree. I am bothered by the ongoing perception in Asia (and also in much of the rest of the world) that a degree is necessary, a perception that often leads to the growth of “universities” that offer a piece of paper but not actually an education. But I also don’t think that universities should be viewed as simply job training, because education is SO much more than that, as it introduces you to new ways of thinking and new possibilities you might not have even imagined. I agree that you don’t need an MBA to start a business, but I think we go too far when we call formal education “unhelpful.”

One point that came up was that, with a focus on getting a university degree, kids get caught up in worrying about grades and standardized tests and getting into the right school…but isn’t it a good idea for teenagers to have some focus when it comes to developing the skills they will need in life? If you are going to be an entrepreneur, don’t you need to learn how to set a long-term goal and work toward it?

Yes, there are people who did not go to university who went on to become millionaires and billionaires. I’m willing to bet, though, that there are more millionaires and billionaires WITH degrees than without, suggesting that skipping university is not the right answer UNLESS it’s the right answer specifically for you. If you already have the skills you would learn in university, and you feel like a four-year wait before pursuing your dream will actually keep you from achieving your dream, then maybe you need to just drive on and put school aside. For many people, though, that’s not the case, so you need to be very honest with yourself about what you already know and what you still need to learn.

I’ve spent over 8 years at the front of college classrooms, and so perhaps I am a bit biased toward the idea that higher education is good for a society, and not merely as a vocational training program. Not everyone needs to go to university, and indeed, many of your employees might not need it. That’s not to say they wouldn’t benefit from it, but that benefit might not outweigh the cost in terms of time and money. But that is something everyone needs to figure out on their own. Overgeneralizing about the urgent need for more university dropouts to start businesses isn’t really going to get us anywhere.

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