Daniel Forrester

One of our society’s dominant orthodoxies is that parents must do all they can to get their children into a good college. After all, it’s proven that graduating from college means more income across a lifetime.

Of course, there are costs to consider as tuition, room and board are not free. The cost of a college education has exploded over the past two decades. During a time of economic uncertainty and cost consciousness, there is now a persistent trend of questioning the real value of a college degree when compared to entrepreneurial pursuits.

At what point does the cost to acquire a college degree exceed its benefits? Can business acumen be sculpted in young minds through immersive experiences outside of formal classroom settings?

This past year I have spoken before several audiences of current and recent college students. At the University of Minnesota, I spent time with forty juniors taking an entrepreneurship class.

While I celebrated the virtues of reflective thinking through my lecture, the students had already done a fair bit of reflection before I arrived. Twelve years earlier, I built a business case with graduate school colleagues of a fictional company that we never launched.

These Minnesota students were beyond paper thinking, as teams had “launched” businesses within the context of the semester. Two teams had Chinese manufacturers producing prototypes and production ready products. Other teams had developed brands and deployed web sites.

These students were practitioners. They were operating in a context that dwarfed anything I had learned a decade earlier. I wondered if college was the place to learn or launch a business?  Was I witnessing a merger of business and college where theory and practice collide in real time? Was the college experience morphing into something yet to be named?

It was hard for me to tell.  

There are new models emerging that question the value of a college degree when compared to rapidly enabling big ideas that could become viable businesses.

Would you delay getting a degree that guaranteed you a lifetime of relationships and income streams? What if you were paid $100K a year to drop out of school (or delay attending) while animating your business idea? What if, instead of college professors, leading practitioners occasionally mentored you?

Darren Zhu is one of 24 “fellows” recently chosen by the Peter Thiel Foundation to take on this extraordinary opportunity. Thiel is a founder of Paypal and an early investor in Facebook.

Daniel Forrester

Daniel Forrester is a business management consultant and author of Consider: Harnessing the Power of Reflective Thinking In Your Organization (2011 Palgrave-Macmillan).