Does Entrepreneurship Trump College?

Daniel Forrester
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Posted: Jun 10, 2011 12:01 AM

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.

The fellowship is a social experiment that may help re-define the Pavlovian model of high school and immediate immersion into four sequential years of college. The Foundation is trying to demonstrate that the excessive costs of colleges may hinder the rapid advancement of innovative ideas and businesses, especially those from students who are as well read and self-directed as Zhu.  



The Foundation is offering the Fellows a lot of flexibility and encouraging them to attack the big problems that grabbed the Foundation’s attention through the application process. Read the premise of the idea that Zhu wants to build over these next two years and ask if he sounds like a 19 year old.

He shared with me that his “grand vision” is to catalyze innovation and engineering in biology. He said, “I believe biotechnology as an industry has grown rather stagnant and stale over the past few years.”

He continued, “My ‘big idea’ is to create a simpler, higher-throughput method of assembling synthetic biological systems, so that bio-entrepreneurs are able to design and test synthetic biological systems more readily, leading to an explosion of useful biotechnologies.” Zhu is already collaborating with partners given the complexity of the subject matter he wants to master; his goal is to “cheaply, conveniently, and quickly diagnose infectious diseases.”

I wondered if he had the discipline to self direct and think through the problems he wants to solve. Wouldn’t he miss the structure of a college classroom? Zhu likes to ponder new things while listening to music or playing sports, but he is a realist about what the next two years will be.

“I strive to be quite structured and methodical in my individual approach to thinking and reflecting,” he said. Over the last several years, he has kept comprehensive daily and quarterly quantitative and qualitative logs of his goals and accomplishments. He notes, “I hope to apply the same rigorous treatment in running and evaluating my startup and various other ideas.”

What’s happening through the Thiel fellowship program and as I experienced in a college classroom in Minnesota, is that some students don’t want to marinate in theory for four years awaiting a chance to launch a business.

Colleges are not going out of business any time soon, but there is increasing talk about the “bubble” that exists in educational pricing that is forcing many hard conversations about value and return on investment through higher education. It makes you wonder if schools should allow for natural immersion in a student’s idea that is then supplemented by a structured classroom experience.

Perhaps programs like the Thiel Fellowship will prove out new models for educating and validating that such a rigorous thinking process is akin to “having a degree.”

Zhu believes that he is “creating an entirely new life trajectory.”

He concludes, “From my perspective, I still value the education and experience that Yale provides. I feel that the broad exposure of ideas that is offered by Yale's liberal arts education and diverse student body can contribute substantially towards constructing a holistic and comprehensive vision and ideology.


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However, it is also quite refreshing and exciting to have the chance to focus and zone-in on my project with the Thiel Fellowship. I look forward to spending the next two (and possibly more) years building my company.”

It’s his use of the phrase “possibly more” that colleges should focus on.

Zhu’s generation has a built in expectation well beyond the classroom that may just disrupt the very notion of a linear pursuit of a college degree.