High On Higher Education?

Earlier this week, Sarah Lacy set off a lightning storm of controversy when she wrote a piece on Peter Thiel’s opinion of higher education. You can read the post and see what she has to say there. Then you should go and read Vivek Wadhwa’s piece on TechCrunch. Then maybe throw in the tweet-fight they have been having.

Both sides of the argument are valid. Higher education is not an across the board factor that insures success. That is a fact. You can look at examples of people who are wildly successful, and have dropped out of schools. Then you can look at people who have gone to school and are failures. Then there are drop outs that are failures. Then there are graduates who are wildly successful. There is no clear-cut way to determine which is better.

Instead of trying to see who is right, we should be looking at this differently. A degree from a top-notch school is very useful. The experience not only provides you with the technical training, but also with a network that you can tap into. In addition the name of an elite university is very useful when applying for jobs or looking for project funding. Another thing that is useful? $100,000. Yet another thing? Middle/upper-class background. These are just a few that I came up with, but undoubtedly the list goes on and on. Each of these things is useful in their own way.

There are two ways to look at these things. The first way is the one that Lacy, Thiel and Wadhwa took. This is to look at these things as though they are magic ingredients that either spell success or failure. That there is a particular one that will add the extra oomph to your punch, and drastically increase your chances of success (or, inversely, decrease your chance of failure).Then there is the way that I choose to look at them. This way is to see each of these items as tools in a tool belt. They all perform their own function when working on a project. Each of them adds a little something to the project, and the more tools you have at your disposal, the easier it is to finish. Can you build a house with only a screwdriver? Sure, but it is going to be very, very difficult.

If we are looking at these things as though they are tools, then it changes the entire situation. Not only will having more tools be helpful, but there are people who are more comfortable building things with certain tools, and then there are people who can build the same thing just as well with a different set of tools. Does having that one extra tool make the job easier? Maybe. But then there is the risk that if you focus on learning how to use extra tools that you don’t need, it just becomes a distraction. It all depends on the person.

This brings us to the most important part of this debate. The individual. Some individuals will be comfortable taking $100,000 and starting a company without a degree. Others will balk at this and insist on obtaining a degree before starting a company. Which one is right? Time will tell for the individual, but it is ultimately the individual’s decision.

This entire debate reminded me of the infamous Steve Jobs Stanford commencement address. He spoke of connecting the dots. It is impossible to look forward and see the exact correct path that will lead to what you want. It is almost as impossible to even know what you want the end result to be. But you have to trust your gut that the individual decisions you are making are the correct ones at the time, and that in the end, everything will line up. (That was all paraphrased, but it is roughly accurate.)

This whole debate is interesting, no doubt. What is it achieving? Honestly, nothing. The only thing it is doing is distracting people from following their gut. When you have a college student that is considering dropping out to start a company, they will end up making their decision regardless of what other people think is the right course of action. The debate won’t impact their final decision, but it will make them hesitate. And this hesitation and indecision can end up hurting them a whole lot more than missing a tool in a tool belt.

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