Why more college dropouts are trying to emulate Bill Gates

More young tech talents are dropping out of college to pursue startup ambitions. Is it really a viable way to become a billionaire?

Nati Harnik/AP Photo/File
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates talks during an interview with Liz Claman on the Fox Business Network in Omaha, Neb., Monday, May 4, 2015. Mr. Gates is among a number of college dropouts who went on to found multi-billion-dollar tech companies — a path more young people today are looking to take.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg. For anyone aspiring to go from college dropout to tech tycoon, these three constitute the holy trinity, having abandoned matriculation to carve out their own paths to greatness.

Today, more young talents are following in their footsteps, forgoing diplomas for a chance at startup success, the Wall Street Journal reported. It’s a trend that some applaud as a shift away from the notion that a person needs to be college-educated to succeed – a concept made more attractive by rising tuition fees and student debt.

Others, however, warn of the pitfalls of choosing entrepreneurship over education, which research shows can increase the chances of succeeding in business and earning more money. Some compare it to trying to become a professional athlete; only a tiny minority actually succeed. 

But the odds are improving and there's a different attitude toward tech college dropouts. “Not long ago, dropping out of school to start a company was considered risky,” according to the Journal. “For this generation, it is a badge of honor, evidence of ambition and focus.”

It’s easy to see why. Technology and the Internet have made it easier than ever to self-educate, as well as to connect with people who are also driven, talented, and inspired by the likes of Mr. Gates, Mr. Jobs, and Mr. Zuckerberg – not to mention Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams, who co-founded Twitter; Jan Koum, who created WhatsApp; David Karp, who invented Tumblr; and dozens of others.

“When these incredible tools of knowledge and learning are available to the whole world, formal education becomes less and less important,” Napster co-founder Sean Parker told Forbes.

Even three years ago, there was already “a groundswell of university-age heretics … dedicated to ‘hacking’ higher education,” as The New York Times put it.

“They consider themselves a D.I.Y. vanguard, committed to changing the perception of dropping out from a personal failure to a sensible option, at least for a certain breed of risk-embracing maverick,” the Times added.

It helps that some dropouts-turned-billionaires are willing to support them.

Entrepreneur Peter Thiel, for instance, provides two-year grants for young people willing to drop out of school to pursue ambitious ideas, according to the Wall Street Journal. One of his current beneficiaries is Ari Weinstein, who dropped out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after his freshman year to take a $100,000 fellowship sponsored by Mr. Thiel.

Mr. Weinstein, who built his first website at age 7, is now 20 and lives in San Francisco with other dropouts working to make their tech dreams a reality.

Getting a Thiel fellowship certainly helps: Two-thirds of Thiel’s first 43 fellows went on to work on startups or other projects, while five ended up working at big tech firms, the Journal reported. The remaining 12 went back to school.

“I don’t think college is always bad, but our society seems to think college is always good, for everyone, at any cost,” Thiel told the Journal, “and that is what we have to question.”

Critics argue that the dropout road to riches is hardly a viable option for everyone – and that for a majority of young people, the best way to ensure success is still to stay in school.

“Those who are able to achieve … success [without a college degree] often rely on a set of skills already developed before they get to college,” University of Chicago president Robert J. Zimmer wrote for The Atlantic.

“They know how to educate themselves, get a bank loan, and manage their time and their money. They may benefit from a network of family, friends and acquaintances who open doors and provide a safety net,” he added.

That is not the case for the vast majority of youths, particularly those from disadvantaged families, for whom dropping out is not a choice, Mr. Zimmer wrote. In fact, the least privileged individuals are also the ones who would benefit the most from a college education, a 2010 study by the University of California-Los Angeles found.

Another study, done in 2008, looked at 500 tech startups across the country and found that more than 90 percent of founders had bachelor’s degrees. Companies founded by college graduates also tended to earn more and hire more workers than companies by high school graduates, the study found.

“The education a tech founder receives is important in tech entrepreneurship,” the researchers concluded.

There’s also this: While graduates are having more difficulty finding good jobs, they still out-earn people without degrees, a Pew Research Center survey found.

So where does success lie: In taking the risk in the real world, or in grinding it out in school?

Maybe, some say, that isn’t the right question. 

“I think the important thing to remember in this scenario is that the choice doesn’t have to be quite so black-and-white,” H.O. Maycotte, founder of Austin-based tech startup Umbel, wrote for Forbes. He noted that completing a degree can work as a test of setting and achieving a goal, something that is tested constantly in the business world.

In his op-ed, Mr. Maycotte advocated for a path that, through strong entrepreneurship courses that encourage students to pursue their dreams, “honors both the ambition of today’s generation of budding entrepreneurs and the prudence of their parents.”

“I believe that education and industry can stake out that middle ground by working together to both support the entrepreneurial spirit and honor the educated, well-prepared mind,” he added. “I believe that efforts aimed at narrowing the gulf between these two extremes will serve students, educators, and businesses better than any approach that reinforces the either-or mentality that has prevailed for so long.”

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