“Looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
That’s how Steve Jobs described his decision to drop out of college, speaking in his now-famous 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University — and presumably striking terror into the hearts of parents who had always assumed their children’s successful futures would include a college degree. And who can blame them? After all, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics at that time was reporting that someone with a college degree could earn twice as much as someone with just a high school diploma, and that a high school graduate would be twice as likely to be unemployed as someone with a degree — figures that still hold true today.
But tell that to the college student who hears the siren song of entrepreneurship and longs to follow it to a future filled with the megabucks that dropouts like Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Mark Zuckerberg have earned. With commencement season upon us now, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to that impulse to leave college that so many students experience — especially students who’ve been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. When you’re young and brimming with ideas and dreams, it can be tempting to rewrite the script of your life to dispense with the ho-hum college scenes and just cut to the chase, where the hero founds a wildly successful startup and lives happily ever after. Sometimes the risk pays off. But data tells a different story, in which companies started by more highly educated founders tend to have more sales.
I think the important thing to remember in this scenario is that the choice doesn’t have to be quite so black-and-white. I advocate for a middle ground — one that honors both the ambition of today’s generation of budding entrepreneurs and the prudence of their parents. And 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. Also, completing a degree can work as one of the first and greatest lessons in setting a goal and achieving it, which is tested constantly when running a business.
Fortunately, I think we’re already seeing a trend away from the either-or mentality around entrepreneurship and education and towards a more mutually supportive relationship. In a 2013 survey by small business insurer Hiscox, 66% of small business owners around the world said that they believed their education system did not encourage individual ideas and dreams, two of the key ingredients in any recipe for entrepreneurship. That statistic is borne out by another study in which 81% of young people surveyed said they wanted to pursue entrepreneurship, but 62% weren’t offered entrepreneurship classes in college.
These findings may reflect historical reality, but from what I’ve observed, the world today is changing in a big way. Just look at some of the steps education and industry are taking to support students’ desire to explore entrepreneurship.
- Harvard, Wharton, Columbia and other business schools now offer programs that encourage entrepreneurship by providing students with funding or other support to pursue their ambitions of launching or working at a startup.
- Babson College offers a complete entrepreneurship curriculum designed to help students acquire skills and capabilities they will need to succeed in business, such as idea generation, opportunity recognition, resource acquisition and entrepreneurial management.
- Universities like University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Tufts and Princeton offer financial support for students to take a “gap year” after high school to explore non-academic experiences. Others, like the New School, give students academic credits for gap-year experiences.
- Junior Achievement USA and Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) focus on training students at the K-12 level in entrepreneurship. Their programs are in the spirit of Cameron Herold’s TED talk advocating teaching kids at a young age how to be entrepreneurs.
- Started by an entrepreneur whose first startup didn’t work out, Venture for America gives young people the chance to launch their careers as entrepreneurs by working in startups in emerging cities.
With programs like these, the days of students abandoning formal learning and training completely may soon be over. Of course, not all students think dropping out to start a business is a great idea. Just this past Sunday, I read in the New York Times that students at one of France’s top universities thought Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech was “completely disconnected from reality.” 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. And I look forward to a time when students who want to be entrepreneurs can pursue their passions with the full support of their schools, their parents and the society at large.
“Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” That’s what Steve Jobs advised at the end of his speech to the Stanford graduates. Hungry? Yes. But foolish? With so many schools and businesses reaching out to teach tomorrow’s entrepreneurs the things they need to know to succeed, I think we’ll see far fewer foolish failures among them in the years to come.
To view the orginal post, please visit Forbes.com.