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April 14, 2016

Does College Matter Any More?

Summary:

Yes, more than ever. But many in Silicon Valley are arguing otherwise -- and I fear that I am losing the debate.

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In the technology future we are headed into, the half-life of a career will be about five years because entire industries will rapidly be reinvented. Education counts more than ever. A bachelor’s degree is now the equivalent of high school, and technology skills are as fundamental as reading and writing. Given this, my greatest frustration is that Silicon Valley is regressing by encouraging children to skip college and play the start-up lottery. That approach glorifies college dropouts who start companies—even though the vast majority will fail and permanently wreck their careers. Billionaire Peter Thiel, who cofounded PayPayl and Palantir, goes as far as giving elite students $100,000 to drop out of college.

Sadly, I am on the losing side of this debate. My first defeat was in a globally telecast Intelligence Squared debate on whether too many kids go to college. With Northwestern University President Emeritus Henry Bienen by my side, I debated Peter Thiel and conservative icon Charles Murray. We lost, with 40% of the well-educated Chicago audience voting against the need to college and 39% agreeing with us. Needless to say, I was shocked.

I lost again over the weekend, on a segment on CBS Sunday Morning, which is the most watched morning news show in the U.S. CBS hyped the college dropouts without showcasing the dozens of failures and lives that have been ruined. CBS took the Thiel Foundation at its word that its fellows have started world-changing companies, created 1,000 jobs and raised $330 million in venture capital. These are gross exaggerations; even the  start-ups that CBS featured are all more of the same silly apps—and there are literally thousands more like these.

Here is what I said on the show:

“It breaks my heart when some of the most promising students don’t fulfill their potential because they’re chasing rainbows.

“It’s like what happens in Hollywood: You have tens of thousands of young people flocking to Hollywood thinking that they’re gonna become a Brad Pitt or an Angelina Jolie; they don’t.

“They don’t become billionaires. There haven’t been many Mark Zuckerbergs after Mark Zuckerberg achieved success.”

I added that there is little evidence the Thiel dropouts are doing much that isn’t already being done in Silicon Valley. “Everyone does the same thing: It’s social media, it’s photo-sharing apps. Today it’s sharing economy. It’s ‘Me, too,’ ‘More of the same.'”

You can see the full article published by CBS here, and you can view the segment here.

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About the Author

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Stanford University; director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University; and distinguished fellow at Singularity University.

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