Some People Should Not Go to College

No, this isn’t the usual elitist argument–some people (and we know who they are) aren’t smart enough to get in. Dave Winer has an interesting post in which he responds to Silicon Valley critics of college education (boldface mine):

Nowadays Silicon Valley says that college education is a waste. This idea has spread to academia too. They’re trying to make the experience more relevant to entrepreneurs and their investors. I’ve heard it said at Harvard that they want to participate in the success of the next Gates and Zuckerberg, both Harvard dropouts. I find this disturbing. I want them to educate better citizens, not richer business people. If they happen to be better citizens and rich, all the better. But first comes the person, not the bank account…

When you look at the problems our democracy has, probably the biggest one is the “low information voter.” The ignorant electorate that says they want government out of our lives, but keep your hands off Medicare and Social Security, for example. We should strive not to create better billionaires, we should set our sights higher — to create better voters.

I agree with Winer about the general utility of a college education (and college should be not simply a technical training school). But some people shouldn’t go to college–or at least, straight away. Consider the rising baseball talent, who decides to spend time in the majors, or the talented actor who goes to Hollywood. There are some people, talented programmers and designers included, who should delay (or even drop-out of) college, because they can afford to do so. If there is a good opportunity to try something, go after it. But the key point, one that college-bashers don’t mention, is that many people aren’t that talented (yet). Someone who is a prize-winning programmer in high-school has opportunities and fall-back options most people don’t have.

And as the economy becomes tighter and tighter, especially for young people, those fall-back options become increasingly scarce. That’s what Thiel et alia don’t seem to get. There is a significant cost of failure in many cases, if you skip or don’t complete college, that elite programmers or other young people with marketable skills will not experience. That’s what the debate should focus on.

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4 Responses to Some People Should Not Go to College

  1. dr2chase says:

    The overwhelming majority of college dropouts are not talented programmers and designers. I suggest applying the cui-bono/follow-the-money analysis to this advice.

  2. sethkahn says:

    Bravo, Mike. I made an analogous argument when Peter What’s-his-face, the Pay Pal genius, gave $100,000 grants to people who agreed to leave college in order to pursue something “innovative.” Every single one of the winners was somebody who could afford the gamble. Neither does it “prove” (or even suggest) anything about the value of college for anybody.

    That doesn’t stop the Education Deform movement folks from yapping about it, though.

  3. JGB says:

    The first step is to get people to believe that education is about a better person and not skills at all. If you want job skills a 4 year college Liberal Arts education is not what you are looking for. Which will ultimately make it very difficult for you to gain the full benefits of that time. Instead we got hordes of the cliched college was a waste of time argument. I imagine such a change leading to a world were more and more people opt for very different paths of employment in their 20’s, and have the chance to loop back into college later on.

  4. georgekuan83 says:

    Good article!here

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