If you want to be an entrepreneur, is a college education worth it these days? A lot of people argue that a college education is no longer necessary. They argue that it is too expensive and doesn’t really teach you anything useful. Anything you want to learn you can learn in the “real world.” I tend to disagree mostly with this argument but there is some truth to it. A college education is very valuable because it teaches you how to think and to solve problems. Moreover, because today’s world is so much more information-centric, you’re better off learning useful things such as computer science or engineering or some other discipline that can give you more relevant skills in the work force.
I graduated from college in 1996 and from my Master’s program in 1999. Back then, we were just at the beginning of what Thomas L. Friedman calls the “information economy.” Before the information economy, my philosophy was that it didn’t really matter what you majored in. This was because all you needed to learn while in college was how to think critically and how to solve problems in a ordered and constructive way. Most disciplines in college do a pretty good job at teaching you these important skills. In fact, in college I was a biology major with a double minor in neuroscience and biomedical ethics. Neither biology, neuroscience or biomedical ethics have anything to do with my current profession in ecommerce. However, the rigorous academic nature of these subjects gave me vital skills that I use everyday. My courses in science thought me how to frame a problem, break the problem down into its component and how to solve each mini-component until the whole problem was solved. My courses in biomedical ethics taught me about philosophy and gave me many of the critical thinking skills that are very important in the business world.
Before the “information economy,” a college graduate could enter the workforce having majored in any discipline and still excel at any job. This was because no matter what your area of study was in college, the problem solving and critical thinking skills that you acquired gave you an advantage. The world was not yet so information-centric so other skills tended to be more important. However, in today’s “information economy,” your skill set needs to be a little more advanced in order to compete more effectively.
I’ll try to make this point more clear with an example of my own path. Since starting my career, I’ve had nothing to do with biology, neuroscience nor biomedical ethics. I’ve spent most of my career in the technology world. If I had to do it over, I would have at least minored in something more useful to me today than biology. Why? Because as Thomas L. Friedman puts it, we are now in the information economy and having skills that give you an advantage in the information economy really helps. While I was quickly able to teach myself basic technologies through self study or night classes at UCLA Extension, I always felt like I was at a disadvantage because I couldn’t really code that piece of software or build that technology myself. I always had to rely on developers or engineers to bring my ideas to life – something that’s been very frustrating for me.
Therefore, a college education is very worthwhile. In fact, I think my post-graduate education was also extremely valuable for me and well worth the money it cost me. Since we are now in a world where information technology is so crucial to our way of life, it is even more useful to go to college and at least minor in something related to information technology. This way, you can major in your desired discipline but get prepared for the “real world,” which will most definitely require you to know something about information technology.
On the flip side, there are those rare individuals that would actually get hindered from a college education. We love to use Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg as examples of people who dropped out of college and still became wildly successful. I think these are really bad examples. All three of these men are outliers when it comes to intelligence and creativity. I’m willing to bet that they are so intelligent and creative that they actually process information in a different way than most other people. In fact, a formal and structured environment like a classroom would actually stifle these types of individuals.
Most people don’t think like Steve Jobs and would definitely benefit from the skills that formal education has to offer. I’m not arguing that someone without a college education doesn’t have a chance. Many people without a college degree have become successful. All I’m saying is that a college degree in something useful is very worthwhile in today’s information-centric world.
Therefore, let’s look at the facts and then draw our conclusions about the value of a college education. In today’s tough economic environment, the unemployment rate is somewhere around nine percent. The unemployment rate for college educated individuals is about half that figure. One can argue that having skills that benefit you in the information economy gives you a huge advantage.