The fact that the debate over whether a college degree is a sound investment even exists says volumes about the state of higher education in America today. But not only is the debate real, well-known figures are getting in on the discussion. It would be one thing if musicians or baseball players were making noise about how they skipped college and turned out fine, but it’s another thing to hear millionaire businessmen say college is not a must. These 10 past and present CEOs, founders, and all-around corporate stars bear witness that you might be better off leap-frogging campus for the real world.
The uncontested leader of the anti-college movement is PayPal co-founder and former CEO Peter Thiel. Himself a billionaire thanks to his entrepreneurial spirit and sound investments in companies like Facebook, Thiel believes college stifles entrepreneurship or gets in the way of business opportunities. He sees the high number of successful CEOs without college degrees as proof that a degree is not necessary. To prove his point, he launched the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, which pays the 20 brightest students under the age of 20 he can find to drop out of school and do their own research and create their own businesses.
Add “traditional college education” next to “NBA refs” on Mark Cuban’s list of things that rile him up. In a recent blog post, the billionaire Mavericks owner and chairman of HDNet forecasted that soon incoming college students will realize that student loans can’t be “flipped” for great jobs after graduation. Add to that the skyrocketing costs of attending traditional colleges, Cuban said, and students will stop coming, causing the entire system to destabilize. He points to free education resources like Khan Academy and for-profit institutions as effective alternatives for the future.
Although he went to college and thinks some students should, too, billionaire Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett now says he doesn’t even know where his degrees are. None of his three children went to college either, a fact that hasn’t prevented Buffett from inviting his son Howard to succeed him as head of Berkshire Hathaway. “I don’t think college is for everyone,” Buffett says. According to him, the best education is investing in yourself. Whether this means college or something else, the important thing is to always be improving your abilities.
Squidoo founder Seth Godin is well-known as a business writer and entrepreneur and has been called “America’s greatest marketer.” In a 2010 blog post, this expert marketer described what he saw as “the coming meltdown in higher education.” Among other points, he claimed the correlation between a typical college degree and success is weak. Luckily, he saw plenty of solutions for high school grads willing to think outside the box: gap years, research internships, and entrepreneurial ventures. To Godin, mass-market degrees from traditional colleges will soon be a thing of the past.
In his lifetime, Steve Jobs transformed the conventional ways of thinking about personal computing. We may soon find that Jobs was also on the right side of the next wave of thinking about higher education. In an interaction with President Obama, made famous in biographer Walter Isaacson’s books Steve Jobs, the former Apple CEO and Reed College dropout explained to the president that his company had had to employ Chinese engineers “because he couldn’t find 30,000 engineers to be able to do the work that needed to be done.” These engineers did not need four-year degrees, just proper training. The president later remarked several times, “We’ve got to find ways to train those 30,000 manufacturing engineers that Jobs told us about.”
Nelson’s resume includes a stint as the CEO of photo-sharing web service Snapfish. Now he’s casting his net into the waters of higher education, and he’s got his sights trained on the Ivy League. Through a partnership with free online education site Udacity, Nelson and his board of ex-university presidents are launching The Minerva Project, an online-only institution offering classes from world-class instructors to Ivy League-caliber students who couldn’t get into the Ivy League. He says, “At Minerva, we care about two things only: Are you brilliant, and do you have potential to change the world?” If you do, skipping the traditional college experience for Minerva might be just the ticket.
Remember Napster? If you ever used the music-sharing site (which we know you did), you can thank John and Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, who was also the first president of Facebook. When Forbes wanted tips from billionaires who never went to college, they turned to Parker. His response? Skip college and Google your education. “When these incredible tools of knowledge and learning are available to the whole world, formal education becomes less and less important,” he said. “We should expect to see the emergence of a new kind of entrepreneur who has acquired most of their knowledge through self- exploration.”
We don’t want to put words in the Virgin CEO’s mouth, but based on some of his quotes, Richard Branson certainly seems to think it’s OK to skip college. “You certainly can’t guarantee [success] just by following someone else’s formula,” he says. “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing…” We do know he at least thinks half of college can be skipped; he recently wrote that college courses around the world need to be slashed in half to keep student debt down and get young people out into the working world faster.
Microsoft co-founder and former CEO Bill Gates famously dropped out of Harvard when the software company began to take off. Today he is regularly cited as proof positive that a lack of a college degree does not preclude a dropout from becoming a billionaire. Recently, he made the case that if you’re a motivated student, you soon won’t need college at all. He told a tech conference audience, “Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”
You may not know the name Caterina Fake, but she helped found Flickr, an image hosting site that now hosts nearly one picture for every person on the planet. In a 2010 article, she channeled Peter Thiel by saying colleges are like factories, which take in students and turn out scholars. In other words, they kill entrepreneurs. To learn how to be an entrepreneur means immersing yourself in an industry, watching other entrepreneurs, building things yourself, and gaining real-world experience. Take a few years off to go to college and you may find yourself hopelessly behind.