Should a Successful Young Entrepreneur Still Pursue a College Degree?

There was a recent episode of Shark Tank that primarily featured young entrepreneurs. I was fascinated and curious about the sharks’ responses about college, particularly for two presenters:

  1. A young woman took a year off between high school and college instead of accepting a full-ride tuition to a great college. During that year she taught at a camp for former gang members, and then she started an ecommerce business called Savy (that’s what she was there to pitch). She seemed to be incredibly motivated, disciplined, and intelligent. Mark Cuban asked her if she would consider going back to college even if Savy became very successful. When she said no, he said he wasn’t interested.
  2. A young man in his sophomore year of college invented and was successfully selling immovable metal slap bracelets (for lifting weights and industrial uses) called SnapClips. He also seemed highly motivated, disciplined, and intelligent. When he revealed that he would be willing to drop out of college if he got a deal, several sharks admonished him for considering that.

Now, I understand the value of a college education. I’m grateful I have it, and I certainly don’t want to take it for granted.

But it seems to me that college is largely a stepping stone towards a successful career. If you already have a successful business, doesn’t that greatly diminish the value of college?

One argument might be that by going to college, you learn discipline and self-motivation, and you simply become smarter. Based on what I saw from these Shark Tank contestants, though, they already had those attributes.

Another reason might simply to have a degree on your resume in case the business doesn’t work out and you need to apply for jobs. There might be some merit to that, though if I were in a hiring position and I saw that someone ran a million-dollar business at age 19, for many positions that may elevate them way above other applicants.

I think there are plenty of crucial skills that colleges are great at teaching. For example, if you want to be an accountant, studying accounting at college should give you a strong foundation of skills so you can someday work at an accounting firm. For for an entrepreneur, pretty much every skill you need to have is best learned by being an entrepreneur, not sitting in a classroom.

It’s also possible that the sharks weren’t confident that either entrepreneur’s business would really get off the ground. In that case, they may have been subtly saying, “Don’t put all of your eggs in this basket.”

What am I missing here? Do you think college is the right choice for a successful young entrepreneur?


6 Responses to “Should a Successful Young Entrepreneur Still Pursue a College Degree?”

  1. It’s an individual thing, but I’ve found that the broad education required for the Bachelor of Arts degree granted by my alma mater, even if one majored in the sciences, formed the foundation for an enriching lifelong education in a variety of subjects. During the first two years, one sampled subjects from within each of a range of specified fields. That was before college became so expensive though, so there was more flexibility to study subjects that didn’t prepare one specifically for an occupation.

  2. Matt says:

    I have found that the most successful people we have had are ones that do not have a degree and got into the workforce immediately. In fact, those that worked even earlier than graduation seem to do better. Almost anyone coming in with a fresh degree and little work experience seems to flounder. Corporate (and in some cases, some of the contracts we take) always wants to push the degrees for an arbitrary count listed on a website which leads to paperwork and documentation as to why this person performing at 99% should be chosen over this person performing at 60% but has a degree.

    Obviously there are certain fields with exceptions, but in all reality universities aren’t teaching many skills for the modern workforce. I also include IT / Software Engineering we complete in this category to a big extent. Your specific certifications and knowledge of the systems you’re building and maintaining is more worthwhile than a generic four year CS degree. How many of those guys we get fresh that I feel like don’t really know much! Self-driven, self-taught with something to show for it is great. As much as departments will tout teaching standards, companies have their own business rhythms for things like test, CM, dev cycles, it’s better off to learn in the real world.

  3. Jason Kong says:

    Jamey: The fact that you’re having to guess at the Shark Tank judges’ reasoning makes all this the more confusing to me. If they’re not discussing the factors of such a decision (i.e. you’ll be spending x money, y time, and not being able to pursue opportunity z while going to college) then it seems like they’re saying getting a college degree is a good idea in just about any case.

    That seems wacky to me.

    I was particularly struck by Cuban’s position of pursuing a college degree *even if the company were successful*. This seems to imply the value he sees in college is a lot more than career enhancement. I can’t imagine what that could be.

  4. emmalouklues says:

    On one hand, I think we need a really candid conversation about college in our culture and it shouldn’t be the end all be all, not only because the financials are out of control but it’s not for everyone and we should think more creatively about our workforce and quality of life.

    On the other hand, (for better or worse), I would imagine that some investors see college as an important part of a young person’s life where they grow, evolve their thinking, take care of themselves, ground their perspective by broadening their exposure to other people and ideas, etc. Regardless of the academics, it’s a formative time beneficial for many other things outside of technical training. I would wager some people aren’t ready to invest in a super young person who hasn’t figured some basic stuff out yet, even if it’s the best idea ever. Again, not saying that’s right or wrong, but that’s perhaps how some investors are thinking.

  5. Joe Pilkus says:

    Jamey,

    It’s an interesting question…I grew up in a household where neither of my parents had gone to college and there was no doubt that if I pursued higher education, it would be at my own expense. I worked for a few years in real estate, before returning to school, and fortunately, garnered a number of grants and scholarships to cobble most of what I needed to complete my education (I started my academic foray at a community college, before transferring to a 4-year institution). At 22, I made a very decent buck, compared to anyone else who, at the time, simply had a high school diploma, but I also knew that in time, the excitement of selling properties might wear thin. Additionally, I knew in the long run that having a college degree would open far more doors for me.

    With only about 25% of American adults aged 22-70 having a Bachelor’s degree (and 5% obtaining a Master’s degree/1% a PhD), it’s still a remarkably low number for the U.S. As I live and work in the D.C. area, everything is skewed…many more people have a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree than the national average and having that level of education on your CV is by no means a guarantee for a successful career, but merely the entry ticket, even in the government.

    Today, with a Bachelor’s (History), Master’s (International Relations), and two Master’s equivalents (Air Command and Staff College and Air War College), I can definitely say unequivocally that my success (however that’s defined by someone) was necessarily enhanced by my liberal arts education…which provided a font of knowledge which I call upon quite frequently. The ability to write cogently, speak clearly, and present arguments in a logical manner are just a few of the skill sets afforded those who attend college.

    Cheers,
    Joe

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