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Stay Or Go: An Objective Look at the College Dropout Trend Among Aspiring Entrepreneurs

Anna Johansson
Anna Johansson

It’s clear that getting a college degree isn’t the only way to become a successful entrepreneur, but that doesn't mean college is pointless.

There seems to be a trend among aspiring millennial entrepreneurs that says dropping out of college to start a business is the way to go.

This trend is rooted in the fact that many of today’s leading tech companies were built from the ground up by college dropouts. 

So it’s clear that getting a college degree isn’t the only way to become a successful entrepreneur. However, there is still a lot of value in going to college.

Let’s take an objective look at the issue and see what some of the pros and cons of each side of the argument are.

The Case for Dropping Out

Since it’s the trendy thing to do, let’s start by analyzing the case for dropping out of college – or forgoing it altogether. If you look at some of today's leading entrepreneurs, it may seem like dropping out is the cool thing to do. Just consider the following success stories:

Henry Ford

One of the titans of the auto industry, Henry Ford, dropped out of school at the age of 16. He then went on to found the Ford Motor Company in 1903. If alive today, his net worth would be close to $200 billion.

Steve Jobs

When you think about successful college dropouts, Steve Job always comes to mind. However, unlike others on this list, his success was delayed, In the meantime, he recycled bottles and cans to make ends meet.

John Mackey

The founder of the ultra successful Whole Foods Market, John Mackey, is a college dropout who was able to successfully raise $45,000, with the help of his girlfriend, to launch a small health food store. It seemed to work for him!

Mark Zuckerberg

Much like Jobs, you can’t leave Zuckerberg off any list of successful dropouts. He famously left Harvard and launched what is considered the largest social network in the world, Facebook.

Michael Dell

Despite dropping out of school, Michel Dell has built an incredibly successful career in which he’s amassed an estimated net worth of $21.8 billion.

Mark Twain famously said, “I have never let school interfere with my education.” You can interpret that statement however you’d like, but it seems to suggest the idea that education doesn’t have to happen inside a formal classroom. The success stories mentioned above certainly reflect this. While these entrepreneurs dropped out of school, they’ve never stopped learning. Their education was just a little different than their peers. 

The Case for Dropping Out

So, if you’re a millennial student who is weighing the pros and cons of formal education in your life, what would be some of the reasons to drop out? What are some of the reasons for trading the classroom for an office? Well, consider the following: 

Accelerated Career Path

Most people graduate college between the ages of 20-23. They then search for a job, secure an entry-level position, and begin climbing the corporate ladder. By the time they reach a position and salary that’s worth their time, they may be 35 or 40 years old. If you don’t want to wait that long, forgoing school may provide you with a three to five year head start.

Provides Guidance

There’s something about being in the classroom that provides guidance and direction. On the one hand, pursuing a degree allows you to hone in on subject matters that attract you. On the other, you may find that you aren’t cut out for a certain area. Take, Albert Scaglione, founder and CEO of Park West Gallery, for example. While he obtained a Ph.D. from Wayne State University, the biggest thing Scaglione learned from school was that art – not engineering – was his passion. He eventually dropped his books and opened a gallery.

No Student Loans 

The average American college student graduates with a little more than $35,000 in student loan debts. Some will have six-figure debts. That’s a massive hole to put yourself in, especially when you consider your first salary may only be around $30,000 per year. By forgoing school, you don’t have to deal with what could be insurmountable debt.

Real World Learning

While a college education is certainly valuable, the paper diploma itself is worth more than the classroom learning. The simple truth is that you’ll learn more in one year of working than you will in four years of studying textbooks and listening to lectures.

Buck the Trend

A college degree isn’t for everyone. However, for some reason, society says that you need a college degree to be relevant. If you’re going to school simply so you can check off the box that says “college degree,” you’re doing it for the wrong reason. Buck the trend and show the world that you don’t need a degree to be successful.

There are plenty of reasons to drop out of college or forgo it altogether. It’s a very personal decision, so don’t take it lightly. The good news is that, if you choose to drop out, you’ll be in good company.

The Case for Getting Your Degree

While it’s easy to look at the successful dropouts and the aforementioned benefits of forgoing higher education and want to drop out, the reality is that it comes with very high risks. It’s certainly not the norm in corporate America. At one point, 465 of the Fortune 500 CEOs held college degrees. In other words, only 35 CEOs – or seven percent – chose to bypass the education system.

The purpose of this article is to provide an objective look at a polarizing topic, so let’s examine some of the primary benefits of enrolling in college and obtaining a degree that will positively impact your career.

  • Time to learn. The purpose of college is to give you a structured environment to learn and grow. You aren’t thrust into a fast paced work environment so quickly. You have space to mess up without real risk. You can take different courses and discover what you’re interested in. You learn how to live on your own and make smart choices. These three to five years are invaluable.

  • Specialized training. “Depth in a specific business area, such as marketing or accounting, is important in understanding the internal and external processes of a business,” says Martin Zwilling, an angel investor and startup mentor. He suggests going to college, taking entrepreneurship courses, and majoring in a specific discipline.

  • Career connections. If you look at college as one big networking opportunity, your time will be well spent. From professors to fellow students, everyone you interact with could be a valuable asset to your future career growth. You can also leverage a university’s resources, such as entrepreneurship programs, incubators, and professional development coaches.

As you can see, there are also many benefits to attending college and obtaining a degree. While dropping out may be the sexy thing to do, there’s also merit to following the traditional route.

The Higher Education Dilemma

When it comes down to it, there’s no right answer. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for the next. Your decision to drop out of college and launch a business may result in a successful career, whereas your friend’s choice to forgo a college degree may prevent him from getting the job he wants.

You could call this the higher education dilemma. Whereas dropping out to launch a business was once very rare, it’s becoming increasingly common. If you have a business idea while in school, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself debating the pros and cons. The key is to block out all external factors and put the sole focus on you. In your situation, does it make more sense to stay in school or dropout? Only you know the answer.

Image Credit: Fizkes / Getty Images
Anna Johansson
Anna Johansson Member
Anna is a freelance writer, researcher, and business consultant. A columnist for, and more, Anna specializes in entrepreneurship, technology, and social media trends.