When it comes to schooling, might less actually be more? That seems to be the take-away message in Michael Ellsberg’s 2011 book The Education of Millionaires. Look at all the college dropouts who have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg are just the few among them whom most of us have heard of. There are many others like them at the helms of the most successful U.S. companies.
Ellsberg shows why colleges and universities don’t educate students in ways that ignite the sort of creativity needed to start businesses that create jobs. After all, so much of the classroom learning that takes place nowadays involves demonstrating information mastery rather than curiosity and exploration. High schools, with their emphasis on getting kids to meet standards of competency, unfortunately contribute to an academic culture where students infrequently take intellectual risks. This is a culture that I, as a professor, know all too well and work hard to transcend in the ways I teach my students.
So Ellsberg is on to something. And indeed, I too have seen firsthand why college doesn’t seem to be the right path for all young people. Yet, his prescriptive message is ultimately a bit short-sighted. By interviewing millionaire entrepreneurs who dropped out of college, he erroneously trumpets the view that not going to college is a viable path toward a successful future, mistaking correlation for causality. As my colleague Virginia Rutter put it, this view is a version of “hoop dreams” that isn’t just for Black kids. Not having a college degree is as likely a path to becoming the next Steve Jobs as relentlessly practicing a jump shot is to becoming the next LeBron James. The truth is that those with a college degree are much more successful than those without one. And Ellsberg conveniently overlooks mentioning that the dropout-turned-millionaire celebrities he holds up on a pedestal succeeded in large part because they grew up with advantages unavailable to many young people; things like a stable two-parent family, material comforts, and a prep school education.
Given the infinitesimally small odds that a college dropout can go on to find decent, well-paying employment – let alone become the next millionaire start-up maverick – we would be prudent to hold onto a small piece of Ellsberg’s message while rejecting the rest. He is right to point out that our society needs to do a much better job of providing young people – especially lower-income youth – pathways to occupational opportunity. And of course it’s great when someone starts a billion-dollar company that creates jobs. But the reality is that what we need most are better-trained people to fill those jobs.
Therefore, rather than tell young people they should do the rough equivalent of play the lottery, we instead ought to chart out viable pathways for non-college bound youth to attain decent jobs. Check back here next week for part II of “Educating the 99 percent.” It will discuss such pathways.