Entrepreneurship and the Value of University Education

Preface: This is written from my own personal perspective, a very limited one in that I only graduated 2 months ago. These opinions will certainly change, but I wanted to capture them in the moment of “recent graduate.” Feel free to comment on your views of entrepreneurship and how university education fits in.

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As I waited for the Sunday 10:00PM Caltrain back home to Mountain View, I experienced an odd deja vu back to days at Duke. Less than 3 months ago, on a similar Sunday evening, I would have been mired in a corner in Perkins (Duke’s library) working on anything from my philosophy thesis to statistics homework. First, I remembered how miserable Sunday evenings were. Perkins LibraryThen, I thought to myself “was it worth it? Has Duke prepared me for my new life in Silicon Valley?”

It’s hard to say. Would I have been able to run a business after my senior year of high school? Absolutely not. But were my 4 years at Duke more valuable than the alternative of dropping out and using those funds towards a self-guided adventure? In this highly hypothetical scenario where I can’t really prove anything — yes, my years at Duke were more valuable (I think).

The term “dropout” takes completely different meaning in Silicon Valley. It is viewed as a badge of honor rather than a mark of shame — a clear gesture towards the traditional ivory towers. The general argument is that university education fails to provide any tangible skills for a working life. This is hard to argue against; certainly my degree in philosophy is abstract in nature. But this argument misses out on the intangibles of university education. Like how I was forced to repeatedly break down arguments, reduce them to their sources, and build them back in the image I constructed. Or how I was forced to use 5 words to express the same sentiment as most do in 10.

So it is almost as if the value in university education is that it forces you to develop skills in fields you otherwise would avoid. If I had pursued other opportunities instead of college, I certainly would have gone down the path of least resistance and continued working on what I was best at. But certainly this aspect of developing new skills is a feature of the workplace as well.

Some argue that college exposes you to experiences you otherwise never would have enjoyed (or not enjoyed). Well, real-life does that too — so I don’t think that justifies the expense.

Clearly I’m conflicted in this argument. It is hard to find something truly unique about university life that could not be provided by life in the workplace. It is just that the majority of your peers go to college, so it makes sense to go to college. It is the perfect insurance plan — a statement of quality. I am forever branded as “Duke” so you have a general idea of my capabilities. But what if these “brands” could be achieved in other ways…ways that don’t require an investment of 4 years and thousands of dollars.

I believe the “expectation” of progressing from high school  to college is an unfair one. It’s not that higher education in the U.S is “broken”, it’s just forced. But until not attending college is an accepted life-choice, this perpetual cycle can’t really be broken. Peter Thiel attempted to break it with the Thiel Fellowship, but we’ll see how successful the program is.

So in conclusion, I feel I must apologize. This post is more an internal polemic than a substantive argument. Would I trade my 4 years at Duke? Absolutely not. But are their suitable alternatives to college that make the question even somewhat plausible? No — so maybe that is the root of the problem. That the current alternatives to university education simply aren’t valuable enough. But times change.

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