Eccentric billionaires agree: Screw college! It’s for sheeple.
In a recent Bloomberg interview, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson gave a heap of bad advice to young entrepreneurs convinced that they have the next big idea: college is for “the masses” and a waste of your time. Get out there and create some jobs:
Entrepreneurs, it is possible that school is not necessary. Um, I mean, I left school at 15 and I learned the art of entreprenuerism by getting out there and doing it. And I also educated myself in the real world. And I’ve seen my life as one long education that I’ve never had.
But I think that’s for entrepreneurs. I think that uh, obviously, you know, for a lot of other professions … universities can be quite useful. But for most entrepreneurs, I think the sooner they get out there and get their hands dirty the better.
Branson continued to argue that education was for “the masses,” not people who want “to change things”:
I think that an entrepreneur is somebody who wants to change things, wants to create things, does not want to be put in a box. And schools are there to educate the masses, I think, and entrepreneurs rebel against that. And I think that if you have a good idea that you feel can make a difference in other people’s lives, you know, I suspect you would not be better off not building up a big debt of student debt, but getting out there and giving it a go.
Now the danger of it is, if you fail, you don’t have an education to fall back on and have a degree to fall back on. But you will have had a pretty good education in trying to set up and run your business and I think you just have to pick yourself up and try again.
Branson is just dead wrong about all of this.
The ultra-wealthy are the least self-reflective people on the planet; they tend to be convinced they landed in their position due to their unique combination of brilliance and unconventional thinking. (You don’t have to believe me on this; UC Berkeley psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated that social class is linked to expressions of narcissism, entitlement and deservingness.) Since a significant percentage of new businesses tend to either fail or fall apart after just a few years, the survivors convince themselves that they have that special something. The richest convince themselves, Trump-style, that they reached their plutocrat status through meritocratic value rather than privilege, ruthlessness, the hard work of others and luck.
Branson (a big fan of Margaret Thatcher, by the way) doesn’t appear to be much different. Plutocrats rarely acknowledge that the vast majority of people will never be like them, instead promoting a myth that grueling work, big ideas and innate talent is what separates the makers from the “masses.” In the United States, Gizmodo notes, 25% of “self-made” American billionaires do happen to be college dropouts. The key word here is dropout. Bill Gates, for example, is on the list but urges people to understand that he still had three years of Harvard under his belt.
Statistically speaking, Branson isn’t wealthy because he skipped college. Quite the contrary: statistics compiled by Forbes show the vast majority of rich, powerful people at the very least attended college (in the U.S., the percentage of Davos attendees and billionaires with some formal college sits at around 90%). Among Fortune 500 CEOs, the percentage shoot up to close to 100%. Virtually all of the best-paying jobs require college degrees. As for the debt load Branson is fond of portraying as an innovation-killing monster: Yes, it is pretty bad. But any serious analysis of the benefits of education has to include the little tidbit that the earnings power of a college degree, even when debt is included, is incredible. College debt sucks, but it’s generally much better to have debt and a degree than no degree.
By the way: older entrepreneurs with career experience, which is increasingly difficult to obtain without a college degree, do much better on average than young people pumped full of dreams and moxie. That’s because they actually know what they are doing. Branson is talking out of his ass.
But he’s not doing it alone. Advice to start a business instead of attending college is rampant everywhere from dubious Internet self-help guides to Silicon Valley CEO ramblings.
“Most successful entrepreneurs are not drop outs,” Duke University engineering school dean Tom Katsouleas told TechCrunch of similarly eccentric billionaire Peter Thiel’s plan to pay kids to drop out of college. “It is just that the successful drop outs are newsworthy and get disproportionate media coverage.”
Success isn’t built on platitudes or taking stupid leaps of faith. Real success — the kind that doesn’t come from inherited class status or shoddy business ethics — is built on education. Telling ambitious young people that they don’t need to prepare themselves for the real world with academics isn’t just ignorant and self-aggrandizing. It’s urging them to jump into a shark tank without a shark cage, or for that matter, knowing how to swim.