Montgomery Blair High School
Silver Spring, MD
Second Place Winner, Maryland
College: A Launching Pad to the Stars
A college education is a launching pad for reaching career goals and leaving a lasting impact on the
world. Even some of America’s most well-known college dropouts have benefited immensely from
college. The college experience is an essential step toward the future, providing students with the
necessary resources to find their purpose in life and pursue it to the fullest extent. It is up to students to
take full advantage of these resources that are available to them.
College serves a noble cause: the advancement of mankind. In order to propel the human civilization
forward, we must build upon inventions of previous people. College keeps the ideas of past geniuses
alive in students’ minds: Plato’s dialogues echo through lecture halls; Mendeleev’s periodic table hangs on laboratory walls; Einstein’s equations sprawl across physics classroom whiteboards. Einstein could not have formulated his special theory of relativity without the work of Pythagoras and Newton before him; current college students must learn from previous discoveries before they can make their own. While anyone can access these scholars’ ideas from books or on the internet, college provides resources such as advanced laboratories and equipment, funding for projects and clubs, and a collaborative environment with accomplished professors and students that bring these concepts to life. Through discussion and hands-on experience, college students can learn to think in a way that prepares them to become the leaders of tomorrow.
There seem to be at least two exceptions to this formula for professional success: Bill Gates and Mark
Zuckerberg, founders of Microsoft and Facebook, respectively. Although both Gates and Zuckerberg
dropped out of college, they were able to achieve their success because they had already been educated
beyond college-level before their matriculation. As a child, Gates spent his spare time leafing through the
encyclopedia. At fifteen, Gates and his future business partner Paul Allen made $20,000 for their
computer program “Traf-o-Data,” which monitored traffic patterns in Seattle ("Gates, Bill"). Zuckerberg,
also, sought challenging learning opportunities as a child. At twelve, Zuckerberg created a messaging
program called “Zucknet” to inform his father, a dentist, of the arrival of new patients to his office. He
soon began meeting with a private computer tutor and taking graduate courses at Mercy College
(Biography.com). By the time they had entered college, both Gates and Zuckerberg were already
equipped with more computer knowledge and business experience than many seasoned entrepreneurs.
Their experience gave them the skills to form what would become billion-dollar businesses, even without
completed college degrees. However, high school students should be wary of blindly following in their
footsteps; not all college dropouts are automatically destined for the same fate. According to a 2017 US
News survey, 94% of the most influential leaders in the United States, from CEOs to politicians,
graduated college (USNews.com); for every Bill Gates story there are over a dozen Sheryl Sandbergs—
Harvard graduate—and Jeff Bezoses—Princeton graduate. These numbers show that almost all prominent Americans today still rely on college to set them up for success, with any exceptions being just that: exceptional cases.
Even when prodigies like Gates or Zuckerberg achieve remarkable success without a college degree, it is
not to say that college was completely irrelevant to their success stories. On the contrary, college can be,
in many ways, critical to the formation of their businesses. Zuckerberg met his co-founders of Facebook
at Harvard ("Founder Bios"). Steve Jobs, another famously successful college dropout, sat in on
calligraphy courses at Reed College that later inspired the beautiful typography of Apple’s Macintosh
computers (Jobs). The world would not have the same Facebook and Apple that we know today had
Zuckerberg and Jobs never set foot on a college campus.
One of the greatest benefits of the college experience is that it is such a multifarious environment that
anyone can find their purpose. Nowhere else is there such a built-in community of bright-eyed, curious, passionate young adults to be inspired by. With the limitless clubs, courses, and organizations to explore in college, it is virtually impossible for students to not find an interest if they just search for one. This period for exploration allows students to discover their likes and their dislikes, which are equally
important to be aware of. Gates went into Harvard intending to become a lawyer, until realizing that his
pre-law classes did not fascinate him nearly as much as computers did (Leadem). Had Gates never come
to this realization, he would have missed his destiny. College students everywhere are on the same
journey that Gates was once on, searching for their calling.
Along with helping young adults find their purpose in life, college provides Americans with enough
economic prosperity to further pursue those passions. While Gates and Zuckerberg were from wealthy
families who could finance their voracity for knowledge by hiring private tutors and sending them to
prestigious preparatory schools, many high school students do not have access to these same resources.
College, with its many scholarships and financial aid packages, can level the playing field and reward
intelligent students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The benefits of a college degree are apparent
throughout adulthood. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center Report, full-time working college
graduates between 25 to 32 years old earned about $17,500 more annually than employed high school
graduates ("The Rising"). The financial stability that comes with a college degree can allow adults to
focus on their dreams, rather than live paycheck-to-paycheck and constantly worry about making ends
It is important to note that a passive student will miss out on many benefits of a college education. It is
not enough to just show up to class; in order to reap all the advantages of college, students must actively
seek out chances to learn. Gates and Zuckerberg embodied this spirit as college students, with Gates
attending Harvard courses he had not even registered for (Willett). Gates and Zuckerberg continue to
prioritize education as successful adults. Zuckerberg reads a new book every other week, as he claims,
“with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies” ("2015 New
Year"). Similarly, Bill Gates tries to read 50 books each year and takes online college courses to this day
(Weinberger). Despite everything that both men have already achieved, they continue to love learning
for learning’s sake, proving that the finish line of a college education is not inherently helpful. Rather, it is
the knowledge absorbed and the opportunities seized in college that can make all the difference. In the
end, a college diploma is simply a piece of paper. Its value comes from what it signifies: a desire for
knowledge, compounded with years of hard work.
As for my own future, I dream of working at NASA to send a spaceship to Mars. College would no doubt
be an extremely helpful step toward this goal, even besides the fact that I will need a Ph.D. to work at
NASA. College will be a place for me to learn from professors who have experience in the field of
aerospace engineering, access highly-equipped modern science labs, and study alongside some of the
brightest, most inspiring students in the country. It will be a time for me to not only pursue old interests
but also develop new ones, to confirm my passions and find myself, to learn from and grow with my peers. With the help of a college education, I will soon be on my way to touching the stars.
Willett, Megan. "Bill Gates Never Attended Any of the Classes He Signed up for at Harvard but Got A's
Anyway." BusinessInsider.com, 9 Mar. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/bill-gates-never-attended-class-atharvard-2016-3. Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.
Biography.com. A&E Television Networks, www.biography.com/people/mark-zuckerberg-507402. Accessed 20 Jan. 2018.
"Founder Bios." Newsroom.fb.com, Facebook, newsroom.fb.com/founder-bios/. Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.
“Gates, Bill 1955–.” Encyclopedia.com, International Directory of Business Biographies.,
www.encyclopedia.com/people/social-sciences-and-law/business-leaders/bill-gates. Accessed 31 Jan.
Jobs, Steve. “’You’ve Got to Find What You Love,’ Jobs Says.” Stanford.edu, 14 June 2005,
news.stanford.edu/2005/06/14/jobs-061505/. Accessed 18 Feb. 2018.
Leadem, Rose. “23 Weird Things We’ve Learned about Bill Gates.” Entrepreneur.com, 22 Feb. 2018,
www.entrepreneur.com/article/290977. Accessed 24 Feb. 2018.
“The Rising Cost of Not Going to College.” PewSocialTrends.org, Pew Research Center, 11 Feb. 2014,
www.pewsocialtrends.org/2014/02/11/the-rising-cost-of-not-going-to-college/. Accessed 27 Jan. 2018.
USNews.com. 20 Apr. 2017, www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2017-04-20/bll-gates-markzuckerberg-and-the-myth-of-the-college-dropout. Accessed 20 Jan. 2018.
Weinberger, Matt. “Bill Gates Says He Doesn’t Regret Dropping out of Harvard.” BusinessInsider.com, 17
Oct. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/bill-gates-on-dropping-out-of-harvard-2016-10. Accessed 27 Jan.
Zuckerberg, Mark. “Mark Zuckerberg’s Commencement Address at Harvard.” Harvard.edu, The Harvard
Gazette, 25 May 2017, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/05/mark-zuckerbergs-speech-as-written-forharvards-class-of-2017/. Accessed 20 Jan. 2018.
---. “2015 New Year Reading Challenge.” Facebook.com,
www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10101828640656261. Accessed 20 Jan. 2018.