Clarksburg High School
First Place Winner, Maryland
Full disclosure: I desperately want to be a tech entrepreneur. Proximity to Silicon Valley is one of my
foremost college criteria. I listen to entrepreneurship podcasts—my favorite being NPR's How I Built This
—during evening walks. I wear hoodies to formal occasions. My favorite film is The Social Network. My
favorite social network is Hacker News, built by startup evangelist Paul Graham. I am writing this essay
using the Vim text editor, in a terminal, on my Linux installation. I fully embrace the hacker-entrepreneur
As a result, I am initially tempted to disregard the role of post-secondary education in my potential future
success. If I am to emulate my entrepreneurial heroes, the natural choice seems to be: enroll in an elite
school, start a company in my dorm, and promptly leave. Nearly every major tech startup in the past
decade boasts a college dropout as one of its founders: Spotify's Daniel Ek ditched the Royal Institute of Technology of Sweden; Uber's Travis Kalanick left the University of California, Los Angeles; Ethereum’s Vitalik Buterin dropped out of the University of Waterloo (Nisen). Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal, made headlines with his controversial $100,000 fellowship for budding college students willing to forsake their degrees for venture capital and glory (Buhr). And of course there is Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, both of whom took a leave of absence from Harvard University to pursue billion-dollar destinies.
However, to classify these Silicon Valley elite as mere "dropouts" is a gross oversimplification of their
collegiate experiences. Gates scored a 1590 on the SAT, and Zuckerberg bested him with a perfect 1600.
Along with Paul Allen, Gates pioneered the BASIC programming language for the MITS Altair 8800—the
first microcomputer—before dropping out (Curtis). As any fan of The Social Network will know,
Zuckerberg built the original version of Facebook in his college dorm room, releasing it to immediate
virality. During their brief academic careers, Gates and Zuckerberg accomplished more than most
undergraduates would ever dream of. While it may be presumptuous to claim that either visionary drew
out a detailed plan, it is worth noting that they did not decide to drop out on a whim. And should they
have failed, Gates and Zuckerberg had a financial safety net in their relatively wealthy families (Zimmer).
These were not typical dropouts.
While research still suggests that for the economically disadvantaged, college plays a pivotal role in
improving standards of living (Zimmer), these anecdotes about Zuckerberg and company hint that
perhaps higher education is less important to the ultra-high achievers. As critics of college will mention, a
four-year degree has a considerable opportunity cost: money spent on tuition and years not obtaining
practical experience in the workforce. Evidently, many great entrepreneurs deem this price too high to
warrant their continued enrollment.
After all, in the age of information, university is no longer the de facto path for knowledge acquisition.
Considering curriculums’ continued emphasis on theory rather than practice, perhaps it is no surprise
that programmers such as Matt Muehlenberg, creator of Wordpress, never bothered with his school’s
computer classes (Nisen). Rapidly changing technology has initiated a culture of never-ending learning, a
culture that the four-year college degree model is not well suited for. Too often, fresh graduates
disappoint potential employers with their lack of skills, from data analysis to public speaking (Karsten).
Not to mention that there are far cheaper, more efficient ways to learn material than sitting in crowded
lecture halls and cramming for exams: reading books, acquiring hands-on experience, and enrolling in
online courses. A growing number of professors are turning to Massive Online Open Course (MOOC)
platforms such as edX and Coursera to distribute lectures and assignments free of charge. Employers are still wary of the certificates these MOOCs bestow upon students in place of degrees (Bersin), but these fears are likely to mellow as virtual learning becomes the norm. Personally, I believe this disruption in education to be heartening, for I have always hated the notion that I need a formal institution in order to
And yet, I still yearn to attend college. Ironically, I would argue that the existence of so many billionaire
dropouts is a defense for college rather than an indictment. The roots of these entrepreneurs’ ventures
are often intertwined with the institutions in which they originated: Facebook's early employees were
classmates of Mark, Snapchat began as a design class project at Stanford University (Crook). As the
college campus increasingly overtakes the garage as the birthplace for successful companies, there must
be something fostering this innovation and entrepreneurial risk-taking.
In my opinion, the “killer app” of college is the abundance of intelligent, idealistic, and like-minded youth,
still giddy with juvenile rebellion. There is so much as-yet untapped intellectual capital in college
students. Perhaps this explains the status of the college campus as the epicenter for transformative
movements such as the counterculture in the 1960’s and the tech boom of the 2000’s. The relationships
forged during these formative years leave lasting imprints on personal networks—incredibly important for
an employment landscape defined as much by who you know as by what you know. A famous example:
the legendary Silicon Valley friendship between Peter Thiel and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman began
during their studies at Stanford (“LinkedIn”). And of course, broke, youthful college students have little to
lose compared to their adult counterparts, who are weighed down by mortgage payments, parental
responsibilities, and a commitment to the corporate ladder.
If a college education is defined strictly in terms of textbooks, lectures, and an eventual diploma, I doubt
such an education would affect my eventual success to any measurable degree. But if our definition of a
college education is broadened—to involve the learning performed outside the classroom, the diversity of
thought in which academic institutions pride themselves, and the personal relationships formed over
meals in the dining hall—then I do not doubt the integral role of university in whatever future triumphs I
hopefully experience. Even so, I cannot guarantee that I will stay long enough to get a degree.
Bersin, Josh. “Use of MOOCs And Online Education Is Exploding: Here’s Why.” Forbes, Forbes Media LLC, 05 Jan 2016. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
Buhr, Sarah. “Is The Thiel Fellowship Program Really Just a Sabbatical From College?” TechCrunch, Oath Tech Network, 08 Jul 2014. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
Crook, Jordan and Anna Escher. “A brief history of Snapchat.” TechCrunch, Oath Tech Network, 15 Oct
2015. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
Curtis, Sophie. “Bill Gates: a history at Microsoft.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group Limited, 04 Feb
2014. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
“LinkedIn: Reid Hoffman.” How I Built This with Guy Raz, NPR, 15 Jan 2018. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
Nisen, Max and Vivian Giang. “These 19 Insanely Successful College Dropouts Prove You Don’t Need A
Degree.” Business Insider, Business Insider Inc., 03 Sep 2013. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
Strauss, Karsten. “These Are The Skills Bosses Say New College Grads Do Not Have.” Forbes, Forbes
Media LLC, 17 May 2016. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.
Zimmer, Robert J. “The Myth of the Successful College Dropout: Why It Could Make Millions of Young
Americans Poorer.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, 01 Mar 2013. Accessed 10 Feb 2018.