Patriot High School
First Place Winner, Virginia
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not the best at making decisions.
When I was younger, glorious trips to the local Chuck-E-Cheese often came to fretful endings because I
could never choose a prize for which I could exchange my hard-earned tickets. Visits to souvenir shops
were extended long past their due because I struggled to pick just one keepsake; and when the time
came to pick a movie to watch on Movie Night, the final decision was never entrusted to me. But there is
one thing that, for much of my life, was never really subject to question. It was the one thing that I did
not begin to doubt until it came close to the point where it really mattered, and that is the certainty of
my desire to attend college after high school. The daughter of parents who had been among the first in
their families to go to college, I was surrounded since early childhood by the idea that at some time in
what felt like the far future, I too would be living on a college campus somewhere, gaining knowledge
and skills that I would someday parlay into a career. But as the future came closer to becoming a reality, I was reintroduced to my old feelings of indecisiveness, this time regarding the necessity of a college
degree. The catalyst? A newfound desire to become an entrepreneur, fueled by experiences that gave
me a more intimate knowledge of the incredibly challenging feat that is starting one’s own business. As
my vision for what I wanted to pursue and accomplish in the future grew clearer, my prior assumption
that college was a vital part of this equation became more uncertain.
As my doubts grew stronger, my first instinct was to conduct research. Late nights on YouTube listening
to videos titled “Don’t Go to College” turned into early mornings reading news reports and looking at
statistics supporting the pursuit of a higher education. With each Google search, I found myself deeper in
doubt and uncertainty about whether a traditional, four-year education was crucial, or even conducive, to
my desired success as an entrepreneur. In the back of my mind were often-told billionaire college dropout
stories including that of Steve Jobs, who once said that dropping out of college was one of the best
decisions he ever made. He and other well-known entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates,
Michael Dell and Larry Ellison all achieved incredible success without ever walking across a stage to
receive a college degree. They challenged the status quo, and educated themselves outside of the formal
college classroom, at computer stations, in bedrooms, boardrooms and yes, even garages. And even
though they didn’t graduate from college, they are still some of the world’s most highly educated people.
It was extraordinary success stories like theirs that made me doubt even more whether the six-figure
college tuition would really be worth it.
My own story of apprehension and skepticism regarding college is also a reality for many of today’s
young prospective college students, particularly those interested in becoming an entrepreneur. With so
many young entrepreneurs starting ventures in their twenties and thirties, there’s a growing desire to
“strike the iron while it’s hot.” In explaining his decision to drop out of college and start a business with
his childhood friend, Bill Gates said, “We were afraid if we waited, someone else would beat us to it."
What if Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had waited until finishing college before they started Apple? Would we still have our ubiquitous iPhones and iPads?
So how does one decide if a college education is necessary for future success? Especially at a time when college tuition rates and student debt have increased to the extent that college is becoming beyond
reach for students from low and even modest income families. Through my efforts to answer this
question, I found myself developing an idea for my first startup—the startup of me. I realized that to
nurture and grow myself, as I would a business, I would need to do some market research and analyze
and contemplate the many factors that would impact developing and launching my “product.”
The first thing I realized was that so many of the sensational stories about people who achieve success
without a college degree are indeed rare. For every Steve Jobs or Bill Gates who dropped out of college,
there are thousands who made the same choice and didn’t have the same luck. The truth is, while it is
possible to be successful without a college education, research supports the fact that a majority of startups founded by those with only a high school education significantly underperform all others
(Kauffman Foundation, 2008). In a survey of 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product
development, the Kauffman Foundation found that the vast majority (92 percent) held bachelor's degrees
and an additional 41 percent held either a Master’s degree or PhD (Kauffman Foundation, 2008). Even
entrepreneurs who didn’t get a degree have benefitted from some exposure to a college education.
Steve Jobs, for example, said during a Stanford University commencement address (Stanford, 2005), “If I
had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces
or proportionally spaced fonts.” The same can be said for Zuckerberg, who stayed in college just long
enough to launch Facebook out of his Harvard University dorm room.
As a young observer of global business trends, I have also begun to note that the world we live in today
is in a state of constant flux and disruption. New technologies emerge to disrupt age-old assumptions.
With this comes an evolving job market. Jobs that existed 30 years ago don’t exist today, and many jobs
that exist today weren’t around five or 10 years ago. For example, jobs like app developer, social media
manager and cloud computing specialists were unheard of a decade ago. The “gig economy” of Uber
drivers, Etsy retailers and freelance services is also spurring new micro-entrepreneur opportunities. A
recent statistic from the World Economic Forum noted that 65 percent of children entering elementary
schools today will have jobs that haven’t been created yet (World Economic Forum, 2016). If this is
indeed the future of work, it means that future job seekers must commit to a lifetime of learning and
retraining. Similarly, entrepreneurs or future job creators must be well-trained with adaptable skills and
I have also learned that college and entrepreneurship are not mutually exclusive. Many colleges and
universities are proving this point by recognizing that the educational landscape is rapidly changing and
students need more flexibility in their educational options. As a result, they are beginning to embrace
“gap years” and open up opportunities for students to learn and grow both in and outside the classroom.
I am particularly encouraged by colleges and universities that are creating opportunities for students to
pursue entrepreneurial endeavors while earning their degree. Schools like Georgetown University, Brown
University and Duke University are forging pathways for students to launch their own businesses through
a range of startup programs and initiatives.
In going through this process, I have discovered that there are many parallels between developing the
product that becomes the next Facebook or Microsoft and developing the person who created them.
Similar to the process of developing the next big product, four years in college will be the product
development phase for my startup of me. From my perspective, college is like an incubator for building
my own personal brand. It is where the development of ideas, and exposure to like-minded peers could
serve as a kind of focus group for nurturing my intellectual curiosities. Immersion in scholarly pursuits
will also instill in me discipline and commitment to scholarship, along with soft skills like the ability to
solve problems, work in teams and communicate effectively. I believe this kind of training is essential for entrepreneurs. At the end of the day, as with any product, there is no proven formula for success and a college degree doesn’t come with any guarantees. However, what you do need to be a successful
entrepreneur is an education, and while an education does not require a college degree, it’s a great place
to “startup.” Launch date: May 2024 (my expected graduation date).
Wadhwa, V., A. Saxenian, B. Rissing, and G. Gereffi. Education and Tech Entrepreneurship. Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. May 2008. Available online at: https://www.kauffman.org/what-wedo/
The Future of Jobs Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. World
Economic Forum. January 2016. Available online at:
Jobs, S. Text of Steve Jobs’ Commencement Address. Stanford University. June 2005. Available online at: https://news.stanford.edu/2005/06/14/jobs-061505/