How Valuable is a College Degree?

Most parents dream of seeing their kids graduate from a good college. The assumption is that the vaunted degree will guarantee a successful career, the closest thing to being financially stable, and ultimately, a happy, fulfilling life.

But a number of authors and high-profile businesspeople and entrepreneurs are debunking the notion that college is the best solution. They're questioning whether paying tens of thousands of dollars and investing four or five years in an institution should be the default for young people when so many more options exist. With free, high-quality education available to anyone, is college necessary? These folks say no.

  1. BILL GATES. "Five years from now on the Web for free you'll be able to find the best lectures in the world," said the Microsoft founder, famous Harvard dropout, and controversial figure in education last fall. In 2007, he told the Harvard graduating class in a commencement speech, "I'm a bad influence. That's why I was invited to speak at your graduation. If I had spoken at your orientation, fewer of you might be here today." Gates has said that learners of all kind should be able to receive credit for any kind of learning they do, and college shouldn't necessarily be "place-based."
  2. PETER THIEL. The co-founder of PayPal is giving $100,000 to 24 people under 20 years old on the condition that they drop out of school for two years and start a business. Thiel's offer was intriguing enough to attract hundreds of applicants and to even lure a few away from Harvard and Stanford. Check out who made the cut. The youngsters have big plans, too -- from decentralizing banking in the developing world with a mobile payment system to bringing Web-based videos and mobile apps into the classroom.
  3. RICHARD ARUM. The author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, maintains that going to college does little to develop an important life skill: critical thinking. Arum and co-author Jospia Roksa presented a study involving 2,300 students at 24 universities that showed "more than a third of students showed no improvement in critical thinking skills after four years at a university." "Our country today is part of a global economic system, where we no longer have the luxury to put large numbers of kids through college and university and not demand of them that they are developing these higher order skills that are necessary not just for them, but for our society as a whole," Arum told NPR.
  4. DALE STEPHENS. He's just 19 years old, but that might make the founder of the UnCollege movement even more convincing a figure. Stephens (who recently discovered he's one of Thiel's funded proteges), is working to create a site called Radmatter, where people can compile all the formal and informal education and work experience on a site that verifies the information for potential employers. "What a college degree says is, 'I’m arbitrarily trainable, I’m competent in specific areas, I can follow directions,'" Stephens told me in a recent interview. "You can demonstrate those three things in nontraditional fashion." Read the Letter to Parents, written by his mother who applauds Stephens for his courage and ambition.
  5. JAMES ALTUCHER. The hedge-fund trader and former software writer did go to college, but he says that gives him the right to criticize it. "[People] say, ‘Look, college teaches you how to think, network, write.’ Personally, I didn’t learn how to do any of those things in college,” he told New York Magazine recently. Altucher encourages young people to veer away from their prescribed path to college and start living a little first. He recommends starting a business, writing a book, working at a charity, even mastering a sport before committing to spending time and money in an institution that doesn't guarantee future success.

Whether or not it's intentional, this point of view seems to be gaining traction among college students. According to New York Magazine, the U.S. now has the "highest college-­dropout rate in the industrialized world, and in terms of 25-to-34-year-olds with college degrees, it has fallen from first to twelfth."

But in the current job market, how do employers perceive those who don't have a college degree? What happens to the vast majority of people without degrees who don't strike gold with a winning entrepreneurial scheme? And what of the social benefits of going to college? Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, recently said at a conference that he's conflicted about his decision to drop out of Harvard.

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"We have this culture that everyone should go to college, but not everyone should," he said. "I dropped out of college, but college was awesome. I don’t know, it’s valuable. The most valuable thing for me was having that time with other students. If I had a chance to finish college, how many more awesome people would I have met? It’s not that I’d want to go back to take specific courses. But if we as a society can afford to make that investment, it’s a good investment. Other socieities can’t."

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