18 May 2011

You Don't Have To Go To Harvard

A few months ago, famed internet entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel made headlines when he offered a fellowship competition for students under the age of 20 willing to drop out of school and start a company. The fact that one of the foremost thought leaders of Silicon Valley was advocating against spending any time at a four-year college or university touched off a large series of debates on the value of post-secondary education.

I’ve been wanting to offer up my own thoughts on the issue for a while now. When I was a senior in high school, I fared remarkably well in the game of college admissions. Out of eight schools I applied to, I was waitlisted at one (Olin College) and accepted at the other seven. I had a choice between Harvard, Duke, Tufts, RPI, UVM, Wash U, and the University of Rochester. I could have seen myself as a student at any of those schools; they’re all quality programs and each has its individual strengths.

If cost weren’t a factor, I would have chosen to go to Harvard. The prestige, the campus, the prestige, the location, the prestige, the quality of the faculty and the other students I would meet, the opportunities that I thought it would give me… I wanted to go to Harvard for the same reasons that anyone wants to go to Harvard: it is the most prestigious university in the world, and it’s a pretty good school too.

I didn’t go to Harvard. I went to the University of Rochester. In doing so, I saved approximately $140,000 over four years thanks to a full-tuition scholarship. I can’t compare Rochester to Harvard, because I only attended one of those schools. But I know that I received a great education, connected with a lot of really smart and down-to-earth peers, was able to do meaningful things during my time off from school, and partied as much as any other 20-year-old.

Most importantly, one year after I graduated, I’m getting paid to work on something kick-ass that I wake up excited for almost every day. Isn’t that the goal of every college student?

I may not have been able to formalize it back in 2005 when I graduated high school, but my decision was a conscious opinion that college is not worth $140,000 or going into serious debt for. My parents had saved up a serious amount of money for me to use on my education. They said to me, “The money is yours. You can either use to to pay for school, or use it to get your life started when you graduate.”

(Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

I could have graduated with a Harvard diploma and tens of thousands of dollars of student loans. Instead, I pocketed the money when I graduated and used it to buy food and pay rent when SpeakerText had less than a thousand dollars in the bank.

Not everyone has the incredible opportunity to receive a full-tuition scholarship to college. But almost everyone has higher education options. Most state schools are significantly less expensive than private schools. But many students go to the absolute “best” school that they get into, where best is measured by a dubious ranking system that rewards things like money spent per pupil and selectivity, rather than educational outcomes or affordability.

Here’s what I think is the cause of this: Students and parents have the foolishly misguided belief that going to a better school automatically guarantees a better job. This is utterly wrong. Certainly, having a more prestigious name at the top of your resume may color someone’s initial opinion of you.  But they will ultimately hire you based on how well-suited you are to the job, your experience, and whether it seems like you create opportunities for yourself or wait and let them come to you.

You aren’t entitled to a job as a reward for graduating.

Guess what? There are hundreds of thousands of others in your same situation. Having a college degree is not a differentiator, nor is the name on that degree. It’s what you do during and outside of your classes, it’s the experiences you have during your summers, it’s what you’ve learned and how you apply that knowledge that will make you stand out to a potential employer.

Consider: I started working at IBM before I graduated from high school, learning Python on the job.  My friends and I developed a device called the Watt Watcher that could monitor energy usage of any appliance.  I’ve filed for patents for work I did on wafer picking technology during another summer at IBM. I tutored elementary school students in Rochester public schools.  I spent a semester studying engineering in Australia.  It’s these experiences that helped make me an effective engineer, not the words on my diploma.

Yes, expensive schools may have more resources, such as larger libraries and more labs. And if you go to a more prestigious school, you might have more opportunities thrown directly in your face. But how much is that worth to you? In this age of the internet, where anyone can learn anything and get in touch with virtually anyone, do you need to pay for access? More importantly, the money that you spend in school won’t be available to you to be flexible when life-changing opportunities come up after you graduate.

College loans give you very little room to maneuver.

I’m a believer in the four-year university.  Most students aren’t ready to go straight from high school into the real world. College should be cheaper, yes, but it’s still incredibly valuable. It’s a great place to connect with smart, like-minded people, to learn how to approach ideas and think about problems, and often overlooked - it’s fun.

But you don’t have to go to Harvard, you don’t have to pay $50,000 a year, and you don’t need anyone’s permission or blessing to start thinking about and working on the problems that you one day hope to get paid to solve.