Should I Stay Or Should I Go?

I have spent a lot of time (10+ years probably) thinking about college vs. “real world” experience (i.e. running a business).

I’ve talked to hundreds of different people, from all walks of life, about college, entrepreneurship and the value of different types and paths of education. Lately it seems to have become a much hotter topic.

College is more expensive and many students are graduating with more debt. The job market is poor, so some graduates aren’t getting jobs like they used to.

The startup and investor market may be in a bubble, but no one really knows. It’s always risky to join or start a business anyway.

It’s a really important topic, so I thought I’d weigh in.

First I’d like to acknowledge the fact that I am writing this from a position of bias. I have both a BS in Business and an MBA. I now work at a University. While I did go to college (three of them, actually) and I do work at a University, it hasn’t always been that way. I’ve been a Founder, Co-Founder, President, Partner or Investor for the past 17 years. No matter what I do professionally, I was born an entrepreneur and that will always be what I identify with. Since I’ve started/run successful companies and graduated from two Universities, I think I have a somewhat balanced viewpoint. You’ll have to let me know how I do in the comments.

This is a long post. I’ve broken it up into sections so that (if you’d like) you can skip to the one that best relates to you. Please let me know if I missed a scenario as I’d like to include all related situations.

I’m Thinking About Starting A Company Instead Of Going To College

You are at a crossroads in your life. It’s likely that if you are considering college for the first time that you are in your teens or twenties (or older, but the majority are likely in this age group). You’ve been told for a long time probably that you should go to college and get a degree so that you can get a good job. This is engrained in students throughout their K-12 progression. College, college, college! You also have enjoyed starting some small businesses before this point. Perhaps a car wash or the like. Maybe you are even more “advanced”, having built several websites or learned Ruby On Rails while still in high school. Either way, you want to start a business and so you are thinking about doing that instead of going to school. So, college or startup? Let me answer the question with another question:

Do you have to choose one or the other?

I know, a Jack or Jane of all trades is master of nothing. You have to be “all in” if you want to succeed in business. Burn the boats and don’t look back! Blah, blah, and more blah. I don’t get why so many people think you can’t do both. I did. Without question there were trade offs for running a business and finishing my degrees. I had very little social life. I didn’t do nearly as many “fun” things as my peers. Don’t get me wrong, I did have a social life and I did have fun. However, I had a lot less of both because I was going to school, working to pay for school and starting/running businesses. It was really tough. While I had a lot of support and love from those close to me, I didn’t have any money so I had to sacrifice a lot. If an average person like me can do it, why can’t you?

If you feel like, for whatever reason, you must choose, I’d offer this final consideration. Don’t do what you think is cool, what you think will make you rich or what you think will please others. Be honest with yourself and choose the option that you think, long-term, will give you the best life. LIfe is an all-encompassing word. It means every aspect of your daily living. Family, friends, eat, sleep, live, work, play, learn, share, love = life. I think you can find all kinds of happiness in either choice. Only you will really know what is best for you. Just don’t be afraid to sacrifice your time for pursuing both options simultaneously. I actually think it is easier to quit school and just pursue your business. So don’t take the easy way out; do both until you can’t anymore (which may not even happen).

I Am In School Now. Should I Dropout To Start Or Join A Business?

This is the most common option I have heard about lately. There are several great examples of successful people dropping out of school and then making it big. Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg come to mind first. Three huge names in technology that all dropped out of college to pursue their businesses full-time. Do me a favor though and read that list again.


Apple, Microsoft and Facebook. With all due respect, please go to a quiet place and be alone with yourself for a moment. Do you truly, honestly believe that you are going to quit school to build a company like these? Stop drinking your own Kool-Aid for a minute and tell the truth. I have no doubt you are doing something that you are crazy passionate about. You cannot sleep. You work all the time because it isn’t really work, right? What you are doing is awesome, totally needed and will definitely be a big deal. Having said all of that, it probably still won’t be Apple, Microsoft or Facebook and that is totally okay. There are a lot of killer companies out there that don’t change the entire world. Please do not take this as negativity or pessimism. You can do amazing things – and many of you will. ‘Amazing’ and ‘change the world’ are different though.

So why did these three drop out of college? I think there are two answers that were primary drivers for all of them. First, they didn’t view college as a path to a job. Instead, they viewed it as a vehicle to challenge themselves and learn. Once they felt like they could get a greater learning experience elsewhere, they left. College wasn’t nearly as intellectually stimulating for them as it once was. They are literally geniuses, so it’s easy to see why school became less of a challenge for them. The second common denominator is that they all had some traction before they officially quit school. Read their stories and you’ll see that they had very little risk associated with leaving school. Gates came from a very wealthy family and had traction at Microsoft. He knew he was a genius, so if Microsoft failed, he could easily fall back on family or his smarts. Facebook was totally taking off and Zuckerberg was in Silicon Valley raising money while seeing user numbers spike. The risk was fairly low when these geniuses decided to leave school. For most of you the risk will be much higher. That isn’t a reason to not do it, but it is a reason to not compare yourself to them.

Even if you are on par with them, there is one thing I thought a lot about that you might want to as well. There is a very good chance that your children may not want to pursue entrepreneurship one day. I envisioned a discussion with my kids wherein I told them that Dad didn’t graduate from college. Regardless of how much money I’ve made, how cool the companies I’ve been a part of where, or what kind of life they led, I wanted to be able to tell them that I stuck it out and finished. That I (and their mother, too) graduated from college. It might not matter to you, but it did to me. I’m going to 100% support my kids in any direction they choose. On the off-chance that they don’t have what it takes to start or join a business, I’m glad I’ll be able to lead by example when it comes to college.

I’ve Got A Degree. Should I Get An MBA Or Start/Join A Business?

This is a growing group of people who fit into this stage. Getting an MBA or the like isn’t as prestigious as it once was. They are more common, many who have graduated have made pompous asses out of themselves (thus devaluing the degree) and the guarantee of a better job isn’t as high. Does that mean continuing with school is a lesser option for you? Perhaps.

What is your main motivation for getting another degree? Is it more money from your job, or a promotion, or both? If somewhere in there it isn’t about wanting to learn more than you might want to think again before taking the GMAT. When I stared my MBA, I think my company was doing about $10M/year in sales. It was profitable and growing. I was now married and getting ready to start a family. That’s the perfect time and reason to get an MBA, right? Ummm, no. So why did I choose to do it? Because I wanted to learn. My employer (myself) wasn’t going to reimburse my costs. I wouldn’t get a raise or a promotion if I completed the program. I wasn’t going to apply for a job that required an MBA. I’d like to think that I went to graduate school for the purest of reasons; to learn more.

And I did.

MBA school was really interesting. I learned a lot of the things I had thought you were supposed to learn getting your BS degree. Every class, every paper, every student and every teacher was all about business. Since I was too it came together nicely and somehow, someway, I managed to get the degree done. In fact, I was chosen to speak to the entire business school at graduation. It was one of the highlights of my professional career. I can honestly say I got my moneys worth. It worked for me and has opened a lot of interesting doors.

If you are going to get an MBA or the like for any reason other than personal improvement, think about all of the other options out there deeply. Making more money and/or getting a promotion simply are not enough of a reason to do it. If they are, then think hard about starting or joining a startup instead. They can provide those same opportunities (money, promotions), too. They can also provide incredible learning experiences! Again, only you know the reasons you want to do certain things.

Return On Investment.

Most of the time when people talk about the costs associated with college, they bring up ROI. If you go to school, you are X more likely to get a job that pays you Y more money. Do some math and out comes a result that either makes it look like a smart financial decision or a dumb one. I don’t believe in this process. There are just to many factors that cannot be measured in order for this to be really accurate. Here are a few:

Met someone in school that you later partnered with.

Met someone in school that later led you to a better job opportunity.

Learned something in school that helped you make a series of smart financial decisions.

Spent time in school and stopped you from doing something else that would have been a big financial loss.

Learned what you hated so you could avoid it later in your career.

Connected with a student, teacher or alumni that sparked an idea that later turned into a successful company you start.

You meet someone who later helps one of your kids in a unique way.

You’ll meet your co-founder at school. Mark Zuckerberg met his co-founders in school as did/do many others.

All of these same scenarios can obviously occur outside of school, too. I’m just saying that basing the decision to go to college based on ROI is both inaccurate and short-sighted.

The list can go on and on. There are too many things to consider other than just the average salary increase that a degree does or doesn’t get you. Besides, as I’ve said before, don’t go to school just to get a job or make more money. Go to learn, test yourself, have fun and find out what you like and what you don’t. Or don’t go at all. Just stay true to yourself.

Be Careful About Your Decision.

My final thoughts on the subject are in regards to the multitude of opinions out there about this subject. Many (not all) of those who dropped out of school and are finding success will tell you that dropping out of school is awesome. The best thing they ever did! And it may very well be. I don’t doubt that, for them, it has turned out to be the life they wanted. I also know of many people who have graduated from college that love their J.O.B. and felt like college was really worth their time and money. There are also plenty of people who finish school but start a business instead of get a job (and they love it). None of these groups are bad people to listen to. They have valuable perspective that can help you figure out what to do.

It’s this next group that I’d like to warn you about.

There is a section of people who hated school, have a ton of debt, and are stuck in a crappy job. There are yet another group that dropped out of school (or didn’t start) and never found success as an entrepreneur. They had to get a job or do something else, and not having a college degree has hurt them. The first group will tell you college is a waste. Don’t do it. I did and it hasn’t done squat for me! Follow your “dreams” and keep away from the debt and the time suck. They are telling you that because of where they sit in life. I think that regardless of whether or not they graduated from college their life would be equally as mediocre. Their attitude is what is killing them, not their college degree.

The second group will tell you to finish school! You need a degree! Biggest mistake of my life not to go to/finish college! Again, they have a strong personal bias based on their own failures. Many kids go to college because their parents didn’t. That’s an honorable thought to be the first college graduate in your family, BUT it isn’t enough of a reason to go. Keep defaulting to your private feelings about what is best for you. You won’t go wrong if you are honest with yourself and don’t let outside sources over influence your decisions.

At the end of the day, my takeaways are these:

1 – It is possible to start a company AND finish college. It isn’t always (or even often) one or the other.

2 – It may be a good decision for you to drop out of school to pursue a business. Traction helps a lot.

3 – Those that have college degrees, for the most part, are not worse off because of them.

4 – If you are going to have kids, having a degree might matter to you more someday.

5 – Be careful who you listen to, you are not them and vice versa.

6 – ROI is a weak reason to go/not go to college.

7 – Want to learn? You can in a lot of places in and out of college. Find the best spot for you.


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About Alex Lawrence

Alex has been a successful entrepreneur for 20+ years. His current venture Lendio ranks #34 on the Inc. 500 list. Alex earned a BS degree at the University of Utah and his MBA at Weber State University, where he is Vice Provost and Director of the Entrepreneurship Program. If you want to talk with Alex about business and entrepreneurship (or other questions), email him (alex AT startupflavor DOT com), or you can find him on Twitter @_AlexLawrence.
  • I love this topic. I also work at a university (so maybe I am biased). I worked full time while I earned my bachelor’s degree and my MBA. I am also 31 years old and I don’t have any debt from earning my degrees (and I paid for them myself). I have never started a business (but I am always thinking about starting one one of these days).

    There is a lot of value in earning your degree, it shows you can “stick it out” even if you are exhausted from late nights studying, working, running your business – a degree means you have gumption which is something a partner or future employer will value.

    • alex_lawrence

      Mandi!!!!  Love reading your thoughts in longer form.  Maybe we should get more active on G+!  LOL.  Some people value a degree like you said.  Others don’t at all.  I think it’s case by case.  I never give someone credit or take it away based on their college degrees.  They have to show me who they are and earn their spot. Sometimes that means graduate, sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s worked for you and me to go to school though, so that’s a fun thing to have in common.  Hope you are having a nice weekend!  Thanks again for taking the time to read, share and comment.

      • Biggardiner

        Great post Alex. I feel you were saying to me “don’t give Richard, i did it so can you”.

        • alex_lawrence

          RIchard, that is exactly what I was saying.  You can do it.

  • Zarin Ficklin

    I loved this and not just saying that. 🙂 A lot of good points a lot of people don’t think of (esp. about Zuckerburg & pals, ROI, POV, etc). There are a lot of people I need to share this with.

    • alex_lawrence

      Zarin – you are a super talented guy. I’m confident you’ll be successful regardless.  I’m glad you are finishing school though, I think you’ll be proud of yourself.  You are doing both really, aren’t you?  It doesn’t seem like you are waiting to pursue your startup dreams.  I’d love to have others hear about how you do “both”.  

      One other thing I thought about with Zuck. Had he not been in college, maybe he wouldn’t have thought of, [ or stolen 🙂 ] Facebook.  He also met some of his co-founders there.  Hopefully the post creates discussion amongst you and your friends.

  • Great post. I’m currently not in school to pursue my business ventures, but plan on returning next fall. I felt a break was necessary to get my company rolling. 

    • alex_lawrence

      Hey Saunder – you missed our phone call the other day, didn’t you?  I had down we were supposed to talk.  Anyhow, hope you are well and that things are working out great for you.  Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • Hey Alex I have in my iCal that we’re meeting December 14th, 2011 at 10:30 am. Let me (kno) if this is still going to work. 


        Saunder Schroeder

  • Creighton

    Great post Alex! I was excited for this one! First thing to put out there…Education is crucial! If someone is thinking of dropping out, they definitely need to ask themselves the important questions you mentioned.
    I’m in the group that started school and later dropped out. Not because I thought it was the “cool” thing to do, or that I was going to be the next Mark Zuck, but because of a few other reasons. 

    Here ya go…

    I attended 2 different universities. I took night classes, online classes, and whatever it took to continue school while starting both a business and a family. After finishing my generals, and beginning my degree oriented classes (business marketing / graphic design) I began to realize that the upper division classes in my field weren’t as great as I had hoped. I looked forward to those classes, and was very disappointed. 

    The lectures were outdated, and my professors weren’t interested in keeping up with the times. Online marketing classes that didn’t talk about Social Media, and Graphic design lectures that consisted of tutorial videos from adobe.com didn’t seem worth the time/$. But, I didn’t give up, I went to semester after semester until I finally had to ask myself “I’m I learning what I can’t learn on my own?”

    It was a tough decision but I don’t regret it. I dropped out. I’ll totally own it. It was against everything I was taught, and it broke the family mold. My wife has her degree and she supported school 100%. I came to the realization that my classes weren’t worth the money or time. I wasn’t going to keep spending the little money we had to just to get a degree. I initially went to school to learn, the degree was just a bonus. When I felt like I wasn’t learning anything new, I knew it was time to pursue my business ventures 110%.

    Between the 5 semesters and the 2 businesses I’ve started, I have to say I learned much more with the 2 different businesses. 

    My decision was completely influenced by multiple poor experiences with professors and courses. If they would’ve taught about the latest trends in marketing, and my professors would’ve had up-to-date lesson plans, I might have stuck with it. Everything felt out dated and stuck in the routine. I guess I never had that professor or course that made me think “wow, this is worth the money, loans, and hours of class time”

    If I had taken a night class from Alex Lawrence himself….who knows…maybe that would’ve been enough for me to stick around. 🙂

    What’s more important, Knowledge or a Degree? My goal in life is to NEVER stop learning. If I get to a point where I feel that I can’t learn enough on my own, I will turn to the place where I can. If that place is school, then so be it.

    • alex_lawrence

      Creighton – you are the man.  Thanks for laying it out here.  I’m glad your decision to drop out is working out for you!  I’ll never wish you anything but success.  

      If ALL of your classes were out of date and boring, that would make it tougher to finish.  I felt like my BS degree was that way for the most part.  My MBA was the opposite; really interesting, relevant and current.  I had to get the BS to get the MBA though – so sticking one out led to the other.  When I teach, my ONLY goal is to make sure the students feel like it was worth their time and money.  I tell them that at the beginning and keep a pulse on it during and after the course.  I’ll never change that view because I think if more students felt like that (including you) they’d learn more and get more out of school.I have a question for you; would you encourage your children to drop out if they didn’t like college?  Maybe it’s too soon to say.

      • Creighton

        Thanks for the reply. It’s great to read all these comments. It’s crazy how much of a difference great teachers make. I know if I would’ve lucked out and had a few of “those” professors, it would’ve influenced my decision to stay. Overall I think everyone should go to college, at least try it out for a few semesters. I will encourage my kids to go, if anything, it helps you decide what direction to go in life. Great post Alex. So many point of views. 🙂

  • Steve Nielsen

    Dropping out seems like a trend lately.

    Only drop out of school if you absolutly have better long term plans.

    I feel it is a personal decision. School isn’t for everyone.

    BTW. Mark, Steve, and Bill aren’t the only successful dropouts. There are thousands.

    • alex_lawrence

      This isn’t the Steve Nielsen that I went to high school with, is it?  Regarding your comment, no doubt, it’s very much a personal decision. Hopefully my post came across that way (in most parts anyway).  And I just noted those three as the first ones that “came to mind”. I didn’t mean to imply they were the only three.  Of course there are many more.  There is also a huge list of very successful people who didn’t drop out.

  • Zach M.

    Don’t get a degree to just get a degree. Do what ever you have to do to LEARN.

    • alex_lawrence

      Zach – hopefully that same thought came across in my post?  Learning is the primary objective.  You can learn a lot by just being in school – not all of it happens in between the pages of the books.  Clearly you can learn a lot running a business, too. I’m an advocate or learning a lot of different ways.  I’ve tried to myself and will continue to.  I might get a PhD.

  • I am… pretty much right in thick of this. I’m out of school right now and doing everything I can to get my own startup off the ground. I’m not out of school because I want to start my own business, but for… other reasons. I appreciate your post and, as with any post on this topic, about the only solid advice that can be given is to stay true to yourself, as you say.

    I once did a research project about the 50 wealthiest people in the world and you know what? OVER HALF of them never graduated college. But, like you say, not everyone that wants to drop out of college is going to become the greatest oil tycoon in Mexico or whatever.

    All of that said, it’s a decision everyone needs to make on their own according to their circumstances.

    I… don’t… even know what to do with the advice you’ve given here (no fault of yours) it’s just… something I’ll need to smash my head against for a while. But I appreciate the post at any rate. 🙂

    • alex_lawrence

      Thanks for coming over here, Mitch.  Good to see you post some stuff in >140 characters.

      Glad it made you think a bit.  Good luck as you pursue your path.  Keep us posted.  We are cheering for you to succeed, regardless of how you get there.

  • I’ve changed my major over 5 times. I have well above the amount of required credits to graduate yet I still have about a year and a half to go in my current major. My opinion on this matter? College is good. Ya, I hate studying for general requirements for subjects like “is there other life in the universe?” (Yes I had a whole semester class where that’s all we studied… ridiculous.) but if I can grit my teeth long enough to pass all those classes I think I will come out better off after having come to college.

    In a nutshell, College has basically taught me to deal with the things people expect me to do (go to class, wake up on time, buy toilet paper etc… ) while pursuing the dreams I want to do (get rich and do what I love)

    I’m not afraid to apply for jobs I want just because I’m still in school. In fact, I think if you go to college and all you do is study you’re wasting your time. That is 4 good years of your life that you can be getting to know your field better by actually finding a job that is related to it. Not to mention all the networking opportunities that come about because of the social life associated with college.

    College is a great place to build a huge network of friends and professors that someday may help you out more than you think. Who knows how many of those students turn out to be successful billionaires or just know someone that is and is looking for someone to hire with your expertise. The #1 way to get a job is through a friend referral, even if you barely know the person. Whether through jobs I’ve worked or classmates I’ve met during college, I’m willing to bet someone I know from one of those places is going to help get me a job no matter how crappy the economy is. 

  • David H. Clark

    I really enjoyed this! Great read. Alex, you definitely seem like a great person to write this given your experience with building businesses as a college grad.

    So this was THE issue with me the two 1/2 years I spent in college. I dropped out of Utah Valley University in April of this year. Probably the best way to describe how I felt after dropping school was the phone call I had with my Dad (who was very active with the university and THE climb the latter, corporate CEO kind of guy)…It took me an hour and a half to explain why I was done with school. I repeated myself multiple times. And he finally accepted it. It was emotional. I felt the BIGGEST burden lifted off of my shoulders. At that time, I was in school mainly for him. Never do anything for someone else. It sucks. Do what your heart tells you.

    One of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes is “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” My heart screamed at me until it almost came out of my chest to drop school. I fought it for too long. But when I dropped, It was the best relief. I have since obtained the best education of my life–out of school.

    Equally important with following your heart is following your DNA. I think it is extremely important to know yourself–to know your strengths and know your weaknesses. And then make all decisions based on the knowledge you have of yourself. Make decisions that cater to your strengths and follow your passions. If your strengths align with what you think makes a successful entrepreneur, and you can monetize your passions by focusing on your strengths (usually the two align), DROP SCHOOL! 

    When your strengths and passions align with the vision you have of your startup, there’s no reason to stay in school.  As I just stated in my tumblog, people get degrees to build credibility so they appear to provide more value to get a job and work for somebody else. But if you have the talent and guts to do your own thing, you’re not going to work for somebody else. 

    Alex talked about being an example for his kids. I’ve had to toss this one around a lot. I have a son and another son on the way. Being an example is extremely important. My hope is that I’ll be able to tell my son Nico that I wanted to go to school to be an example, but felt I was being a stronger example of pursuing your passions and following your heart. Alex was talented enough to do both. I’m not.

    In my opinion, you’re able to learn so much more through real life experiences and through doing things you’re passionate about than in the classroom. My first day of entrepreneurship class I raised my hand and asked the professor what businesses he had built. He hadn’t built any. Credibility was gone. I had too many experiences where I felt like what I was learning wasn’t applicable to me and it didn’t cater to my strengths and passions. I learned so much more outside of school.

    Know yourself. Know what you’re good at. Be confident in yourself and your knowledge and execute accordingly. And if you’re following your passions you’ll continue to learn and grow because you want to–in or out of the classroom.

  • This of course is all IMHO:

    For those graduating high school who don’t yet know what they want to do, college is a great option. It helps you learn a lot about yourself without the risk of starting a company.

    In addition, a degree also removes a lot of financial risk from your life. Even if it’s a bachelors degree in singing (no offense to the singers out there, in high school I auditioned for NYU’s acting school), you will still be picked over 99% of non-college grads when your skill set is otherwise equal. The world still places significant value on graduating from college, in whatever degree and from whatever school.

    So college is great and relatively risk free. Hurrah.

    My beef with school is that you learn a lot in SPITE of the educational system, not because of it.

    Classes at school generally suck, in that they don’t teach you real world skills. I graduated with a masters degree from the top accounting school in the country, but when I started my job at one of the top accounting firms I realized that I was only using 10 to 20% of the things I’d learned in school. For a degree so close to “real world” training (it’s practically a technical degree) why was there such a big disconnect between my college classes and my actual job?

    My strong opinion is that the most valuable part of school is the *environment.* In fact, starting a company while in school is probably the best time/place of your life to do so. You’re surrounded by smart people who will work hard and for cheap, and who are still young enough to dream. You have no dependents. You have access to all the resources of a university, especially at schools like Weber and the Univ of Utah that have consciously built an entrepreneurial community. 

    It’s so ironic to me that if you dropped out and learned a ton while running a business that ultimately fails, the world would give more credit to (and be more likely to hire)the guy who just followed all the rules and finished his degree. I hate that. You learn so, so much more from actually working, be it for yourself or somebody else.

    Because the world places so much value on a degree, my vote is to stay in school until your business takes off so much that you HAVE to drop out. The type of scenario where customers are starting to get angry and leaving because you just don’t have the time.

    You definitely don’t need to drop out to *start* a business, so why take on the extra risk? I’m not saying you have to do well in your classes, but to keep a foot on each side until you’re forced to make a decision (if such a day even comes). By that point you’ll be better informed, know yourself more, and will be better able to evaluate the risk/reward equation of your particular scenario.

    • alex_lawrence

      Trevor – I agree with everything you’ve said here.  This wins the comments so far IMO.  Having said that, it still doesn’t mean *everyone* should go to college. It isn’t for everyone, but you make a great case for how to do it and when to leave.  Thanks for a well thought out comment.

      • I agree that it shouldn’t be automatic to go to college for everyone. But I feel that, in most cases, if you’re seriously debating back and forth whether to go to school, it means you should go to school. At least to start off.

        Those who aren’t meant for school won’t debate it much, I think. They’ll already know.

    • Trevor is a wise man.

    • Great post Trevor!  I really agree when say that “the most valuable part of school is the environment”.  If student entrepreneurs are creative, they can probably start their business for close to nothing.  They have many if not all of the resources they need to get their business going (mentors, designers, engineers, office space, etc…) and many of those resources don’t cost a dime (if you’re a student).  

      • It’s true. You have so few expenses as an undergrad, with so many people willing to help you because you’re a student. It’s hard to to imagine a better time to start a business.

  • Great post Alex.  I rushed through a degree to get a very specific job that didn’t work out so I may not be the poster child for this discussion, but I can certainly say I am glad I got a degree.  I worked 3 jobs at times, took 18 credits, and tried to be a good new dad. It wasn’t my specific classes that changed who I was, but it was overcoming the sometimes seemingly insurmountable challenges of balancing all of those things.

    Working for a startup now I see value in the “intangible” things I learned while getting my degree.  I could possibly have learned those somewhere else, but definitely not in the same way.  Very humbling experience for sure and I think for me it was the best preparation possible for my future.  Props to those who learn those lessons on the fly, but I very much agree with your overall premise.  Thanks for sharing your perspective on it.  Now I want to go get a Masters…. 🙂

  • No need to try and explain things in complete detail, as many more intelligent and successful people have done so already in the previous comments, but I actually found my college degree to deter me a bit from my entrepreneurial motives.  I remember in high school I was committed to the idea of creating a business (or businesses), and after being in college and hearing several variations of people telling me: “yea, that’s a safe career…” I begin to think in terms of “If I just stick it out and work x amount of years at a company like that, then I might be able to work for a company like that, and eventually make x amount dollars a year.”  A very unhappy, unhealthy way to think about your career.  It wasn’t until I was out of the system (college education) that I was able to do some serious soul searching and attempt to get myself back on track.

    Maybe college helped me realize what I needed to do to get back on track?  Who knows.  Even though college didn’t create an atmosphere for innovation nor teach me the skill-sets I am using today, I still found it very beneficial in other sectors of my life so I am not sure if I would have done it differently. 

  • dallred

    As a current college student, I think that Alex is dead on: the best way to learn for me has been to try to embrace both worlds, and start a business while still in college.

    I attend BYU in Provo, and I have found that the fact that I’m a student opens a LOT of doors that I don’t think I would be able to get in otherwise.  I play the “student card” all the time.  I’ve been able to get fantastic advice from professors, and school alumnus that probably wouldn’t give me much of their time if I were not a student.  I have also received pro bono professional advice from lawyers and accountants, and have gotten in to customers and distributors who were willing to give me “15 minutes” because I was “just a student working on a project.”

    My living expenses (when I was single and running my business out of my apartment) were also probably the lowest they will ever be.  A frugal  college student can survive on $500-800 a month for food, rent, and a little gas money.  Since things like mortgages and health care benefits are things most single students have never even thought of, it makes positive cash-flow a whole lot more attainable.

    School has also been a great way for me to expand my network.  I’ve met a lot of people that have graduated and gone on to be successful at school, and probably even more that have not yet graduated but WILL be successful.  Without college it would take much more effort to meet those types of people.

    The narrowness of school is the thing I struggle the very most with.  I have changed majors 5 times in 6 semesters.  I’ve finally settled on the broadest major that my university offers: A general of American Studies, which allows me to pick from any class that I can justifiably say is relevant to “America” – economics, history, literature, etc.  I have known since I was 6 years old that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and so I’ve never considered the value of college to be the “learning a trade” part.  Especially at the baccalaureate level it seems that the most important skills a future entrepreneur can glean from their college education are: to think analytically, to  communicate effectively, to write persuasively, and to be creative.  If you happen to also learn how to program, then that’s a fantastic bonus.  😉  

    I feel like the “system” of collegiate education would be much more entrepreneur friendly if classes were not so frequently limited to specific majors.  I am not a business major, a computer science major, or a graphic design major, but I would likely derive much more benefit in the long run if I was allowed to take, for instance a higher-level accounting, or managerial economics course, some higher-level programming courses, and a class or two on typography.  Thus far I have managed to either brow beat the professor into allowing me to attend lectures, or if the class is big I can sneak in the back.  But I still don’t have access to labs, books, TAs, and other resources that students that have that “emphasis” do.

    The only caveat I would add is that it is extremely difficult to maintain good grades while running a business at the same time.  Although my grades have improved as I have gotten better at managing my time, I still look at a couple of semesters when my education and my business were just getting started, and shake my head.  I hope that if I ever have to apply to a graduate school they will understand that I was trying to make payroll, instead of studying for my midterms.

    Thanks again for writing this post Alex.  

  • Mconner878

    My college experience was good because it was something I wanted to do for myself. I waited for several years to go back. I have no regrets about learning. I have had regrets about not doing what I have wanted to do. I have worked the job to be stable in life and have had many speedbumps. I have recently started another job and have not been happy. I have decided to continue in the job until I get my businesses up and running. I am doing the research on my niche and making plans and deadlines. I am pursuing my dreams. My advice to all out there is that you are never too old to realize your dreams and go for it!

  • I am writing this post while taking a break from finals.  This is my second to last semester and I couldn’t be more ready to finish.   I really appreciated this post as it is something I have thought a lot about (as I’m sure most entrepreneurs have).

    I have aspired to be an entrepreneur since I was 10; I never needed any help figuring that out.  I did residential construction for four years before college and planned on starting my own construction company.  I chose to go to school because I felt inadequate to run a business and thought higher education would be my route to success. I was right, but not for the reasons I presumed.  

    School connected me with other entrepreneurial students and amazing mentors who have helped shape the more techie route I am on now.  The Weber Entrepreneurs Association has meant the world for me.  I have met countless friends and leaders whose opinions I consider to be the best out there.  I have actually started two businesses with fellow classmates.  I never would have become so connected if it were not for college.

    My good grades, studying for tests, and sucking up to professors has not added a whole lot of value for me so far.  My extracurricular activities, working on my own projects (not from school), and brainstorming with classmates is what has brought me a significant ROI.  Because of this, I get offered jobs quite frequently, even though I am not in pursuit of one.  Many of my friends who are studying as hard as they can in hopes of getting a good job do not get these offers.  School by itself has not brought that for them.

    The college atmosphere is great, and that is the reason I would promote going.  However, I do believe the curriculum and instruction is deeply flawed.  If someone truly has the ability and resources to drop out and start a business, I’d say go for it. But for many of us, I feel school is the best incubator to figure that out.

    • You probably have one of the best perspectives because you’re going through all of this right now.

      I like what you say about school being the best incubator to figure all of this out. But it just makes me cry for a cheaper, less time intensive (required classes/hw/etc) college type atmosphere where you get all the benefits of school, without all the stuff that just sucks time. Maybe the incubators are accomplishing this but I wouldn’t know. 

      I would love to see schools partner with SMB’s to create cheap jobs that give students real work. Instead of college being 4 years of classes it could be 2. 

      Then for a third and final year the student still pays tuition, but they’re given a job at a SMB. The tuition goes to both the school *and* the SMB, and the SMB pays the student a wage, but smaller than a normal hire. I think everyone wins: the student gets great experience, schools gets credit for placing quality students in jobs, and the employer gets cheap but educated labor. 

      (Maybe what I just described is similar to current internship offerings? Even still, I think paying the SMBs part of the RIDICULOUSLY high tuition costs would incentivize them to hire more and give better experience to the students. If the students don’t benefit from the employer, the school stops offering the students for hire, and the SMB loses out on the tuition money. Anyways…) 

      There’s a lot of hand waving in the details there (e.g. how do you match hiring demand with # of students) but the idea feels good.

  • I’m about 2 months into dropping out of Caltech’s PhD program to join the bustling Vegas Tech scene… and you know what? I don’t regret it one bit.

    I feel like I’m learning faster than I ever have before, especially with the shorter iteration and experiential learning encouraged by the lean start-up mentality. Most importantly, though, I’m happier because I’m surrounded by people who enjoy pursuing their passions no matter the risk. In academia, this approach in research didn’t sit well with anyone and it made me feel incredibly isolated and even silly at times.

    This being said, I’m very glad I finished my undergraduate education as well as my M.S. (especially because they were in physics/engineering!). I feel my approach to entrepreneurship is enhanced by this background, and it’s a solid foundation I think anyone should secure if they are interested and are constantly challenged during the process.

    • Trevor McKendrick

      Greetings from my home town of Pasadena! I will say, if I could go over and do my undergrad/masters again, it would be more related to engineering or even computer science. From what I read online what’s taught there still doesn’t correlate super well with graduates’ jobs, but it’s much much better than other college paths.

      • I see merit in most undergraduate paths, though I think my wording in the comment seemed to indicate that only physics/engineering educations provide a solid foundation… I can say that physics/engineering teach you to break a problem down, understand the parts, and synthesize the parts into a cohesive whole again which is helpful for any profession! I guess I’ve never thought about it in terms of correlation to the job you’ll eventually have – I liked to think about the mindset it gives you when you tackle fresh, new problems.

        • Many CS and engineering people have told me the most important part of their education was learning how to look at a problem and break it down to it’s most fundamental pieces. Perhaps the value in some degrees is that they they teach you “how” to think, but I’d venture that the majority of college degrees aren’t like that, either. 

  • saradansiejones

    Alex, just want to note that for women in business, a degree can be important for credibility.  I have an engineering and law degree – both have been hugely beneficial in my career.  I agree with you, there is no reason you can’t have a degree and start a business, why not weigh the odds in your favor?

  • Great post once again Alex, it’s all so true. As i’m going through school and the whole experience right now, it’s funny to see how true this all is.

    When I started going to school, I went with the intent of studying physics, and had never really been too introduced with entrepreneurship. After changing majors, i found myself in an intro marketing class where Tony Allred suggested that anyone interested in entrepreneurship should take a night and visit WEA. I decided that it sounded like it might be a cool group to check out. Since then I’ve been hooked and fascinated with the skills that you can learn even just from being around people who are trying to do their own part to innovate and make a change that no one else had the drive or vision to do.

    So many times students are bombarded with the idea of “get good grades, and you’ll get a good job,” and it leads to many of them to think that the things they learn in school will give them all of the tools they need to succeed in life. I was stuck with this same philosophy for a long time. I have learned a lot of good skills through school, got good grades, and been challenged by it as well. I don’t regret it at all, and am planning on continuing to do so. However, I think the most important thing that I have got from school is the connections with people who want to do something different. Like others have said, the environment is awesome for it.

    I’m a wantraprenuer and a student who loves to learn. I think having experience and knowledge in both is just another way to be above the competition. Whether you want a job or want to pursue a business idea, when will knowing more ever hurt you?

  • Chris Russell

    Well thought out post, I don’t disagree with any of your 7
    takeaways. Every situation is unique and you emphasis that. It will be
    interesting to see how higher education evolves in the future. Who knows, Khan
    Academy mixed with apprenticeship may be the right choice for the next


    A little bit about my story. I was in the middle of pursuing
    a business degree while working on my startup. We had a significant amount of
    traction at the time. Things got to a point where there was only so much time
    in the day and both work and school would suffer if I chose to continue. One of
    the things that lead to my decision was my disinterest in fulfilling many of the
    general requirements. My last semester I was in a music arts class that was very
    time consuming, a large amount of listening to tapes and memorization for tests.
    How was that going to help me in business? Putting my college education on hold
    was the right decision for me. Waiting two years to finish and then re-engaging
    with my startup would have been a terrible mistake. Timing in almost all
    startups is incredibly critical.


    One other comment, some folks try to go on the slow education
    track to compensate for the extra time being spent on their startup. Unfortunately
    the fee structures at most universities is setup to penalize those students. At
    Utah State for example a student that does 3 credits pays the same general fees
    as someone doing 15 credits. Your degree gets more expensive the slower you go.

    • alex_lawrence

      Chris – what is/was your startup?  I need to learn about how R&H came about.  Maybe that is the startup?

  • Jeremy

    Well Alex,

    School should NEVER be a debt.

    I feel school is a must. The better (or prestigious) the school the better the networking. You pay for what you get.

    What time you go to school is the question and what are you going to school for?

    When I went to the U of U, I began at 28 after I established a couple of businesses. I also went for the purpose of getting a MBA for a higher level banking consultant project. After beginning school I really came to grips with why “I” wanted an education. First Business, then Communications, Then a minor in Nutrition and major in ESS is where I ended up.

    Along the way making sure to network with professors and classmates. Also while I was in school I rushed a Fraternity at 29. I made great connections and friendships that are still around and working today.

    School was one of the best places I have found to expand my network and collaborate on new ideas.

    Be clear and know your primary objectives before going to school as the indecisiveness in direction can become very costly and an expensive learning exercise. 

    The ideas and directions I could go with topic could go on for pages, so I’ll stop here.

    Where ever your ventures take you always make sure to learn and advance past your expectations. Whether school or the school of hard knocks, learning is learning.

  • I think the key takeaway from this whole post is the principle of “staying true to yourself.” What works for one person oftentimes doesn’t for another, and that’s OK (that’s life). This reminds me of Ashton Kutcher’s words at Startup School 2011:

    “…If you want to be Mark Zuckerberg the best you’re going to be is second place. Because Mark Zuckerberg will always be a better Mark Zuckerberg than you.”

    It’s hard to believe that I’m quoting Ashton, but he makes an excellent point. Be honest to yourself. Become your own person in this LIFE (which Alex made clear is so much more than just running a business or going to school). It’s a great idea to have role models…but don’t fall into the trap of trying to be them…because it WON’T happen.   

    I graduated from BYU’s Marriott School and took plenty of classes that I considered to be a waste of time (and they were). But school, to me, was so much more than classes, grades, projects, etc. Using Trevor McKendrick’s words, I went to school for the “environment” and the opportunity to network with brilliant people (students and professors). To this day I still go back to BYU to meet with professors that I consider my mentors. This was the path I chose. It worked for me and I don’t regret it. 

    Is college for everyone? No. However, I feel a great majority of people considering to drop out nowadays are doing so because they get caught up in the TechCrunch hype (aka it’s trendy/popular to drop out) and base their decision on a select group of BOOMING companies founded by college dropouts. It’s become a badge people want to wear and flaunt (I rock! I dropped out.), when the reality is Zuck, and all the other names mentioned in the article, didn’t do it because it was cool but because they had a business to run (as in, it already existed and was flourishing). Be yourself and make your decisions out of an honest assessment of what’s right for YOU. Whether you go to school or decide it’s not worth it, don’t do it for bragging rights (Got a degree! vs. I dropped out!)…nobody will really care in the end. Make your decisions that will add value to every aspect of your life. 

    • Love the Ashton quote. And I agree 100% that it’s all of a sudden in fashion to drop out, sans actually having a full business. I mean com’on, even Steve Jobs started of at college! And Bill Gates. And Zuck. The list goes on. For the most part, they only dropped out once they had something else going on that was likely to lead them somewhere, and they couldn’t meet both commitments fully.

      Great thoughts all together. Thanks for chiming in.

  • Drew Gilliland

    College is a time to mature.  Some people can start a business straight out of high school, but for the majority it takes some seasoning and listening to others before life starts to make sense.  On the other hand, college is a bit overrated.  Years ago I was talking to a successful business who had attended a year or so of a JC when he went into business for himself.  I on the other hand have several graduate degrees.  He told me that he would love to have one of my degrees and I responded that I wold love to have some of his money.  We both laughed because we each took a path that was satisfying to each of us.

    • alex_lawrence

      That’s what it’s all about, right Drew?  You are both happy where you are.  Doesn’t really matter how you got there IMO.

  • Good thoughts and great discussion. The only thing i’d add: you have an opportunity to learn on the job too. If you’re looking acquire just a set of skills, you can do this outside of a fulltime schooling commitment. Via online learning or continuing ed classes, one can pick up many of the “MBA skills” w/o going to business school. You don’t get the same level of intensity in focus, the chance to pause your career and think/redirect, etc but you do get to keep moving forward in areas your current gig might not be training you.

    • alex_lawrence

      Hey Hunter – thanks for making it over here.  I read your stuff pretty regularly so I’m stoked to have you here for a minute.  I’d give my right arm and left leg (killer combo) if you’d do a guest post here.

      I hadn’t thought about the on-the-job learning. Great point.  If my post weren’t so long, I’d go in and add that.  I guess that’s what the comments are for.
      Let me know if you are in the market for human limbs.  I know the readers would love to hear from you.

  • Hello Alex – This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I chose not to go to college back in the mid-60s. My decision was based primarily on my lack of interest in learning from any kind of institution. I’m not sure I have changed my mind on the matter but, at 26 I managed to gain admission to a State Bar Accredited Law School, from which I graduated with a JD and a healthy distaste for not so much the practice of law, but the kinds of people I’d have to work with day in and day out. A large part of my distaste was due to having worked as a legal secretary for the last two years I was in school.

    For the next ten years I held various jobs, joined and transformed our small family business, and owned several modestly successful businesses. I hesitate to call myself an entrepreneur as everything I did was pretty mundane (wholesale food distribution, dance studio, computer consulting, royalty accounting, etc.). I did, however, get a lot of valuable experience doing just about everything one might wish to learn about running a business.

    In 1988, due to circumstances involving a bit of craziness on my part, I found myself doing temp work and the luck of the draw found me working on the Space Shuttle Main Engine program. Inasmuch as I’m not an Engineer (though I am a major league space cadet), it never dawned on me I might be able to work in the space program. However, when I was presented the opportunity to be hired full-time I took it. For the next 23 years (minus a two year, ill-fated return, after my father’s death, to the family business) I worked primarily on the SSME program and never looked back.

    In 2007 I took the opportunity to return to school (I was 60 years old) for a newly designed Masters in Knowledge Management from CSUN. I graduated in 2009, the entire program being paid for by my company. I also received an award of $10K in company stock. As far as I know, none of my cohort have gotten a job in KM or had the earning of their degree affect their job situation in any way.

    I am of the opinion most of my success came not from any schooling I received (at least not formal schooling), but from the experience I had working. I doubt everyone shares my thirst for knowledge and my tenacity in finding the information I need to get it, so I can’t say my experience is in any way instructive. Despite my two advanced degrees (no undergraduate education at all), I still consider myself an autodidact.

    I am currently learning how to translate my years of inside-the-firewall social media community leadership to expertise in social media marketing for small businesses. I guess I’m now an entrepreneur. Who knows? I don’t regret having gone to school, but I’m not sure it ever meant a thing as far as my career has been concerned. I seldom met an HR person who could get past the absence of the baccalaureate, so the JD was never a factor. It would have mattered had I chosen to pursue the practice of law, but that would have been a perpendicular universe.

    Sorry for the long comment. Guess it was brought on by the long post 🙂

    PS – I also became a first-time adoptive father at the age of 55, repeating the “feat” once more at 59, so I worked, raised kids, and went to graduate school (online) in my early 60s. I won’t say that proves anyone can do anything they want, but the possibilities aren’t black and white . . . by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Many students just finished college but they can’t find a job, everybody asks for experience, but where to work then? 

  • J.

    Wow, love this post. First time I’ve seen this blog. This post is amazing.

    Might it boil down to freedom? People pursue entrepreneurship to increase their freedom. Having a degree means having the option of getting a job, which means more options… in other words, more freedom.

    Just a thought.

    • alex_lawrence

      Glad you like the blog and the post. I’m a fan of having options = freedom for sure. Good call.

  • Great post Alex. I really enjoyed it. I’ve been going through all of this in my head lately. I got offered a huge promotion at my job, I have one year of college left, and I am starting a business (and I have a wife and 3 kids).

    I have thinking about all of my options and trying to decide if I can accomplish all of them, or if I needed to drop one so I can focus more on the other two choices. I think I can do all of them, for now, and I am going to keep moving forward. I also think it’s important to ponder and decided what you want out of life and choose the option that is going to get you what you want, not what others think you need. Thanks again!

    • alex_lawrence

      Hey Steven — glad you found my blog and this post. Sounds like you have a ton going on, and it sounds familiar 🙂 I think you can do them all, too. Go for it man. Agreed on picking our own path. That is easier said than done sometimes, but it is a true principle for sure.

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