Working for Gumroad and spending the summer in SF / Silicon Valley has given me a new appreciation for the value of operating experience at an early stage company compared to my business school education. While I have chosen to return to school to finish my degree, I can understand why some students, particularly those founding their own companies, choose to defer their second year of business school. BusinessWeek even wrote an article about this last week. However, I think it’s an entirely different situation for undergraduate students.
I’ve written previously on my blog about the “Zuck Effect”, which I characterized as young entrepreneurs feeling like the only way to be successful is to drop out of school and focus entirely on their company with the logical finishing point being that they are running the next Facebook. At the time, Joseph Cohen and his team at Coursekit (now Lore) had just raised a $1 million seed round and were leaving Penn. Since then, Josh Miller left Princeton to start Roundtable (now Branch), Zach Sims left Columbia to start Codecademy, and Sahil started Gumroad after having already left USC for Pinterest. For some people, dropping out to start, or even join, an early stage company makes sense. The Gumroad team now has 2 college dropouts, in addition to Sahil.
However, my stance on finishing school was formed from afar. I hadn’t worked with a college dropout before or been around as many bright or accomplished dropouts prior to spending the summer out west. I now have a much greater appreciation for working at a startup as a potential substitute for an undergraduate education. I even have thought to myself how valuable that work experience could have been instead of the time I spent at Duke, and I certainly understand the value of learning by doing things versus learning to eventually do things (despite the fact that you could simply balance work and school). Yet, despite my evolving opinion, I truly believe that tech startups, and Silicon Valley specifically, significantly distort the importance of traditional education more than any other force. I can see how the allure of starting or joining a venture-backed company is highly attractive, but there are some things that are irreplaceable - like a degree.
The Atlantic recently published some stats on the job market for high school grads, those with some college, and college grads. Despite this recession, those with a Bachelor’s degree or better gained 187K jobs, while those with some college and those with a high school diploma or less lost 1.75M and 5.6M jobs, respectively. As the article states, “a degree is pretty much the only reasonable insurance policy you can buy in this economy.” Sure, college isn’t for everyone, but you may start or join a company and find that you hate startups. Or the startup might (read: likely will) fail. Or you may want a greater level of job security in the future. Or there are a whole host of other scenarios in which a college degree could be valuable.
Lastly, however, I think the most important part of my undergraduate education wasn’t the coursework or even the diploma itself (though my parents may disagree), but rather the experience in and of itself: building up a network of contacts in a number of industries, critical thinking and problem solving, developing passions, maturing in general, proving to others you can start and finish something by working hard for 4 years, etc. - all tools that are vital to being a successful entrepreneur or employee at an early stage company and ones that I have drawn on since being at Gumroad.