The Myth of the Successful College Dropout: Why It Could Make Millions of Young Americans Poorer

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Sensational media stories about millionaire drop-outs miss one thing: The vast majority of America's 30 million college dropouts are more likely than graduates to be unemployed, poor, and in default

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Reuters

An increasingly familiar and seductive story has been circulating about young people who, drawing inspiration from billionaire entrepreneurs and computer giants, consider dropping out of college a fast track to business success.

Names like Jobs, Gates, Dell, and others lend star power to the myth of the wildly successful college dropout. One recent New York Times homage to the phenomenon compared dropping out to "lighting out for the territories to strike gold," with one young executive describing it as "almost a badge of honor" among startup entrepreneurs. Like any myth, this story has a kernel of truth: There are exceptional individuals whose hard work, determination, and intelligence make up for the lack of a college degree. If they could do it, one might think, why can't everybody?

Such a question ignores the outlier status of these exceptional drop-out entrepreneurs and innovators.

Those who are able to achieve such success often rely on a set of skills already developed before they get to college. They know how to educate themselves, get a bank loan, and manage their time and their money. They may benefit from a network of family, friends and acquaintances who open doors and provide a safety net.

But what happens to young people without access to these important resources? For them, skipping college to pursue business success is like investing their savings in lottery tickets in the hopes they will be a multimillion-dollar winner, or failing to pursue an education because they expect to be an NBA superstar. The reality is that the next college dropout will not be LeBron James, James Cameron, or Mark Zuckerberg. He will likely belong to the millions of college drop-outs you don't hear the press singing about. These are the 34 million Americans over 25 with some college credits but no diploma. Nearly as large as the state of California, this group is 71 percent more likely to be unemployed and four times more likely to default on student loans. Far from being millionaires, they earn 32 percent less than college graduates, on average.

The vast majority of kids, especially those from disadvantaged families, need college to improve their circumstances. In fact, a recent UCLA study found that those who are least likely to attend college, including kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, benefit most from a college education.

These students are not offered the choice between Ivy League universities and Silicon Valley. They are not paid by Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder who awards $100,000 fellowships for students under 20 to leave college and pursue a venture for two years. For them, college is not a choice but a necessary and vital stepping-stone toward a future of opportunity. It is the platform from which whole families can be lifted to better prospects. Almost without fail, every degree -- from associates to doctorate -- leads to progressively higher wages,according to another recent report.

College provides young adults with the intellectual capital to succeed and the social capital to help them make connections, build networks, and establish life-long relationships. It provides them with skills in analysis and reasoning combined with confidence that will lead them boldly to articulate and embrace new ideas.It transforms their perspectives, opening them up to different cultures,different world views, and different ways of seeing -- and solving -- some of the world's most complex problems.

Far from being an obstacle to entrepreneurial success, a college education arms a person with the suite of skills necessary to capitalize on a great idea. At their best, colleges and universities are themselves hothouses of innovation, a natural site and climate for translating ideas into application. It is no coincidence that some of the practical ideas that have most changed our world,such as the Internet, came directly out of universities and colleges. Nor is it a coincidence that communities of entrepreneurs, Silicon Valley included, grow up around great universities.

Appealing as it may be, the against-all-odds story of the college dropout is not the story we should be selling our young people. Research with Chicago Public Schools students -- arguably among those who have the most to gain from college education -- shows that only a fraction of those qualified for selective colleges ever make it there, in part because of misconceptions about what is possible. Let's not further diminish their prospects and ambitions. There is a proven path for economic, social and intellectual opportunity, and it leads through our college campuses.

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Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.

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