Dropouts are job creators

The U.S. education system trains students to follow the rules and collect degrees, writes Michael Ellsberg in a New York Times op-ed. Dropouts are the job creators who can save America, he argues.

I typed these words on a computer designed by Apple, co-founded by the college dropout Steve Jobs. The program I used to write it was created by Microsoft, started by the college dropouts Bill Gates and Paul Allen.

And as soon as it is published, I will share it with my friends via Twitter, co-founded by the college dropouts Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams and Biz Stone, and Facebook — invented, among others, by the college dropouts Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, and nurtured by the degreeless Sean Parker.

American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics and historians. It is also good at producing professionals with degrees. But we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors. America has a shortage of job creators. And the people who create jobs aren’t traditional professionals, but start-up entrepreneurs.

From kindergarten through undergraduate and grad school, students learn few entrepreneurial skills or attitudes, Ellsberg writes. Students don’t learn about sales, unless they take a class on why sales and capitalism are evil. They don’t learn to network with others. Creativity is stifled. Worst of all, they don’t learn how failure can lead to success.

Our education system encourages students to play it safe and retreat at the first sign of failure (assuming that any failure will look bad on their college applications and résumés).

While some jobs require a college degree, many people find jobs in the informal market, where who you know and what you’ve done matter more than paper credentials, he writes.

Parents could refuse to pay for useless degrees, but most are “caught up in outmoded mentalities about education forged in the stable economy of the 1950s (but profoundly misguided in today’s chaotic, entrepreneurial economy).”

Employers could overturn the system “if they explicitly offered routes to employment for those who didn’t get a degree because they were out building businesses.”

OK, for the exceptionally talented and self-educated few.  But most college dropouts aren’t Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.  And some people do learn useful things in college.


About Joanne


  1. “OK, for the exceptionally talented and self-educated few. But most college dropouts aren’t Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. And some people do learn useful things in college.”

    Exactly. One is a Harvard dropout, the other a Reed College dropout. Mark Zuckerberg of facebook is a Harvard dropout.

    Where are the local community college dropout billionaires?

  2. My husband and I, an engineer and a scientist, learned a lot in college and grad school. There are a lot of facts and a skills that you could learn on your own, but it’s easier to learn some things (both technical and cognitive, such as ‘how to read a technical paper’) from somebody who knows what they’re doing. That being said, a lot of the academics that I know seem to live in such fear of being wrong that they can’t present a new hypothesis until they have completely substantiated it. Maybe it’s their personality, maybe it’s the funding climate, but it seemed to me like a lot of academics avoid truly new ideas.

  3. Stacy in NJ says:

    It’s less about whether they’re college dropouts and more about their taste for risk. Risk avoiders are unlikely to start businesses and be entrepreneurs. They’re much more likely to get corporate jobs or become teachers where credentials are necessary gatekeepers. Those that enjoy risk are more likely to dropout and roll the dice.

    As to Parker’s point, there are tons of small business owners, not billionaire, but certainly successful, who dropped out or never attended college. Look around in your own community at the local small business owners.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Ellsberg has a point, but he seems to overlook one of the most salient issues: extensive regulation of all things business stifles entrepreneurship, and pushes people to pursue fixed, predictable paths to economic subsistence.

    Even if it’s a lie, the rule “Go to college to get a job” is at least accessible and intelligible. Unlike the 500 pages of arcane and unknowable crap that poses a risk of financial ruin (or even prison) if you want to, say, open a restaurant or a day care.

    I say this as an attorney who is quite adept at finding things out: pursuing your own business is a minefield. It’s no accident that all the recent success stories — all the stories that Ellsberg cites — take place in the computer industry and on the internet, which are among the least-regulated arenas of the country. And the parts that are regulated — manufacturing, for instance — get farmed out to China.

    The pursuit of college as the “safe” option is quite deliberate, but it’s because we’ve made so much of the other options actually dangerous.

    • If you look at manufacturing as a percentage of GDP, it’s not accurate to say manufacturing or regulated industries “get farmed out to China”. It’s accurate to say that high-tech manufacturing, and manufacturing that needs to occur near the point of usage, has remained in the United States while low-tech, labor-intensive manufacturing – particularly in high polluting industries – has been removed to nations like China, Cambodia and Vietnam. Sure, we could abolish the regulations that have caused the leather tanning industry to move almost completely overseas, but if you know a whit about tanneries I doubt that you would see their return as a good thing.

      To argue that people aren’t opening daycares or restaurants is simply incorrect. People do so all the time, despite regulation. Having worked in the restaurant industry, I would not want to argue against the building requirements, health codes and health inspections that keep them clean and safe. Similarly, go visit some local daycares and you’ll find that, despite the regulation, there are a considerable number in which you would not want to place your child.

      The reason Ellsberg focuses on tech companies is that they’re a field in which a handful of people with high aptitude can team up and, in a short time, produce an exciting, engaging product that can be launched to the world at relatively small expense, and due to their nature, small operating cost and high potential for profit, make appealing targets for venture capital. A neighborhood restaurant, not so much. That’s a long, hard slog, and even if successful will rarely expand beyond a locality or region, even if it ends up employing considerably more people than Twitter.

  5. georgelarson says:

    “From kindergarten through undergraduate and grad school, students learn few entrepreneurial skills or attitudes”

    Why would anyone expect children who spend over 10 years learning from employees of a large bureaucratic organization to want to be anything other than bureaucrats?

    A child with entrepreneurial attitudes will likely be considered a troublemaker in most schools

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      A child with entrepreneurial attitudes will likely be considered a troublemaker in most schools.

      Can I get an AMEN !?!?!?

      • Stacy in NJ says:


        • Ditto for the high-energy, bright and independent kids, who don’t fit well into the passive, bureaucratic school model and who are likely to ask inconvenient questions. Especially boys.

          • That’s funny. My brothers both dropped out of high school. Both worked for a bit and then both pursued different avenues to become aircraft maintenance engineers specializing in helicopters (It’s a family thing. :D). Both were launched into high paying careers that sent them around the world with very little college debt.

            School didn’t work for them. They recognized it, dumped it and got on with life. I think my sister both wish we’d taken the same route by getting off our butts and leaving school behind.

    • “A child with entrepreneurial attitudes will likely be considered a troublemaker in most schools.”

      What entrepreneurial attitudes are you referring to? Initiative? Self-control? Imagination? Drive? Ambition? Organization? Inquisitiveness? Creativity? Vision? Determination?

      That’s hardly the stuff of troublemaking. I can think of lots of people who were good students and went off to start their own businesses. I don’t know too many high school dropouts who became millionaires, though.

      Or are you equating “entrepreneurial attitudes” with certain *behaviors*? Sometimes people equate (or even romanticize) particular behaviors with a devil-may-care heroism that stems from their own resentment towards authority figures. These behaviors – shouting out answers, resisting certain assignments or teachers, not attending class, disagreeing loudly or disrespectfully with adults – do not necessarily reflect an entrepreneurial spirit, if that’s what you meant.

      I tire of the not-so-subtle stance that all schools are creativity killers. That assumption by itself reflects a rather unoriginal disdain towards schooling.

      • Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:


        It’s not that the *schools* are creativity killers, but that certain individual teachers and administrators react extremely poorly to students who have a perfectly natural and understandable reaction to being told to stand up and sit down when a bell rings, and being told to complete meaningless assignments and participate in time-wasting activities.

        The students remember these people. It’s not with a mere resentment, but a fairly nasty, burning hatred. The student who is independent and self-possessed enough to want to go out and pursue a worthwhile life outside the bell schedule is pretty much being enslaved — that is, forced by threat of law and juvenile detention to work primarily for the benefit of others at a task with no benefit for them. They fill the chair because the school gets money, because the teacher gets a job. But nothing is learned, no capacities are expanded, and no greater understandings are reached.

        Some teachers are so bad (there’s been a discussion on this site recently about bad teachers) that there’s hardly any student who learns anything. That bores and annoys some students, but driven students who want to be out learning something, anything, who are filled with a vision of what their life might be like if they could just be let free to fail and fail and build something, are sitting there learning to hate their teacher instead. Many students don’t know what they could be doing with the time that is wasted. The ones that do — the sort of students we’re talking about on this thread — suffer all the more acutely.

        That’s not to say that such students don’t still have things that they can learn from some teachers in the schools. They most certainly do. But a student with ambition and self-respect is going to despise those who actively work to keep her back. And such teachers and administrators do exist — the narrow-minded, institutional bureaucrats who are merely burning time till their pensions, and who see any disruption to their little assembly line as a possible political problem needing to be quashed.

        It’s not a “subtle stance” at all. I’ve tried to express it here as unsubtly as I could. But it’s not directed at schools in general, either.

        It’s quite personal. When you hear people griping about it, they’re just saying “schools” as shorthand for the collection of those terrible individuals, and perhaps for the institution that allowed those individuals to exercise their tyrrany over their students’ souls.

        • Thinly Veiled,

          Thanks for clarifying your thinking, and perhaps a notion in this thread that wasn’t apparent at first.

          If you equate sitting down when the bell rings and completing “time-wasting activities” with tyranny over a child’s soul, then I’m afraid we will have to part paths. Respectfully, of course.

          You see, I am also a parent. I make my child rehearse her music lessons when she (often) doesn’t feel like it. I make her do chores. I “make” her read (although she enjoys it). Will that crush her soul? Is that tyranny?

          Equating compulsory tasks with soul-crushing tyranny seems far-fetched and reactive.

          I will completely agree that BAD teachers are blight on any school’s conscience and a disservice to children. But then again, I had two really terrible teachers in school and looking back, I can see that I learned from them, too. I learned who not to be, and I learned how to survive when an authority figure was wrong. Life does not have to be roses and sunshine and sometimes kids learn from crappy circumstances. My main argument in this thread stands against the overused gripe-against-public-education(number 54867) which implies that all schooling crushes all creativity, all the time, amen.

          • Stacy in NJ says:

            You’re both correct. I have two teenage sons, so I’m offering this comment based purely upon my own experience.

            There is always a tipping point.

            Learning some self-discipline, respect for authority, an appreciation for our own ignorance, and the ability to play well with others is priceless. But public education has reached that pathetic point when much of what is required of our kids in the classroom is meaningless to many of them – not all of them – but many. It is tyranny when kids are offered up as sacrifices to the working schedules of their parents and public service employees and unions. The overriding reason most parents send their kiddies off to school is that they wouldn’t know what to do with them otherwise. The overriding reason most administrators and teachers want kids in the classroom because they wouldn’t have a job otherwise.

  6. One of the interesting things about the rise of technology – computers, the information age, etc. – is that people who would likely have been moderately successful in a prior age suddenly had remarkable opportunity. A socially awkward kid with quirky social skills, but with a strong head for math? It wasn’t so long ago that he would have ended up as a bookkeeper or accountant. And in that regard, pretty much everybody identified by Ellsberg falls into that category – quirky personalities, odd social behaviors, and extraordinary mathematical aptitude translating into high skills with computers and programming.

    If you look at the backgrounds of people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, you’re not going to read about people who showed no aptitude in their fields until they dropped out of college and started companies. You’re going to read about people who showed extraordinary interest in and aptitude for their fields, well before they finished high school. And in their business success you’re apt to find a whole lot of serendipity, not the signs of a carefully planned and funded business model. You can help similar kids maximize their potential by providing appropriate support for their interests and skills, but it’s that aptitude that propels them to the top, not whether they were formally trained to be entrepreneurs while in high school.

    Ellsberg also omits mention of the fact that, for the most part, the people he identifies are either children of privilege or benefited from association with people of privilege. Zuckerberg’s parents recognized his early aptitude and hired a tutor for him, and I would estimate that he was a more competent programmer going into college than are most college graduates holding computer science degrees. It’s a lot easier to “take the risk” of starting a business when dad is a named partner in a law firm (i.e., if you’re BIll Gates), than it is when you’re a typical kid. If things go wrong, oh horror, back to Harvard. If you accept the story by which Mary Gates convinced a fellow United Way committee member, IBM chairman John Opel, to take a gamble and hire Microsoft to develop an OS, you can also see the serendipity that took what could have been an obscure, niche computer firm and laid its foundation as a monopoly OS provider.

    It’s also fair to note that the author is talking about Facebook and Twitter, because they’re hot right now, but he isn’t telling us about the programmers who started their progenitors, MySpace, Friendster, Six Degrees, Bebo, ICQ…. Ten years from now it’s possible that we’ll speak of Twitter and Facebook in the same way we speak of Apple and Microsoft, but it’s also possible that we’ll speak of them in the same manner that we speak of Orkut and Pets.com. (Remember Orkut?)

    I have any number of friends who have college degrees in fields completely unrelated to computers, or who dropped out of college, and who have worked in IT, including universities, Netscape (back in its heyday), Yahoo! (again, back in its heyday), Apple, and Amazon. Some were (and are) quirky; at least one was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. But they entered the world of technology at a time when there was great demand, and a shortage of people with formal credentials, and you could go a long way based on interest and aptitude. These days, as you would expect, although somebody who displays strong aptitude can still go a long way without a degree, for the most part a credentialed applicant has an advantage over the non-credentialed applicant.

    I very much support the idea that students should be taught to prepare for a different type of “job market” – one in which they are more likely to have to keep developing their skills and make demonstrable contributions to their employers through the course of their entire careers if they wish to advance or, in some cases, even to maintain employment in a given field. But I’m not sure that it will have any great impact.

    Another thing: companies like Twitter (400 employees) and Facebook (2,000 employees) are not major employers. It would be wonderful to create an environment in which clever U.S. teens and young adults could easily and comfortably launch companies like Facebook and Twitter, but it’s not going to solve the nation’s problems with unemployment nor is it likely to affect the fact that most young adults (just like most employees of Twitter, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook) will still be seeking conventional jobs.

  7. Aaron…”high-tech manufacturing, and manufacturing that needs to occur near the point of usage, has remained in the United States while low-tech, labor-intensive manufacturing – particularly in high polluting industries – has been removed to nations like China, Cambodia and Vietnam.”

    But the level of “tech” that exists in any manufacturing process is a variable not a constant—-if Apple were to relocate its assembly operations from China to the US, you can be they woud be a lot more automation-intensive and a lot less people-intensive.

    There are vast segments of manufacturing which can rationally be done either in the US or outside the US—-too often, regulation, tax policy, and cultural prejudice slide the scale over to the “outside” end.

  8. Oh please.

    The logic is: Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs, Dorsey et al dropped out and became filthy rich high-tech entrpreneurs, so therefore we should therefore encourage average kids to drop out? Really?

    Seriously, any argument that takes Gates, Zuckerberg, et al and tries to generalize to the larger population is naive… correlation does NOT imply causation. Also, there is a very clear SELECTION effect at work here.

    I teach intro physics for engineers at a large public university in California… the vast, vast, vast majority of these kids are mediocre at best. Sorry, but if they drop out, I doubt that less than 1 in a million are going to achieve super success as a high tech giant.

    The ONLY thing that you can generalize is that if you are super-smart and super-ambitious, and have a level of training and competence before college that exceeds what most people get even after many years of higher education, then sure, you can probably skip it and be very successful.

    • Soapbox0916 says:

      What Ellsburg says in his article also applies to many stereotypical dropouts too. Nonconformists think outside of the box.

      As I say in my post below, I have seen former homeless and ex-felons who barely have any academic skills, put together job opportunities for themselves and their friends. It is scraping at the bottom, takes a whole lot of luck too, but if they can keep the cash flow going and get steady enough work, then that is success.

      Very few college graduates are very successful.

  9. Soapbox0916 says:

    I am a true book worm nerd, but as much as I love learning, I have been forced to come to the slow realization that not everyone needs a bachelor’s degree and that many people benefit by NOT having a bachelor’s degree, and that includes some really smart people. College degrees traditionally have seemed to have helped people the most that are in the middle, particularly middle class backgrounds.

    Coming from the other economic extreme, I have personally witnessed firsthand many poor, but smart individuals, coming out of homelessness or jail that have been forced to create their own job opportunities because no one would hire them. If you loosen the idea of entrepreneurship to include the self-employed, there are a lot of poor people (very rarely college graduates, but many have a little bit of post-secondary education) that fit the mold of the dropouts that are job creators.

    They usually start out stringing a few odd jobs for themselves, then go on and get bigger odd jobs where they need help from others, then they also start picking up odd jobs for their friends that traditional employers won’t hire. They are often not recognized as entrepreneurs or job creators because they don’t follow the official routes. It amazes me and humbles me to witness people oftentimes with very poor educational backgrounds get out there and accomplish what many PhDs and experts cannot accomplish.

    We tell middle class people especially that you have to do A, then B, then C, then D, then E, before you can even think about being an entrepreneur, while there are poor people out there every day just doing it because they have to do. The cliché that necessity is the mother of invention is very much true.

    There are also a much higher amount of nonconformists among the homeless and ex-felons, and that is to their benefit when it comes to self-employment and picking up odd jobs here and there. They still could benefit from training and mentoring, because cash flow and getting steady enough work is a huge problem, but they don’t really need a bachelor’s degree. I have been working on putting together an entrepreneur mentoring program for these self-employed poor individuals. Most economic development people I meet would rather focus on helping the upper income people with starting a business. There is such a traditional mindset about job creation.

    However, there really are dropouts (and closer to the images of the stereotypical dropouts) that are job creators too.

  10. georgelarson says:

    In response to Nana’s question:

    What entrepreneurial attitudes are you referring to? Initiative? Self-control? Imagination? Drive? Ambition? Organization? Inquisitiveness? Creativity? Vision? Determination?

    I do not consider these qualities primarily entrepreneurial. They would help an entrepreneur, but the existence of all these qualities together is not sufficient to be an entrepreneur.

    Children who see unmet needs around them and try to meet these needs outside of their bureaucracy are entrepreneurial. I think this behavior would cause problems in many schools today.

    I do not think school is a creativity killer, but I do not think schools create creative students either. I do not believe that is their mission. Schools do punish some creative students who do not fit our current model of education. I do not consider disruptive behavior a sign of creativity. Schools cannot cater to every child’s needs no matter what our judges, legislators and bureaucrats think.

  11. Soapbox0916 says:

    This is so weird. I was reading an article on the Wall Street Journal (that is actually a follow-up to another article) called ‘Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need’: The Author Follows Up”, but one of the comments to that article fit exactly this article. I almost forgot what article I was reading for a moment.

    I hope the author of the comment does not mind me quoting him, but it just too perfect for this article too, I wanted to share.

    Frederick Woeckner wrote:
    “The US suffers from the cult of ‘overcredentialization’, namely the mindless worship of diplomas and degrees. What made the US unique and an economic dynamo was we once were the land of limitless opportunity. Many of the brightest, inventive, imaginative and most effective employees (and entrepreneurs) cannot thrive within the boring and debilitating (to them) American regimented public school / academic system. Many of our greatest inventors and entrepreneurs were self taught garage inventors and tinkerers. In the past, talented individuals had employer’s doors opened just by their native abilities. Employers were less concerned with credentials then with actual talent. Often self taught people with limited formal education became highly valued well paid employees. Over the years I met many individuals who, in spite of little formal education, were obviously talented – even brilliant. A high school dropout comes to mind who could intuitively repair any mechanical device – from electronic devices to complex construction machinery. Another old gent with a grammar school education was a key employee of a large regional mobile generator company. ‘Adam’ could rig up any size industrial generator or any other piece of heavy equipment while the engineers quizzically looked on. Unfortunately today similarly talented individuals are shut out by unimaginative companies with straight jacketed employment policies.”

    Link to article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203554104576654620869708338.html#articleTabs%3Darticle