The Reckless Folly of Ellsberg's "Will Dropouts Save America?"

In a reckless opinion piece in this Sunday's New York Times entitled "Will Dropouts Save America?" Michael Ellsberg argues that higher education robs students of crucial skills that promote success in entrepreneurship -- skills like networking, marketing, and comfort with failure -- and therefore, that job-creation efforts should stop incentivizing post-secondary education. He writes,

I'd put my money on the kids who are dropping out of college to start new businesses. If we want to get out of the jobs mess we're in, we should hope that more will follow in their footsteps.

While there are several problems with this position, let's consider three particularly questionable assumptions implicit in this line of reasoning: that education actually deteriorates entrepreneurial skills; that formal post-secondary education is categorically incapable of improving entrepreneurial capacity; and that the only value of post-secondary education is financial.

To demonstrate that college has a negative effect on entrepreneurial skills, Ellsberg points to the fact that many of the most famous startup founders in our society, including Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates (Windows), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), all dropped out of college. Implicit in this argument is that if Jobs, Gates or Zuckerberg had actually completed college, we wouldn't have Apple, Windows, or Facebook -- which is a sham argument.

The flaw in Ellsberg's reasoning, termed "selection bias" in statistical circles, is that he assumes that the startup founders he named are similar to their peers who chose to stay in college in all categories except their choice to leave college, and therefore, that leaving college itself was the cause for their success. Rather, these highly talented individuals likely differed from their peers on the exact characteristics Ellsberg thinks education erodes -- networking capacity, marketing, comfort with failure, and of course, innate creative talent -- well before they ever chose to leave college.

His point is all the more unfounded when you consider each of these unique people's cases individually: It's possible that Mark Zuckerberg would never have been successful if he hadn't gone to college -- it was only at Harvard that he famously recognized the niche which Facebook now occupies. And in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Steve Jobs credited his unique penchant for design to a calligraphy class he had taken at Reed College.

To cap this point: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs are hardly your average college dropouts -- after all, both Gates and Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. While an infinitesimal proportion may, the average college dropout doesn't go on to found a major corporation -- he goes on to work a lower skill job with less pay and worse benefits than he would have had he graduated (if he gets a job at all).

I agree with Ellsberg that higher education can incentivize behavioral patterns that are not consistent with success as an entrepreneur. College can teach students not to take risks and to bound their thoughts within multiple-choice answer sets. And an inherent lesson from the college experience is that students who spend too much time networking (read socializing), rather than studying, lose. But the problem with this argument is that it's a description of a particular type of education system, rather than an inherent description of education itself.

Rather than throw away the entire enterprise, how about rethinking it-- in true, entrepreneurial spirit. After all, education is simply the process of improving human capacities. If we can whittle down the particular capacities most important in entrepreneurship, with some imagination, there's no reason we can't teach them. And universities are catching on. In a recent commentary in Forbes, Mary Sue Coleman, President of the University of Michigan (my alma mater), writes

At UM we've been able to put in place a framework to support a full range of entrepreneurism -- including more than 100 courses, incubator space, venture funding, competitions and, most importantly, a growing culture that embraces and encourages risk taking.

A third inherent assumption in Ellsberg's thought process, and one that bedevils most conservative and libertarian viewpoints on education, is that the only value thereof is the earning potential an "educated" individual may have over her less-educated counterparts. This myopic perspective undervalues education in a dangerous way. Why? While income can improve access to material resources, education transforms the way in which an individual interacts with the world around her -- from the way she makes basic life choices around food, shelter, and community, to the way she negotiates stressful life events, to the very values she holds most dear. From the health literature, for example, low educational attainment predicts higher risk for mental disorder, cardiovascular disease, and mortality, independent of its effect on lower income.

Ellsberg's line of reasoning, that education erodes entrepreneurial abilities, and therefore, that education should be deemphasized in jobs policy is not only patently false, it's disingenuous and irresponsible. According to the latest data from the 2010 Census, fewer than 1 in 3 Americans have completed bachelor's degrees. Not only do these Americans have lower earnings, they are deprived of the many social benefits education brings with it, independent of income. In an effort to provide themselves or their children with these financial and social goods, millions of Americans are struggling to pay tuition costs. They need all the help they can get. Rather than highlighting a small, non-representative minority of college dropouts to misrepresent the importance of education, perhaps it would be better to concentrate on redesigning our higher education system so that it better serves American society.