The Myth of the Millionaire College Dropout

In the latest assault on higher education, a new book paints a misleading picture of the road to riches without a college degree

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Photo Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME; Getty Images (3)

In the new book The Education of Millionaires, Michael Ellsberg suggests that although “there are many wonderful things you can learn in college,” few of them are transferable to real life. Perhaps in an effort to fill that perceived gap, Ellsberg has written what might be characterized as a motivational self-help manual that aims to reveal “the capabilities and mind-sets that will get you ahead outside the classroom.”

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So far, so good. I welcome the kind of robust debate about the value of higher education that this book may engender. It is necessary to bear in mind, however, that what Ellsberg also reveals is a passionate regard for making money — lots of it — as a measure of the value of an individual’s work and worth. To defend his thesis, the author cites a number of college dropouts — such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Michael Dell — to demonstrate how successful they have become without the benefit of a college degree. Their stories, though compelling, point towards the highly misleading conclusion that higher education may sometimes be more a hindrance than a benefit to those seeking to thrive anywhere north of the poverty line. I notice that Ellsberg does not challenge the value of a degree when it comes to professions other than entrepreneur — that makes sense because none of us would consult a lawyer or put ourselves in the hands of a surgeon or even an accountant who had not undergone rigorous education. I am also not surprised that while Ellsberg highlights the accomplishments of dropouts, he excludes degree holders who have become wealthy and famous. For example, of the current Fortune 500 CEOs, some 99% have a college degree. Similarly, of the Forbes 400 richest people in America, 81% hold postsecondary degrees. (In my experience, when the time comes for both well-off college dropouts and graduates to send their children to school, they both opt for the most highly rated schools on anyone’s list, no matter what the cost.) So why should the exception — the dropout — become the rule to emulate?

Debates about the value of higher education are always acute during times of economic and social crises. Questions arise about whether the halls of academia or the college of hard knocks provide better preparation for dealing with life’s challenges. The cost of higher education dominates the debate, although critics tend to trot out the price of an Ivy League school rather than reference the more affordable tuitions at the nation’s many excellent public colleges and universities, which educate the majority of U.S. students. Regardless, the fact remains that people with college degrees still earn much more — and are more likely to have a job to begin with — than people without.

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But what is forgotten in the discussion about dollars and cents is that the purpose of education, whatever its cost or its source, is not simply to enable one to earn a living but to prepare one for living over the course of an entire lifetime with all the ups and downs that come our way. This is particularly true of the liberal arts which, I believe, are the key to endowing students with the perspective for reflection upon the nature and texture of their own lives. The liberal arts provide young men and women with the standards by which to measure human achievement and to recognize and respect the moral courage required to endure human anxiety and suffering as well as to analyze and plan how to achieve their individual goals. One might be wise to recall Derek Bok’s famous statement that if you think education is costly, compare it to the price of ignorance.

What is also left out of the debate about higher education is that its purpose is not just to provide a pathway paved with gold for the nation’s elites. If we frame the discussion that way, we may unintentionally serve to disparage the people who are in charge of the daily management, maintenance and smooth operation of our civilization — the men and women who deliver our mail, comprise our police force, serve in our military, work in our libraries, teach our elementary school children, and devote themselves to a thousand other jobs that, if not performed with responsibility, commitment and creativity, would undermine the basic structures of our society. Though these individuals may not be reaching for the kind of stars that Michael Ellsberg and others would have them aspire to grasp, most are doing something even more important: they are engaging in the useful tasks of good citizens and contributing to the common welfare, including providing for their families. And perhaps they are even carrying out what Marcus Aurelius called “one of our assignments in life … to do what needs doing.” In my book, that is more than quite enough.