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.
I’ve seen this logic used in arguments about not having to spend lots of money on college or from those who see college as liberal indoctrination. As Zimmer argues, using outliers to build a theory is just not a good idea. These famous cases are held up partly because they are so rare, not because this is necessarily a good path to pursue. This is similar to the logic used in holding up rages to riches stories; while it is true that social mobility, upward and downward, occurs in the United States, a phenomenal change in position over one lifetime is more rare.
I’ve used this very example with my Introduction to Sociology class when talking about why people go to college. I ask them if they are aware of wealthy college dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. They say yes. I then ask if they dropped out of college, would their parents accept these stories as good rationale? They answer no. I then tell them a little of the Bill Gates story as relayed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Gates attended a pretty good high school that through one student’s parent who worked for a computer company was able to purchase a used mainframe computer. Gates then had a rare opportunity at the time for a high school student to spend hours with the mainframe and learn about it. He was then able to build on this background and later founded Microsoft with Paul Allen. Gladwell uses this as an example of the Matthew effect where those who come from more advantaged backgrounds (or who happened to be the oldest hockey players) tend to get more opportunities later in life.