President's Blog

Beware the myth of the college dropout billionaire

During a recent trip to the Bay Area, I noticed that downtown San Francisco is blanketed with higher education advertising. Not just from West Coast schools, but from East Coast institutions with branch campuses there as well. Higher education is in high demand in San Francisco because college graduates are in high demand by the booming IT industry there.

The Bay Area is not the only region with seemingly insatiable demand for highly skilled professionals. Our home in Northern Virginia and the broader Washington D.C. metro area is experiencing a similar dynamic. Employers complain that we are not producing computer scientists and cybersecurity specialists fast enough–even though Mason is growing at a rapid pace, with more than 1,000 students added last year, and a 50% share of all enrollment growth in Virginia over the last decade. Not surprisingly universities from other parts of Virginia and beyond are setting up shop in our neighborhood (welcome, by the way, we like it here too!).

This demand for higher education in highly competitive regions contrasts with the myth of the dropout billionaire apparently taking root in some elite colleges, according to which dropping out of college, not completing a degree, would be the path to becoming a successful entrepreneur. The myth is sustained by the legendary stories of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, and the critiques of higher education by influential leaders–like Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who will offer some young people $100,000 to drop out or skip college and “build new things.”

Beware the myth. Study after study show that the vast majority of mortals aspiring to capture the riches of the new economy — or to just find a good job with medical and retirement benefits and a paycheck substantial enough to allow you to live comfortably — will need a college degree (that, by the way, includes Thiel who got not one but two degrees from Stanford). A 2017 study of nearly 12,000 U.S. business and political leaders, federal judges, and other wealthy and powerful citizens found that 94 percent attended college. That’s why Gates warns you against following his path and uses the word “tragic” to describe the number of students who start college but do not complete degrees.

This very week on Capitol Hill, new Fed Chairman Jerome Powell blamed the lackluster growth in family income and average wages on the stagnation of education attainment. The Nation needs more educated professionals to keep growing. And individuals need more education to have a fair shot at a good job and higher family income.

Dropping out of college may sound cool, but for most people, it’s not that smart. Most people working in the buildings that tower over the college advertising that’s plastered around the Bay Area graduated from college. I think these grads would tell you that the view — of their surroundings and of their futures — is pretty darn good.