Can the Next Wave of Young Entrepreneurs Even Afford to Attend College?
The problematic debt of attending college demands an evolution in how society thinks about and approaches higher education.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
The debate about whether or not college is mutually exclusive from the entrepreneurial path is heated and ongoing. Many are advocates of striking out on your own, educating yourself along the way and ditching the conventional four-year approach in favor of experiential learning. While there are many points to support the idea that if you are taking on the entrepreneurial journey, you may not necessarily need to receive a formal education, there are still plenty of benefits to attending and finishing college.
According to studies conducted by Pew Research, 41 percent of millennials ages 25 to 32 say that their education was "very useful" in preparing them for a job or career. Adding to that, about 53 percent of all employed college graduates 25 to 32 say they are "very satisfied" at work. Eighty-six percent of employed millennial college graduates are more likely than those with a high school diploma or less to say they have found a "career."
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These numbers indicate a few things. First, the societal pressure to attend college may be so great that those who might not otherwise opt to attend feel pushed to do so, accounting for some part of the 59 percent of millennials who did not find their education useful. Secondarily, of that same 59 percent, those who go on to create and execute their own entrepreneurial ventures may in fact say that their degree in Art History (or Psychology or Political Science) helped.
However, the education itself is only half of what is the core of the problem. We likely wouldn't be having such a lengthy dialogue about this issue to begin with if it weren't for the ominous student loan debt crisis impacting millennials and their families.
Two things need to happen to mitigate this never-ending conversation. First, there need to be more options available to finance an education. Interest rates should be lower, grants and scholarships should be more readily available, and community colleges should be seen as a viable option. While some of these ideas seem lofty, if they don't transpire soon, we are set to see an implosion in the institutionalized higher education system, and soon.
Secondly, there needs to be more collaboration between colleges and universities and the small business/start-up communities in their area. Many believe the millennial generation is more entrepreneurial and hungrier to pave their own way than any other generation in history. We should be catering to these needs by evolving the way we approach education to begin with.
Experiential learning is important. It's a huge part of learning to build and grow your own business -- you learn on the job. I'd love to see incubators near or on college campuses, and founders and leaders taking on interns more often and supporting the next generation of creators. Some colleges and universities have created programs and even degrees with a focus on entrepreneurship, and while this conceptually is a step in the right direction, it's not offering the immersion that is so necessary in the start-up world to really get your feet wet and understand by doing.
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Student loan debt is affecting our economic growth.
Nearly 70 percent of bachelor's degree recipients finish their degree with debt, and at present, the total student loan debt accumulated in the U.S. is over $1.2 trillion. Finishing a degree crippled by loans means a massive barrier to entry when it comes to getting a home, a car and building a life. The scope of this crisis is vast. One in four student loan borrowers are either in delinquency or default on their loans.
It is no wonder so many people are advocating that a college education as unnecessary -- the numbers alone are daunting. However, the system may be broken, but it's not permanent. As an entrepreneur who dropped out of college to pursue my passions, I can confidently say that there is no right or wrong way to do things. It's unique to each individual. However, I have established a start-up incubator in Newark, NJ, in close proximity to several universities with the express intent of fostering a greater collaboration between entrepreneurship and the college ecosystem. I think this is the next step.
For those that choose to leave formal education behind, it is imperative to get a mentor. When embarking on an entrepreneurial path, there are a few things that are non-negotiable, but this is one of them. Having a mentor is like getting that education in real time, and shot straight to you. Blindly walking down any path is a recipe for disaster, but having someone to guide you around the mistakes they learned from is priceless. Not going to college isn't a cakewalk -- it comes with plenty of it's own hard work (if not harder), lessons and potential failures. It's a good idea to, instead of trying to wing it, receive education in a different form, straight from someone who's done it before.
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The moral of this story is that the ideal situation could be to study and learn the things you desire in a higher education institution while still pursuing, scheming and building your entrepreneurial ideas. Both should be viable options, and the decision shouldn't necessary be either/or. However, for any of this to take place, we need to see an evolution in the way we think about and approach education, and how we expect the young people of this country to pay for it.