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Do Self-Made Success Stories Convince Some College Isn't Necessary?


Startup lore is synonymous with stories of genius founders who've bucked the system. The youngest tend to get into top schools, only to drop out and start world-changing companies. Bill Gates did that -- as did Mark Zuckerberg. Richard Branson didn't even complete high school. The stories show diplomas are no prerequisite for success.


But for some, these stories might be proving something else entirely -- and giving some young minds a wrong impression.

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A recent study examined attitudes about the value of education in white, working class, young men in Britain. The research, from London-based think tank LKMco and King's College London, found that students who are raised in certain communities tend to question the return on investment that higher schooling could bring.

Unsurprisingly, for the students in the study, this doubt is fueled by a host of factors, including high costs and incurring potential debt. But interestingly, for some, exposure to successful entrepreneurs, even local ones, can make schooling seem like less of a sure bet. For these students, many living in agricultural communities, entrepreneurship employs their parents, their friends' parents, and even their friends, and is a real ramp to success.

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Explained one researcher, "it's a lot more difficult to persuade students from traditionally working class backgrounds...that university is a sensible use of their time and money when everyone they know is working in a small business."

Additionally, researchers quoted in the report claim students receive two messages reinforcing the idea that schooling isn't really key to success. The first is friends who go to university and return to low-paying jobs. The second is high-profile stories of entrepreneurs who've made their way without degrees.

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To be sure, the tie to entrepreneurship in this report was an anecdotal mention in very targeted research designed to answer why a certain group was underrepresented in higher education in England. It wasn't a study exploring global connections between college admission and startup mythologies -- but it does bring up an intriguing point about how and why we believe what we believe when it comes to self-made success.

In part, the most famous entrepreneurs are often the biggest successes. In those stories, early decisions can seem momentous. Bill Gates dropped out of school, but had studied computer programming since age 13. By the time Mark Zuckerberg applied to Harvard, he'd already turned down an offer from Microsoft to buy a technology he'd built for his father's dentist office.

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Dropout stories seem to have the same effect, freeing entrepreneurs to find their successful futures. After all, didn't Snapchat's Evan Spiegel drop out from Stanford? He sure did. But so did Theranos' Elizabeth Holmes. Had she stayed in school, would her technology be under fire now? Or would it still have happened, only later?

No one can ever know for sure. As usual, the most important bona fide for any entrepreneur is a product or service that works and a company that thrives.

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