Entrepreneurship AND Education matter…

…especially in economic development. I find the current debate between Peter Thiel (We’re in a higher-ed bubble) and the “elites in education” and their supporters (Oh no we’re not!) fascinating, revealing and highly entertaining (the satirist in me is loving every last word).

Per usual, when you are in an argument framed by strong opinions on both sides, you don’t always listen and you certainly don’t always hear the other side.

In this case, Peter Thiel demonstrates he is not hearing the other side of the argument by not, at least, acknowledging the inherent intrinsic value of education or the life-changing experience “going off to college” provides.  The latter point is more important than ever as we become an increasingly fragmented country socially, economically, and politically. We need places where people can connect, engage and build relationships — where they can create a shared experience. College is one of those places.

The higher education elites who commented are not hearing the other side of the argument as evidenced by their defensive posturing (“I’m not sure what this experiment is going to prove”) and by not addressing the actual cost of a degree from Stanford, Duke or Drexel. Tell my why, exactly, your degree is worth the money? I’m a prospective buyer in about 3 1/2 years and I’d love to compare all of my options.

I think I can speak to this subject with a high degree of authenticity having “gone off to college” (literally) and then quitting something stable at a relatively young age to become an lifelong entrepreneur. First, leaving Lincoln, Nebraska and going to Arizona State University changed my life, for the better. It made me grow up…fast. I paid for my school completely on my own and worked full-time through college to do it. I also paid $22 a credit hour in 1983 (if memory serves me…and that’s a big “if” these days). I didn’t get as much of the college experience as I would have liked (work!) but I did love going to ASU games, hanging out in downtown Tempe, and partying at the Devil House (what’s it called these days?).

I also know that quitting my job in 1991 and taking the summer off to (re)discover myself was HUGE. It started me down the entrepreneurial path I’m still on and it ranks as the 2nd best decision I ever made…behind going off to college. Make that 5th best decision if my wife, daughter and son are reading this. 😉

It was the experience of college that enabled me to develop a) some level of maturity (my wife would debate this), b) some level of competency (IT), and c) some level of a network to call on later.

My point is, we need real, sustainable economic development in this country (fast!) and we need both education and entrepreneurship to help lead it. Yes, education comes in other forms than just higher education: Wikipedia, Google, Twitter, ShareOnce (shameless plug), GroupCharger (shameless plug), Cospace (shameless plug), Worksody (shameless plug) or any other tool or place that helps people learn faster and be more productive. However, I believe that we need to educate everyone to the highest degree possible (no pun intended), in whatever form they are ready, willing, and able to follow.

Disregarding the pricing issue for a minute, higher education and the structure, guidance and experience it provides still has value for a large segment of our population. I also think there is an easy argument to make for higher education’s contribution to the greater good of our society.

To Thiel’s point, higher education, particularly at the elite level, at first blush does seem to be over-priced. Not only that, but the reaction to his work by higher education proponents along with the slow pace of change within higher education doesn’t bode well for a resolution to this important argument anytime soon.

On a personal level, the thought of paying $100,000 for each of my kids to go off to college is frightening and it has me looking for alternatives: The London College of Economics, anyone? In the end, Theil’s bubble argument has merit and it should be thoroughly tested. I know I would love to see the results, especially regarding the “perception of value” of higher education, or what we collectively believe higher education is worth.

Time will tell but here are three reasons to follow this issue: 1) Thiel has been right before about bubbles; 2) there are now viable alternatives to traditional higher education; and 3) in the marketplace, what goes up must come down, right? Housing bubble, anyone?

Finally, perception of value, like any myth or belief, is true for those who believe it. Let me say that another way: “prices, like myths, are neither right or wrong…they’re just true for those who believe it.”  Now, how you arrive at your beliefs — research, faith, experiences — is up to you.

I learned that little nugget about pricing in college at ASU. What’s really interesting is that I didn’t learn it in business school. I learned it from my World Religions Professor! Who knew a theology professor knew so much about politics, education, and business?

Here’s my myth: Life is all about experiences and both education and entrepreneurship can give you rich ones if you take action and truly engage. It’s up to you.



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