Believe it or not, today’s most successful entrepreneurs are college dropouts (Hess, 2017). Among them are Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Michael Dell of Dell Technologies, Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Larry Ellison of Oracle, and of course, the late Steve Jobs of Apple. After starting a revolutionary business, these college dropouts have become the multi-millionaires and billionaires of Silicon Valley. While their success modeled the possibility of making it big even without a college degree, the narrative on how to be a successful college dropout may not be as common as we perceive it to be.
In our society, we find these stories so enticing because of their “anything is possible” message. These people’s iconic stories have become the basis for some to view college degrees as no longer valuable, even claiming that formal education is detrimental to pursuing entrepreneurial intentions. But is it indeed the new rule, or is it more of an exemption to the rule?
This article will look into the stories of successful college dropouts and identify the factors and circumstances that led to success despite the lack of a college degree. The aim is to provide a guide that would inspire dropouts that there are other paths to success, and at the same time remind those contemplating quitting college that not every dropout makes it big in the real world. This article provides a guide to students on how to be successful college dropouts.
There is a consensus among researchers that dropping out of college is a deliberate decision and not the result of a short-term spontaneous reaction to a single incident (Zając & Komendant-Brodowska, 2019). The factors that lead to early departure from formal schooling could be a combination of individual student attributes as well as institutional characteristics (Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). Just as the factors that influence outcomes on how to be a successful college dropout differ, the reasons for leaving college also vary per individual.
One particular study entitled “Premeditated, Dismissed and Disenchanted: Higher Education Dropouts in Poland” found that “the decision to leave prematurely results from the change in the perception of either the cost or benefits of studying.” The study added that “During the integration process, the students’ interaction with the university environment influences the perception of various costs and benefits. Students use newly acquired knowledge to update their evaluations of their chosen major. This, in turn, affects the willingness to invest in integration with academic and social domains of the university, which is an interactive process in which the student is an active participant.” Published in 2019 in Tertiary Education and Management, this research by Zając and Komendant-Brodowska concluded that student attrition is more of an efficiency problem on the part of the institution as it fails to provide students with the necessary information, advice, and guidance to make informed decisions.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that fall college enrollment in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic decreased by 2.5% (Amour, 2020). This rate is double compared to 2019, which is equivalent to around 400,000 students. Prior to the pandemic, however, the dropout rate in post-secondary education was already alarming at around 40%.
Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2021
The college dropout rate due to COVID-19 paints a bleak picture of diminished trajectories. But the story of highly successful college dropouts provides hope. Through the years the way college dropouts are viewed by society has shifted. The narrative of Silicon Valley, with its big businesses and fortune, altered the negative perception towards students that chose not to have a college degree. Not all dropouts, however, have a success story. This narrative becomes problematic when we disregard the other factors that enabled a dropout to become an extraordinary achiever.
A 2017 study on the factors that contribute to high educational and occupational achievement revealed that among 11,745 US leaders which include CEOs, politicians, federal judges, business leaders, multi-millionaires, and billionaires, 94% attended college, and not just an ordinary college because 50% attended an elite school. This research emphasizes that the successful dropout entrepreneur is not a pervasive phenomenon. Based on these numbers, the college dropout success rate is only at around 6%.
There is no guarantee of financial success if one chooses to leave school and pursue an interest that could possibly be translated into a scalable business. In addition to talent, networks and elite education are equally important as identified by Wai and Rindermann (2017). Moreover, there are a lot of factors at play – inborn and fixed personality traits, ambition, drive, access to resources, and flexibility – that would put someone at an ideal place to become an entrepreneur minus the college degree.
Behind the enticing myth of the successful college dropout is the concept of survivorship bias, which distorts our view of these highly successful entrepreneurs. Our focus on the breakthrough achievements of college dropouts is lopsided because of cognitive bias and logical error, which lead people to make false conclusions due to the overlooked qualities of the rest of the population.
This uneven attention to distribution overlooks the low-profile college dropouts who engaged in necessity entrepreneurship and failed or those who never had the opportunity to venture into something due to limited access to resources. An interplay of factors influences the success or failure of entrepreneurs, so it is important to be careful in attributing outcomes to just a few traits that we choose to highlight to glamorize college dropouts.
If you are one of those students who just left formal schooling due to the pandemic or for any other reason, be assured that learning is not confined within the four walls of the classroom. There are other paths that you can take and opportunities to explore. One is to choose a career path and set yourself up for training and apprenticeship. The other is to be an entrepreneur. One interesting fact is that dropouts are more likely to become entrepreneurs than graduates. Education, however, is still an important determinant of success in entrepreneurial performance.
Though their individual characters may seem unique, successful college dropouts possess similar characteristics when it comes to facing life’s obstacles. While some people may perceive them as quitters, these men and women who made it big without a college degree compensated that deficiency with grit and hard work. The following principles are common among them, and could also help as you carve out a different path for your life.
Whether you are contemplating dropping out of school, or you have already left college, there is a lot to learn from the experiences of successful college dropouts. Remember, your decision will affect the next 10 or 20 years, if not the rest of your life.
It is important to note that the sequence of decisions on leaving college or any formal schooling differ across individuals. One college student might decide to drop out of school, and then eventually decide either to become an entrepreneur or gain experience by choosing a career path. Some are already engaged in entrepreneurship and choose to concentrate on the business by dropping out of college. Almost all of the successful college dropouts had a clearly defined and scalable business before they left school. Depending on your reason for leaving school, you have to identify your options and evaluate the feasibility of each option. Having a contingency plan would also be valuable.
If you desire autonomy, you should have access to crucial resources. How is your network? Do you have mentors? Do you know people who could be your angel investors? Networking is important in job hunting and in any entrepreneurial endeavor. In every industry, there is an ecosystem and you have to be surrounded by the right people who can help you navigate the environment. It is a known fact that the success of Microsoft would not have been possible if not for the mother of Bill Gates, respected businesswoman Mary Gates, who introduced Bill to the then-chairman of IBM John Opel in the 1980s. Mary Gates and John Opel were both members of the United Way Board, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Do you know your marketable skills? What are you good at? Your idea for a startup might be mind-blowing but you have to know how to execute it. You must be equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills, and competencies to incubate it into fruition. This requires more than taking the leap as friends cheer you on. College dropout success stories illuminate the importance of having the ability to work through ambiguity.
If you find your list of skills and competencies lacking, then take advantage of free online courses to enhance your capabilities. Even the most successful college dropouts acknowledge that in general, highly-educated entrepreneurs outperform those with lower levels of education (Buenstorf, Nielsen, & Timmermans, 2017). We are all wired differently and going to college may not be the best path for everyone. However, we are all required to embrace lifelong learning, in any way we choose. Upskilling is the mantra in the post-industrial, creative economy (WEF, 2021).
You are already taking on a major risk once you drop out of school, but you have to be ready for more. The successful college dropouts did not shy away from risk, instead, they embraced it. It is important to note, however, that they took on calculated risks and intelligent risks. These college dropouts are short of a few credits to degree completion, and, therefore, have skills in abstract problem-solving. Years of formal education contributed to their success. In the same manner, do not be discouraged by failure. Failures pushed Steve Jobs to reinvent himself and succeed, and he even said that getting fired is the best thing that happened to him.
College still matters. In 2017, around 1 million college dropouts completed a degree (Sedmak, 2019). Even the most successful dropouts returned to school. Even Bill Gates, the billionaire dropout, encourages and even extends support to students so they can complete college and have a degree. Pursuing entrepreneurship does not allow college dropouts to compensate for their disadvantages in the labor market. A college degree commands a different level of respect because, after all, college is considered as the first obstacle course of life. A college degree opens important doors, and puts you on top of the recruiter’s file.
Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center
The narrative of successful college dropouts has indeed changed the way we view students who opted to leave formal schooling. Their story inspires students, but this does not mean college degrees have become an unnecessary credential. College still matters. As one successful Silicon Valley college dropout asserts, this over-emphasis on skills and the trashing of college degrees is “overly simplistic and ignores the role of class, race, and privilege” (Rossman, 2019).
Now that we have identified the key qualities of successful college dropouts, it is up to you to make a decision. Go against the grain but surround yourself with mentors and seek their advice. Be bold, but cultivate positive relationships at the same time. Bold individuals have the tendency to offend others, so be mindful. Look for key qualities in every successful college dropout, be it an entrepreneur or someone who chose a different career path. A balanced approach is important, carefully evaluate the factors that contributed to the success, as well as those that led to failure. These people who successfully demonstrated how to be a successful college dropout share key characteristics that led to success.
Should you decide to go back to school, there are colleges offering fully online courses that you could take while working at the same time. Don’t stop pursuing your dreams, there are other paths to reach them aside from formal schooling. Stay focused on your goals—once you leave college, you are on your own. Create your own learning structure and gain experience. Stay open to possibilities. If you have in you the talent, skills, competencies, ambition, drive, flexibility, and most importantly if you have the right network and access to resources, then you just might be the next successful college dropout.