What most people are seeking in college is not education, but certification. The liberal arts, four year degree is now the minimum certification for a lot of employment, but someone with a quick mind, talent and some experience to go with it can top an Ivy graduate very quickly. But, just as "no one ever got fired for buying IBM” (an old slogan), very few have ever been fired for hiring Harvard, so an Ivy grad starts with a leg up, which might or might not last.
The examples of tech start up success without finishing a degree are not a rare exception. In every generation, a small group either skips college or drops out and does very, very well.
Consider, also, that the early 20s are normally the most creative period of one's life. One can be creative throughout life, but the ideas and concepts that burst through from age 15 to 25 are generally the best. Why, I would ask, should one sit repeatedly in rather dull classroom lectures listening to someone else drone on about what they know, what they think and what you should think and know? If you have no creative abilities or if you don't know where to start, sitting in classrooms makes sense. If you find a clear direction and you get that amazing feeling of belonging to it and it to you, going to college for four long years can actually be counter productive.
Now, to the money argument. To those who cite "statistics" saying college grads earn more, I say bilge water. Grads earn more because of the built in prejudice of the marketplace, not necessarily because they know more or are better at what they do (some are, some aren’t).
Suppose, for a moment, that you took an entire freshman class of an Ivy school and moved them to an island in the Caribbean for four years. Aside from having a lot of pregnancies, what would you get? You'd have a group educated in something different (who knows what?) who would go right on to be very successful in life. Some might lose their way, but most would use family and social connections, the source of 80% of all jobs, to find a useful role in life. Because they missed out on the surge of learning in their 20s, they would probably make themselves into students for life. What I am saying is that the education trope is self fulfilling: you have to have the degree because what? Because you have to have the degree, because employers can chose among those who do.
Now, to the cost issue. Suppose you took a would be Harvard grad, sent him or her to a state college and banked the difference. You'd have 150K or more to invest. What would that be worth in 20 or 30 years? It could be several million, it could be less than a million, but in either case you'd have some cold cash to go on top of whatever the student had earned. That's a real benefit. The elite schools are expensive, in part, because it causes parents and students to value them more. Penn years ago had enough in its endowment to allow all undergrads to attend for free, but didn't dare do so. Without that high price tag, it would lose prestige.
One of the good reasons to attend an elite school is to make friends and contacts with other people on the rise. One could do that almost as effectively by taking a few courses part time and meeting everyone possible. By the way, in regard to Gates meeting people from IBM through his parents, my understanding is that they bought him an early computer or calculating machine, which actually launched his budding career. Gates’ most important meet up occurred in prep school where he met Paul Allen. However, it doesn't matter how smart you might be in regard to what Gates knew then, because the PC revolution has already happened. You need insight in to the present and future to do well now. You might find that in college, you might not.
In my own case, I attended a modest state university (for reasons I will not detail here). Because of that, I had time to do outside study. Although I was a history major, I gathered information about the development of fiber optics and I currently work as a technologist in applications of fiber, satellites, microwave and network systems generally. A lot of my life has revolved around my outside study rather than history and literature, my main subjects.
I also worked while in college at a television station, which gave impetus to a career as a reporter for television and radio, which has been about half of my professional life. I tried to mix college, work and outside study, causing considerable stress and personal consternation. Yet, I got opportunities that would never be accorded now to someone of my age then. I had a girlfriend at Penn, so I got to sample the intellectual atmosphere at an Ivy and saw considerable evidence that those students were not vastly better served.
College is a program which can never be tested relative to its value to society and the individual because there is no control group. The price has been raised to a point where it is too high for most people. My advice is get an good education, take some courses at an elite school if you feel inferior or want to pad your resume, but concentrate on education and personal development first. The most important factor is your own mind and interest in intellectual growth. This is more important than whatever someone tries to pour into your head.
Doug Terry, 3.18.11