Can a College Degree Make You an Entrepreneur?
Often, entrepreneurship classes, like most college courses, are taught from a textbook with an emphasis on “right” and “wrong” answers. That’s just how many professors tend to approach formalized education. The focus is on numerical scores and letter grades, but in the real-world, the challenges and intricacies of entrepreneurship are not as easily defined. Entrepreneurs prize innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, which is often de-emphasized in favor of teaching students to formulate half-baked business plans. Sure, it’s practical, but does it really help students think like entrepreneurs?
And can you really teach someone to be an entrepreneur in the context of a crowded lectured hall? I, personally, have my doubts.
So, here’s my question: “Is a college degree a requirement to becoming an entrepreneur?”
My College Story
Full Disclosure: I didn’t go to college as a traditional student after high school. In fact, I enrolled about 11 years after high school graduation.
I thought I was a terrible student in high school. I had lost my natural curiosity and passion for school somewhere along the line in grade school after classes became more strictly regimented and inflexible. I was already blowing off high school classes to take extra shifts at work. Why would I want to waste my time in a classroom when I could be making money?
I had a promising job lined up, and I was making more money than a lot of my friends’ parents. It didn’t make sense for me to go to college just because it felt like the thing to do. So, after graduating high school, I just said, “I’m going to do things differently. I’ll have to make it another way because I am just not cut out for college.”
I was wrong. I was cut out for college, just not at this point in my life.
One day, over a decade after I graduated from high school, I decided to take a walk through a new community college campus that had opened up in my town. I honestly just went there to look around, but something about it inexplicably drew me in. Suddenly, it was 60 minutes later, I had $500 less in my bank account, and I was enrolled in an American History class that started the next Monday.
I was terrified. I thought to myself, “What the heck did I just do?” What a waste of money. My spontaneous self just made a stupid decision.
Although I’d since developed a ton of confidence in my professional life after high school, I still thought of myself as a terrible student. I resigned myself to the idea that I could have just thrown $500 down the drain for something I was going to despise.
But, here’s the thing, that first class was actually a revelation. To my surprise, my first class in college was actually really pleasant. In fact, after that first class, I talked to the professor and told him that I was scared to give college a chance after all these years. Not only was he understanding, he was actually interested in helping me succeed.
While I avoided the classroom in my teens, I now actually looked forward to lectures. The structure didn’t seem as stuffy, and the professors encouraged me to personalize my educational journey. It was a far cry from my experience in high school.
Exactly 2 years and 9 months from when I signed up for that first college course, I graduated from a well-known university with a bachelor’s degree.
While I still believe that college can’t necessarily teach someone to be an entrepreneur, it can help students to discover their path, build connections, and improve their self-confidence. And, while maybe not essential to my entrepreneurial journey, I still consider signing up for that first college course as one of the best decisions of my life.
How to Decide if College is the Right Step for You
If you want to attend college, do it because you want to, not because you feel like you have to.
Waiting until I was ready to go to college made all the difference in my college success. If I had caved to family pressure and gone to college straight out of high school, I doubt I would have taken it seriously.
Many college students spend their four years in college following the path that was laid out for them by their parents or their professors. When they graduate, they have no idea what to do with their lives. Suddenly, all the structure is gone, and there’s no clear direction.
That is why I recommend that college students try to use university as a chance to learn about themselves — away from the influence of their family.
So, if you do make the choice to go to college, take classes that interest you. Find an internship with a cool company. Talk to your professors and build connections. Don’t be passive.
When you find something you like, concentrate all your efforts into that passion. So many college students do the bare minimum of what is required for them to graduate and are then surprised that they don’t immediately find a job that interests them.
The day I signed up for a college course on a whim ended up being a pivotal moment of my life. I learned a lot from my college classes, and I became a hell of a lot more confident in my academic abilities. That might not have happened if I had gone straight from high school to college. I just wasn’t ready yet for that step, and that’s okay.
There are some great reasons to go to college, even if you aren’t planning on taking the traditional career path, but you’re not going to get anything meaningful out of it unless you actually want to be there.
Ways to Sharpen Your Entrepreneurial Skills (That Don’t Require a Degree)
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a college student is assuming that a degree with guarantee future success. If you aren’t sure that college is for you, it might be worthwhile to take some time to explore your options.
Remember, college is not the only way to become educated. Honestly, it’s not even the best option for everyone. By the time I went to college, I was already an “entrepreneur” (I put that word in quotes because I didn’t really consider myself an entrepreneur at the time even though the word would have described me).
So, if you have the “entrepreneurial spirit,” but you’re lacking real-world knowledge and experience, try searching out some other sources of information before jumping into the financial and professional commitment of a college education.
- Take an online course from a real entrepreneur (not a business professor). You’ll learn a lot about what it really takes to be an entrepreneur. Check out Udemy for a wide range of courses that are much cheaper than a traditional college class.
- Read best-selling books on entrepreneurship and investing. Take notes. Look up terms and ideas that you aren’t familiar with, and check out their bibliography sections. Study what they’ve read, and learn what they know. Starting from some of these more popular sources then working your way into the more nitty-gritty details is a great way to learn on your own without becoming too overwhelmed.
- Gain real-world experience, and work for someone else for awhile. There’s no rush to figuring out what you want to do when you’re young. Instead of taking a chance on starting your own business without experience, take some time to learn from people who have been successful.
- Keep up with industry news through blogs, online magazines, and other publications. When you’re not in a traditional college classroom, surrounded by like-minded peers, it can be easy to fall behind the times. That’s why it’s your responsibility to keep up with business trends and current events to make sure you’re up-to-speed. Also, you’ll gain valuable insight into how other entrepreneurs think and react to trends by following thought leaders who interest you.
- Take a cheap community college class. That’s what I did, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision. Remember, you can always transfer to a more distinguished university if getting that prestigious name on your diploma is worthwhile for your career goals.
If entrepreneurship interests you, know that your educational journey may take some unconventional twists and turns.
While you’re in the early stages of your life, spend some time experimenting and finding out what it is that you want to do. For example, if marketing interests you, double down on it, and offer to help run a marketing campaign for a local nonprofit. If you’re interested in tech, get some experience building an app. Get creative!
That’s why I think that you should take some time to figure out what you (not your parents or teachers) want before spending a ton of money on college. If you lack that passion, you might end up wasting all the amazing opportunities that college has to offer.