No degree? You can still make it work

You have heard the warnings: you will never amount to anything if you do not study well, go to a good school and get a good degree. Is that really true though? History is littered with greats who never completed their college education. Some examples cited by Elite Daily includes United States Presidents – yes, plural – Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson, whose faces can be found on the back of American money. Others include automobile billionaire Henry Ford who did not even attend college and world famous photographer Ansel Adams, who left school for the darkroom. David Ogilvy, one half of advertising conglomerate Ogilvy & Mather (O&M) was even kicked out of Oxford University.

Closer to home, Charles Wong of Charles & Keith did not even finish his GCE ‘O’ Levels. The homegrown fashion label was recently thrust into the limelight when Maisie Williams (Arya in Game of Thrones) picked its wristlet bag for the Emmy Awards. Other Singaporean icons include Tanya Chua, Fandi Ahmad, Royston Tan and more.

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is so emphatic about the no-college route that he launched the Thiel Fellowship. The grant gives US$100,000 to “young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom”.

It is easy to find successful people who do not have a college degree: The visionary late Steve Jobs, who made Apple the most valuable company at one point in time; Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who dropped out of Harvard; Microsoft guru Bill Gates who took enough courses to graduate from Harvard but did not stay around to get his degree. Dell computer’s Michael Dell left after just one year at University of Texas at Austin, according to website


(Photo: Trinity College Dublin by William Murphy, Flickr)

It’s not about the brand of the degree

It is easy to claim the fundamental difference between these visionaries and the man-on-the-street school dropout is a combination of dogged determination, stubborn drive and, maybe, pure luck. But perhaps there may be something more.
Dell, Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs may not have completed their college education but, technically, they did go to school. In fact Jobs attributed the ‘beautiful typography’ designed for Apple’s Macintosh computers to a calligraphy class he attended at Reed, after he had dropped out.

So school does play an important part in your success, but where you go is less important.

A study conducted by Princeton economist Alan B. Krueger and Stacy Dale from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation learnt that students who went to non branded colleges earned as much as their peers who went to prestigious universities later in life. The reason for their earnings had more to do with why they were accepted than where they chose to study.

The study found that “average earnings for the 519 students who were accepted by both moderately selective (average College Board scores of 1,000 to 1,099) and highly selective schools (average scores greater than 1,275), varied little, no matter which type of college they attended. The researchers said the students had similar aspiration levels and self-confidence regardless of the schools they chose.


Ivy League pedigrees, may not have their fingers on the pulse of the common folk

(Photo: Movie still of Ri¢hie Ri¢h (1994))

Climbing the Ivory tower

Then there is the worry that Ivy League pedigrees lead sheltered lives. These scholars would be the ones to set government policies, and who may not have their fingers on the pulse of the common folk.

In a personal account, Emily Loftis detailed her experience of visiting a friend of a friend who was studying at Harvard University. Her new friends spoke about their extensive travels, discussed art and literature, and had a lobster dinner. By the end of the night, she was left “feeling uncultured, uneducated and more importantly, unimpressive”. The writer continued socialising with the group but realised they did not understand where she came from – but also that they didn’t want to understand. The writer eventually chose to interact with a different group of friends at her own non-Ivy League college who were interested in who she was, her major and her background.

In his New Republic article ‘Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League’, Prof. William Deresiewicz said: “It almost feels ridiculous to have to insist colleges like Harvard are ‘bastions of the privilege’, where the rich send their children to learn to walk, talk and think like the rich. Don’t we already know this? They aren’t called elite colleges for nothing.” The author went on to shut down the idea of an educational meritocracy in Ivy League colleges. Prof Weresiewicz added the “system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead”.

The solution is for the elite to interact with people of different backgrounds, not in the context of “service” but to engage them on equal footing. Prof Weresiewicz even suggested they wait tables to see how hard it is physically and mentally. The end goal is to recognise that any brilliant mind can be our future leaders, including the rural “farmer” with an online college degree, entrepreneurial streak and his finger on the pulse of the community.


(Photo: University of Arizona)

Build a learning environment

Universities – elite or not – can nurture future leaders in that way. In its blog, Virgin group founder Richard Branson said universities can better benefit students by:

  1. Encouraging them to start businesses linked to their studies. Professors should be encouraged to foster an entrepreneurial spirit in the classroom;
  2. Shortening the degree journey. Cutting a three-year programme into two would also reduce debt loads on students, said Branson;
  3. Making college conducive for networking. Even as students learn to think critically, give them the opportunities to meet new people and share ideas across disciplines.

We propose to take Branson’s idea a step further. With the popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) such as Coursera and EdX, which boasts short courses from Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard among others, students should do their foundation year online in the comfort of home. This can be a gap year for them to gain exposure to the working world.

Years two and three are spent on campus, interacting and exploring ideas with peers. The final year can be taken online and on-the-job so students get the benefit of a “housemanship” with which to complete their degrees. This would expose scholars to the realities of the working world. With this study programme, even a rural “farmer” can run a successful business with the full benefit of an Ivy League education.

As outspoken founder of Alibaba, and China’s richest man, Jack Ma said: “Intelligent people need a fool to lead them. When the team’s all a bunch of scientists, it is best to have a peasant lead the way. His way of thinking is different. It is easier to win if you have people seeing things from different perspectives.”

(Featured Image via Wikimedia; Massey University, New Zealand)

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