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The Benefits of Dropping Out

23 April 2015

There’s an infographic floating around the business news blogosphere proclaiming that nearly one-third of all billionaires dropped out of college, showing the percentage of billionaires with degrees in various categories, including the largest category, none. The implication seems to be that the path of study most likely to lead to billionaire-level wealth is to leave school.

Of course, the obvious flip-side is that while one-third of billionaires hold no degree, two-thirds of billionaires do hold a degree. Obviously the best path toward being a billionaire is to finish college with a degree in something!

But the traditional college path in life has been criticized a lot recently, and perhaps rightly so. Costs continue to get higher — my own alma mater increased tuition by approximately 50% since I graduated, with only about half of that accounted for by inflation — and opportunities for success without a degree seem ever more abundant. Going into business for yourself on the internet, with minimal cost and no formal prerequisites, is a very real option today that was harder ten years ago, and much harder twenty years ago. And if you want the education that ostensibly goes along with obtaining a degree, there are numerous free and low-cost options for self-study that exist today. (Along with some options that have existed for centuries…)

Still, presenting the notion of dropping out of college as a path toward success seems dubious. Rather than asking, what percentage of billionaires are college dropouts, maybe we should ask, what percentage of college dropouts are billionaires? I haven’t yet found statistics on that, but Wikipedia has a nice overview of high school dropouts, suggesting that

  • high school dropouts are more likely to be unemployed than high school graduates
  • lifetime earnings of dropouts are on average $260,000 USD less than graduates
  • two-thirds of U.S. prison inmates are high school dropouts
  • a third of high school dropouts live in areas of poverty
  • high school dropouts have a shorter average life expectancy than graduates

And just as with college dropouts, there are counterexamples of successful high school dropouts, prominently including Walt Disney.

Statistical data pertaining to high school dropouts does not necessarily apply to college dropouts, but I suspect that the general message carries over: dropping out of school per se does not lead to success, neither for a 17-year-old high school student nor for an 18-year-old college student. What can lead a dropout to success, though, is doing something else productive with their time. And the same goes for graduates, who could easily choose to live a life of unproductive sloth after they finish school.