In the 1970's, my wife, Norma, was as psychology major at Santa Clara University which is nestled right smack in the heart of Silicon Valley. Back then, though, hardly anyone called it that. A popular local radio station referred to the Santa Clara Valley boastfully but only as “the world’s best place to live.”
The Santa Clara/Silicon Valley
Norma had a teammate on the Bronco's dance team who was concerned about her roguish big brother, Steve. He had been dismissed from the University of Colorado, then he dropped out of UC Berkeley. He bounced around, working odd jobs at local tech companies. He enjoyed electronics, but was light years from the traditional career path favored by traditional parents. His family thought he spent too much time in the garage, tinkering. What would become of him?
They shouldn't have worried. Steve's last name was Wozniak. Steve freakin' Apple-founding, Steve Jobs-making Wozniak.
The story is telling not just for the obvious – that college, for some, is dispensable. It’s also significant because it should make us wonder, What’s happening right now in some obscure garage or meet-up place that will be life-altering and world-changing?
One such meet-up place is a modest office in downtown San Francisco where, right now, Danielle Strachman, Michael Gibson and the rest of the team at the 1517 Fund are changing the perception of a college education. In another generation (or maybe two), when college attendance has been demoted from a required course to an elective path, we'll be citing and thanking 1517 for its ahead-of-its-time thinking.
No doubt, for at least this century, if you want to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer, you’ll need a traditional degree. Even if you want to do what I’ve done – teach in public schools – you can't get a teaching credential without a college diploma. For some, college is indispensable. Hey, I love Udemy, but I don’t want my orthopedic surgeon learning to perform hip replacements on-line.
On the other hand, if you want to start a business, launch a movement or create work that didn’t exist until you came along, college may not only be unnecessary, it can be an obstacle. College, for example, can cause career and life procrastination.
> “I don’t know what interests me. I’ll figure it out in college.” (Maybe. But many don't.)
> “If I major in __________, there are so many different things I can do!” (Too many choices can be paralyzing.)
> “My degree is a prerequisite for interviewing with lots of different companies and organizations. (Why not decide which one(s) you want now and go for it?)
In other words, have some freakin’ urgency!
Being young has huge advantages, but too many kids don't recognize and take advantage of them. Because they're young, they'll have access to more movers and shakers and a wide range of opportunities and experiences. Super successful adults who wouldn't consider giving the time of day to a peer, will hand a kid watch. And since the typical teen or 20-something is more of a liability than an asset - some companies won't even interview anyone under 25 - the competition is relatively weak.
High school and college students are tacitly told that it's fine to postpone life. That it's okay to someday do something meaningful "when you figure out what that is." Yet, what needs to be explicitly stated to them is to stop using age as an excuse for not doing something meaningful now. Look what Boyan Slat started at 16 or what Emma Gonzalez is doing at 18.
My students enveloping 1517's "The New 95"
The 1517 Fund agrees. It shouts to talented and driven high school and college students, "Yo! If you have a great idea, what are you waiting for!?" Instead of you paying to go to college, we'll pay you not to go." With 1517's help, Micah Green dropped out of Cornell to found Maidbot. Robots cleaning hotel carpets reminds me of when I was a kid watching The Jetson's. Seeing the people you talked with on the telephone seemed magical, but fantastical. It couldn't really happen, could it?
In today's world, anything we want to learn is available on our phone. You don't need to go to college - even to MIT, Cal Tech or Harvard - to learn what they're teaching there. Thank you, MOOCs!
So why go at all?
For those who aren't pressed for time or desperate for money, four (or more) years of college is fabulous for meeting mentors, making friends, finding romantic partners, trying out new things, working with others and just generally having a blast.
Still, it's possible to do all those without college. 1517 is not only raising the question as to whether all the expense, wasted time and harmful distractions are worth it, they're answering it: "For some - many - maybe even most, "NO!"
Their as-of-now modest venture capital firm isn't mysterious, and their families aren't worried about what will become of them, but like Woz and Jobs, Mike and Danielle are, in essence, tinkering in the garage, reforming how we'll soon be thinking about college.