Do You Really Need to go to the University?

by Daniel in — 57 Comments — Updated — Reading Time: 3 minutes

Background Image

If you want to work on the Internet or to be an entrepreneur, I really don’t think you need to.

I always tell my friends that if I had the mind that I have today (in terms of knowing what I want to do, and what knowledge and tools I need to do that) five years ago, I would not have enrolled myself in the university.

At the time I had no clue where I was going, however, so getting a degree seemed like the smartest choice. Everyone else was doing it, after all!

I studied International Economics because it was a pretty eclectic degree, and it would allow me to work on virtually any business segment. Then 18 months ago I started working on the Internet with my own websites and with other entrepreneurial projects, and I guess I have being using 5% of what I learned in the university, if that.

Now the main argument of the university proponents is that apart from the knowledge itself, which you might or might not use later on, passing all those years studying will teach you how to gather, analyze and present information. It will give you a framework, upon which you will build on.

That is true, the university will give you that, but I don’t think that a person that starts working straight out of high school would lose that. He would also learn how to gather, analyze and present information, and he would also gain a framework, but those would come from real working experience rather than from theoretical classes and lectures.

I honestly think that if I had spent the same years that I did in the university working with my own projects and trying to make a living online, I would have learned much more (and that knowledge would have been practical rather than theoretical).

Again, this is valid only for certain classes of professionals. If you want to be a doctor or a civil engineer there is no alternative to going to the university and learning what you need to there.

Another downside of universities is that they focus on giving you knowledge, rather than making you develop competencies and attitudes. The latter two are immensely more important for your professional success.

I wrote about this sometime ago, on an article titled Knowledge, Competencies and Attitudes). Summing it up: Knowledge is practical information gained through learning, experience or association (e.g., second degree equations). Competencies, on the other hand, refer to the ability to perform specific tasks (e.g., the ability to communicate effectively). Attitudes involve how people react to certain situations and how they behave in general (e.g., whether you are proactive, arrogant, if you get along with people and so on).

Here is an example that I used to illustrate why competencies and attitudes are more important than knowledge:

Consider two different men, John and Mark, working for a financial services company. Both of them are eager to succeed so that they spend lots of time trying to grow professionally.

John uses his time gaining as much knowledge as possible: he studies balance sheets, financial reports, accounting practices and the like. He even takes related courses on the local university.

Mark, on the other hand, gets only the knowledge that is necessary to carry out his job. Other than that, he uses his time to improve his writing skills, his ability to solve problems, his ability to understand and empathize with other people and so on.

Should the financial services sector enter a downturn some day forcing both men to find another job, who do you think will have a harder time? Yeah, I am sure you have guessed it.

As you can see I am not arguing that you don’t need to go to the university because you will learn everything working. You will still need to study and go through the pain of learning and improving yourself. The only difference is that if you do this on your own you will be able to focus on the competencies and attitudes that you know you need to develop.

The knowledge that a university will give you is available for everyone, anywhere in the world. Sure, there is a difference between knowledge and information. but with the right motivation and some help from other people even a kid in Sri Lanka can absorb the information available online and transform it into knowledge.

So what should your strategy be? Focus on developing the right attitudes and competencies, and grab the necessary knowledge as you go.

Share this article

57 thoughts on “Do You Really Need to go to the University?”

  1. *Sigh*

    I’m in no way saying that you can’t make it without a college degree, however I think encouraging people to drop out of college is a very slippery slope. Everyone can’t stay home and be a “web entrepreneur”. I’m not saying that they aren’t successful, what I’m saying is that it’s dangerous. Does no one remember the DOT com bubble popping? Everyone can’t be self employed and the simple fact is a LOT of employers require a college degree.

    There are a LOT of passionate people living under bridges. Passion doesn’t pay the any bills. There has to be a backup plan.

    Those of you who went to college and complain that you only use a fraction of what you learned; life is a journey. Whether you realize it or not college has helped to shape you into the individual you are now (at least it did for me).

    All I’m saying is just like you argue college isn’t for everyone, that same goes for blogging.

    Hey, somebody has to go be Doctors and Scientists right?

  2. Having a degree can help.

    But I don’t have one and am doing rather well and have worked in technical positions in huge companies like AOL and Microsoft. If you don’t go to a University, you should at least find ways to get some good experience in your chosen fields.

  3. Renato, my advice would be: never do something because friends, family or society in general is pressuring you to.

    If you want to have a degree or think it would help your professional life, then go for it.

    If you don’t think is necessary, though, don’t listen to the people who tell you otherwise.

    You don’t have a university degree, so what? That is a piece of paper, and it does not affect the person you are in any way.

    Your values, principles, skills and competencies is what make you, not a piece of paper.

  4. Daniel,

    I am very glad that you published this article. I have dropped out of university and make my living online. The problem is that i can not stand the social pressure of people looking at me condescendingly just because i do not have a college degree, so i am thinking seriously to re enroll just to get a diploma and public acknowledgment.

    Any advice for me?

  5. Although, I made $3000/month but I’m not quit from my day job because I want to meet new friend. I love to have more friend at work.

  6. Same here. Wish i’d blogged more seriously in uni rather than after grad… if only i’d figured out what i wanted earlier – to be a web entrepreneur.

    I think it all comes down to FIGURING OUT YOUR GOAL EARLY rather than later, and often times, we tend to follow the crowd ie go thru schools –> get into uni –> get a degree –> get a *good job*… and miss out what we really wanted in the first place.

    I believe both parents and education should constantly encourage PASSION more than skills/knowledge. Passion will uncover the real talents within thus lead us to our goal and the ultimate joy in life.

    Footballers who enjoy their games never *retire*, the same applies to us web entrepreneurs. We just need our RSS breakfasts every morning 😀

  7. In our society still a university degree is necessary. In the society of esteem which I developed ( only the talent counts. There you don’t need to have any degree or title. You are esteemed as person and as user of your talents!

  8. I both agree and disagree. In order for people to take me seriously as a professional, I usually need the piece of paper saying I went to school. On the other hand, although I only graduated about 7 months ago…I only use about 15% of what I learned in school in my daily job functions. I don’t regret my college education. But I wish those that create the curriculuum actually get what is needed in professional careers. Great post!

  9. Yes,

    No one needs a college degree.

    Bottom line a LOT of jobs won’t even let you peep in the window without one.

    The world can’t be filled with people who don their own startups. I’m not arguing that University teaches you anything. Mine didn’t teach me much I couldn’t have learned in about 6 months with some books.

    Point is, college is the new high school.

    You had better have a clear understanding of what you want to you and have a lil’ bit of luck if you’re planning on skipping and still doing well.

  10. Sure, there have always been people for whom the standard way was not necessary. It should also be noted that a university education shouldn’t be equated with a vocational degree. It would be better to focus on the classical liberal arts and expand your general knowledge base – as you never know what will become handy. Also you have learned how to learn & THINK – if you go to a good enough school…I spent most of my time learning languages in college – which in recent years has become more & more important as the global economy develops – I also studied Oriental Civ – which gave me some insight into Asia, and anthropology – some insight into culture….Perhaps your mistake was your degree choice! The original goal of a university education was to produce a well-educated person, and it still is not a bad one.

  11. I have been in college for about 3 years, yet I have failed to be dedicated. These past few months I have been contemplating my future. I am not sure if I want to continue with college, considering I still have about 4 years left, due to my lack of dedication, or I could stop going to school, and I could start doing something productive for my future. I am leaning towards dropping out and finding some sort of income off the internet. I am very independent, and I don’t see myself ever working for a huge corporation, so I think in my case, it would be reasonable for me to drop out and begin my career path.

  12. The most important thing that I got out of University was that it taught me how to learn. The experience gave me some discipline. That being said, there aren’t very many jobs waiting at the end of the line for a history major, so I split school and became self-employed. I love learning though, and will never stop exercising my brain with good textbooks.

  13. One more thing that came to my mind –

    ” I went to school but it did not interfere with my education ” – Mark Twain.

    Destination Infinity.

  14. Forget university, even high school is not required. I seriously dont understand why we need to know even about integral calculus. It will be definitely be tough to run a startup. That is absolutely necessary and will also bring the best out of you as you are in a desperate and tough situation. The fact that you cant get a cozy job would help you to focus on the venture you began inspite of the difficulties. That level of pressure and persistence is required to make a startup, successful. Thats why most of the successful enterpruners are dropouts and not-highly educated people. Sometimes out of choice but mostly due to lack of any other choice (option).

  15. I have to agree with you Daniel about how you *can* learn more by not going to University. However, some people make many mistakes and not learn a single thing.

    It’s quickly becoming clear that if you have the entrepreneurial spirit and you’re not risk adverse, then not going to Uni to work for yourself is a great idea. However, its not guaranteed that not going to Uni will teach you loads.

    I personally wanted a safety net after school to get a good job so I could buy my own place. I did that, and my job covers my mortgage. My online exploits are fun and earn me extra cash, and make life more comfortable for me. I am risk adverse, and the route I took suits me nicely.

    But then I ran my own business in addition to doing a master degree. So I fit nicely in between both situations. 🙂


  16. Great topic. I agree with you. Some of us have the mind and opportunities available to us where we don’t need to go to a University. The Web provides us with all the daily education we need to succeed. I still think that a University is good though for many people. Because many people depend on the educational structure that a University gives you.

  17. i think having money is best sure fire way to be successful. what i see many overlook sometimes in the whole debate of university versus no university is the ones who didnt go to college had lots of money to fund their startup companies not in all case but in many of cases. i think in todays deflated dollar society its ten fold more harder to start a business with a few hundread bucks outside of the net. so if you have money i can see why university may not be way to go. many of silicon valley tech gods never went to university but they sure had mommy and daddy fat check book funding them. so imho i think the debate shouldnt be whether you need to go to a university but if it takes money to be successful or not

  18. A degree is a great safety net, and a confidence boost. We all know that the majority of startups flop.

    So if you skipped out on uni, and spent your savings on a startup on that flops, you’re in a really bad position. Your confidence will be totally shattered (Was skipping uni a really bad decision??) and without a degree, you aren’t going to get many well paid jobs that will help you towards your next startup.

    But if you have a degree behind you, your confidence will be fine (You managed the long haul of a degree, and all the new experiences you had in uni. Who doesn’t think that college grads are cocky as heck? xD ), and if it fails, you have a degree that will get you into a decent job for as long as you need it. 🙂

    Going to uni can really help you grow as a person. The number of opportunities/clubs/people you will encounter will all give you the types of skills that can’t be learned.

    And lastly, you have a tonne of free time during uni (Depending on your course xD ), so who says you can’t run your startup while you’re at uni? 😛

  19. University give you, knowledge, not money, if you want a lot of money, don’t go to university, If you want to be smart or wise, go to university is the right way

  20. Anyway, a coin has two sides.
    The argument will be endless.
    But, I agree with you that if you can decide yourself, you don’t have to go to university.
    Sometimes we are forced to do something by some people we care.

  21. @Eric, I agree the stats are with people who has a college degree. But again I think that is because the way our society is structured, and this is changing very fast.

    “If you want to be a part of the mass work force, then a college degree is preferred.”

    True, in fact my advice is for people that don’t want to be part of the mass work force :).

    @Thom, good points.

  22. Ok, I apologize in advance…this is a hot button topic for me!

    Generally speaking, you learn everything you need to know to be successful by the time you graduate high school (before you start with the sticks and rocks, I said GENERALLY. Of course there are exceptions).

    College does contribute in a couple of ways. You make friends that can be helpful in the future, you may be exposed to ideas and ways of thinking that you wouldn’t have been otherwise. And of course, you learn, well some learn, how to survive on a jar of peanut butter and tube of crackers.

    But is it necessary? To parrot previous comments, it depends…I’d like for my doctor to go, sure…but my car salesman, my deli owner…not so sure.

    1. If college is so vital to one’s success, how did people manage to succeed all those years without college?

    2. In response to the list of successful people who didn’t go to or graduate from college, one commenter said they were “the exception to the rule.” Who’s rule? And why did they get to make the rule? What’s the famous quote from the chairman of IBM about the “rule” in his day…the one that goes something like ‘there will only need to be a few computers in the world’ (by all means correct me if you’ve got the quote). Which brings us to…

    3. GENERALLY, all our present education system accomplishes is to create good employees for someone else. Be to class (work) on time, do your homework (work) without complaint, take lunch when the bell rings, learn what I say without question, etc. What a bunch of crap.

    College will help create opportunities for you, and no doubt will give you a chance for a good time, and GENERALLY, that’s it.

    At least that’s my point of view.


  23. In general, people that have college degrees earn a lot more money than people that don’t have degrees. You can not deny the stats. This has been the case for decades and it will continue to be that way.

    If money is important to you and you are not going to assume a lot of risk as an entrepreneur, then you should consider that stat.

    Earning a college degree doesn’t say that you are more knowledgeable in an area of study than someone else. It says that you’ve been formally educated in certain fields of study by accredited academic institutions. Employers would rather put their faith in an academic institution than in the street smarts of a non-college graduate.

    There’s also something to be said about the college graduate who took 16-hours of classes per semester while holding down a part-time or full-time job. Employers see the workload than some graduates worked through and see that they will likely be able to handle a fast pace workplace.

    Look. We all can point fingers at people that have no college education and are doing well for themselves. The free market allows for that. This should be no surprise to anyone.

    I have a friend that didn’t go to college. He’s in his mid 20’s has a $400,000 house on a private lake with a boat. He’s an entrepreneur who opened his own business and makes more money than I do (and I’m older with a scientific degree). He has street smarts and a good business.

    I met a guy working on the Space Shuttle Discovery last week. He dropped out of high school 40 years ago to go to work. Now he’s an expert on the Discovery. He’s very valueable to the Space Shuttle program. But, don’t kid yourself.

    If you look around and look at the stats, the people with college degrees have many more doors to open and are compensated more for earning the piece of paper from an academic institution.

    If you want to be an entrepreneur then some fields will allow you to
    be successful without a college degree. These fields are usually related to emerging technologies (where industries are new) and for trades that aren’t taught in colleges and universities.

    If you want to be a part of the mass work force, then a college degree is preferred.

  24. @Andrew, yeah for the fun and social part you are totally right. In fact if we bring that part in the equation it becomes a more complex problem.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  25. i wouldn’t trade my university experience for any number of successful start-ups.

    that said, you make tremendous points, many of which i agree with. i don’t think university is necessarily the “path to conformity.” (see: many of my hippied-out friends facebook pics of them tripping face at festivals…maybe that’s just another brand of conformity).

    i do think college/university serves as a nice incubator though for people who are undecided where they want to jump in, industry-wise. but you’re right, if you’ve got a golden idea, you don’t need school to lamify it, you just need to get out there and do it.

    i don’t think it’s just in the tech sector, but it’s becoming more prevalent there.

    but here’s my favorite example of why university isn’t necessary:

    year: 1980-something. guy drops out of college because he sees a lot of offices being built nearby, he senses expansion in the Washington D.C. area. His thought? Someone’s going to need to clean all those buildings. I’ll start an office-cleaning crew.

    his college buddies laughed. his dad practically disowned him.

    until…10 years later…when he sells the company for $26 million dollars (yeah, he doesn’t work anymore)…and now they’re all looking up to him and calling him a genius.

    my bottom line: you don’t NEED university. but it’s fun as hell, and can introduce you to many things you may never have seen before.

    that said, i’m a shaggy-haired bearded dude with a degree who wears jeans to work and works on websites. i was a media studies major cause i’m obsessed with communications, and it’s a nice back-drop to my working life.

    want vs. need. university = no need. but much want. like i said, i wouldn’t trade my years there for anything.

  26. @Andrew, they are the exception because of the way our society and our educational system is organized.

    I believe this is going to change drastically over the next years though.

    You could say that the rule is to go to college, to start working for a good company, to do what your boss tells you to, to wear a suit because society tells you it is important, to shave your beard, and so on.

    Just because this is the rule does it imply that it is also the best thing one could do? I am not so sure.

  27. @andrew, for someone who is young, blogging, and considering to go to the university (which I think is not an exception among my readers), this would be a pretty good tip :).

    Now algebra is one thing, and it is very important, and you should have a solid grasp of that before leaving high school right?

    Another thing is to learn the principles behind integral calculus, especially if you are going to work online or start your business, as I stated in the article.

  28. @ Daniel and your list (comment #7)

    that is a clever list. do you know that the list of successful people who did get a degree is infinitely longer?

    they are the exceptions, not the rule.

  29. I’ve heard this argument many times over the years.

    It is reminiscent of the smart ass in 9th grade algebra class asking the teacher “when are we ever gonna have to use this?” well, fool, you’ll use it a lot, and in very subtle ways that you don’t realize.

    bottom line: university provides the intangibles that help the human develop as a social and business entity.

    and wow, was it ever fun. who would want to miss out on this?

    Daniel – you obviously didn’t go to Penn State University. If you did, you never would have written this let down of a post.

    and oh yeah, how is this a daily blog tip?

  30. I completely agree that you do not need a degree if you plan on having your own business.

    I personally take that a step further and feel that you shouldn’t need a degree to work in what I consider ‘new tech’ or tech that is always on the edge of development. At least not until (if it ever happens) colleges update their course offerings and content to include actual modern technology.

    As a business owner working in new edge tech, an applicant with a formal computer BS is a red flag to me. It means I have to pour through their transcript and talk at length about what they actually know. I remember a guy who interviewed for a web developer job with me, and how he very proudly showed me his transcript and his ‘web dev certification’ he had gotten along the way from the college – and then proceeded to talk about how he was a whiz at FrontPage after the courses. He had no idea what CSS was. Ajax = The cleaner? This was in 2007.

    Personally I would’ve demanded a refund on the cost of the course. I much prefer candidates for jobs who have a general degree (say in business or marketing) or just a whole lot of home grown tinkering experience with tech. It’s alot easier than getting people to un-learn what they paid to learn.

  31. I’d hazard a guess that your consulting/corporate jobs exposed you to sectors and expanded your horizons in a way that would’ve been closed off to you if you had never attended college. You are a product of your experiences (both university and consulting/multinational firm.) Going to college allowed you to go into consulting which allowed you to realize that you were better off working for yourself. Everything is connected with one experience leading to another, building on top of past experiences. Remove one of those key experiences from the equation and you don’t necessarily wind up at the same point, i.e. successful internet entrepreneur.

    Yeah, I agree that the big companies are dinosaurs but they still hold tremendous sway over the minds of many people.

    To answer your original question, do you really need to go to college to be an internet entreprenuer? My short, one-word response would be no.

  32. I think having a degree does have some benefits (I think). The benefit to me seems to be the knowledge gained through study, but I don’t think it has much effect on the earning ability as far as the Internet goes.

    My son has been a web designer for several different Internet companies since before he graduated from high school. Went to college for one semester and decided it wasn’t for him and he is making probably 20x’s the money on the Internet without a degree than I was with a degree outside the Internet.

    It does depend on what you want to do. If it is a specialized profession then it is probably needed, but for freelance work on the Internet, I think you are correct. Scott

  33. @Daniel Harrison, one mistake that people make when doing this evaluation is to compare 4 years spent at the university with 4 years doing nothing.

    Then of course 4 years spent at the university seem like the best option.

    But you need to compare 4 years at the university with 4 years spent trying to create your own startup or trying to work inside a company.

    I think you will learn much more at the second scenario. You will even learn how to learn, you must do it in any job or profession after all.

    For example, suppose I was needing to hire someone for my company, and I had two candidates, both with 22 years. The first went to the university for 4 years, while the second one spent 4 years trying to create his own online business or his own offline company; I would go with the second one any day.

  34. It depends on the degree you do (practical v.s. vocational) and your personality type. I personally did a software engineering degree and got myself a very good job with a respected software company.

    I learnt how to learn to do things, such as learning how to program, research techniques, working in teams, etc. Whilst at Uni I did start my own business, which has evolved to a purely online business.

    If I hadn’t gone to Uni, I wouldn’t know how to learn. I also made contacts with people I would never have met otherwise. So I’m grateful for that.

    Regardless of what event you refer to. Of course if you know what you know now, it will always have been useful in retrospect!

  35. @Bilingual Blogger, the big organizations and corporations are on the way out. More and more people will start working independently or organized in small virtual teams over the Internet.

    But that is for another post 🙂 .

  36. @Bilingual Blogger,

    Take my example for instance. Right after university I went to work first for a consulting firm and afterwards for a telecommunications multinational.

    I thought I would love to work on those companies, but I did not. I realized I didn’t want to work for anyone else but myself. And I only figured that after working, the university gave me no clues of what I would like to do for a living.

  37. I was writing my previous comment when you posted your list of famous people without college degrees. The one important thing about all of those people you listed is that they are (were) entrepreneurs who started their own companies. Do you need a college degree to launch and run a successful company? Hell, no. But in 2008, being a young teenager fresh out of high school….do you need a college degree to get a well-paying job working for somebody else (like a big corporation)? The answer is yes, in my opinion. Having a degree in something, anything, ensures that you have one less thing to worry about when competing against another employee for a promotion.

    Actually, I think it would be great if industrialized countries stressed vocational education among young people. The world needs more skilled plumbers, electricians, mechanics and carpenters. A lot of young people don’t realize that they could earn a great living doing manual labor.

  38. @Bilingual Blogger, you wrote:

    “But for many people, going to college is a way to clarify their thinking, expand their horizons and network and make contacts for the future.”

    You can clarify what you want to do in life working as well. Sometimes, in fact, it is not until you actually start working that you realize what you like and what you don’t like to do.

    The networking part I agree that can be useful from the university.

    “The real purpose is to learn how to think, learn how to manage one’s time, process information, compartmentalize, become independent but also learn how to work as part of a team, etc.”

    Who said you will not learn those things trying to bootstrap your own company, for instance?

    In fact I think you will learn them much more efficiently, because your learning will come from real life and practical situations.

  39. If you have a clear vision and the discipline, then don’t go to university. Bill Gates knew what he wanted and dropped out of Harvard and never looked back. Good for him.

    But for many people, going to college is a way to clarify their thinking, expand their horizons and network and make contacts for the future. It’s not just about book learning. Also, there are many people who find their calling, their life’s purpose in college. Without that experience, they would be lost and have no clue about what they should do for a living.

    Do you end up using all your book knowledge in your profession? Well of course not, but that’s not the real purpose. The real purpose is to learn how to think, learn how to manage one’s time, process information, compartmentalize, become independent but also learn how to work as part of a team, etc. Those are all skills one needs in the real world.

    Also, in an industrialized world in which many people in wealthy nations have access to a higher education, having a college degree is a way to ensure that you don’t get marginalized by the system. If you plan to be self-employed, no problem. But if you try to get a job inside a corporation and expect to rise through the ranks, you will find your path to the top impeded by the lack of a college degree. Employers use that little piece of paper as a way to sort and weed out employees, like it or not.

    You write: “Another downside of universities is that they focus on giving you knowledge, rather than making you develop competencies and attitudes.” You’re making a huge assumption here that isn’t true for everyone. This may be the case in foreign universities but many American universities stress and focus on the practical aspects of getting a higher education.

  40. By the way, before people come saying you need a college degree, here is a list of people that did not get one and is doing quite fine:

    Steve Jobs (Apple)
    Michael Dell (Dell)
    Larry Elisson (Oracle)
    Walt Disney
    Henry Ford
    Bill Gates
    Richard Branson (Virgin)
    Coco Chanel

  41. @rprandi, you said:

    “Also, here on my country (Brazil) a degree is the minimum required for a nice job.”

    Looks like you didn’t read the article? I started by saying:

    “If you want to work on the Internet or to be an entrepreneur, I really don’t think you need to.”

    My point does not apply to people that want “nice” jobs, which I suppose is what you call working for a large (and rigid) organization.

  42. @OldSailor, as long as you live in a city and not in a remote island, you will always be in contact with other people.

    As far as the development of attitudes go, a university, a company and even a bar or a sports team can serve the purpose.

    For competencies and knowledge, often times just another person who can guide you will suffice.

  43. Universities are just money makers because most careers can be learned on the the job. Personally, I think the only reason people further their education is because high schools do not teach how to think and solve problems. Also, businesses want to “pigeon hole” job descriptions instead of looking for the person that can do many jobs.

    Another thing, I just heard on the radio that plumbers are making about $60 an hour where starting teachers are making about $15 per hour with a 4 year degree. Of course, plumbing work is generally a pain because I have done my share, but $2400 a week is pretty tough to turn down.

    Good article, should be sent to every high school student so that they can make an informed decision.

  44. Going to university is required because only when a person is in a group, learning and refinement of knowledge,competency and attitude takes place.

  45. Good article. I have been telling the same thing to people from a long time. You don’t need a degree certificate to be successful in life. If you go to the university and grab a degree that is fine. What bothers to me most is people who don’t have a degree are discouraged.

    There have been many millionaires that are school and college drop outs.


Leave a Comment