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Roll Your Own: The Entrepreneurial Alternative to College

David Callahan

We hear a lot that college "isn't for everybody," but this phrase is typically applied to working class kids—with the suggestion that we should expand opportunities to get vocational training that leads to solid blue-collar jobs. 

Of course, though, there are young people across the class spectrum who may not want to spend four years sitting in classes and doing piles of homework. And as I wrote yesterday, the financial downsides of college are higher now than ever.

The problem isn't just loads of student debt. It's the opportunity cost that comes from spending your twenties getting a BA and then an advanced degree. It's not uncommon for young members of the professional class to wake up in their thirties after years of education and entry-level positions and find themselves with no assets—no home equity and no retirement savings. In a pre-credentialist America, young people bought homes in their twenties and started building up their nest eggs.

So skipping college is hardly insane. And we need alternatives to college not just for the kids we imagine could make great HVAC technicians. In fact, it's the top high school grads—the ones who took AP courses—who may be best positioned to bypass college and get on with building a career and financial security. You can not only get a fantastic education in high school—I certainly did—but emerge equipped with the self-discipline to keep learning and master new skills and challenges.

What kind of alternatives am I thinking about? Entrepreneurship is the most obvious path for young people who don't go to college. And I'm not just talking about buisness; young people can also become social entrepreneurs who start their own nonprofits and find funding. 

Today's kids hardly need persuading about all this. According to a 2011 poll: "More than three quarters of students in grades 5 to 12 want to be their own boss, and nearly half plan to start their own business."

Entrepreneurship is the most obvious alternative to college because success in this sphere hinges so much on the strength of one's idea, access to capital, and sheer willpower. Many of the actual mechanics of creating a product or service, along with an organization, aren't very complicated. And it's easier than ever to learn whatever specific skills you need through online courses, webinars, and podcasts. Indeed, high school kids start already businesses all the time. And some have started successful NGOs. 

So how do we give more kids the option of becoming entrepreneurs straight out of high school? Well, it turns out that lots of educational institutions—including the B-school at Wharton—are already on the case, offering summer "business camps" to high school students. And, no, these camps aren't just filled with little Alex Keatons who see nothing but dollar signs in their future; some programs, like that offered by LeadAmerica, have a big sustainability component, reflecting the intense passion that many young people have for solving environmental and energy problems. 

But much more can and should be done to foster entrepreneurship among young people. Government, business groups, and nonprofit associations can all do more to train and empower young entrepreneurs. As for capital, venture capitalists have a long track record of investing in companies by college dropouts or teenagers. But the same can't be said for the Small Business Administration and banks. Young people can now borrow tens of thousands of dollars in unsecured loans to go to college. Why not to start a business?

Ultimately, though, creating a stronger path to entrepreneurship for young people requires many of the same steps as strengthening that path for everyone else. I laid out a pretty comprehensive policy agenda for supporting entrepreneurs in an article last year in the American Prospect. A key point of the article is that strengthening social insurance programs—like universal healthcare and portable pensions—is crucial if we really want a society where more people can be their own boss. 

I've said it before and I'll say again: True economic freedom only exists when people feel secure enough to take the risks needed to do their own thing. 

Last point: What about the role college plays in teaching critical thinking and creating better citizens? 

There's certainly something to this concern, and college grads vote at much higher rates. On other hand, look at America's past: Seventy years ago, just five percent of adults had a college degree, yet the voting rate was higher back then—along with newspaper readership and membership in civic associations.

Anyway, lots of evidence suggests that the more engaged people are as stakeholders who are building something, the more they participate in civic life. What's needed now are better ways to enable more people to build stuff.