Gates, Zuckerberg, Jobs. We know and venerate their stories: the supersmart who didn’t need a college credential to become superwealthy.
There’s no denying that their genius is worth celebrating, and their achievements have undeniably advanced society. But as politicians and pundits increasingly question whether education beyond high school is “worth it,” the dropout-turned-billionaire has become a cultural icon—a leading example by which many of higher education’s detractors validate their theories, however misleading.
Never mind the fact that the Zuckerbergs of the world are of relatively small statistical significance. Or that nearly all American billionaires attended at least some college, with the vast majority attaining a two- or four-year degree. What’s most troubling about our fascination with the dropout billionaire (or millionaire, for that matter) is that it reinforces the narrative that education isn’t necessary for success.
That may have been true 50 years ago, but the demands of the 21st-century economy paint a decidedly different picture. Experts predict that by the end of this decade, more than two-thirds of all jobs will require some form of postsecondary learning. Despite these estimates, new data show that the U.S. is making modest but incremental progress to increase the number of Americans with higher education credentials and degrees.
So not only is idolizing the dropout billionaire intellectually dishonest, but it’s also cheating students out of millions of dollars in lost earning potential. We know that an individual with a bachelor’s degree will earn 84 percent more than a person who did not pursue education beyond high school. That’s an average value of $2.8 million over the course of a lifetime—not to mention the priceless social paybacks that higher education affords.
This myth particularly sends the wrong message to those from low-income or underrepresented backgrounds—students who have the most to gain from continuing their education past high school. These students already face significant barriers on their pathway to higher education, and big degree-attainment gaps continue to exist by race and class. While white and Asian adults experience attainment well over the national 40 percent rate, just 28 percent of black adults, nearly 24 percent of Native Americans and 20 percent of Hispanic adults have received a two- or four-year degree.
As a black man growing up in some of our nation’s most challenged urban environments, I found that my pathway to higher learning wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. Despite a troubled youth, I was able to attend college with the help of the U.S. Army and federal financial-aid policies like the Pell Grant. Today I am many things—a best-selling author, a U.S. Army combat veteran, a Rhodes scholar, a former financier and a social entrepreneur. I wonder where I would be if I had bought into the notion that my education wasn’t worth it.
Education beyond high school was my single greatest equalizer and door opener, and I am where I am today because people worked to ensure that higher education was accessible and affordable to me. Unfortunately, not all students receive the guidance and support I did. For many low-income, underrepresented or first-generation students, the process of navigating higher education feels like jumping out of a plane and reaching for a parachute that needs three hands to maneuver.
That’s why my organization, BridgeEdU, along with other foundations and nonprofit and civic leaders, is working to redesign the higher education landscape in a way that puts students—all students—at the center of its mission. Our organization provides academic advising, personalized internship opportunities, coaching, skills training and assistance for students and parents to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) in an effort to support student persistence and retention.
For many students, college isn’t just worth it—it’s the gateway to full participation in society. And in order to have a serious conversation about growing the middle class in our cities, states and nation, we need to find ways of increasing the number of students who are college graduates, not deterring them under the myth of the billionaire dropout.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.