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Should You Drop Out of School or Get an MBA to Succeed in Business?

Posted: 11/11/2013 5:03 pm

By Leah Eichler, founder of r/ally, the mobile collaboration platform for professionals and enterprises.

When a young celebrity goes off on a tirade on social media, I normally brush it off as comical nonsense but a recent rant caught my attention. No, I'm not talking about Miley Cyrus but rather Jaden Smith, the son of celebrity parents Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith.

In case you missed it, the After Earth and Karate Kid star decided to wax philosophically about the value of education, tweeting "School is the tool to brainwash the youth" and "If everybody in the world dropped out of school we would have a much more intelligent society." Sure, many 15 year olds believe they are too smart for school and would prefer to be spending their time starring in blockbuster films. On the other hand, perhaps this tirade hints at something deeper, a cultural shift that recognizes that there are limits to the blanket value of formal, academic post-secondary education. It is not a carte blanche for career and financial success. Many have gone into debt to finance this educational fantasy.

Another popular story line is the exceptionally successful dropout. Which parent hasn't heard the names Steve Jobs and Bill Gates thrown back at them as they urge their offspring to stay in school? Add to that list Richard Branson, Michael Dell and Larry Ellison. Taking this argument to the extreme is Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, whose foundation pays students to drop out of school to launch companies. But this is yet another pipedream; for every Bill Gates there are countless dropouts struggling to make ends meet.

So what is the right approach, considering the increasing need for technical skills and a challenging job market? Perhaps it's delaying drastic educational decisions, especially if those coveted pieces of paper don't land you a job. Keep in mind that 65 per cent of children entering grade school will end up working in careers that haven't even been invented yet, according to Cathy Davidson, a Duke University professor and author of Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Businesses for the 21st Century.

Arguably, some of the most valuable aspects of an post-secondary education are not the academic courses themselves. Take Ryan Murphy, a 24-year old currently in his 7th year at Memorial University working on a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and computer science. During his time at university, Mr. Murphy became heavily involved with community activities, such as Engineers Without Borders and Memorial's Student Union among other student-run clubs and societies. He estimates that he has spent one hour working in either a paid or unpaid role for every hour he's formally spent studying.

"I have rarely found my formal education to offer classes or courses that relate directly to the skills or knowledge that I want to have, or the things that I want to do ... but by diving head first into student life, and by making some opportunities for myself, I've been able to use my formal education to inform my personal development, and to give me the literacies and research ability I needed to undertake self-directed study," said Mr. Murphy.

Although Mr. Murphy will be happy to one day get his hard-earned degree, he's certain that formal education alone is not enough to launch a great career.

"I think my generation recognizes that focusing only on school won't be enough; that each person needs to diversify and find their niche through meaningful work or volunteering. I feel immensely more secure about my career path because of my extracurricular involvement, and I think that's true of most of my classmates, too," he added.

Cathy Bennett would agree that there is more to success than an academic career. "When I was 17 in university, I didn't have enough information about what I was passionate about," said Ms. Bennett, CEO of the Bennett Group of Companies, which employs hundreds, and who is running for the leadership of the Liberal party in Newfoundland.

Ms. Bennett dropped out of university after a semester and a half of a physics degree to work at McDonalds, where she said "I fell in love with the business of business."

Although working at McDonald's doesn't appear to be a precursor to financial success it worked for Ms. Bennett, who by the age of 18 was managing 50 employees. The experience instilled the importance of getting her hands dirty; she recounts how she insisted on accompanying a service crew installing fiber optic cable in people's homes when she joined the board of Bell Aliant.

Although she recognizes the value of post-secondary education, Ms. Bennett believes that one needs to be open to opportunities.

"If you have had to ask me when I was 16 if I'd be sitting here, in my mid 40s running for the leadership of the Liberal party, I'm not sure if the 16-year old Cathy would say yes. You never know where your path is going to take you," she mused.

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