I have heard everyone from my Inc. colleague Howard Tullman to venture capitalist Peter Thiel scoff at the value of a four-year-degree experience in today's work environment. I have to disagree. Sure, the school of hard knocks has value, and there are those who can gain a lot through more practical learning. But despite the expensive cost of college, higher education, put to proper use, can easily return dividends on the six-figure investment.
I am certainly not the poster child for academia. I graduated in 1986, from a small state school in northern California, Humboldt State, known more for its partying than its studies. I had a C average. Still, this last week I was accepted (at nearly age 50) to the Graduate School of Business at Fordham University in New York City. For the next two years, I will be studying for a master's of science in media management.
A few of my entrepreneurial friends have raised eyebrows at this choice. Several feel I should be teaching the courses, not sitting in them. But this was not a rash decision or about the ego trip of adding more letters to my name. Before deciding to invest the considerable time and money for another degree, I carefully weighed the cost-benefit of this experience.
Below are the opportunities afforded by a college experience and degree not likely duplicated in a nonacademic environment. Whether you are 18, 28, or 48, any learning experience is what you make of it, so consider how you might make the most of these:
At 17, my undergrad college experience gave me 48 months of applying structure to my thoughts, patterns, and communication. I was a theater major, so I had more entrepreneurial learning then the regurgitation-heavy STEM programs. I was trained to manage time and resources and was able to learn from my failures and adjust in a relatively safe environment. Many of the practices for research and communication came from my undergraduate work.
At 49, as a grad student, I will be able to take habits I created from 30 years of improvisation and add rigor to my work, which will make it more accurate and meaningful to those around me. I'll be challenged to think and explore rather than assume from experience that I know the outcome.
At 17, my undergrad college experience taught me how to systematically attack any issue and problem. In theater, like most arts programs, you are given a highly structured process that has been tested over centuries. The structure allows you to solve problems practically and quickly and yet leaves room for creativity to flourish. Most of my success as an entrepreneur and consultant I can tie to problem-solving and time-management skills I learned in school. Fittingly, I teach many noncollege-educated entrepreneurs the very same skills so they can grow fast without missing anything important.
At 49, as a grad student, I look forward to learning and developing new methods for exploring deep topics so I can get past the surface solutions I easily come up with now. I have the experience to recognize complex patterns; now I will learn to apply a rigorous process to solve bigger problems more completely.
At 17, my undergrad college experience gave me a well-appointed laboratory to explore practical work in writing, producing, and directing professional-level theatrical presentations. Although I don't engage in actual theater today except as a spectator, I use all the lessons I learned in communicating in the business world. My writing, videos, speeches, and workshops all take root in four years of intensely focused practical work. There is no way I could have created the diverse and knowledgeable environment for learning that exists at a university.
At 49, as a grad student, I will get the benefit of the brains and facilities of a top-ranked university. Professors, students, and materials will be readily available and willing to explore ideas and tackle projects regularly. I could not possibly afford in my business to fund this level of research and development. One new idea will more than return the tuition invested.
At 17, my undergrad college experience gave me an almost immediate circle of ambitious friends, some of whom have lasted me my whole life. My ties to the HSU Alumni afforded me connections to influential people who have consistently helped in my career and ultimately helped me get published 25 years after graduation.
At 49, as a grad student at Fordham, I will open my life to a new network of smart professors, students, and alumni who will expand my perspective and sphere of influence, bringing new opportunities and friendships, the value of which I can only speculate on.
At 21, after I graduated, my undergrad college experience gave me initial credibility in the employment world. It told people a couple of things about me. First, I could start and finish an intentional goal. Second, I was willing to invest time, effort, and energy to work through a complex process where meeting deadlines and standards is required, all while being evaluated in the process.
At 51, when I graduate, I will have a greater understanding of those who have been through the master's process. The business world is filled with college graduates and M.B.A.s. They may not directly apply the facts and figures they learned in school, but they still use the language and processes that came from their university experience. They are more likely to open themselves to learn from someone who has that shared experience and knows the language they speak. That will make me a far more effective teacher both in the classroom and in the wider world.
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