Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Entrepreneurs want to know: What’s the ROI on a college education? Is college a life hack or a time-waster? What’s the best trajectory to get to the end goal? We’d all like to cheer for entrepreneurship and the freedom it offers from restrictions like licenses and degrees and the opportunity it offers to chase an idea and build a company. But it is a huge decision for families.
With our eldest son poised to graduate from high school next spring, we’re weighing the pros and cons of a full-time post-secondary education in our entrepreneurial household. My husband is a serial founder in the SaaS space, and I run a business that helps entrepreneurs with mental health. We also have traditional education. I have a Ph.D. and two Master’s degrees. My husband has two engineering degrees.
Related: Do Your Kids Really Need College?
Do we need these letters after our names to run the companies we’ve launched? Maybe, but it’s not a direct line from degree to business plan. What our education has afforded us is the capacity to think critically, within and outside of our disciplines. We’ve also learned how to forge professional relationships, collaborate with others, and write often and well. These skills are invaluable.
Many of my peers think it’s better for our children to launch a startup than sit in a classroom. They’re part of an emerging trend. Studies show more students and families are questioning the value of a college degree. And a growing number are opting out entirely. The number of undergraduates enrolled in college is down by 5.1% compared to two years ago, a loss of nearly 1 million students, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
As parents, and as entrepreneurs, there is much to consider. The answer to whether or not your entrepreneurial child should attend college is unsatisfying: It depends. But the strategy is to think less about weighing college versus business opportunities and more about how your child will fare in both worlds. I suggest parents (and their children) ask these four questions when considering their post-secondary path:
1. Does your child have a clear entrepreneurial idea AND a skillset that supports that idea?
Does your child want to build beehives and make small-batch local honey (and environmental impact), but they don’t know the first thing about beekeeping? Do they want to launch an NFT gaming platform but don’t know how to code?
The sweet spot is a clear idea plus a skillset that supports that idea. At a minimum, there should be a plan to develop the skillset. The absence of an idea and skills to get it done indicates that your child isn’t quite ready to become an entrepreneur.
2. What is the financial risk of attending college? How much debt is your child (or family) going to amass, especially if they are waiting four years to implement a business idea they might already have?
The College Board reported in 2021 that the average total cost of attending a public school for in-state students is $27,330 per year, while the total cost of attendance at private universities averages $55,800 per year. That means a four-year degree would cost between $109,320 and $223,200.
That’s a lot of money, especially if your teenager has a business that they’re itching to pursue instead of hitting the books. It might be worth it, in this case, to defer or skip college to test a business plan.
3. What are the networking benefits of college — for meeting peers, mentors and potential co-founders?
Many of our college connections become professional networks or co-founders. And while there are many ways to make industry connections, what is the benefit of these early relationships? Many universities now have tech incubators, internships and affiliate mentorship programs.
4. What are the non-degree benefits of college, including the opportunity to develop executive functioning, as well as social and emotional maturity?
In our son’s case, he doesn’t have a business idea he urgently wants to pursue. But we think he’d benefit from the neurological maturity that occurs between ages 18-25 from managing schedules, assignments and deadlines. With that comes the executive function that helps with impulse control, planning and prioritizing, working memory, self-monitoring and so much more.
Take a clear look at who your child is, and meet them where they are. So far, at home, our son has created a spreadsheet outlining his options, and we’ve started to visit colleges. When he got in the car so we could drive to the first college, he had a stuffed animal under each arm.
“What’s your plan?” I asked him.
“I thought I’d want some comfort measures,” he said.
We’re thinking that it might be really good for our son to have a few more years to mature and grow before he enters the world of entrepreneurship.