‘College Is Not for Everyone’ — How the World’s Youngest Self-Made Billionaire Made It Without a Degree

Graduation mortar board cap on one hundred dollar bills concept for the cost of a college and university education.
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For many years, it was a common axiom that you had to attend college to get an education to find a decent job that pays you well while providing you with fulfilling work you don’t dread. In recent years, the rise of social media and entrepreneurship has led to many stories coming out about people who became wealthy without any kind of formal education.

According to the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, Austin Russell, you don’t need a college degree to become wealthy or to find a career that rewards you generously.

Is attending college still a viable option? Here’s a look at traditional education compared to self-education, based on a CNBC interview with Russell, who has challenged the conventional approach to learning

What Was Austin Russell’s Path to Success?

Austin Russell dropped out of college in 2012 — after beginning studies at Stanford University — to start his company, Luminar Technologies. The business, which Russell started as a teenager, focuses on developing hardware and software for self-driving vehicles, and it’s currently worth an astonishing $2.6 billion.

Russell left the college system, but he still relied on education to increase his skillset: He took advantage of online resources and classes to teach himself. Russell consumed lectures from Stanford and MIT on applied physics to learn at his own pace.

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It’s also worth noting that, when Russell dropped out of his applied physics program, he applied for and received the Thiel Fellowship, a $100,000 award from Peter Thiel for young entrepreneurs who want to leave college to focus on their startups. Russell has commented that he would’ve still dropped out without the security blanket of the grant.

When discussing how college isn’t for everyone, Russell echoed a sentiment often seen on social media over the last few years. “It’s just sort of the traditional approach around what you do and what you’re supposed to do.” Russell also suggests that young entrepreneurs seek information independent of the educational system. The belief is that there’s enough free knowledge available out there for anyone looking to learn new skills that could lead to a lucrative career.

What Are the Advantages of a College Degree?

Even though it’s inspiring to share success stories of those who dropped out of college to become billionaires, there are no guarantees that this career trajectory will work out for everyone who chooses to sidestep the educational system.

Advantages of Attending College

  • Many professions still require formal education. You wouldn’t be too pleased if you discovered that your physiotherapist or accountant had no credentials. If you know which profession you want to get into, you’re going to need the necessary education to get your foot in the door.
  • Entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. While becoming an entrepreneur can be profitable, this path isn’t for everyone — it comes with plenty of stress and no guarantees.
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What Are the Disadvantages of a College Degree?

While some people will thrive in the college environment and then land a dream job after graduation, the harsh reality is that this traditional path isn’t the right track for everyone. 

Disadvantages of Attending College

  • The expenses involved with attending college have grown significantly. The average cost of the college experience grew by a staggering 169% in the 40 years from 1980 to 2020. This means that the investment required to earn a degree may not be worth it if you’re uncertain about what kind of work you want to get into. You could find yourself in debt that’s challenging to pay off, and this would make it difficult to save up when you start working. 
  • You don’t have full control over your learning. Russell mentions how you’re directly accountable for the things that you can control as an entrepreneur. As a college student, you don’t have full control, as you have to rely on the curriculum. If you’re a self-starter looking to learn new skills, there are plenty of free resources available online.

Who Might Thrive by Avoiding College? 

There are many scenarios where college isn’t the right path. Someone with high initiative and drive could benefit from self-education instead of relying on college to learn the skills needed to increase their income. Russell brings up that there’s an abundance of information available at our fingertips. So if you’re a self-starter, you can benefit from creating your own curriculum by taking online courses and training yourself.

If you’re able to solve a problem with a business idea or if you find yourself learning at an accelerated rate on your own, then you’re going to benefit from foregoing the entire college experience.

It’s important that you also have some proof of concept to ensure that your entrepreneurial ventures or self-learning journey could lead to an income stream. You want to test your ideas out — as Russell did with his business — to see if there’s an existing market before you decide to avoid college.

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You want to be positive that the skills you’re learning will lead to an income so that you don’t stress about making money. 

Final Thoughts

While it’s not fair to dismiss the idea of attending college, because many jobs will still require formal education, it’s worth exploring the idea of building wealth outside of the classroom. You just have to remember that popular success stories of college dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are extreme outliers.

As always, there’s a risk involved in every career decision that you make. 

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