Will Dropouts Save America? No.

10/27/2011 09:27 am ET | Updated Dec 27, 2011

I want to begin by congratulating Michael Ellsberg, who this past Sunday (Oct. 23) published in the pages of The New York Times an op-ed piece ("Will Dropouts Save America?") arguing that the key to American's economic future was the production of more college dropouts. Somehow he managed to skip the marketing section of The Times altogether and publish an extended advertisement for his book, The Education of Millionaires: It's Not What You Think and It's Not Too Late, for free. Nicely done.

There are few things more condescending and destructive than those who have benefited from an expensive and intensive college education (Mr. Ellsberg is a graduate of Brown University) arguing that others need not bother about such benefits for themselves.

Let us take a look at Mr. Ellsberg's argument. "Certainly, if you want to become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer, then you must go to college." "True, people with college degrees tend to earn more." "Most people who end up starting business likely have college degrees." One would think that these would together comprise a reasonably compelling case for the benefits to our society and our economy of fewer dropouts.

But if you reach such a conclusion, you have probably had your creative thinking crushed by such unnecessary college courses as economics, statistics, and philosophy (where they teach logic). Mr. Ellsberg takes us down a different road.

Yes, colleges are good at producing "professionals with degrees." But, he counters, "we don't have a shortage of lawyers and professors." Leaving aside the question of whether we will benefit in the future from well-educated lawyers and professors, I note that Mr. Ellsberg fails here to mention doctors or engineers or researchers or any other professionals in fields related to science and mathematics, where we do in fact face a dangerous shortage in the United States and upon whom global health, global innovation, and the global economy are so dependent.

People with college degrees do indeed earn more -- and find jobs more easily, with an unemployment rate at present in this country of about five percent -- but, Mr. Ellsberg insists, "there is little evidence to suggest that the same ambitious people would earn less without college degrees (particularly if they mastered true business and networking grit)." There is little evidence because there cannot by definition be such evidence: it is simply impossible to prove a hypothetical negative of this kind. I leave it to the reader to determine whether or not "grit" sounds like a reasonable alternative to a better system of science education for America's youth.

As for the detail that most business creators have college degrees? Mr. Ellsberg is prepared for that one as well. "Assuming that college was responsible for their success gives higher education more credit than it deserves." Here as elsewhere, Mr. Ellsberg is describing and then attacking a straw man of his own creation. Few sensible people have ever argued that a college education is solely responsible for the success of talented and motivated individuals; rather, it seems reasonable to argue that a sound education is an important constituent part of the basis for that success.

In preparation for writing his book, Mr. Ellsberg "spent the last two years interviewing college dropouts who went on to become millionaires and billionaires." I presume that he did not interview college graduates who achieved similar financial success because the list was so much longer. His method also begs the question of whether college dropouts are the best source of reliable information about the nature and value of a college education.

So, what did he learn from these interviews?

Well, "our current classrooms... stifle creativity. If a young person happens to retain enough creative spirit to start a business upon graduation, she does so in spite of her schooling, not because of it." "From kindergarten through undergraduate and grad school, you learn very few skills or attitudes that would ever help you start a business. Skills like sales, networking, creativity and comfort with failure." I especially like the kindergarten reference: let's get those blocks and crayons out of those classrooms and begin working on eye contact (about which Mr. Ellsberg wrote an earlier book) and a firm handshake.

It's hard to know where to begin in responding to these contentions -- that tends to be the case when contentions are based on no evidence -- but I want at least to draw attention to Mr. Ellsberg's arguments about creativity, which he appears to believe is an inherent quality that is only diminished by excessive amounts of classroom time. Has he ever been in a lively classroom working with a gifted teacher? I am both a parent and a college president, and I have seen first-hand that the creative abilities of both my children and the students at my institution are far more often enhanced than stifled by the study of art and literature, the pursuit of answers in a laboratory, or a deeper understanding of human history and psychology. To Mr. Ellsberg these are merely "narrowly defined academic subjects" -- as opposed to more practical skills, I would assume, in such areas as sales and networking.

Arguments like Mr. Ellsberg's might simply be dismissed as silly, but these days they are, unhappily, more likely than ever to foster the spread of misinformation and to be used as the basis for terrible public policy proposals. It remains the case that there is not a single example of a society in this or any other age that has improved its economy or strengthened its civic institutions by educating fewer of its people. That isn't as catchy as offering seven easy steps toward becoming a millionaire or billionaire without a college degree (that's the number in Mr. Ellsberg's book), but it is true.

Mr. Ellsberg ends by noting that "I'd put my money on the kids who are dropping out of colleges to start new businesses." Unfortunately the opposite is true: in marketing his Education of Millionaires, he is taking the money of such kids (only $14.99 for the Kindle edition) and delivering to young people who are working hard to get an education exactly the wrong message.