05/21/2013 03:20 pm ET

What Tumblr Founder David Karp's High School Dropout Status Means


To the casual observer, Tumblr founder David Karp's status as a high school dropout may be the most eye-catching detail of the $1.1 billion Yahoo-Tumblr deal, which is giving the 26-year-old an estimated windfall of $250 million.

The story is familiar in the tech sector. Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates each dropped out of college to helm their respective companies. Zuckerberg and Gates, the leading men behind Facebook and Microsoft, respectively, each completed several semesters of computer science coursework at Harvard, decades apart, that would prove relevant for their products. Jobs dropped out of Reed College after only 6 months of dabbing in calligraphy classes that honed the design sensibility the Apple co-founder became famous for.

Karp, however, seems to have set a tech-world record. Bored with his classes, he quit high school at age 14 -- at his mother's suggestion -- to focus on computers, according to a New York Times profile.

He was homschooled instead, learning Japanese and coding, Reuters reports, before taking a job as chief technology officer at UrbanBaby, a parenting website. The experience as a CTO, in addition to the thousands of dollars Karp made when UrbanBaby was sold, allowed the young entrepreneur to found the company that would become Tumblr.

A growing number of people in the technology community hold up Karp's story as an example of why bright, entrepreneurial minds shouldn't waste their time in college. Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook, is one advocate of the idea. Even though Thiel himself holds two degrees from Stanford University, he started a fellowship that gives two dozen teenagers $100,000 to build a startup, conduct research, or do anything but attend college.

"Rather than just studying, you’re doing," Thiel's site reads.

Based on all accounts, quitting traditional school gave Karp the opportunity to dive deeper into computer technology than he would have otherwise. But while it benefitted Karp, dropping out almost never works as well financially for others. On average, a typical high school dropout earns $10,000 less per year than a high school graduate, and $36,000 less than a college graduate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Karp's is a one-in-250-million case.

Other highly successful entrepreneurs have pushed back against the myth of the successful dropout. Instagram's Kevin Systrom, the man behind what was the most recent billion-dollar social-media acquisition before Yahoo's Tumblr deal, opted to stay at Stanford instead of dropping out to join Facebook. “Working at a startup to make a lot of money was never a thing, and that’s why I decided to just finish up school. That was way more important for me," he told Forbes in an August 2012 profile.

Systrom described how he discovered his love of vintage photography while studying abroad -- the sort of boundary-pushing experience that college can facilitate. That passion would eventually inspire the photo filters that make Instagram so popular.



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