May 26, 2013

Drop out of school, move up?

Some well-known entrepreneurs never graduated college, or even high school, but critics say dropouts should not bet on that kind of success.

By BETH J. HARPAZ The Associated Press

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Marrissa Mayer, David Karp
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Tumblr CEO David Karp appears earlier this year in New York with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Karp, 26, who sold the online blogging forum to Yahoo for $1.1 billion, is a high school dropout.

The Associated Press

"I've had some amazing, great teachers that really have the passion to teach, but most of what is in school now is teaching to a test," he said. "It's really sad. You're not learning the skills for how to solve the problem -- you are just learning the answer to this question that is going to be on the test."

Susan Bartell, a psychologist based in Port Washington, New York who works with adolescents and their families, says she frequently encounters parents who are convinced that their kids are extraordinarily gifted. But she cautions that it's "the very rare exception when this decision (to drop out) makes sense." In the case of Karp, she said, "it worked out, but almost always it doesn't -- even if a kid is extremely gifted. School is about much more than just academics and in most cases, even the most gifted kids need the socializing."

And not all young moguls take Karp's route. Earlier this year, a 17-year-old from London, Nick D'Aloisio, sold an app he created to Yahoo for $30 million -- but he decided to stay in school.

On the other hand, there are examples of successful individuals in many fields who lack a high school diploma, from top performers such as Jay-Z to billionaire businessmen such as Richard Branson.

The tech community may be different from other industries. Degrees are not necessarily seen as a hallmark of achievement and programmers are judged on their ability to type lines of code. You are what you create.

What also sets the field apart is that computer programming is not taught at every high school, and even when it is, the most talented students often either "surpass the curriculum or feel it's not relevant to them," said Danielle Strachman, program director for the Thiel Fellowship. "They want to move at their own pace."

Strachman also emphasized that just because someone has left school, doesn't mean they've stopped learning. The Thiel program provides not just funding, but a community of peers and mentors to help recipients reach their goals. And they can always go back to pursue a degree when the fellowship is over.

It's a goal that even Karp has his eye on -- despite his newfound wealth. "I hope I have an opportunity to go to school at some point," he said, "and study something completely different."Thomas (Sohmers) has been working at a research lab at the esteemed Massachusetts Institute of Technology since he was 13, developing projects ranging from augmented reality eyewear to laser communications systems. "I could see how much of the work he was doing at school wasn't relevant to what he wanted to learn," said his mother.

 

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