young entrepreneurs

I’ve been in the world of entrepreneurship for decades, and as long as I can remember there’s been a debate about whether young entrepreneurs need college degrees, or whether they can learn via “street smarts” everything they need to know to start a business.

But today, the college-or-no-college debate is taking on a whole new meaning. A recent post on the Kauffman Foundation’s blog asks whether the soaring cost of college is hamstringing young entrepreneurs by saddling them with debt before they even start businesses.

Ever since I can remember, the 20s and 30s have been considered ideal times to start a business. These young entrepreneurs are less likely to have the responsibilities of a home mortgage, spouse or family to contend with, and in the past, they’d usually have paid off any student loans or other college-related debt by their mid- to late 20s.

Today, of course, the landscape is much different. College students are graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and, in many cases, few prospects for employment that can make any type of meaningful dent in that debt. Where in the past, you could live in your parents’ basement and save your salary to start up your business, today you’re more likely to have to put any salary you have toward paying down college debt.

The irony is that this is occurring at a time when there are more undergraduate and graduate entrepreneurship courses than ever before—all of which could make aspiring young entrepreneurs see a college degree as even more essential, despite the cost.

So is a college degree really needed to start a business? It’s crucial to weigh the costs. Here are some factors to take into account.

  • What type of business do you want to start? Some businesses, especially those based in professional services, may truly require a degree. Others, however, can be learned just as well (or better) with real-world experience.
  • What other educational options exist? If you’re concerned about learning things like basic accounting or marketing principles, there are plenty of ways to get that knowledge without a costly four-year degree, including community college courses, adult education or online courses (and, of course, advice from SCORE mentors).
  • What other advantages does college confer? In some cases, college connections confer entrée to sophisticated investors, entrepreneurs or advisors who can advance your startup at light speed. But these cases are few and far between and there may be other ways to make those same connections.
  • How much money do you have at your disposal and how is it best spent? If you’re fortunate enough to have some capital on hand, do the math. How much will your startup cost? How much would college cost? Could your college fund be better spent doing a startup? If so, can you convince your parents of that?

Starting a business or starting college—those are tough choices, and today’s economy isn’t making them any easier. Only you can choose what’s right for you.