Is Elon Musk Right About College?

If you tuned into the SpaceX 2020 Opening Day Keynote back in March, you might have heard Elon Musk’s comments about college.

“You don’t need college to learn stuff” – Elon Musk

When I saw the Business Insider article on Facebook highlighting Musk’s opinions on college, my response was almost visceral…

“Please tell me people aren’t using Elon Musk’s comments as a reason to not attend or drop out of college,” I thought peevishly.

How does a billionaire with dual degrees from UPenn – an Ivy League university –  and who netted internships in Silicon Valley get off saying things like… 

  • “College is not for learning”
  • “You can learn anything for free” 
  • All college proves is you can “soldier through” and “do boring chores” like homework 

Perhaps at another time I would have skimmed the article, rolled my eyes, and moved on. 

But not this time. 

Not after slogging through eight weeks of homeschooling my 6th grader. 

Not after counseling high school students who are powering through the mental and emotional stress of a pandemic and government-imposed virtual learning to keep working towards their college goals. 

It’s easy to want to take the word of someone who has already achieved so much success, especially when the world seems to be working against you. 

But is Elon Musk right about college?

Sure, learning can be free – but free learning is not without cost. 

There’s a perceived respectable solidarity in teaching oneself. But as many of us have recently discovered, not everyone’s emotional, mental, or physical environment is conducive to this style of learning. 

College is NOT for Everyone

First, let me say that while I am a college admissions consultant, I am also very aware that college is not for everyone. 

I also work as a career counselor and will be the first to say that although it is the norm, a degree is not a guarantee of stability or success. It is not always the most productive, efficient, or lucrative path forward. 

Sometimes, college isn’t a necessary instrument for particular people wanting wealth, prestige, or fame. 

However, these people are often the exception, not the rule. 

They have honed interests, connections, finances, and/or education that are sometimes not available to the majority of the population. 

“Successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.” – Malcom Gladwell, Outliers

Read Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, and you get a much better sense of the types of circumstances that need to occur for a person to succeed beyond the norm. The common theme is that people like Elon Musk have time, resources, and most importantly, the drive to learn and create independently.

The Path To Success is 10,000 Hours Long

Whether one attends college or not, history suggests that the path to success is at least 10,000 hours long.

The drive to learn and create independently is the context most people are missing when they hear statements like the ones in this YouTube compilation of Elon Musk’s personal views on education and college

I applaud Musk’s initiative to withdraw the requirement of a degree for employment within his companies. But notice, he caveats this initiative by saying a candidate must show “exceptional ability.” 

He then drops names like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as examples of people with exceptional abilities and success who do not have college degrees. 

But you know what they did have before becoming success stories? 

10,000+ hours of industry-specific experience and the opportunity, connections, and self-discipline to make that possible. 

Sure, plenty of knowledge is available for free – or at least at a relatively inexpensive price. 

Things like…

  • MOOCs (massive open online courses) have become an extremely popular concept endorsed by universities such as Stanford and Harvard on platforms like Coursera and EdX 
  • Youtube
  • Social media
  • Google

But tell me, Elon Musk… 

Were you learning to calculate the “high coefficient of thermal expansion” you mention in your Satellite 2020 talk while in high school? 

Could you tell someone where they can find a free course to learn about it? 

How about the prerequisite mathematical or scientific skills needed to understand the concept? 

If you can’t answer this, how do you expect the average 18-20 year old to figure it out? 

So yes, Mr. Musk, some people do need college to learn stuff.

How to Prove “Exceptional Ability”

Beyond just “learning stuff”, someone with “exceptional ability” should also be a critical thinker. Memorizing facts of a discipline does not necessarily make for a successful innovator. 

Truly exceptional thinkers ask “is this the right question?” rather than just answering all the questions regardless.

So how can a high school student prove their “exceptional ability” to become a viable candidate for a well-paying company like Tesla? 

Enter college and the concept of mass higher education. 

College provides a fruitful opportunity not just to learn, but also to develop one’s critical thinking skills.

Again, I am not asserting that college is always the best choice. In fact, you’ll find that most college admissions consultants are at the forefront in advocating for change in higher education. In our job, we become personally invested in helping our students get the most out of their high school and college experiences.

Since independent consultants receive no incentive from universities for sending kids to their school, we are able to maintain a (mostly) unbiased perspective needed to help students make informed choices on paths that align with their goals and personality. We want students to thrive whether it’s via a gap year, trade school, college, or military program.

However, it should not be discounted that most colleges and universities provide a valuable and structured form of learning, which often includes:

  • Time for practice, discipline, and hard work through homework
  • Opportunities to connect with relevant figures in an industry through research, internships, or networking
  • A chance to have fun and make friends to develop very important collaborative and social skills

Colleges Don’t Just Provide Academic Knowledge

Is any college experience perfect? Absolutely not. 

Does learning happen? Yes. 

Does it go beyond the mundane work of doing homework as a chore? Again, yes. 

Colleges don’t just provide academic knowledge. If a student takes full advantage of a university’s resources, they will learn more than just facts and theories. They will…

  • Learn about themselves. 
  • Discover how to advocate for themselves and ask for opportunities. 
  • Experiment with learning styles.
  • Learn new and extensive critical thinking skills.
  • Learn how to question their own path forward among a community of other explorers. 

Perhaps it’s not the customized type of learning that Musk provides for his children through the school he created – Ad Astra (Latin for “To the Stars”). But it does give many students the opportunity to learn, connect, and create. 

Is Elon Musk Right About College?

While Elon Musk and those like him are often great role models in many ways, their opinions shouldn’t be taken as fact or as personalized guidance. When Elon Musk is asked what he would change if he could go back in time, he speaks at length about simplifying products and working better – and that’s Musk’s way – he wants to take the most clear-cut, efficient pathway to success. 

We all do. 

However, some of us recognize that our journeys are also what can establish our way forward; our times of questioning are what can lead us to the right question. Others, like Musk, look back and discount the importance of the journey; they perhaps feel the right questions are inherent rather than formed.

The road to career satisfaction, success, and stability is not clear-cut for anyone. If someone has…

  • An exceptional ability to learn independently
  • Above average skills to advocate for themselves and cultivate connections
  • And the resources to expand on those abilities 

… Then they may have an easier time pursuing alternative pathways to success. Even still, so much can depend on external factors outside of the individual’s control. 

Someone can be exceptional and still fail. That’s why it’s important to have multiple plans forward.

Bottom Line: There is no universal answer to “Is Elon Musk Right about College?” Each person has their own viewpoint that is influenced by their background, skills, learning abilities, drive, financial factors, familial or other support, and future aspirations. 

The most important thing to remember is that everyone’s journey is different and what it comes down to is how a person creates and follows through on opportunities they are given.

If your student is looking for individualized guidance on their pursuit of success and opportunity, explore the different services and packages we have put together to make sure  your student is on the best track for them. We help students find the resources and support they need to achieve their dreams – in college or otherwise.

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