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Do Startup Entrepreneurs Really Need College Degrees?
by Rieva Lesonsky
July 29, 2021

Whether a college degree is necessary to start a business or simply a waste of time that could be better spent launching a startup has been hotly debated for decades.

But as the cost of college continues to soar, the debate is taking on a whole new meaning. Is excessive student debt keeping young adults from starting their own businesses?

According to a recent study, the answer is yes. Someone who graduates with $30,000 in student loans is 11 percent less likely to start a business than someone who graduates debt-free, according The Hidden Cost of Financing Education: Can Student Debt Hinder Entrepreneurship? by Karthik Krishnan, an associate professor of finance at Northeastern University.

Currently, over 42 million student loan borrowers have student loan debt of $100,000 or less. The majority (12.4 million) have debt between $10,000 and $25,000; however, more than 2 million student loan borrowers have student loan debt of more than $100,000.

Startup entrepreneurs in their 20s or 30s 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. Many college students are graduating with student loan debt and 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 live in your parents’ basement and put your salary 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 small business owners 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 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 four-year degree, including community college courses, adult education or online courses (and, of course, advice from SCORE mentors).
  • What are other advantages does college? In some cases, college connections can connect you to sophisticated investors, entrepreneurs or advisors who can advance your startup at light speed. If you get into Harvard, for instance, taking out a loan may be worthwhile when weighed against the connections you could make. 
  • 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?
  • Is now the right time? If you have a business idea in mind, is it something best launched by a younger person, or could it wait until you gain some life experience? Entrepreneurs in their 20s are less likely than those in their 40s to build high-growth companies, according to a recent MIT study. The data highlight the value of experience that being a little more seasoned can add.

Every case is different, and only you can make the decision. But today more than ever, you need to consider it carefully. SCORE mentors can help you make this choice—and learn lots of things you need to start a business.

About the author
Rieva Lesonsky
Rieva Lesonsky is president and CEO of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog
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