Elon Musk is Wrong about College Education
The billionaire is not all wisdom. But here’s what you can learn from his blunder.
“Colleges are basically for fun and to prove you can do your chores. But they are not for learning.”
This is what Elon Musk said in an interview. I’m actually baffled by the number of likes the video had, especially since the statement is rather silly.
To survive and thrive, a college education is crucial for many people worldwide, particularly in low-income countries. Higher education is shown to shrink poverty on a global scale. According to UNESCO, teenage girls are five times more likely to get pregnant when they skip college education. This fact alone pushed UNESCO to herald “education as the best contraception.”
Take the Philippines as an example. The country has one of the highest remittances to GDP ratio, thanks to its dynamic overseas working class. By sending money to their families back home, Filipino immigrants contribute a staggering ten per cent to their country’s annual economy. Before leaving their homes to work abroad, these immigrants did an average of two years of a college education. Advising a Filipino to drop out of college is a financial death sentence.
James Conant, former president of Harvard University, argues that a strong higher education system is crucial to anchoring democracy in a country. That’s because universities often provide a safe space to promote the exchange of ideas and resources between individuals, industries and institutions. Another vital element to people's learning and professional growth is visiting scholars, who bring foreign experience and the necessary know-how to master skills impossible to get outside a university campus.
Musk must have limited his argument to students from upper-middle-class and wealthy families — probably lower-middle class as well — in western countries. More specifically, places where entrepreneurship is an excellent alternative to a standard college education. Because if you step slightly outside this bubble, his advice doesn’t make much sense.
Even if Musk’s argument is limited to rich countries with abundant alternatives to a university degree, some skills such as nuclear physics, medicine and neuroscience, can only be learned through a standard college education. That’s because their accessibility outside government and private labs will do more harm than good.
But why such a narrow view when many youngsters around the world look up to him for inspiration and guidance. As a very successful innovator, Musk is basically the talk of youth in the streets of Marrakech and Algiers (I’m speaking from experience). One must think globally when discussing sensitive topics such as the value of education. Something Musk failed to do.
With great power comes great responsibilities. Yet sometimes billionaires and powerful figures say silly things. Take their advice with a grain of salt.
And to you, powerful leaders to whom people look up for guidance: think carefully about what you say before saying it. Let facts and statistical data guide your opinions, lest you rally people in making bad decisions.