Back to Basics: Why Industry Needs Academia

Confession time: I used to want to be a novelist. Reading was my vice growing up, and I dreamed of riding my own stories—scrawled in old marble notebooks, no less— to fame and fortune.

What need did I have for college?

Kurt Vonnegut’s study of mechanical engineering surely didn’t help him write Slaughterhouse Five. Last I checked, the Brontë sisters didn’t even attend college. So why should I? My dad—a proponent of traditional education if there ever was one—halted this thinking quickly. Fast-forward five years and I’m enrolled in one of the best business schools in the world. But why?

No degree, no problem? Not necessarily true, argues Farmer.

Enthusiasts of the college dropout trend have pointed out that traditional education can be limiting, as Quinten Farmer notes in his article for Medium. They cite successes like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg for support. It stifles creativity, an entrepreneur’s best asset. No wonder kids these days are so boring, they say—we’re being trained, not educated, in a pre-professional environment that fails to nurture ideas.

You can simply teach yourself the skills that are necessary to succeed, especially for technology and business, fields whose dynamism makes them impossible to analyze concretely, say the autodidacts. Farmer disagrees.

It’s true that you can learn just about anything online these days. With tools like YouTube, I can find a tutorial on everything from programming to jailbreaking an iPhone. But education is necessary for future innovation. The foundation of the current generation’s technological successes is rooted in huge organizations like Apple. But we’re moving back to smaller companies, smaller teams, reallocating our resources for the fundamentals. Since they have less market power, they need to know that their employees will be able to propel them to success.

This means that degrees, and hence credentials, are necessary for the next wave of hopefuls in the job market. Innovation seeks out intelligence (or perhaps the other way around?), so that Ivy League degree might just be your ticket to working on the next Google Glasses or whatever the innovation universe decides to throw out there. Industry needs academia. It’s why companies partner with research centers at elite universities, so they have a pool of the best and brightest to choose from.

It’s a controversial subject, sure. Why should prestige matter when ideas are the substance of success? But a degree from a prestigious school gives us so much more than the reputation behind it. College puts us in a pot with countless other thinkers, ready to pool their insights. We just have to take advantage of it. Not everything is spreadsheets and problem sets—some of the connections and conversations we make during our undergraduate career will benefit us for life.

Despite my childhood misgivings, my personal college education has been everything I’ve dreamed of and more. My peers are brilliant. Penn is a school that engages me, stimulates me, and humbles me to my core. And yet there is nowhere I’d rather be. The lessons I’ve learned both in and out of the classroom have been indelible, and I hear Farmer’s message loud and clear. So for now, I’m staying— though dreams of making the New York Times bestseller list still hover in the back of my mind. After all, I can always do that after I graduate.