If the Bransons and Oprahs got to where they are without a degree, why go to university at all?

As exam season comes to a finale and students consider their future prospects, associate professor Deborah Lindsay Williams asks whether studying a particular subject is a guarantee for success
DECATUR, GA - MAY 13:  Oprah Winfrey receives a honorary degree during the Agnes Scott College 2017 Commencement at Agnes Scott College on May 13, 2017 in Decatur, Georgia.  (Photo by Marcus Ingram/WireImage)

Ellen DeGeneres, Karren Brady, Anna Wintour, Oprah Winfrey. What's the list that unites a talk show host, the UK's so-called first lady of football, the long-time editor of Vogue and one of the richest women in the world?

The answer? None of them has a university degree.

These women have climbed their way to success without graduating. Wintour went to work at 17 in an Irish Examiner article, she urged anyone wanting to follow in her footsteps to "seek to be relevant, to be agile and educated" and, importantly, "to have tried and possibly failed at many different undertakings".

Both Wintour's daughter and Brady's children went to university although Brady, an ambassador for Barclays bank's LifeSkills programme for schoolchildren, also stresses the importance of learning the basics needed to survive in the workplace.

They have their male counterparts too. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard University after two years as his fledgling computer software company took off, Steve Jobs quit his studies at Reed College in Oregon and Richard Branson has credited his success with the belief that "entrepreneurial drive beats a fancy degree anytime". Now, of course, many of them have accumulated a number of honorary degrees, without ever having to take an exam.

So what are we to make of their success when every career adviser tells us a university degree is critical to financial stability and long-term employment? My students pose versions of this question quite frequently – usually when a big project is going badly or when they're trying to decide what to study.

If the Bransons and Oprahs got to where they are without a degree, why bother scrutinising those art history slides or memorising the intricacies of Arabic vocabulary or reading Dostoyevsky? Because let’s face it – if any of us were confronted with a choice between our lives and Oprah’s, all of us (myself included) would want hers. So why bother with university at all?

You might be expecting me, as a literature professor, to say something about the importance of a university degree making you a more reflective person, giving you a fuller understanding of yourself and the world in which you live.

But I’m not going to say any of that.

Instead, I’m going to talk about being an entrepreneur. I hear that word a lot. Undergraduates want to be a part of the next big thing, the next successful start-up. To that end, they flock to degrees in economics, business, or Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in the hope that these degrees will lead to fame and financial stability.


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But as any start-up veteran will tell you, there is no straight path to entrepreneurial success. A recent study cited in Forbes mentioned that "for every cliche of a barista with a liberal arts degree, there were 10 with a degree in business".

So what should you study if you want to prepare yourself for entrepreneurial risk-taking? Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and a billionaire investor, predicted that the liberal arts are the way to go because “you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data, someone who is more of a freer thinker.”

A freer thinker. That’s another trait that is shared by that list of successful non-graduates: they are free thinkers and none of them left the university path with the express idea of making a fortune. They left in pursuit of ideas and opportunities that spoke to their passions and problems. As more than one person has quipped, none of us would have Facebook if Mark Zuckerberg had been able to find a date on his own.

Zuckerberg's wealth and innovative power make his realm – the world of technology – seem particularly seductive. The Stem disciplines are important, of course, but as Peter Hellyer mentioned recently on these pages in his article about the benefits of the 10-year UAE visa expansion, it's important to cultivate not just scientists but artists, historians and writers as well. They too will contribute to the UAE as a "global incubator for exceptional talents", as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, said.

Whenever Stem gets invoked as the key to the future, I am reminded of a cartoon I have on my office door, which shows a ferocious dinosaur chasing a man in a white lab coat. The caption reads: “science can tell you how to clone a T-Rex…humanities can tell you why that’s not a great idea.”

It might be still possible to become the next Oprah, Wintour or Brady without a university degree but a better bet, it seems to me, would be to use the time at university to explore what fascinates you, whether that’s creating a gentler T-Rex or making a film about the dangers of cloning or writing a comedy routine about being chased by a dinosaur.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is an associate professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi