Why Steve Jobs Matters

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, EPI International/Educational Policy Institute

As I sit in front of my iMac 27”, which sits on my workplace next to my MacBook Air 13”, my iPad 2, and my iPhone 4, I realize that Steve Jobs has had unbelievable influence on my life. I figure I have bought about 25 Apple hardware products over the last 10 years. Each of my three kids has had at least one iPod or iTouch. My youngest will get my iPhone 4 in a few weeks, since I have already ordered my new iPhone 4S.

I admit. I am an Apple junkie, and I guess I have been since the late 1980s when I used Apple IIe and Macintosh “Classics” to teach graphic arts in Winnipeg.

Suffice it to say, like many people around the world, I felt a deep sadness on the news of Steve Jobs passing, which, of course, I read on my iPhone. And, like most, I didn’t know too much about him other than he could be a first-level ass as a boss. But I knew enough about him and his accomplishments to have reverence for what he achieved in 56 years. Heck, I have reverence for what he had achieved by only 21.

Jobs has left an indelible stamp on communications and technology in a global fashion. All phones want to be iPhones. All MP3 players want to be iPods or iTouches. And all tablets want to be iPads. Steve Jobs made things cool.

And he did it without a college degree. 

It is interesting to understand that the two biggest names in computers—Steve Jobs and Bill Gates—both dropped out of college. They were both obviously brilliant people, as they were very college able: Jobs dropped out from the uber-liberal Reed College and Gates from Harvard. Gates dropped out because he knew what he wanted to do. Jobs dropped out because it was costing his family all their life savings. In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University, Jobs said the following:

“I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents’ savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.

This is from a man whose estate is currently valued at about $6 billion. A man whose company was, for a brief period this year, the most valuable company in the world. A company whose retail sales have the highest revenue per square foot of any store in the world. And also a man who took a salary of $1/year.

But another lesson learned from Steve Jobs talks about the formidable barrier to success because of college costs. Perhaps he didn’t need college, as he proved, but he learned from it and he wanted to go to college. He just couldn’t see spending his parents’ hard-earned cash on a higher education. So he found another way. Most students can’t do what Jobs did. He was an anomaly. So before anyone suggests we should all be like Steve, let’s be real. He was so far off the grid in terms of normalcy, so far off the normal distribution in his brilliance and drive, that his peer set is probably a few handfuls of people in the entire world. One of the few other affinity groups we can compare him to is that who dropped out of college because they couldn’t afford it, or because they felt so guilty for eating up their parents’ life funds.

College is a lot more expensive than it was back in the early 1970s. It is a bigger problem than ever. For all of the “Steve Jobs” who are out there in our world, how many get lost in the higher education shuffle? People who are poor but brilliant. Smart but unrefined, perhaps. Think of the thousands of students who don’t get there and don’t find their way the way Jobs or Gates did.

While most of our associations and special interest groups worry about how low-income students get to college (including us at EPI), I am particularly interested in those who are on the high-end of the academic charts who never to or through college. Analysis of BPS data clearly show that even high achieving low-income students, as well as high-achieving Hispanic and Black students, graduate from college at rates 20-30 percentage points below White and Asian students. These are smart, skilled students. But they go to and graduate from college at much lower rates than their peers. My colleague Scott Miller wrote about this back in 1997 in An American Imperative: Accelerating Minority Educational Achievement. This is nothing new to us in education. And regardless of the low-income levers we have created, including the Pell Grant and Stafford Loan system, we lose students. We lose them before college and we lose them during college. And we all lose.

Steve Jobs legacy will undoubtedly be him impact on communication, and certainly on style. For decades to come, people and corporations will still being emulating what Apple has done over the past three-plus decades.

Perhaps his legacy can also be about reengineering how we educate students in America (and beyond). What we do with the brightest, and how we get more students to be bright.

Steve Jobs is an example for us not to forget.

One thought on “Why Steve Jobs Matters

  1. Quite a testimonial. I never knew he dropped out of college because he felt guilty for spending his parents’ money. I have even more respect for the man now. I liked your take on all this. Good thinking…as always.

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