Commentary: Diddy's Long Overdue Howard Degree

Why we can't ignore the contributions of college dropouts.

Posted: 04/17/2014 04:03 PM EDT

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —       

I took the one less traveled by,          

And that has made all the difference.

            — Robert Frost

Whenever I give motivational speeches on college campuses, I talk about Robert Frost. I learned a lot about the famous poet during my undergraduate years at Dartmouth College.

Frost attended Dartmouth in 1892, but he quit after only a few months. That could have been the end of the story if he hadn't achieved such extraordinary success later in life. Frost won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times from 1924 to 1943. He won the Congressional Gold Medal in 1960. And he was honored on a postage stamp in 1974.

Although Frost never completed college, he received more than 40 honorary degrees, including degrees from Harvard, Princeton, Oxford and Cambridge, and he became the first person to receive two honorary degrees from Dartmouth College. Not bad for a college dropout.

Given my experience with Frost, I was disappointed this week to hear complaints from critics who disagree with Howard University's decision to select Sean "Diddy" Combs as this year's commencement speaker.

Combs dropped out of Howard in 1990, but, as we all know, he went on to find success as a music producer, rapper, actor and entrepreneur. With all that he's achieved, Combs seems a perfect choice for Howard's commencement. And with his background as a former student of the famous historically black college, I'm surprised it took this long to honor him.

Of course, I should note, as a college and law school graduate, that I value education. The evidence shows education works. The unemployment rate for Americans with a bachelor's degree is just 3.4 percent, almost three times lower than the 9.6 percent rate for those without a high school diploma. And, let's be honest, most college dropouts won't be nearly as successful as P. Diddy. Education clearly matters. But it's not the only thing that matters.

Seven years ago, when Oprah Winfrey delivered the commencement address at Howard, she spoke about the significance of receiving an honorary degree from an HBCU. "You can receive a lot of awards in your life," she said tearfully, "but there is nothing better than to be honored by your own."

Today we love Oprah as a spiritually affirming billionaire businesswoman who has convinced millions of Americans to open a book and read. But Oprah, like Puff Daddy, started her career by dropping out of college. She quit Tennessee State University in 1976 to take her first job in television and didn't complete her degree until 10 years later. We also celebrate others like Maya Angelou, who received an honorary degree from Howard in 1985, although she never attended college at all.

In fact, if we start ignoring the contributions of people who dropped out or didn't graduate from college, we'll not only overlook Robert Frost, Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou, but also Bill Gates, Tiger Woods, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and many more. They all took the road less traveled by.

I know from painful personal experience that the road less traveled by is rarely easy. I started my post-college career working for minimum wage rates for a failed Democratic presidential campaign. Five years later, I quit a high-paying job at a law firm to take another low-wage campaign job. And even when I finally made it to the White House, I quit that job to write a book and run a struggling nonprofit.

The road less traveled is a hard and bumpy route, and the rewards are far from certain. But as much as we value the traditional trail, shouldn't we also value the significant contributions of those who took a different way? Shouldn't our society value the dreamers, the inventors, the explorers, the entrepreneurs and the women and men who took risks outside the safely navigated paths of success?

As Oprah told the Howard University graduating class in 2007, "you come from a long line of giants whose shoulders you strand on, giants who graduated from this school and giants who never made it to school."

Surely Oprah knows there are plenty of people with college degrees who never changed the world and plenty of people without them who have. A college degree is still important and valuable, especially for African-Americans, but it's not nearly as useful as dedication, perseverance and faith in one's self.

As Oprah said herself that day on campus, "I stand here a symbol of what is possible when you believe in the dream of your own life."

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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