It’s a tenet of American culture: earn decent grades, get into a respectable college, land a good job, and live happily ever after. So, what happens when a promising career—not to mention a big paycheck—precedes a college degree?

The booming internet economy has altered the traditional tenet, as plenty of teen-agers with highly sought computer skills are skipping school altogether—or at least deferring it for a few years. The trend is forcing educators to rethink their practices to make schooling relevant.

While computer-savvy kids have been lured for years by a market that needs their talents, the proliferation of web sites and internet start-ups has made the demand far more widespread since the early 1990s. Plus, “New Economy” salaries come with a lot more zeros.

“I can put my resume on a job-listing site and get 200 calls a day,” says Joe Ingersoll, 22, a programmer in Marina del Rey, Calif., who left high school five years ago and has been working full-time since.

“And I can say, ‘I don’t want to talk for less than $120,000, and these are the languages I want to work in.’ It’s really crazy for someone with no degree. But I have an extensive resume. People look at that and they salivate.”

As a result, “I’m really not nervous at all about my position.”

Neither is Drew Dara-Abrams, a 16-year-old from Los Altos, Calif., who has replaced high school with courses from a community college. He also consults for a local law firm’s web site.

“The whole concept of sticking kids in a school for four years, it doesn’t exactly work too well,” Dara-Abrams said.

But while some kids have found decent incomes without college, most never will, said Tom Mortenson, a higher education analyst and publisher of the monthly Postsecondary Education Opportunity newsletter.

According to the Census Bureau, there was a $19,114 median income gap in 1998 between men with a college degree and those with only a high school diploma. The gap was even higher for women.

High school graduates earned a median of $30,868 in 1998, the last year for which census data are available, compared with $60,168 for men with a masters degree.

Young tech wizards are an anomaly, of course. “I suspect that if you look at who these kids are, they would have been clearly college caliber,” Mortenson said.

Others have founded successful businesses in college and dropped out, such as Michael Dell, who started building computers in his University of Texas dorm.

Christopher Klaus left Georgia Tech in his junior year to develop an idea he had for making internet transactions more secure. The ensuing company, Internet Security Services Inc., posted revenues of $116 million last year, and Klaus donated $15 million four months ago to his almost-alma mater for a new computer center.

“If I go back to school, it’s just to be educated, it’s not to get the degree,” said Klaus, who has enrolled in a two-week business course this summer at Stanford.

But even with a market crazed to recruit skilled computer whizzes, school provides a foundation for learning and ought to be pursued, even by the brightest kids, said Paul Ohme, director of the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing at Georgia Tech.

“An educational institution should not be preparing you for today’s jobs,” he said. “They should be giving you a foundation so you can prepare yourself for the jobs that come around tomorrow.”

Joe Coto, superintendent of East Side Union High School District in San Jose, Calif., agrees. He said his district tries to instill the concept of lifelong learning into students.

“If they go to work, they are going to have to keep learning—or if they go to college and then work, they’ll still have to learn,” Coto said. But he knows not all students are thinking long-term.

“They fail to realize that taking a job that pays 50 to 60 thousand dollars could only be short-term, and they will have to do something to remain competitive.”

So, what must high schools and colleges do to retain tech-savvy students in today’s economy? For one thing, they “are going to have to create more alternative and flexible learning courses than they have in the past,” Coto said.

Postsecondary Education Opportunity

Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing

East Side Union High School District