David Schaeffer, ECON ’75

david schaeffer

To hear alumnus David Schaeffer describe his days at the University of Maryland, you might believe he was just an average, bookish student with varied interests that made choosing a major difficult.

“Kind of eclectic would be the polite way to put it,” Schaeffer said. “Unfocused would be the negative way to put it.”

In truth, Schaeffer, now the founder and CEO of Cogent Communications—one of the world’s largest internet providers—was anything but typical: He was barely 12 years old when he took his first class at the university and enrolled as a full-time undergraduate by 16.

Schaeffer remembers crisscrossing the College Park campus and packing in as many classes as possible within a single day—economics, history, mathematics, physics, chemistry and “whatever else seemed interesting.” While most students take between 12 and 18 credit hours per semester, Schaeffer was juggling as many as 40, while working part-time and commuting from Wheaton.

“It was not exhausting, it was invigorating,” Schaeffer said. “I always took school seriously and my goal was to learn as much as I could in as short a time as I could.”

Schaeffer claims he was almost asked to leave the university once the administration learned he was taking advantage of a loophole at the time that allowed undergraduate students to sign up for graduate courses at the undergraduate tuition rate. Finding he had already amassed enough credits to qualify for a bachelor’s degree in economics, Schaeffer enrolled as a doctoral student in economics at 18 years old.

Ultimately, Schaeffer left UMD before completing his Ph.D. in order to help his father run a taxicab company. Applying the same energy and enthusiasm to business as he had to academics, he helped grow the fleet of 49 taxis to more than 2,000, making it the second largest cab company in the country.

Since then, Schaeffer has founded and operated six other major businesses in industries ranging from communications to commercial real estate.

“I’ve never had a real job in a sense,” Schaeffer said.

Nineteen years ago, Schaeffer founded Cogent Communications, which now operates in 43 countries and serves as the primary internet service provider for major clients such as YouTube, Netflix and Amazon. 

“I find it intellectually interesting. It’s a challenging sector with significant price deflation,” Schaeffer said.

When addressing graduates from the Department of Economics for spring 2019 commencement, Schaeffer hopes to pass along a mantra that has always served him well:

“There is nothing more rewarding than learning new things and the key to anyone’s success is continued curiosity.”

This article by Sara Gavin was originally published in April 2019.