Did Peter Thiel pop the bubble? That was the question on the minds of parents, taxpayers and higher education leaders late last month when the co-founder of PayPalannounced that he was offering $100,000 to young people who would stay out of college for two years and work instead on scientific and technological innovations. Thiel, who has called college “the default activity,” told USA Today that “the pernicious side effect of the education bubble is assuming education [guarantees] absolute good, even with steep student fees.”
He has lured 24 of the smartest kids in America and Canada to his Silicon Valley lair with promises of money and mentorship for their projects. Some of these young people have been working in university labs since before adolescence. Others have consulted for Microsoft, Coca-Cola and other top companies. A couple didn’t even have to face the choice of putting off college — one enrolled in college at age 12 and, at 19, had left his PhD studies at Stanford to start his own company.
Of course, Thiel’s offer isn’t going to change the way most universities do business anytime soon. These 24 kids represent the narrowest swath of the country’s college-bound youth. (Though it’s important to note: When we talk about America having the greatest system of higher education in the world, these are the kind of people we’re bragging about.)
There’s not much reason to worry that this program is going to produce a nation of dropouts, contrary to the fears of some wags such as James Temple, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Temple called the premise of the fellowships “scary” and worried about the broader message they send. However, as a country, we are still creeping along toward President Obama’s dream of universal higher education. Obama sees this not only as a way for all individuals to have the opportunity to reach their full potential but also as a key to the nation’s ability to compete in the global marketplace.
But Thiel put a dollar figure on something that certain young people may already have suspected was true. A friend of mine whose son, a budding Internet entrepreneur, just graduated from Yale told me about a conversation that her son reported having with another somewhat successful start-up founder. The latter had dropped out of Harvard Law School to launch his business, and he advised my friend’s son to drop out of Yale — venture capitalists would know that he was serious if he was willing to give up that Ivy League diploma. My friend was a little horrified, having already dropped somewhere around $200,000 on her son’s education, but it does raise the question: For a smart kid from an upper-middle-class family who went to one of the top high schools in the country, and who already has a business going, what does a college diploma mean?
Colleges have long been engaged in an odd deal with students and their parents. Paying for a college education — or taking on a huge amount of debt to finance an education — is a transaction in which most of the buyers and most of the sellers have fundamentally different understandings of the product.