Back in 2009, the respected and unfathomably wealthy venture capitalist Peter Thiel declared that when it comes to creating the next generation of groundbreaking American innovators, college education is largely a waste of money. Citing well-known dropout success stories like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg (and after taking a long look at student debt statistics), Thiel designed a revolutionary type of scholarship opportunity: rather than amass endlessly growing student debt, Thiel agreed to pay recipients of his fellowship $100,000 on the condition that they would quit higher education and go to work full-time creating “world-changing companies.” Abstract learning would be replaced with real world mentoring and dynamic invention would be rewarded by early access to the best minds in Silicon Valley (and, presumably, the fattest wallets in all of VC-dom). So, three years later, how are things working out?
Apparently not so well… As is detailed in the below article from Quartz, few Thiel Fellowship start-ups actually still exist and those that do, at least on the surface, seem somewhat less than awe inspiring. Examples include “caffeine you can spray” and a quasi-successful book about, um, what it’s like to drop out of college. Obviously, it may be the case that three years is simply too short a period of time to accurately measure the results of Thiel’s methodology, but given the pace of change in the technology world, that reasoning seems hard to swallow. What’s more likely is that by focusing solely on the coursework aspect of college instead of the unique type of peer-to-peer education and relationship building that spans everything from athletics to late night dorm room conversations, Thiel missed a central aspect of how college actually educates. He may be correct that a small handful of genius entrepreneurs can successfully disregard all that, but most people (perhaps including extraordinary individuals like Jobs, Gates and Zuckerberg) tend to benefit greatly from exposure to diverse people and ideas – even ideas with which they disagree or have no interest in pursuing as a career.
The debate isn’t over but I’ll certainly be curious as to when and how Thiel responds to this latest round of attacks.