Thiel’s 20-20 Vision: Stop Out of College

By December 14, 2010

The average cost of a college education at a private institution is just short of $37,000 per year, according to an

NPR survey last October. One important question students ask themselves when entering is, “What will I get out of this?” It’s a question I’m asking myself right now, and although I’m still uncertain as to its answer, I am confident in answering that question’s converse: “What will I put into my college experience?”

The answer I give is the one given by many of my colleagues. No matter how awesome an idea I might devise, how elegant a solution I may find to some problem big or small, the amount of time necessary to bring these plans to fruition is too large to balance with school. And this is really unfortunate, because in a business environment developing faster than, well, any previous business environment since the 1990s, any good idea I or one of my friends may have today will be brought to market by some other guy or his friends two months from now.

I’m not the only one to giggle at my college’s attempt to spur “socially-conscious innovation”, the de rigueur form of entrepreneurship amongst affluent American youth, through new venture competitions. The $10,000 that the University of Chicago, like other institutions’ incentives of similar size, is offering to “the most innovative idea” is not enough to get my “social venture” off the ground, or, for that matter, to make me stop out of college to launch it. It seems as though universities have “missed the boat”, as it were, in reaching out to the most innovative students.

Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder, billionaire venture capitalist, hedge fund manager, and early Facebook investor, does not play around when it comes to inspiring young people to build their ideas into companies. His eponymous Thiel Fellowship promises twenty entrepreneurs under twenty years old cash grants of up to $100,000 to do so.

Importantly, Thiel’s fellowship program touches on two key points: young people seeking to develop innovative technology- and breakthrough scientific companies might best spend a few years under the aegis of top-notch mentors instead of in college, where interaction with professors is, at best, undertaken in fifteen-minute fits and starts during “office hours”. Secondly, the Fellowship turns conventional wisdom on its head. A “college education” does not necessarily make a young person employable. During the fellowship, not only will fellows receive mentorship, employment opportunities, support, and training, they will—gasp—be paid for their efforts.

This lays bare the somewhat ridiculous logic behind the you-must-have-a-BA-to-apply school of employability determination. Nothing about sitting on my butt, furiously taking lecture notes, half-assing my way through papers (on which I still, regrettably, receive A’s), skipping a good 70% of the assigned reading, and making the dean’s list means I’m a valuable hire. This is why so many young people eschew the many demands of school: our goal is to be innovators, entrepreneurs; spending time proving our suitability for work in some cubicle farm or in front of a Bloomberg terminal is anathema to our goals. We, the over-twenty student population, are busy educating ourselves for the work we want to do. It’s unfortunate that we must do so in spite of our schooling. Thiel hit on something with his Fellowship; it gives recipients credentials, the “signaling value” of a college degree, without the cheery notions of “getting an education” that colleges shove down students’ throats.

Whether Fellowship recipients continue on with entrepreneurship or go into the corporate world, one thing is clear: their resumes have a tangibility to them that college grads’ do not… that is, unless the college grad spent his or her time starting companies and “getting things done” instead of simply “doing school”, no matter how well they did. I’d hire a Thiel Fellow, his or her Harvard B.A.’ed competition be damned.

Over the coming weeks, Flyover Geeks will be highlighting young entrepreneurs. If you know any young entrepreneurs in the science, technology, or other fields under the age of 25 who you think FG should profile, let us know in the comments section.