When I started my freshman year of high school, the principal addressed the class of new students with a speech that included the following statement: “If you don’t go to university after you graduate from here, you will not have lived up to your full potential.” He further reinforced this, suggesting even that in order to be successful, students of Central Secondary School in London, Ontario could only achieve success with a university degree.
While his attitude was extreme, his interpretation of the value of a post-secondary education is rather mainstream in education circles, obviously, as well as much of the corporate world. Now, billionaire investor Peter Thiel, founder of the Thiel Foundation and co-founder of PayPal, is offering $100,000 as a start-up grant over two years to a group of 20 (okay, 24) budding entrepreneurs under the age of 20, through his 20 Under 20 program. The catch? They must agree to
drop out take a two year hiatus from university — or, in one case, high school — to be eligible for the Thiel Fellowship.
Thiel, also known as Facebook’s first outside investor, did complete a law degree from Stanford, but said he did so not because he felt it was necessary for his career ambitions, but because “it was just this default activity.” Thiel also says the rise of cost and demand in post-secondary education is irrational, adding to debt for students, without giving them much in terms of valuable skills for life and business.
According to the Higher Education Chronicle, at least one student declined their offer of Thiel’s fellowship to accept admission at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Peter Thiel doesn’t say that everyone should drop out of college, merely that higher education is “overvalued,” adding that there is a “price escalation without incredible improvement in the product.” Combined with his notion that university is something people just “have to do”, Thiel is challenging the status quo, and shining light on success stories of people like Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter’s Evan Williams — all drop-outs who became billionaires in the technology industry.
Some of the fellows themselves, such as Calgary native Eden Full, 19, acknowledge that this program allows participants to “try things in the real world and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes,” knowing that the opportunity to return to university will always exist. Gary Kurek, another Albertan, turned down a full scholarship in Engineering at the renowned University or Calgary to build his revolutionary mobility aid business, GET Mobility Solutions.
There’s no question that all of the 24 fellows, selected from 400 applicants, have backgrounds and ideas that could change the world. The question comes down to whether or not they can do it without a university education. If so, the college myth — that post-secondary education contributes to intelligence and ability, as opposed to knowledge — may continue to be shattered.
According to a press release from the Thiel Foundation:
We’re excited to be working with them, and we hope they will help young people everywhere realise that you don’t need credentials to launch a company that disrupts the status quo,” declared the Thiel Foundation on May 25th as it announced its first batch of “20 Under 20″ fellows.
Check out the biographies of the 25 Thiel Fellows here.