In a recent article about Thiel Fellows the question was raised once again: “Is college for everyone?” With rising tuition rates and more young people competing to get into the best schools, it is a valid question. Does a college education give you a return on investment commensurate with the investment of time and money and the opportunity cost of foregoing other ventures? I have touched on this question in previous blog posts but want to visit it again, hopefully, with a fresh perspective.
Peter Thiel is a billionaire who made his fortune in finance and venture capital investing. He was one of the original founders of PayPal and provided the first outside funding for Facebook. In 2010 he founded the Thiel Fellowship. Thiel Fellows are given $100,000 to forego college and instead focus on their own ideas and passions. His premise is that the brightest and most motivated young people should be given an opportunity to explore their ideas outside of the walls of academia (though Thiel himself has degrees in philosophy and law from Stanford). Fellows are supported for two years through networking, summits on entrepreneurship, and connections to venture capital. Thiel has provided for a contingent of approximately 20 people under age 20 each year since 2010 and there are openings for the next class.
Where are They Now?
The author of the article mentioned above interviewed a small number of Thiel Fellow graduates. Some have successfully formed start-up companies. Some moved on from their original idea when it proved unworkable. Others have actually gone back to complete their education. They all credit at least part of their success to the Thiel Foundation. It helped them focus on their ideas and gave them a framework and network to build on those ideas and produce a product or service.
University Entrepreneurship Programs
The Thiel Fellowship comes at a time when universities are growing their own in-house entrepreneurship programs. The University of Oregon, for example, is a partner in the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network (RAIN) Eugene. This gives students the opportunity to work on projects and connect with people in the community and learn how to start a business from the ground up. Critics of Mr. Thiel are hoping that programs like RAIN will give students a chance to pursue personal projects and a college degree at the same time. In other words, it is not one or the other but both.
I believe that college is very important but realize that life takes us down many paths. College is just one of those paths. A rigid four-year college experience right after high school may not be best for everyone, and we need to make sure that we have a way for learners to step in and out of the college experience as they choose. College may be interspersed with work, research, travel, volunteer opportunities, or starting a company. I pursued a college career while working full time and found it a very rewarding experience. My son has completed two tech schools and is at the top of his vocation. Now in his mid-twenties, he is contemplating going back to school to complete his bachelor’s degree. Is Peter Thiel correct in his assumptions? For some young people, absolutely. For others, an opportunity such as that would be lost without the background of a college experience. What do you think? Is college for everyone? Would the money best be spent elsewhere? Is there an absolute prescribed time for going to college? Let me know your thoughts and experiences.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.