That’s the question that Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, early investor in Facebook, and visionary leader of The Thiel Foundation, is asking college students attending some of the nation’s top universities. In fact, he’s already chosen 24 recipients of the Thiel Fellowship, out of over 400 applicants, from such prestigious schools as Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and MIT.
The deal is that these under-20 innovators agree to forgo school, and receive mentoring and guidance from a cadre of tech leaders and entrepreneurs, while being financially supported by the $100k award. During their two-year tenure in the project, they will, “pursue innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow,” according to The Thiel Foundation.
As you might imagine, the idea of offering such a fellowship that appears to discourage formal higher education has drawn some controversy. The question of how important college is for becoming a business owner isn’t a new debate in the entrepreneurial community, but this is the first time in memory anyone as high-profile as Peter Thiel has spoken out in favor of pursuing a startup in lieu of a university education. And he’s got some interesting statistics backing up his philosophy.
According to a recent Time Magazine article, 85% of college graduates are moving back in with their parents after graduation, and as many as 54% of those under 25 are unemployed. Add to that the fact that most of those graduating are starting their post-college lives with hefty debt (often in the six figure range), and the case for high school grads focusing on entrepreneurial pursuits over education starts to look pretty good.
There are other statistics that are touted by those on the other side of the argument though, that could be as compelling. When you look at earnings figures, unemployment rates, and other economic indicators, they all show more favorably for those with a college education, versus those with only a high school diploma. But those statistics might not be as clear cut as they seem. The question that never seems to be asked is: How many of those from the statistics without a college degree are people who never intended to go to college in the first place? There is a huge difference between someone who makes the choice to go after an entrepreneurial venture instead of attending college, and the person with no future plans, educational, entrepreneurial, or otherwise.
So which is it?
Is Peter Thiel on to something? Should we be placing more emphasis on helping young entrepreneurs start businesses than sending them through university? After all, there are advantages to college, above and beyond classroom learning, that are hard to measure, such as the college experience itself and the connections made while attending.
The bottom line is that there are incredible success stories on both sides of the debate, and there are those who would recommend against their chosen path on both sides. There are undoubtedly advantages and disadvantages to each option, and it ultimately comes down to personal choice, not a “right” or “wrong” way to go.
Chances are very good that the 24 fellows chosen by Peter Thiel will do quite well for themselves. And while it’s true that most young entrepreneurs don’t get a hundred grand boost and team of mentors right out of the gate, they’ll still have to work hard to succeed, and, in the long run, if they don’t have what it truly takes to be an entrepreneur, no fellowship or degree will help them.