[OP-ED]: What happens when you pay entrepreneurial teenagers $100,000 to not go to college?
In 2011, billionaire Peter Thiel made headlines when he announced that he would pay 20 teenagers $100,000 each to drop out or delay college and start businesses in biotechnology, finance, energy and education.
Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, a venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook, wanted to underscore his belief that college costs too much, isn’t as intellectually rigorous as it once was, and leaves recent grads burdened with student loans that keep them from taking the entrepreneurial risks needed to spur the economy.
All these years later, Wall Street Journal reporter Alexandra Wolfe tells us how it all panned out for the first class of “Thiel Fellows” in her deliciously detailed book “Valley of the Gods: A Silicon Valley Story.”
The tome is great fun as Wolfe delves into the excesses of a cash-rich sub-society of uber-nerds who turn to polyamorous household configurations, obsessions with scientific quests for eternal youth and bizarre nutritional regimens to fit in. “You had to be weird in some specifically difficult way that made you more productive at the same time.”
But her book centers on the story of one of the fellows, John Burnham, a precocious child who preferred reading Aristotle and Plato to attending to anything his schoolteachers had to say. His big dream was to mine asteroids and, after pitching Thiel, he got his grant and moved to California to get started on monetizing his idea.
By fall 2012, Burnham was a little bored, a little dispirited, a little homesick and, ironically, reading the novels he would’ve been assigned by a college literature professor and jostling to get inside a Stanford University lecture hall to hear Thiel speak on the topic of “how to build the future.”
At age 21, in 2014, Burnham was well into the disillusionment phase of his grand experiment.
“As he struggled to launch Urbit, a personal server platform,” Wolfe writes, “he was often frustrated with how little the valley’s hierarchy valued the actual people who built the products or used them. Whether it was due in part to the convoluted nature of his company, which neither he nor his co-founder, Curtis Yarvin, could seem to explain in English, Burnham was feeling more and more detached. He felt like his reason for being out there was to build a company that would get a mythical high valuation, which he didn’t think would come from anything like his own merit or character. And what did Silicon Valley think character was, anyway? Were they even aware of it?”
I’m not giving much away by telling you that Burnham eventually left Silicon Valley for college, seeking to study in an effort to find meaning and spirituality in life.
In this respect, it could be said that, far from failing at “starting up,” Burnham learned the types of truths that led him to pursue the heart of what college used to mean -- education for the mind, as opposed to job training.
Which leads us to the conclusion of this experiment: Giving kids cash and the freedom to create their own company can yield a whole crop of successful business owners, but it isn’t necessarily scalable.
For everyone else finishing high school -- whether they have an offbeat dream or no idea of what they want to do in life -- there has to be something other than immediate matriculation into college or a job at a fast-food joint.
In a society where hiring managers generally won’t even look at someone who doesn’t have a degree, we insist that 17- and 18-year-olds gamble tens of thousands of dollars on a course of study designed primarily to meet the entry-level requirements of a white-collar job.
This system is already failing. Only 66 percent of high school graduates go on to college and only 60 percent of those who seek a degree at a four-year institution graduate within six years.
We should be questioning the wisdom of having few viable alternatives for kids who simply aren’t ready for or interested in college.
Wolfe concludes that the fellowships “made people question the establishment, and while the program may have come at a time that was too early for there to be an existing framework for kids who decided to skip school, what it did do was challenge political correctness and fly in the face of what academic institutions had previously made mandatory.”
Now that the status quo has been challenged, however, we must actually change it.