Media Wrongly Suggest Thiel Fellowships Threaten College Education

Originally posted by Yuval Bar-Or on Jan 14, 2012  

The Thiel Foundation is currently processing hundreds of applications for its second class of Thiel Fellowships. Each of twenty winners will receive a $100,000 grant to pursue an entrepreneurial venture and must in turn agree to skip college for at least two years. Some in the media suggest Peter Thiel is using his Fellowships to brazenly challenge and undermine mainstream college education. But they are wrong.

Mr. Thiel has been widely quoted stating his belief that college education is the next bubble. According to Mr. Thiel, students are paying far too much for education and taking on too much debt given the value they are receiving in return. Furthermore, the colleges they are paying all that money to have gotten in the business of credentialing instead of educating, and this threatens to undermine innovation in the United States.

Lots of people have concerns about the declining quality and increasing costs of education. Mr. Thiel’s comments stand out because he is an outspoken libertarian billionaire who has repeatedly put his money where his mouth is. A partner at the Founders Fund, Mr. Thiel was a co-founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook. Notably, he is a young entrepreneur on the prowl for disruptive technologies. And this is perhaps why the media has piled on, with CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo interviewing Mr. Thiel on December 15, 2011 under the headline “Thiel’s Campaign Against College” and Forbes’ Brian Caulfield stating that the Fellowships are a “jab to the kidneys of the higher education industry.”

I happen to agree with Mr. Thiel that college tuition costs too much and that credentialing is overshadowing education. And we have been suffering from stagnation in the areas of biotechnology and energy innovation, among others. I should clarify that my concern is with the hype around the Fellowships’ potential impact on college education—not the Fellowships themselves. I am also not taking a position on Mr. Thiel’s libertarian views, which have been widely reported and criticized. Setting aside questions about Mr. Thiel’s motives for creating the Fellowships, his gesture is a generous one, and the experience recipients will gain over the course of two years will likely prove quite meaningful for them.

The Fellowships are not a threat to the traditional college education because in themselves they represent less than a drop in the bucket. Fellowships are awarded to 20 students under the age of 20 each year. Compare this to the over 1.5 million students who enroll in or graduate from America’s colleges annually. Convincing 20 students to delay, or drop out of, college, is an insignificant number.

20 under 20 is not a solution to what ails colleges and our education system. It is at most a small scale (but well-hyped) protest. If Mr. Thiel wants to pop the education bubble he’s going to need something scalable. As he himself admitted to George Packer in the New Yorker on November 28, 2011, he wanted to create a university but dropped the idea. He has also openly acknowledged that any of the Fellowship recipients are welcome to pursue or return to college after spending two years on their venture. None of this amounts to a credible attack on the existing system of education.

In much the same way that the potential impact of the Fellowships on education has been misrepresented by the media, the Fellowships’ ultimate success or failure will likely be misinterpreted. Many will measure their success based on the Fellows’ commercial achievements. If any of the Fellows do realize significant success the media will likely proclaim that Thiel has slain the education bubble. The media will have missed the mark because a handful of commercial successes does nothing to fix an educational system tasked with the education of millions. If none of the Fellows hit it big (and the odds are against most of them statistically), there are those who will declare that Thiel’s challenge to the established college order has failed. They too will have missed the point. The correct measure in the education context is not whether the Fellows become billionaires but rather whether they learn and grow. Two years of intense experience working on exciting projects alongside like-minded, enthusiastic people will undoubtedly be a meaningful educational opportunity. Fellows don’t need to become wealthy to have spent their two years well. In this sense the Thiel Fellowships are a slam dunk—a unique opportunity for twenty intelligent and motivated youngsters to learn and grow.

But if Mr. Thiel wants to take a serious swipe at the educational establishment (and it’s not clear that this is his intent)—if he really wants a viable shot at bursting the education or credential bubble, he’s going to need something scalable: an approach that provides a meaningful learning opportunity for 20,000—not just for 20. And if he does seek to bring some disruptive technology to bear on education, he’s going to have to make sure it has surgical precision. This is because the academic community serves several crucial and interrelated functions for society which we don’t want disrupted.

The first of these functions, and the subject of this article, is education. Many agree that the current process is inefficient, outrageously expensive, subject to grade inflation, and possible lack of commitment by administrators and faculty focused more on research, debates about property rights, cost-cutting, the erosion of tenure, etc. (I discuss these in the book “Is a PhD for Me? Life in the Ivory Tower”). For all these reasons and others we do want education constructively “disrupted.” But we don’t want this disruption to lead to unintended consequences for the following two functions:

  1. Maintaining the integrity of the scientific method. Ensuring that scientific experimentation is valid and reliable and that research results are interpreted honestly and not abused by hidden or not so hidden agendas of corporations or politicians.
  2. Promoting freedom of expression. For centuries, universities have been a platform and a battleground for those wishing to speak freely and challenge the established order. Dissident professors and rebellious students have significantly shaped the world. The point of the tenure system, under which a tenured professor cannot be fired, is to protect academicians from political machination and to ensure that they have the freedom to express themselves. This is a cornerstone of the democratic system, alongside aggressive journalism and an independent judiciary.

There is little doubt that the traditional model of college education, which has been in effect for hundreds of years, requires updating for the 21st century. Because this subject is so crucial to development of future innovators, managers and leaders, we must do it properly. Hyping a very focused initiative that applies to a mere 20 people distracts us from the more thoughtful and comprehensive planning that is really needed to make lasting and meaningful change.

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