Coming late to this story, but it still seems worth discussing. Frankly, I’m not sure whether to root for an Eph to win one of Peter Thiel’s “20 Under 20” fellowships:

The Thiel Foundation will award 20 people under 20 years old cash grants of $100,000 to further their innovative scientific and technical ideas. In addition, over a two year period, Peter Thiel’s network of tech entrepreneurs and philanthropists—drawn from PayPal, Facebook, Palantir Technologies, Founders Fund, the Singularity Institute, and others—will teach the recipients about creating disruptive technologies and offer mentorship, employment opportunities, support, and training.

Thiel, the venture capitalist who Wallace Langham played in The Social Network (he’s the guy who makes the investment on the same day that Andrew Garfield’s CFO character freezes Facebook’s bank account), is explicitly interested in finding entrepreneurs interested in dropping out of college to pursue their dreams:

“Our world needs more breakthrough technologies,” said Thiel. “From Facebook to SpaceX to Halcyon Molecular, some of the world’s most transformational technologies were created by people who stopped out of school because they had ideas that couldn’t wait until graduation. This fellowship will encourage the most brilliant and promising young people not to wait on their ideas, either. The Thiel Fellows will change the world and call it a senior thesis.”

In a recent interview, Thiel elaborated on his views on higher education and the thoughts behind the fellowship:

I would say that for people who are starting college or thinking of going to college or graduate school, the exercise that’s probably very valuable to go through is to think of what the teleology of education is, what the purpose of it is, where it is going. When I look back on my own education — I went to Stanford undergrad and law school, I went straight through, graduating from law school at 24 — I don’t have any big regrets about doing it. The costs have gone up way more, so it’s trickier now. But if I had to do something over, I would try to think about it a lot more than I did at the time. Paradoxically, education has become a way to avoid thinking about your future. Instead of thinking about your future, you go to school and defer thinking about your life.

There are a lot of different things that could be done on a policy level. We should have less government subsidy of college loans. We should be getting rid of government guarantees for student loans — that’s one of the main reasons these things get underwritten. What we have going on with Sallie Mae is very analogous to the Fannie Mae problem with housing. We should get rid of educational credentials as a legitimate hiring criterion for the government. That’s what I’d start with…

The specific context of the Thiel Fellowship is somewhat anathetical to becoming an entrepreneur — taking risks, thinking about what you want to do, not having a tremendous amount of debt. It’s mostly about entrepreneurship and getting people to create something new. The place where we can help people the most in that respect are technology-venture companies. We certainly would be open to people doing entrepreneurial ventures that are not technology-related, or even not-for-profit things. The main goal is to identify very talented people who could do a lot better without college than with college. As a society, we should not be waiting for them to get a college degree and be burdened down with enormous debt to the point where they can no longer take any risk.

As a society, we do not take enough risk. And high debt is very inimical to risk-taking, which is an extremely important component of progress. Beyond the 20 people that are going to be chosen for the fellowship, we hope it will encourage a broader conversation about whether college makes sense or not. This is where the elite bias comes in. The elitist view in the U.S. is that even if people concede that college is not for education, the caveat will be that, well, surely it’s for all the smart people. What we want to suggest is that there are some very smart and very talented people who don’t need college.

In a way, Thiel is grappling with the same risk-aversion problem as Professor Burger & co. in developing the Gaudino Option. He acknowledges that the solution — taking the risk out of the activity he wants to encourage — may counterproductively treat the symptom, rather than the problem itself. But it’s a heck of an interesting idea. Will there be any Williams students who apply?

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