On Wednesday, Peter Thiel, the libertarian billionaire who founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, announced the first class of his "Thiel Fellows." The 24 overachievers, all under the age of 20 and in possession of ridiculously impressive resumes (MIT at 14, Stanford Ph.D at 19), will receive $100,000 each to drop out of college for two years and pursue "innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow." Given the great expense of a college education — and the fact that tech stars like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates are all dropouts — does it make sense to encourage exceptional young people to forget the ivory tower and head to Silicon Valley?
No, there are a lot of benefits to a college degree: "College dropout success stories are still a rarity," says Sean Ludwig at VentureBeat. Sure, a college education comes at a great cost, but it also comes with great benefits. It helps students become more well-rounded, and gets them the credentials many employers require. Plus, school is "an incredible networking hub that connects and rewards people long after the debts are paid off."
"Peter Thiel pays kids $100K to drop out of college"
And college is worth it financially, too: According to a recent Georgetown University study on the value of college, "Thiel's assumptions are way off base," says Adam Clark Estes in The Atlantic. The study showed that earning potential for college grads varies greatly, depending on what they major in, but ultimately a college education "is an investment that, on average, pays off big dividends across the board."
"Peter Thiel bets $2.4 million against the value of a college degree"
But for a tiny minority, dropping out makes sense: The criticisms of Thiel's program are "just plain stupid," says Razib Khan at Discover. There are a few very exceptional people — those who will change civilization — who have nothing substantive to gain from college. Even if these Thiel fellows don't change the world, Thiel should still be applauded for sending the message "that there is social and cultural value in being an oddball who doesn't aspire to be a prominent and licensed professional, let alone a banker at Goldman Sachs."
"Let a thousand Thiel fellows bloom!"
Besides, they can always go back to school: Thiel's "initiative may be less controversial than the headlines suggest," says M.B. in The Economist. "With luck, some of the 24 under 20 will follow in the footsteps of other notable stop-outs such as Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg." But if they don't, they can always return to school and get a college degree.
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