Synthetic biology. Consumer robotics. Space colonization. “Unlearning.” These are the creative playgrounds of now and great hopes of tomorrow, and they’re in the hands of a few teenagers with a combined SAT score of infinity.
Entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s idea of nurturing that genius doesn’t involve college. Arguing that higher education has become a “default,” the PayPal co-founder and early investor in Facebook launched his foundation’s 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship last week. Due to the volume of impressive applicants (more than 400 across the world), 24 honorees were given two-year, $100,000 fellowships on the condition that they eschew or “stop out” of colleges such as MIT and Yale to pursue enterprise in areas ranging from biotech and energy to economics.
A Stanford graduate and sometime professor, Thiel is not the first to slap higher education in the face. Debate has been raging for years about the exploding costs and lack of connection to the evolving marketplace, but few have stolen the best and brightest from the pot with so much ceremony.
“I believe you have a bubble whenever you have something that’s overvalued and intensely believed,” Thiel said in a recent Bits blog for the New York Times. “In education, you have this clear price escalation without incredible improvement in the product. At the same time you have this incredible intensity of belief that this is what people have to do.”
Outside the so-called education bubble, the inaugural fellows will learn the ropes from Thiel’s professional network. It’s all about mentorship and creative collaboration fostering brilliant ideas (kinda like college) and helping “young people everywhere realize that you don’t need credentials to launch a company that disrupts the status quo.”
By the same logic, you don’t need a Thiel Fellowship either. If you can program a computer at age 9 or found a solar startup at 19, chances are you’re going to be successful no matter where you plug in your brain. When Thiel thinks of a way to tap the potential of public school kids failing out of algebra, then I’ll be impressed. I might even learn something.