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Forgoing College to Pursue Dreams (nytimes.com)
26 points by zone411 on Sept 15, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 31 comments

I always find it ironic that Thiel, who followed one of the most risk-averse career tracks possible after high school (top undergrad + top law school + top law firm = guaranteed six-figure salary), is so whole-heartedly encouraging kids to not follow in his footsteps.

I question what the risk-weighted expected return for these kids ends up being, and how that compares to more traditional career paths. Thiel himself at least had the fallback option of a traditional career in case his entrepreneurial aspirations didn't work out. It looks like most of these kids already have a top college acceptance in had before accepting Thiel's fellowship, which gives them a backup option in the very likely scenario their "dreams" don't pan out. For kids who didn't have such backup options, I'd really question the rationality of pursing something like this.

I do question the broader movement to push kids from college to startups. I had the option of dropping out during college to work for a startup, and in retrospect I'm tremendously thankful I didn't take the opportunity. There is just so much risk of permanently prejudicing yourself for traditional types of work, and it's just a fact of life that very few startups are going to be successful to the point that it would justify forgoing those other opportunities.

The cynic in me is inclined to believe that the only ones who really benefit from this push towards startups, in the expected return sense, are the VCs. The VCs can hedge their risk between a number of startups to maximize their expected return. An individual startup founder cannot do that. An individual startup founder who is 19, fresh out of college, and has no safety net can do even less to minimize his risk, and has a lot to lose in the likely event that he fails.

A lot to lose, like what? At most they're out a year or two of their time, when they're young. There's nothing to stop you from going back to college at 22.

Easier said than done. There's a lot more at play in their lives than "go to college again" and "don't go to college again."

I think the kids who get straight A's and get accepted to Princeton before doing Thiel's thing will be fine. What I'm worried about are the kids who hear Thiel talk about startups in lieu of college and spend high school hacking instead of taking AP classes and keeping up their grades. Colleges and graduate schools are very unforgiving about stuff like that.

First: spending high school hacking is not mutually exclusive with taking AP classes and getting good grades. Second: a lot of top colleges would actually be impressed with someone who had the initiative to pursue their own projects and have something unique to talk about in the application. So I don't think you need to worry too much about those kids.

It's so much easier to say that when it isn't your life you are talking about.

I started college when I was 20, having spent an extra year in high school (startup high school, they didn't have a graduating class the year I was supposed to graduate) and then worked at a dot-com run exclusively by teenagers for a year. Or actually, I worked at a dot-com run exclusively by teenagers for 3 months, then our funding got pulled and I worked as a software engineer for the parent company for 3 months, then the parent company realized their was no money in its primary line of business and pivoted to a completely different idea, then I continued working for them for another 6 months.

Had I not done that, I probably would've stayed a physics major in college, done well, gone to physics grad school, and then realized I hated it when I was around 26 and suddenly ended up with no experience doing anything else and no clue what I wanted to do, a far worse outcome.

I think that there is, in general, far too much fear in contemporary American culture. Fear that if you don't do everything perfectly and don't follow the sequence laid out as a "safe" career track, you will end up screwed for life. Yes, if you end up following your own path, you will get burnt by bad decisions at time, and you'll have to scramble to fix them, and some opportunities will close themselves off to you because you didn't pursue them. But you will also gain practice & confidence in dealing with those bad decisions, and learn how to fix them and that there will be other opportunities that open themselves up to you because you screwed up with what you thought you wanted.

I think you're kind of implicitly arguing as if there's some sort of guaranteed path available to somebody against which they can compare their lives. There isn't, and there never was. We hear more kvetching about it today because it can punch a much larger hole in your net worth via loans, but dropping out of two years of college with nothing in your hands is not a new phenomenon. You have to put your chips down somewhere, and it is irreducibly a gamble. Presumably these people putting off college for a year or two are going to go do something; should they manage to completely fritter that year or two away with absolutely nothing to show for it, it's probably not fair to blame that on "not going to college".

The article does cover the points in your second paragraph, but not until the very end.

It looks like most of these kids already have a top college acceptance in had before accepting Thiel's fellowship, which gives them a backup option in the very likely scenario their "dreams" don't pan out.

--The double-Irony is that you think the kid has a "fall back option" just because of his letter of acceptance. =D

Part of thiel's critique is that education is mis-priced. That the signalling is most of the value. He's also speaking from experience, having made money outside the content area of his training. So its not irrational or self centered of him to be saying: the content is not the value of a degree, per se. If you believe that, looking at other "content" to substiture or complement the "signalling" makes sense.

I mean that they have a fall back in the sense that they can always just defer their acceptance or re-enroll (if they dropped out) if their plans don't pan out. Colleges are generally pretty forgiving about things like that.

I'd be surprised if the fellowship terms didn't include something about irrevocably turning down the acceptance and officially leaving. (Which of course is not to say that they couldn't re-apply - I rather suspect they'll have a better shot the second time!)

The last few paragraphs of the article really brought an interesting light onto the subject. Most of the people I know who left college to start a business or to work somewhere in Silicon Valley had a remarkably privileged upbringing. They never had the worries about the financial or temporal investment into an education or any experience taking risks. I'm not trying to berate people who drop out of college for these reasons, but it's an important factor to keep in mind when truly analyzing their success.

While there is a <lot> of truth in this statement, one notable exception is worth mentioning: steve jobs. who apparently quit school in part because he thought college was too much for his familiy to pay for.

But I think you are more right than wrong in your observation. There are a lot of soft social skills and such that you need for business that could be learned in school. May not be news to some depending on there background and natural talents, etc.

Jobs grew up in Silicon Valley, and had connections to people in the industry that helped in the beginning.

Just because you can get into Princeton doesn't mean it's a good idea to pay to go.

Full scholarship? Go

Parents paying for everything? Go

Otherwise, you really need to consider an in-state school, and living at home. You work your ass off to be in the top percentile of students (obviously not a global solution), finish in 3 years, and get a full fellowship for grad school to a place like Princeton.

That's how we did it back in the day anyways.

Startup Idea

You only sell the University Certification, no courses, no teachers, no buildings, no Office of Strategic Management.

You only have incredibly hard tests that only 5% of the population can pass. They learn on their own. You guarantee that they are amazingly smart, or will pay their severance.

While elite schools like Princeton have very attractive financial aid packages, even if they didn't, the connections you'll make as an undergrad there are well worth the price of admission. It's not just the education you're paying for.

If you replace Princeton with another expensive private school that's not a feeder system for America's upper class, I completely agree with your point.

According to the article, one of the main advantages of Thiel's program is the contacts they make. So how different is it from the Ivy League?

The comment I replied to suggested that an in-state school followed by grad school at Princeton would be a better alternative than paying for an undergrad degree at Princeton. I was responding to that.

Interesting idea. Similar to what the CFA designation does in the world of finance. A lot of college programs actually tailor their coursework to prepare you for the exams, which have a high failure rate.

I would say Princeton is one of the few schools worth paying for. It will make it much easier to enter certain careers/companies and don't forget about the alumni network that it brings along.

Thiel Fellowship draws stellar applicants who I suspect would be successful, college or not. I do wish more regular American high school students got the opportunity to do something similar, i.e., put off college for two years to work and explore passion. I won't go as far as to say college is a waste of time (it's still the most sure-fire route out of poverty for example). But a lot of people go at 18 because it's the next step and end up floundering. I believe we'd get a better return on higher education in the US if there were more regular and accepted opportunities for students to work for a year or two, then decide if college is the right next step.

> I believe we'd get a better return on higher education in the US if there were more regular and accepted opportunities for students to work for a year or two, then decide if college is the right next step.

For once the problem isn't with the colleges. Colleges, by and large, don't care how many years you took off between high school and college as long as you bring the right GPA and SAT scores to the table. At colleges that care about more than that (Harvard, etc) having interesting experience after high school can only help your admissions chances.

The problem is social acceptance. Too many parents have this silly notion that if a kid doesn't go immediately to college, he'll spend life as a barista. My wife studied in Europe for a year after high school, and she absolutely wants our kids to do something similar. She said that living independently for a year really allowed her to focus on school in a way she could not have otherwise.

Rather than looking at traditional 'smarts', I would look at personality factors to assess if someone of college age should drop out - their levels of entrepreneurism, emotional intelligence, communication and persuasion skills, resilience, and sheer grit and determination. These traits can be found in people from any background, and will help them go the distance.

I'm so sick of the continuing Peter Thiel hypefest. I don't like college either but his 20 for 20 program is just some ridiculous bullshit.

College was supposed to prepare me to pursue my dreams.

As someone said, these are bright people and will probably make it, if not they can still go back to college.

But for 99.99% of "smart people," college is probably the best bet. Even if you had a few $million, that can go very easily over the course of decades with a few bad investment decisions, medical bills or whatever. A safe job usually provides a steady income for decades and decades.

Thiel is set for life and then some, but even if he loses the money he has a top college education to fall back on. So it's easy to make experiments with other people's lives.

No matter what, do not expect to work for Thiel's funds without a degree and from a top college http://articles.businessinsider.com/2012-05-14/wall_street/3...

> But for 99.99% of "smart people," college is probably the best bet.

Perhaps not. In the USA: Of the top 1% earners, 49% have a postgraduate education[1]. From what I could find, There are 600,000 doctors and 11,000,000 lawyers in the USA which could be said to cover the vast majority of the 49% group.

Of the remaining 51%, 23% have a college degree leaving 27% without a college education. Unless you are looking at very specific fields, it seems you are slightly better off without a degree at all if you are striving for financial success.

If your sights are not set so high, and you're happy with just a regular job: Only 30% of the population have a college degree. That means that 60% (discounted 10% to account for unemployment, which isn't even fair as many college graduates are unemployed) of the population are doing just fine without one.

With that said, you should still go to college. It is an amazing experience that comes with countless positives. Whatever happens in your future career with respect to said education shouldn't even be a consideration.

[1] http://www.gallup.com/poll/151310/u.s.-republican-not-conser...

> Of the remaining 51%, 23% have a college degree leaving 27% without a college education.

Consider that some individuals who are members of households in the top one percent of income earners and have not completed a four year college degree will have married a high income earner who has completed a college or postgraduate education.

Sure, but it goes the other way too. Melinda Gates comes to mind as a prominent example. She has a degree, but Bill, who made the family's fortune, does not.

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