What Should We Make of Peter Thiel’s “20 Under 20” Education Program?

Posted on Jun 1, 2011 | 72 comments

What Should We Make of Peter Thiel’s “20 Under 20” Education Program?

Several people have been asking me to weigh in publicly on the “20 under 20” initiative announced by Peter Thiel in which he will award up to $100,000 to 20 people under the age of 20 who agree immediately to pursue entrepreneurship (the implication of which is that they’d drop out of university to do so).

Thiel and friends will also agree to mentor these young entrepreneurs. Here is their inaugural class.

So is this a good idea? My 2 cents:

1. This is a worthy goal and I applaud Peter Thiel
We need to take some risks in education and in innovation in this country so anybody that it trying to break through the traditional mold and try to create a new model ought to be lauded, not attacked. We have a severe shortage of talented engineers in this country, for example, and science doesn’t seem to garner as much attention & focus in the US as it does in some other countries. As a country we need to address this.

Read the opening quote from his initial press release on the program …

“Warning that America’s long term economic prospects are uncertain without radical innovation in technology, Peter Thiel this week launched the Thiel Fellowship to foster the next generation of tech visionaries.”

That’s a goal I can get behind. And think about it – is it really that radical? He’s going to hand select a group of 20 very high potential individuals with really high IQs and presumably from prestigious universities and offer them not only fellowships but also the exact same kind of “social proof” that one gets from graduating from Harvard or working for McKinsey. Actually, they’ll get even more attention because this selection will put them in an even more exclusive peer group and will introduce them to even more connected mentors.

So I don’t mourn for their lost youth or their downside consequences if their businesses doesn’t succeed. In a way, they’ve already “made it.”

2. Do not try this at home
What worries me about “20 under 20” is not Peter Thiel but the potential for lesser-quality knock-offs. Let me give you an example. In the US we now have some very well established incubation programs run by high-caliber mentors including IdeaLab, yCombinator, TechStars, BetaWorks and Launchpad LA. Suddenly everybody wants to be an incubator. I get approached literally EVERY week by some new person with no real outstanding track record wanting to launch yet another incubator. You know how this ends.

So while “20 under 20” might encourage 5-10 similar initiatives I think the broader message isn’t necessarily the right one. Just because I think that it’s OK that a group of 20 Mensa candidates is hand selected to have access & guidance doesn’t mean it’s the right answer for the masses. It probably isn’t. When students drop out of a middle-tier university to join an also-ran copycat program of “20 under 20” and when their startups aren’t successful they will likely find themselves in employment no-man’s-land. That’s not wise. Especially if they have 1-2 year’s college debt accumulated.

3. The value of a college education
I am very passionate and on record about the value of education. Yet ironically it’s not always the classroom experience that provides all of the value. Going to college is about creating independence. It’s about discovering who you are as a human being. What you think. Whom your lifetime friends will be. It’s about exploration. Having fun. Trying all sorts of new things. Gaining new skills. Education is self discovery.

And I’m very on record as saying that I learned more about leadership from becoming president of my fraternity than I did in any classroom. I was prepared way more for business success in my political science classes than in my economics ones (I was a double major). In Poly Sci I learned critical thinking and writing. I also become interested in geopolitics, which led me to a life of wanting to travel and work in different locations. I subsequently lived abroad for 11 years in 5 countries and worked in 9 countries. That would never have come if I had been more single-minded at 18.

Single minded is good for some. Not for others. Actually, not for many. As humans we need empathy. We need to draw on multiple disciplines to make better decisions. We need to study humanities, religion, politics, biology, economics as well as computer science. We become more rounded individuals.

4. The challenges of a system that aims to educate all equally
I do struggle still with our college education system in the US. I’m not sure how much sense it makes to be graduated from a fourth-tier university with an esoteric major and being unprepared for the workforce ahead. I somehow think a system that goes back to a model of “apprenticeships” or “trade guilds” might churn out people more ready for the workforce. But the other problem is equally important – not graduating students starting life with large amounts of debt. If you’re graduating without the perfect credentials and without the right skills for employment yet you have debt accumulated over 4-5 years you’re already starting life on the wrong foot. I worry that we create people who start their careers as indentured servants.

So while college needs to be an option for all, there has to be a middle ground between a 4-year university degree and somebody only employable in a low-income job. This is where training programs come into play. Maybe 2 years of computer training would suit some people better than 4 years of book study? Maybe off-shoring could become more on-shoring and helping drum up employment in places like Detroit.

5. Would I ever encourage anybody to drop out of his or her education?
99.9% of the time where people ask whether I think they ought to stay in school the answer is “yes.” If I’m counseling young people I often coach them to consider getting degrees that will be practical for becoming more employable when they graduate. But stay in school. Experience life. Discover who you are. Get that piece of paper that shows the workforce that you have a degree of discipline to start and finish something.

But the truth is that there ARE outliers and I think that in my gut I feel the same way I image Peter does. I’ll give you a real world example. A friend of mine is currently pursuing a joint JD/MBA at Stanford. He graduated from Harvard undergrad. He’s already built several tech/media businesses and I know he is talented enough to do something significant in life – whatever he chooses. He is torn between finishing his degrees and starting his next entrepreneurial endeavor 3 years earlier (he is finished with year 1 of 4). He doesn’t want to practice law. What I said to him was,

“You’ve already got the credentials for success. You have the Harvard undergrad. You built a company at 22. You were accepted to Stanford Law School AND Stanford Graduate School of Business. That’s enough. Anything else you do in life you will always have that calling card. Being a graduate of SLS or Stanford GSB won’t give you anything else that you don’t already have. You’re not looking to practice law. You don’t need a network.

You’re more entrepreneurial than 99% of people in any b-school class. You have a stated goal of building your company. You’re not going to learn anything in that classroom that you wouldn’t learn better by doing at your next company. You have no debts to pay off. Why wouldn’t you start now?”

6. And finally …
I don’t give a shit whether you were graduated from college or not. If you’re excellent at what you do (coding, sales, marketing, leadership) and you can demonstrate that, I really don’t care if you went to or dropped out of college. At least not as an entrepreneur. Others might care so you should take that into consideration. I personally don’t. And I can attest to this because one of my leading developers at both of my startups never finished college. It never affected him when it was time to check in his code and I’d hire him again in a second.

Image courtesy of Fotolia

  • http://www.geekatsea.com Kirill Zubovsky

    Good thoughts, as always. I agree that Thiel’s program is going to attract the best of the best, and certainly isn’t a worry. Even if 10 unsuccessful copy-cats pop up, they are likely to ruin a year or two for another 200+ students, which is once again, not a big worry. All these kids could go back to school in no time.

    University education has definitely served me well, but I do wish somebody had told me one very important thing before I started. In my opinion, I either should had tried to be the #1 student, or focus all my time on all the extra curricular that I wanted to do. Instead I fall into a trap of not being the top student because I just simply didn’t care, and yet being ranked high-enough to continue trying.

    In retrospect, if I had an option to spend a year and a 100K to explore my potential w/out worrying about grades, it would’ve been very helpful. But, when I was 18 I wasn’t interesting enough to get into the program =)p.s. Not to self promote, but we both wrote about Education today. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/mvg210 Mike Gnanakone

    Thanks for the post Mark, I agree with the part about being an apprentice in a field you would like to work in. I would love to get an internship at This Week In, my major is film and I want to be part of the restructure of the way we consume media. Are there any internships/entry level jobs available at This Week in?

    Also, whats up with Launchpad LA? I want to pitch my company to you!

  • http://www.jkatzur.tumblr.com Jon Katzur

    Great post! As a recent grad, I really empathize with your points. I know many people struggling to find jobs or who are worried by debt. I also rue the flaws of much of my in-classroom education. But, the environment and programs I was in fostered and nurtured my passion for entrepreneurship from a distant thought to a career goal. If for nothing else, that made it worth it. I also am lucky (or hardworking?) to have studied technical majors learning some real skills and to graduate with no debt due to scholarships and parental support. 

    Also- if you look at the incredible list of Thiel fellows you can tell that the exceptional group has tons of experience with independent work already. A few seem to have already graduated college. One of the other huge benefits of college to most students is a soft transition from the highly structured world of a high school student to the incredibly unstructured world of life. I know I needed it and grew from this transition period. Like you said, I would be very worried people not as exceptionally independent at the “knock-off” Thiel programs could get lost at sea in a sudden shift to an unstructured world. 

    But, like you said, it’s great to see people trying for true innovation in education- it’s about time!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I agree with what you’re saying. I had no guidance at all coming in. My dad did undergrad in South America and came to the US for med school. So he had no clue what to tell me. I got lucky in that I focused a lot of work & extra-curricular. I did fine on grades but I didn’t stress over them.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    LPLA finally moving forward. Details very soon. re: internship – might be more practical for you to check out Maker Studios.

    and/or help us with multimedia at this year’s Launchpad LA.

  • http://www.qayto.com Ryan G. Campbell

    Great post as always. I have to agree with you and your assessment of taking things overboard such as the “incubator explosion” that is going on. It is ridiculous how many of these incubators who are run by people with no track records have sprung up. Its sad. And I am scared to think it may happen again with this 20 under 20 model  because I really believe that these kids Thiel has found are going to be incredibly successful.

    As for higher education, I just graduated 3 weeks ago. I think you certainly learn more about who you are as a person than anything you do in the classroom. Nothing I learned in the classroom compared to what I have been learning trying to be an entrepreneur. But I know that I wouldn’t be who I was today without going through that experience.  And there is a lot of value to that. I think the answer to the education question then certainly is “why do we have this one size fits all model?” It obviously broken. Im curious what your thoughts are about what you called “on shoring”?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Building pockets of deep tech strengths in places like Detroit where labor is cheaper and unemployment is high. Skills won’t be as high as Silicon Valley but can doing lower end computing tasks. Win/win.

  • Anonymous

    Well, I applaud your lack of interest in someone’s college career, but that view is not shared by 99% of the corporate world, and a surprising amount of the mid-tier business world.

    I work at a large company (now) because my wife told me, pregnant with our third child (now 10!), that if I didn’t get a job with a regular paycheck and healthcare that she’d kill me.  She disputes the “kill me” part, but I know what I heard.

    Anyway, I got that job, in part, because I had the college degree required to get past the gatekeepers.   So I guess the question is: what value is “plan B” for when you need a job and can’t create one out of an idea?

    I worked my way through college, so I’ve tried to set my kids up to go to a low cost NC state school and graduate in 4 years with a good liberal arts degree.   That, I hope, provides them with a set of backup options.

    In the meantime, they’ve seen their mom launch a biotech startup and their dad do the startup thing as well.  So they’ll have social context to do that if they want.


    PS – If some dude offered my oldest son money to not go to college I’d be torn between applauding the option and smacking the guy.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Mr_RamV RamVaz

    I agree. I liked the indentured servant analogy.  There was a well done movie put out recently by the National Inflation Association on this topic called College Conspiracy.  The education industry definitely needs to be shaken up.

  • Anonymous

    I am waiting for the “23 under 32” program…

    Very interesting article, as always.

  • http://analytikainc.com/blog/ John R. Sedivy

    People will always take heat for doing something different, that is the downside of innovation. However the naysayers become champions of your cause over time. I suspect that Peter Thiel’s program will be no different. I applaud him for his courage to do something different and be a part of the solution. If it were easy everyone would do it.

    “We need to draw on multiple disciplines to make better decisions.” Absolutely. I believe that this will be the crux of innovation, both presently and in the future. Those with the unique ability to combine seemingly disconnected items in a novel way that satisfies a market need will tap into this.

    Concerning college education – I share your concerns. Although I would not necessarily penalize someone for not having it, it certainly doesn’t hurt. Similar to you I view it as more of an indication of an individual’s discipline and commitment to finishing something. Of course there is more than one way to the top and sometimes a trip to university provides another opportunity which was unknown prior to. In my opinion without the degree someone needs to show something else, excellence in their domain, building a business, etc. – all of which may have been accomplished during the college years, or in lieu of  college.

  • Anonymous

    Good post, Mark. As a first generation American, I share a somewhat different approach.  Having immigrated to the United States at an early age, I knew what it took to 1) get me here 2) get myself through college 3) prove that I had what it takes to succeed in the corporate world, just like anyone else. From my experiences, and I presume I am not alone here, I feel there needs to be a radical change in what we qualify as “formal” education. I still wonder why those two have to be mutually exclusive (i.e. getting funding/mentorship, etc to start a business and “remaining” in school)?

    I had the opportunity to “drop” out of school to do some cool things with a tech startup at the time, but I decided to pursue them both.  However, since I had excellent grades, college was my primary focus. We succeeded as one of the most successful ISPs in Dallas back then, with a nice exit. I continued on with both “experiences” after this, and in the end, I completed my degree with two full years of great working/business experience. It’s one of those “never quit” mantra we came to the United States with.

    My feeling is that these experiences should be part of gaining a “college education”. For instance, starting a real business can be part of a college program, so people won’t have to “quit” to do this. Like you said, I think the education system needs a shakeup, but I lean more towards changing the system from within –hopefully this will be a wake-up call for our colleges and universities.

    Lastly, a friend of mine who has a 14 year old programming “whiz” kid came to me with his concerns over his kid. His concern was that his kid is more interested in “building” things (he’s done more than a few iOS apps, etc), and may drop out of college. I told him that I don’t think those two are mutually exclusive. He could continue “building” things, and also go to college.

  • Jeffrey Zwelling

    Mark – I too have had mixed feelings about this initiative.  I’m reminded of a very talented engineer who worked for me at Crystal Dynamics who entered Berkeley at 14 and dropped out to make games for E.A. While he had his coveted Ferrari by the time he was 19, it was clear that he missed the “social” education that came from a hundred nights late in the dorm, success and failure with the opposite sex and the entire youth hostel experience.  There was a sadness in him that I tried to address but ultimately he couldn’t go back in time to relive these once in a lifetime experiences.   He started and sold a company and lives comfortably in Vegas but there’s a loneliness in him that I equate with not having the college experience.

    In contrast, I was a moderately successful entrepreneur while in college.  I wasn’t changing the world or even working within the VC system but I was finding customers, addressing pain points and generating cash. My grades suffered since I didn’t even go to class.  But I was definitely a part of the college social experience – living in the dorms, road trips and such.  I think both educations made me who I am today.

    When I read the bios of the 20 under 20 class, I can’t help but see the difference between their entrepreneurial aspirations to essentially change the word and create transformational technologies and mine which were to help Australian tourists get concert tickets in the US and provide manufacturers easier ways to reprice their products.  In that regard, I admire them and Peter’s initiative.  And in some ways, I think the cost of giving up a social education in exchange for the opportunity to truly change the world would be justified.  I just don’t know what the probabilities of success are given what I believe to be real and permanent costs.  

    That said, I’m not sure from reading these kids bios that any of them would ever go backpacking in Asia or have any “game” regardless – so perhaps the costs aren’t truly the same.  And instead of these kids either becoming investment bankers, corporate lawyers or online marketing experts, perhaps one of these kids will change the world.

  • http://www.virtuallybing.com Bing Chou

    If I could do it all again: I’d still go to college, but I’d ask the question “Should I go to college?” first. I went without asking because it was expected.  I’d have gotten a lot more out of the 4.5 years & $100k+.  I asked the question “Should I get a MBA?” and got much more out of the experience because I had a good idea of what I wanted other than an expensive piece of paper.

  • http://www.enterthegroup.com Sal Pellettieri

    University certainly seems to be more about theory than practice, but then the majority of professors are full time academics who care more about their research than student success in “life”. That being said I still think it’s important to get a degree because “life experiences” don’t translate that well into resumes. Furthermore, most employers want to see those letters behind your name.
    If think Thiel should be applauded for trying something different, but if these kids fail what will they have?

  • Ted kao

    The one thing I do like about Thiel’s program is that he is taking just the cream of the crop who always have the option of going back to an elite program. However, this doesn’t solve our many educational issues (not that it was meant to be) that we have today. One idea that I’d kicked around was to create a social network specifically for teachers, parents, and school officials. The development of the site should be collaborative in nature with all three groups to get buy in. The network would be used to provide mutual feedback on the performance of the teacher, student, and parents (yes, they are also responsible). This approach, hopefully, can keep out the politics of education and focus on the quality of the education for our kids. I was even thinking this can be structured as a non-profit and get engineering and financial help from leading tech companies in the valley as part of their social efforts. Just a thought. Would be curious how others view this.

  • Anonymous

    In response to the Vivek Wadhwa piece, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Take Education Advice from Peter Thiel” (http://tcrn.ch/h4baZE), Jim Gilliam (founder and CEO of NationBuilder), tweeted, “the best ‘path to success’ is not college, it’s finding what you love and doing it ASAP.”

    Jim is a very smart man and I believe that his advice is 100% on point.  In the last year of pursuing my passion (i.e., quiting my job to start a consumer internet company), I’ve learned more about the tech industry than I did in 4 years of undergrad at UCSD, 3 years of law school at UCLA, and 1 year of practicing Big Law in the Silicon Valley. 

    The problem, however, is that most people b/w 18-22 (and even later) have no idea what they’re passionate about from a career perspective — I know that I didn’t.  I was an excellent and ambitious student, but I didn’t truly know what I wanted to do with my life until I was a startup lawyer and I realized that I wanted to run a company — not advise them.  

    Despite the fact that I had mounds of law school/college debt (which is a separate and problematic issue facing young people), quiting my high paying and prestigious job was a no-brainer because I had found my calling.  I wouldn’t have found my calling, though, if it weren’t for the 8 years of school and work that I had already experienced.

    While I’d love to say that we should all find our passions at 18 and pursue them, I don’t think that’s practical advice for 99.9% of the population.  There will always be the Mark Zuckerbergs who find their calling in life at the age of 19 — but they’re the exception, not the rule.  

    Peter Thiel’s 20 Under 20 Program is wonderful for the outliers who found their calling and achieved success at a young age. For the rest of us, however, education is a great place to find ourselves, discover our passions, and learn about the world.  If we keep our eyes open along the journey, we’ll find the path we’re looking for.  As Randy Komisar says, “my life only makes sense in hindsight.” That has most definitely been the case for me.

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Great post.

    We do have the issue of degree, some out of ignorance assume the person with letters after name is all that and others who definately are not all that want to be held high because of those letters.  The truly smart one doesn’t give a shit if you address them as Doctor.

    The problem with the trade school in the US is two paths… 1)  the lower performers think it is supposed to be easy auto shop and 2) local interests can have a big influence where a ‘closed/isolated’ education can leave the youngster with not clue what’s going on elsewhere.

    The strategic point is by pushing at fringes like Thiel is doing moves talk from boring ‘public vs. private’ debate.  That way, in time better things can happen.

    Re the copycats, most colleges/universities have Business/Entrepreneurship incubator programs already…  danger is once again where the old money in the community and/or big employer has all the sway.  In time, though, they will need to evolve.

  • Anonymous

    “Never let your schooling interfere with your education.” Mark Twain

  • http://www.brekiri.com/ Greg4

    I like that Thiel is experimenting with different approaches. The value of a formal education is so difficult to assess that I like the more empirical approaches instead of just anecdotes from people on various sides of the issue. 

    But I don’t think Thiel’s results will be too applicable to the rest of the world because these kids are obviously outliers. Half of them have already finished undergrad degrees at the age of 15, it seems. (Exaggerating here.)

    People seem focused on disrupting the educational component of higher education, but someone should also think about the social component. How do you get the experience of hanging out with lots of smart people in a semi-organized environment without college? Or Mark’s fraternity experience? We probably need some kind of unofficial Outward Bound program for the 20 under 20 set. Let’s unbundle the college experience.

    I actually think the average student is often even more shortchanged by the educational system than the elite. At least if you go to Stanford or Harvard, you end up with a nice credential, some connections, and hopefully an education and the chance to spend four years around very motivated and stimulating peers. If you go to Podunk State, it’s a free pass to spend four years majoring in beer and avoiding reality (http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2246#comic). Not everyone does, of course, but it’s a problem. The middle of the curve probably needs an alternative to a college education more than the geniuses.

  • http://twitter.com/ilyasiyoob Ilyas Iyoob

    The over-emphasis on college degrees is a hindrance here in the US, but it is a much much bigger issue in places like India!

  • http://twitter.com/hongdquan Hong Quan

    Really spot on post Mark. The program got some bad press and  opposing sentiment for the wrong reasons. 20 Under 20 is definitely *not* for everyone. But the inaugural class is an amazing group of kids and I’m proud to be a Mentor. I can only speak for myself, and not the program, but your thinking mirrors much of my own when choosing to support the Thiel Foundation.

  • http://twitter.com/restum Richard Stump

    One point you make in your post that I think is critical  and often overlooked is the potential for apprenticeship and in particular in skilled trades.  In your town or city how many licensed and reputable plumbers, electricians or mechanics are under age 50?  Not many.  These guys are making serious money and and this should be an encouraged option as an alternative to a 4 year degree.  Their are even programs where the apprentice can get an associates degree along with this practical training.  Without these skilled trades, the cost of building, maintaining and repairing infrastructure is going to skyrocket.  I have worked with several of these independent tradesman and all of them have trouble finding someone willing to show up on, time, pass a drug test and eventually pass the licensing exam.  In many cases they would be willing to turn the business over to someone who could pass the test.  I believe this apprenticeship model can be expanded to programming as well. 

  • http://stevenmilstein.com Steven Milstein

    Here’s my $0.02 CDN…  Theil’s program fuels the startup romanticism. There needs to be something in between that targets entrepreneurs who can appreciate the amount of effort required to increase the odds of success. As Eric Ries @ericries says: “Most startups fail”.  I think Steve Blank @sgblank has the perfect solution teaching Entrepreneurship, as opposed to, MBAs. 

  • http://www.qayto.com Ryan G. Campbell

    Very Interesting idea. I Can think of plenty of cities where this could work very well.

  • Justin Seeley

    I agree completely about the idea of getting more out of college than just a degree, but I find it very interesting that there is not data to support Thiel’s theory. Almost everyone that can go to college, is capable of college, goes to college. Having just graduated a year ago I wonder what better things I could have done with all that money and 4 years.

    I think the media pours out all these statistics about college vs. non college life earnings and it scares people into going, but those statistics are out of scope. If you shut down every college in America and then compared the 18 year olds that were planning to enroll next fall with their peers, I would make the bet you would get similar income results.

    Also, if you looked at universities like businesses that produce knowledge, how has their been so much competition the last 20 years and so little effect. After graduating last may I thought “I could have learned 75% of that on the internet for free”. Sometimes I feel like universities are like 24 hour fitness’, but for knowledge instead of fitness. You pay the money to guilt you into learning. If only I was discipline at 19! 

  • http://www.geekatsea.com Kirill Zubovsky

    Mark, if you have a minute, I’d love to hear your opinion on my piece. In a nut shell, I am suggesting that the future of education will be all about efficiency, as opposed to quantity. As a nation, we should focus on way to prioritizing and focusing education around kid’s aspirations, instead of simply showering everyone with data. http://www.geekatsea.com/the-future-of-education-is-understanding

  • http://getabl.wordpress.com/ markslater

    I just finished reading the big short this weekend (its good). I came away thinking that the education system is ripe for a black swan event and we should all be scrambling to short it. 
    – the increase in costs of a degree is unsustainable. 
    – The return on investment is negative and falling fast (think jobless recovery and an entire generation of jobless graduates)
    – unschooling disruption (see my 2 year old with her ipad)

    these are all pretty tectonic indicator that can combine to create a black swan event. 

    I just dont see my kids being taught in any way the same fashion as we were. i really hope they aren’t. I think our current selection process is primitive and darwinian.

    i am all in for the big short, for the atomization of the current system, for rampant innovation. 

  • http://getabl.wordpress.com/ markslater

    I just finished reading the big short this weekend (its good). I came away thinking that the education system is ripe for a black swan event and we should all be scrambling to short it. 
    – the increase in costs of a degree is unsustainable. 
    – The return on investment is negative and falling fast (think jobless recovery and an entire generation of jobless graduates)
    – unschooling disruption (see my 2 year old with her ipad)

    these are all pretty tectonic indicator that can combine to create a black swan event. 

    I just dont see my kids being taught in any way the same fashion as we were. i really hope they aren’t. I think our current selection process is primitive and darwinian.

    i am all in for the big short, for the atomization of the current system, for rampant innovation. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/mvg210 Mike Gnanakone

    I would love to shoot some footage off Launchpad LA, I have and HD camera (Canon T2i) that would be perfect for it. 

    I sent my information to Maker Studios, hope to hear back from them soon. 

    Thanks Mark

  • Ahmed J

    Mark, it has always been a pleasure reading your blog. I agree that real-life experience is what matters in the end. College study is a gateway to the world and one learns the lessons when they get their face out of books and see how things happen in reality. I have seen people who were not good at studies but did remarkable things in their lives. So again, studies are important but the more important thing is to get real-life experiences. 

  • http://twitter.com/easyrevolver Ben Watkins

    I feel there are two issues worth distinguishing from the conversation of Education: 

    Signaling & Capability.
    On Signaling:

    When asked, most students and parents explain that employment is the primary reason for having an education. Everyone needs to eat, relies on income, etc. To best serve these life-goals we encourage education almost universally, and for good reason. A diploma is still one of the strongest signals to a potential employer that a candidate has Capability.

    Based on a diploma many employers assume that a prospective candidate is capable of many things, perhaps most importantly, that the individual has been been successfully conditioned to incrementally problem solve within an environment of hierarchical performance based accountability.Computer Scientists interested in Machine Learning might call this ‘Fitting Constraints.’
    The point, by the diploma and these signals, trust is extended. Relationships are formed. The diploma is often an important initial ingredient. But alas, this is mechanical and hardly new information.

    On Capability:
    Here is the latent issue. It’s true that there are typically very few people who make strong positive impact within their organization, moving the needle significantly, few who apply themselves to their work with the tenacity that makes for not just a successful career but a worthy mission in their life.These few are the people who thrive as they transform the organizations, communities and economies around them for the better. They have Capability which has little to do with acquiring a diploma.We wrestle with the subject of Education, hoping to make policy that results in more Capability at large.

  • http://twitter.com/belsito belsito

    Great post. I get the conundrum. For me, college (actually, business school, to be specific) was where I fell in love with “creating things” – i.e. businesses. No, it wasn’t one of my entrepreneurship classes that did it for me. It was being naive enough to propose to the Director of Athletics that I should create the first ever corporate sponsorship program in the 100+ year history of the athletic program. And in desperation, her saying “yes.”I was given the ability to create something from scratch as a student. That program still exists today (8 years later) — and I believe it was ultimately responsible for me resigning from my job two weeks ago to start my own company.The system is probably broken — but one shouldn’t discount the entire experience completely, as it is what you make of it.

  • http://www.gigya.com David A. Yovanno

    Good debate.  Unless my kids (10 and 11 now) have an idea of something as big as Facebook, the capability themselves of someone like Zuck, AND access to Peter himself (not a copy cat), I will fight tooth and nail for them to finish out college first, no question.  But what a great opportunity for these individuals who have the skills and ideas ready now, I say go for it for sure, and fail fast if that’s how it’s playing out over the first year and get your butt back to school while cooking up your next big idea.  This is the same analogy as dropping out of college basketball to go pro in your freshman or sophomore year – it’s not for everyone, but for a very small few, it probably makes sense.  Just like there is only one Zuck, there is only one Lebron (or two if you count Kobe ;).  The likelihood of Peter replicating his success with Zuck is a big, big long-shot and I think benefits him way more than these 20 individuals.  I think these students should only apply for this program if they’ve got a killer, killer idea already in development and have some mad, mad skills.

  • Justin Seeley

    Being a 22 year old graduate and reading through these comments, it is going to take at least a generation for parents to realize the value of college isn’t what it use to be. Students are paying for prestige, or being a “college graduate”, not paying for an education. 

    When you graduated in 1974 you were gaining knowledge unavailable to someone that decided to go straight into the workforce…

  • Al Lalani

    Good to know LPLA is moving forward. Seemed like there was not going to be a V3. LA really does need Launchpad to create that community. 

    Interesting that you get approached by someone every week for an incubator. We recently got to know of UpStart.LA launching this fall in LA and were thinking about it – need to verify it’s legitimacy though. 

    I hope LPLA-v3 kicks off soon though.

  • http://twitter.com/dbcsg dbcsg

    I watched Peter make that announcement during the live stream of the TechCrunch Disrupt conference last year, and was thrilled as it was so in line with the philosophy and spirit of the school our daughter had just enrolled in, for her middle and high school years.  Even earlier on in education its important to offer innovative non-traditional approaches that will give young students half a chance in a world that is not the same one we grew up in.  Agreed, it makes no sense for kids to graduate with debt they’ll have to dig out of with no secure job prospects–debt which obviously limits their ability to pursue entrepreneurial paths.  Though most of the kids from this school do go on to college, among those in the past who have not pursed a higher degree include one who started a successful record company, another who launched a career in choreography and others who have pursued their passions through to acheivment, which is core to the mission of the school.  The staff teachers come from Duke, Stanford and New England Conservatory of Music, and volunteer teachers are experts in their field, and they all see the need for an alternative to they way we are teaching our kids.  Offering classes to 6th graders about entrepreneurship, or providing them with opportunities to create their own internship program where they can learn the process of creating, developing and manufacturing products (yes, many are bacon and mustache themed!) is the kind of exciting innovative approach to education we should be offering middle and high school level on a wider scale, if we want to see more young adults enter the work force with the creative thinking it takes to be a leader in the world today.  Next time you’re in Seattle, Mark, I hope you’ll consider coming and speaking with these amazing kids.

  • http://twitter.com/dbcsg dbcsg

    gee, I think you might really like to have a chat w the founder of my kid’s school, and the current administrator, Steve Miranda.  I would also be happy to chat w you more on this topic, it is absolutely thrilling what they are doing here.  plz DM me @twitter-18721440:disqus

  • http://twitter.com/dbcsg dbcsg

    no way. u r in Seattle? lets meet up. and meanwhile check out http://www.PSCS.org

  • Matt Cameron

    Mark Slater, keep an ear to the ground for what Mitch Kapor is cooking up with his latest education based initiative.  Democratizing colleg education using the internet as a leveler.

  • http://www.alearningaday.com Rohan Rajiv

    I feel what matters is confidence. University and credentials give people confidence. And confidence matters when faced with the kind of adversity you face as an entrepreneur. 

    Many of these outliers (Gates, for example) were blessed with unusual circumstances and that’s not necessarily the case for the rest of the bunch. 

  • Subu


    Liked the 99.9% comment

    Liked point # 6 …but I think you should have ended with a more balanced view. The conclusion makes me feel that education is not that important … wrong message for any society …especially todays

  • http://www.fetchnotes.com/ Alex Schiff

    One thing to consider is that so many of the great, innovative startups these days are coming out of university environments, especially in consumer web/mobile. Tons of startups every year are hatched in university classes or just happen organically from students. It started with the “app frenzy” and we’re just starting to see this generation of entrepreneurs come in to their own. Thiel’s program seems to miss that.

    Besides, the most valuable part of my education at the University of Michigan hasn’t been in the classroom (which is what people  focus on), it’s been the culture and community of smart, young people thrown together and forced to interact with one another in Ann Arbor.  If I had stayed in my hometown in Florida or moved somewhere else I was accustomed to, I would not have met my cofounders and it would have been infinitely more difficult to start a business. I think that’s what people who disparage the value of a college education tend to dismiss, and I’m glad you touched on that point in your piece.

    But that organic entrepreneurship seems to happen almost by coincidence and not by design or through the encouragement of the institutions themselves. We do a very poor job of educating people to think outside-the-box, and that causes us to fail to turn out the leaders we otherwise could. I touched on this in a recent column I wrote: http://newstudentunion.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/converting-the-middle-60-2/. THAT is what I think we should be focusing on, not encouraging people to forego a college degree.

    I’m hugely pro college education, but like you I take a holistic look at the college experience that I think its critics lack. And when I look at the people from my graduating class that chose not to go to college, I tend not to see entrepreneurs or people making a career choice, but people who are afraid to step outside of their comfort zone. We need to find a way to encourage entrepreneurship on campus, not drive it off.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    cool. you’re in. new head of LPLA to be announced on website soon. when done, reach out to him. thanks.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Cliff, I agree with you, which is why I said, “Others might care so you should take that into consideration.” And I certainly want my kids to graduate from a four-year college.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I like the idea of maybe giving college credits for experience in doing a startup simultaneously

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    “And instead of these kids either becoming investment bankers, corporate lawyers or online marketing experts, perhaps one of these kids will change the world.” – that’s it, exactly!
    And as I would have assumed, we had similar college experiences and thus are very alike today.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    We all would do it differently given the wisdom we now have as adults! Man, youth is wasted on the young 😉

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    The think is that THESE kids don’t have much risk of conventional “failure” so I worry more about the 10,000 young kids who read about it and get the wrong idea for themselves.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    more transparency about teacher performance / feedback = awesome. But the teachers’ unions will block it as they’ve tried to do in LA over the publishing of performance data. We need to change the union / tenure system to have a real impact. If you haven’t seen “waiting for Superman” make sure to.