Thiel Foundation Encourages Talented Students to Drop Out

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May 25, 2011; Source: Huffington Post | Today 24 entrepreneurs under twenty were named winners in the 20 under 20 fellowship competition run by Peter Thiel’s foundation. Thiel is, of course, a co-founder of Pay-Pal and an early investor in Facebook. Each winner will receive $100,000 and mentoring on the condition that they stay out of school to focus on building their businesses – all of which are technology-based.

More than 400 applied for the awards and the foundation had planned to pick only twenty but found they could not whittle the group down less than two dozen. And a more remarkable group would be hard to find.

There are skeptics who warn that the strategy is akin to the NBA luring students into a professional career, leaving them high and dry in terms of education when their time runs out. But Jim O’Neil, who runs the foundation, points out that coming out of school in the usual way with mounds of debt does not set young people up well to take on the risks of entrepreneurship.

Others criticize the program as an “act of self indulgence” – Thiel is not a great believer in the value of a formal education. And still others think that the program supports elitism, choosing a favored few to succeed with little regard for the many who will still be struggling against the constraining barriers of a highly inequitable education system.

James Altucher, a venture capitalist who himself has been critical of the high price of higher education sees it as a smart business move on Thiel’s part as he will be creating relationships with promising up and coming businesses in which he could later invest.

Do we think that this is any more self-indulgent or self-referential than much of the rest of philanthropy? Not really but it flies in the face of conventional thinking and for that reason it will be interesting to watch. Will it produce a new golden circle of oblivious elites? Who knows? What are your thoughts?—Ruth McCambridge