Through the launch of his 20 Under 20 Fellowship initiative, billionaire entrepreneur and hedge funder Peter Thiel is engaging in one of the most radical experiments yet about the future of American higher education. He is, essentially, paying 20 of the best and brightest students in the country to drop out of college and, instead, to move to Silicon Valley to pursue their personal entrepreneurial passions for two years. He is bankrolling each of the students to the tune of $100,000 each, hoping that the combination of youth, passion, genius and a significant amount of capital backing will result in truly world-changing innovations. Instead of getting tied down with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, these college students will have two years of freedom to pursue their entrepreneurial passion. Is this the new American dream?
It's hard to ignore that we're currently in the middle of a fundamental change in the way that we think about higher education. A number of significant trends - like the skyrocketing cost of a college education and the emergence of new, distributed models of learning across the Internet - have led many to challenge the conventional wisdom of plunking down $100,000 or more for a four-year college education - especially if that pricey college education means that you'll basically have to become an indentured servant on Wall Street if you ever want to pay off all your student debt. (This assumes, of course, that your last name is not Rockefeller or Forbes or Gates)
But perhaps the most significant factor has been the emergence of a new entrepreneurial zeitgeist in America. The reigning poster child of that zeitgeist, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. Even if you haven't seen the movie The Social Network, you know the basic story: genius computer kid drops out of Harvard, moves to Silicon Valley to launch Facebook and becomes an overnight billionaire. All while wearing a hoodie, hanging out with the Cool Kids and having a chance to deliver a raised middle finger to the expectations of the Establishment. (The R-rated pajamas scene is especially priceless) The latest example from the zeitgeist is Reid Hoffman's new book, The Start-up of You, which basically argues that the old career rules no longer hold, and you'd better start approaching your life as a startup entrepreneur if you want to get anywhere in life.
What's interesting is how universities like Princeton, Harvard and Yale will respond to the potential threat posed by Thiel's controversial 20 Under 20 initiative. These are institutions that have existed, literally, since before the founding of our nation. Do they even feel threatened? The latest issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly features a half-page write-up on Eden Full, a star Princeton student (Class of 2013) who is dropping out of the Ivy League school at age 19 to accept Peter Thiel's offer and pursue her dream of developing a world-changing solar energy solution. (You can even watch her TEDx speech on the Princeton Alumni Weekly website) Princeton gives Eden Full the full star treatment - playing up the role that it played in supporting her solar energy initiative in Kenya last summer - and treats the Thiel Fellowship as simply another fellowship to win, like the Rhodes or Marshall or Fulbright. Just as the top Ivy League schools jostle over the number of Rhodes Scholars they have each year, will they one day compete over the number of Thiel Fellows? (Hint: only if it affects their annual college rankings)
Which is why earlier exclamations about the "appalling" nature of the Thiel Fellowship may have been initially exaggerated. When Peter Thiel first announced the Fellowship it did, indeed, seem like one of those appalling little experiments that billionaires like to play on the world, a little bit like that famous Trading Places bet featuring the homeless Eddie Murphy and the uber-wealthy Dan Aykroyd. Ultimately, the Thiel Fellowship may be just another symbol of the changing zeitgeist in America, in which each and everyone of us are judged not so much by the quantity of our achievements, but by the quality of our latest "venture" or "start-up." It used to be that anyone with a creative urge was also an "aspiring actress" or "aspiring writer." In a world where 21-year-olds make $100 million seemingly overnight, it may now be the case that we'll all have to add the line "aspiring entrepreneur" to our resume, while moonlighting at night on our latest world-changing start-up.