Is College Over?

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |

Perhaps that’s so, but there was another, even more powerful motivation for Deming to leave. This spring she was named one of 24 Thiel Fellows, a cadre of young geniuses from across the U.S. who were each offered $100,000 to skip out on college.

The Thiel fellowships are the brainchild of billionaire PayPal cofounder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, who set off a firestorm this spring when he declared that the latest bubble is not housing or the Internet, but higher education. Thiel argues that the growing cost of college has so far outpaced its return on investment that certain very smart people should ditch the time, effort, and debt it takes to get a degree. Not, as he told the influential website TechCrunch, that he expects his message to be embraced. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States,” he said. “To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.” Still, Thiel believes young innovators can learn more from the real world than they can in a classroom, and he’s provided two dozen of them with the cash to prove it.

Thiel himself has two degrees from Stanford, but he insists that little thought went into the decision to pursue them. “It was just this default activity,” he said in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education.

It seems to me that Thiel’s fellowships are doing little more than providing a new, and potentially temporary (the Einsteins are allowed to return to college if they want after two years), detour for a bunch of self-motivated kids who were already moving through the educational system with impressive speed. But there’s evidence that it’s not just the genius contingent that’s reconsidering college. In July, the education think tank Public Agenda released a report showing that an increasing number of young people who’ve earned only high school degrees now view college as merely one option for a successful life. “Most fully accept that college is a good thing and can be very beneficial in terms of getting a good job and building a future,” the report found. “But many don’t seem to see it as an outright necessity.”

“That’s total nonsense,” Michael Greenstone, an economist at MIT, says when I bring up the subject of bypassing college. Greenstone recently published a paper arguing that if students were offered the choice between taking $102,000 and paying for college, or investing it—in the stock market, bonds, home ownership, even gold—those who chose to go to college would earn $570,000 more over the course of their lifetime. College, he concludes, returns two to five times more than any investment. “People with more education make more money, whether they’re white- or blue-collar,” Greenstone says. “The data are screaming out that the returns on getting a college degree are very high. Anything we can do to help people to get advanced degrees is a good policy path.”

Okay, fair enough. College graduates earn more than those without a degree. But does that necessarily mean they got the education they paid for?


  • Kate

    I enjoyed reading this article, especially since it supports what I’ve always suspected. I got a B.S. degree from a well regarded college (now university) near Boston and don’t feel that I learned much of anything. I transferred to said college from a community college in upstate NY and feel that I learned so much more from my professors there – at about 1/20 the cost. Now I’m trying to navigate my own children’s education and am finding it difficult to discern between the hype and the substance.

  • Peter

    An article about the diminishing value of a college education that doesn’t mention Richard Vedder? Homework not done, I think.

  • Millie

    You are paying to be a member of a private club where you might meet a suitable mate, share specific good times, and leave with a document which might impress a specific circle of people. Learning in today’s world is not restricted to any single campus. Other authors have attested to the value of access to good libraries. And that may be negotiated for much less than $56K.

  • Mike

    College is definitely overpriced, overrated, and outdated.

    This is why I’m producing a documentary, The Elephant on Campus, which about the need for higher education reform in America.

    College is no longer the best path for success. It’s only good for a small percentage of people that want to study areas such as medicine, law, and engineering. All the other majors are a waste of time and money.

    It’s time that people wake up to the fact that college isn’t what it used to be. For most people it will turn into a horrible investment that leaves them with a worthless degree and a mountain of debt that will never be paid off by that “higher education” college was supposed to give them.

  • Dan

    The first comment is telling: I liked the article because it confirmed what I believe. That’s the trouble with higher ed journalism of late — it’s all about jumping on bandwagons with a few anecdotes. There’s really nothing new and nothing analytic here. The “there no there there” trope is only interesting when supported by facts and argument and here it is not.

  • Stephen

    According to the US News and the Boston Globe, Tufts University–not BC–is the most expensive in Boston:

  • Karen

    More people are “jumping” on this bandwagon because the cost of an education should not put you in debt for the rest of your life. Period. See this facebook group