Is College Over?
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?