The winners were announced today for a new fellowship that has sparked heated debate in academic circles for questioning the value of higher education and suggesting that some entrepreneurial students may be better off leaving college.
Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, will pay each of the 24 winners of his Thiel Fellowship $100,000 not to attend college for two years and to develop business ideas instead.
The fellows, all 20 years old or younger, will leave institutions including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University, to work with a network of more than 100 Silicon Valley mentors and further develop their ideas in areas such as biotechnology, education, and energy.
More than 400 people applied for the fellowship, and 45 of them were flown out to San Francisco in late March to present their ideas to Thiel’s foundation and the network of Silicon Valley mentors.
Mr. Thiel, who is also the first outside investor in Facebook, said he was impressed by the quality of the top candidates.
"They compare well with the set of people who are starting good companies in Silicon Valley," he said.
Does he think the group will produce the next Mark Zuckerberg?
"That’s not our metric for success," he said. He stressed that he doesn’t see the fellowship as an investment and isn’t looking to profit from the student ideas. Rather, he’s hoping the winners will learn more than they would by staying in school.
At least one student initially chosen as a Thiel fellow, however, ended up turning down the deal, opting to continue her traditional education by accepting admission at MIT.
Mr. Thiel said he had expected some applicants would decide to stay on their academic track.
He admits he probably wouldn’t have applied for a program like the Thiel Fellowship when he was a student in the 1980s either.
Mr. Thiel studied philosophy at Stanford in the 1980s and later completed law school there, but he now wishes he had given more thought to the educational decisions he made and their implications.
"Instead, it was just this default activity," he said.
Questioning the Value of College
The fellowship seeks to help winners develop their ideas more quickly than they would at a traditional university. Its broader aim goes beyond helping the 24 winners, by raising big questions about the state of higher education.
Mr. Thiel ignited controversy when he told TechCrunch in April that he sees higher education as the next bubble, comparable to previously overvalued markets in technology and housing.
Both cost and demand for a college education have grown significantly in the years since Mr. Thiel was a student. He sees that rise as irrational.