Shooting Fish in a Barrel–And Still Missing

The Chronicle of Higher Education has reported on billionaire Peter Theil’s alternative-to-college fellowship now that it’s been up and running several years. Essentially, the program selects twenty students at the top universities and gives them each $100,000 in start-up funds to drop out of college and become entrepreneurs. Apparently Theil’s explanation for the very real challenges facing higher ed is not that slashed state and federal budgets are responsible for astronomical tuition rates that make students and families second-guess the value of college, but because college is depriving students of the benefits of entrepreneurship.

I suggest Theil take a basic college writing course to learn something about making evidence-based arguments, because I know that is simply not the case. It turns out that the results of the experiment are less than stellar. Of the nine original participants who agreed to talk, few have much to show for their $100,000 venture. Some have gone back to college; most have scrapped their original ideas.

Now I certainly don’t begrudge their failures–that’s just life and happens to all of us. However, it does say something about Theil’s anti-college position–that is shared by many pundits–when you can take some of the most privileged young people in the world, give them $100,000 to make something incredible, and get only mediocre results at best. This doesn’t mean that college is perfect or the path for everyone. But it does show that a college education is not necessarily an impediment in the way that Theil has framed it. Nor does it show that entrepreneurship is some kind of panacea for the current economy with its flat wages and uncertain job market.


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