educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

$100,000 not to go to college

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While people are scrambling and plotting about how to pay for their children’s education, PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel has offered up a different idea: He is offering 24 people $100,000 not to go to college.

Before I get started, it’s important that I disclose and explain: I am a professor at Drexel University. In other words, I work in higher ed. I also should say that I am highly invested in that work, and I do the work I do at my particular school because I believe in it all. In fact, as I see another group of students getting ready to graduate from Drexel, I can tell all of you fellow Gen Xers (that’s what us 40-somethings are, right?) this: We’re going to be in good hands.

But I do know that college is expensive. To be fair, college “sticker price” is not what many, if not most, students actually pay, as a recent U.S. News & World Report blog described. Many of the students I personally work with do seem to have financial support from a variety of sources like grants, loans, and scholarships.

Some experts are now talking about college going through a kind of bubble burst like housing did. And people from all over, including those involved with higher ed, are asking tough questions about the worth of a college education.

I have liked the spirit of inquiry behind these questions, but I’ve always felt it would be difficult to find out the real comparative value of college for someone because the grand experiment, one that compares similar students who did and didn’t go to college, couldn’t be done.

But Thiel is trying something like that. He is giving these 24 students money to develop entrepreneurial ideas instead of attending college.

Thiel’s plan as a challenge to college has well-publicized flaws, including the obvious: He has offered the money to high-achievers, many of whom, based on their bios, seem to have the money, means, and other inherent advantages that have always led to success in our culture. But, to me, the idea driving Thiel’s plan is great.

It’s great because it will be a step toward helping us do something important: Show, demonstrate, dare I say prove the value we are offering. It’s great because it helps us ask hard questions about education. It’s great because it may help us think critically about a generally accepted idea.

In fact, the higher ed endeavor is in some ways driven by this “engine”: “While most people believe ___, a closer look reveals ___.” (Thanks to Joseph Williams, who articulated this idea well.) Thiel’s plan follows that structure.

It is certainly the right time to ask these kinds of questions. A recent Pew study found a growing skepticism to college degrees. Anti-intellectualism? Maybe. But perhaps people, conversely, are trying to think through the necessity of this incredibly expensive commodity. It is also worth keeping in mind that according to U.S. Census data, less than a third of Americans hold a bachelor’s degree anyway. (If you think that’s shockingly low, that says a lot about where you live and who you hang out with.)

As someone in higher ed, I like the challenges before us, because I do think what we are doing works. When I see the students I have been lucky enough to be around at Drexel, I feel optimistic about their ability to take on the problems of the world. It’s important that we show that college helps develop their abilities and talents.

So let’s find out the value of the higher education endeavor, and perhaps we’ll also find who it’s of particular value to. I think a close analysis will demonstrate the value we provide — and it’s worthwhile knowing the answers to big questions like that.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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5 Responses to “$100,000 not to go to college”

  1. Regarding anti-intellectualism, the value for the price and the worth of a college education:
    I think that college has, in so many cases, become nothing more than a trade school. Students go in with an intended major and plan on getting a job in that field.

    I think we need to return, in some capacity, to the idea that one goes to college to learn. To grow and expand one’s mind. Learn for the love of learning.

    Some careers need higher education for sure. But one does not need college to get a good-paying job.

  2. Scott,

    It is worth noting that Thiel has a BA and JD from Stanford, and that a number of the 20 under 20 winners have some college (or even a degree) behind them already.

    The media has portrayed the Thiel Fellowship as some kind of attack on the value of higher ed, which Thiel has encouraged, but the reality is that the money is for a tiny percent of under 20s…it isn’t intended to even suggest that $100k is a better play for most teenagers.

    Louis Menand’s recent book review in the New Yorker is a thoughtful take on the subject:

    For an edgier and more direct take on the subject, check out James Altucher’s various posts on the subject, including:

  3. Hi Warnock,

    This article is so interesting, and sort-of relates to a conversation my friends and I were just having. We were discussing the value of a college education and how it is inherantly flawed in the way it relates to securing a job.

    While we agree that the people who tend to get hired are those who earned a degree, we think that those who are hired are the ones who are intelligent and skilled enough to get into college in the first place. In other words, they are not hired because of thier college education, or the information and skills they learned in thier college career, but instead because they have social skills and a certain level of intelligence that they would have even if they didnt go to college.

    Just an interesting take on the value of a college education.


  4. The idea that everyone needs to earn a bachelor’s of arts degree or a master’s degree, or a PhD to have a financially rewarding life or a meaningful, valuable career is absurd. People who argue that college is essential are doing so because they’re not capable of seeing themselves in any other light, and therefore wrongly extrapolate that what’s right for them, must be right for everyone. It’s not. Here’s why– you know that shower you took this morning, or the road you drove to work on, or the deck that you’ll be sitting on this evening when you get home from the office? Chances are they were all built by guys who didn’t go to college. And all those guys have valuable, necessary roles in our society. Sure, all those things might have been conceived by people with degrees, but ideas are just ideas unless acted upon. For the past 40 years, America has devalued the vocations and manufacturing because, as a society, we’ve been conditioned to believe that as a society, we’re beyond that. So we rely on the rest of the world to do– either through off-shore manufacturing or through inexpensive immigrant labor. Education is critical; but frankly, college is not. There’s nothing wrong with swinging a hammer for a living, or making sure electricity is flowing through the power lines above us. In fact, without men and women who dedicate themselves to a trade, all our “fancy book learnin’” isn’t really worth much. Because without a good roof, well, you can’t have a library.

  5. Andrew took the thunder out of my post but i’m posting regardless …

    Many will need a million to retire … esp without Social Security.

    On the flip side, as Peter Drucker would have said …
    a few hundred years ago even middle school was considered a nice to have.

    In a few hundred year a Masters will be the required like high school is today.

    Where do I stand? Just do it and sharpen those wits as long as daddy will support it.

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