Friends don’t let friends take education

My friends, my followers on Twitter, and people who’ve read my previous posts know that I have a very strong opinion about education: that it is absolutely necessary in order for you to build a foundation for success. Despite having appointments at five elite universities, I am not a proponent of elite education. Rather, my research led me to conclude that ivy-leaguers may be able to get their buddies from Sequoia and Kleiner to return emails, but aren’t going to be any more successful at building companies; that what matters is gaining a basic education and completing what you started – not the ranking of the school you graduate from.

I am one of the people who Sarah Lacy predicted would be “pissed” when they read her post quoting Peter Thiel as saying “we’re in a bubble and it’s not the Internet. It’s higher education”. Peter Thiel may have made the right calls with Paypal; he certainly made a smart decision by investing in Mark Zuckerberg. But he is no expert on education.

The message Thiel is sending to the world with his fellowship, which rewards students for dropping out of school, is wrong. The best path to success is not to drop out of college; it is to complete it. Yes, I know that Thiel is targeting exceptional students and is rallying against elite, expensive education. But as the title of Sarah Lacy’s piece shows, as does the controversy it has generated, the message that is getting out is that all “higher education” isn’t cost justified – for any student.

I brought up the Thiel Fellowship in a panel discussion at the American Society for Engineering Education Engineering Deans Institute, yesterday. Most of the deans in the audience were aghast. They couldn’t believe that there were debates like this happening in Silicon Valley. I told them that more than a dozen students had approach me over the past few months asking for advice on whether

they should drop out; that students took people like Thiel very seriously. I asked three of the deans at the conference to help me quench this fire. Here is what they have to say.

Stanford School of Engineering dean, Jim Plummer:

I don’t have any problem with the experiment Thiel wants to run. I hope that the 20 individuals he selects are wildly successful and create new companies that all of us will be amazed by. But I’m not sure at the end of the day, what the experiment will prove. Many universities (Stanford included) have a number of undergraduates who drop out to start companies. Those individuals generally have a great technical idea and a passion to see that idea put into practice. Many of them fail, of course, as is true of all startups. But the students who drop out learn many life lessons and move on to either the next venture, or in some cases they return to school. A few succeed wildly – and those are the extreme examples we all look at in amazement. Thiel’s experiment will increase the probability of success for the students he selects because of the mentoring and the financial help they will receive. But most will still fail: such is the nature of starting a new company.

The more interesting question is what this experiment will teach us about the value of university education. My guess is that it will teach us very little. There is no control group. Why not pick 40 very bright young people and give half of them $100K to start a company and the other half $100K to stay in school and complete their education? Then track them over 5-10 years and see which group is more successful.

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Friends don’t let friends take education