Professor Thiel, I Have A Pitch for You

An article posted on Reuters today has announced that Peter Thiel, a famous opponent of the traditional university education — proposed, and is now instructing a course in entrepreneurship at Stanford — CS 183: Startup.

If you’re not familiar with Thiel, read up on him. He’s a serial entrepreneur whose resume is way too long to talk about here. In short, he co-founded Paypal and is “Don of the PayPal Mafia” — a group ex-PayPalers who seem to start billion-dollar businesses in their sleep.

Search for Thiel’s name in Google, and you’ll quickly become acquainted with his views on college: that it’s a big risk of time and money better spent starting a business and changing the world.

I agree. I agree so much that I have evangelized this exact idea to many-a-high-schooler before I ever knew who Peter Thiel was.

Only 7-years ago, I was an 18-year old kid born to blue-collar, union-member parents. I struggled over the idea of taking on 6 digits in student loans to attend college. I ultimately went to the state-school that offered me the most amount of money instead, and graduated with $0 to repay (and a near-perfect GPA, just saying).

I’ve shunned the thought of ever stepping foot on another campus to acquire more fancy paper. I subscribe to the idea that imagination, hard work, planning, and persistence trump all, and that ultimately, those factors will decide who moves and shakes.

That idea has its vicious opponents, as I’ve since found. Post-college, you are forced to grapple with the reality that a degree, or more specifically one from an elite school, offers its advantages. Too much bias exists when you don’t have a degree at all, and additionally, students from elite schools are recruited the most heavily, leverage powerful personal networks out of the gate, enjoy a lifetime of instant credibility, and maintain exclusive brotherhood with other alumni.

Having met and dealt with all that, I still strongly embrace Thiel’s general ideas. I don’t exactly think college should be skipped altogether, but I do think it is wildly overvalued and a big risk. It’s pitched by guidance counselors everywhere as a smart $xxx,000 “investment”, when it’s essentially a speculative gamble (sure hope I can pay back these loans once I break onto the art history scene!).

I believe prospective students should invest more time and effort believing in their own ideas before embarking on a four-year training course for the rat race and fitting themselves with financial handcuffs. But in their teenage years, who has that sort of clairvoyance?

So here is my question (and comments) for Peter:

Why are you teaching a course at Stanford?

What you’re doing is reenforcing the idea that the best opportunities will come from spending four years at an elite private school. If there are any high-schoolers who know who you are, you’re surely helping convince them that college is the right place to be.

I have a modest proposal — something you may have thought of already: Make CS 183 course content viewable via iTunes, YouTube, a blog, or some other source. Show everyone outside of Stanford that they didn’t lose out. Help spread the idea that hard work and dedication is most important — not spending time in a classroom.

What do you think?

PS: I’d rather this was some sort of course managed by the Thiel Foundation, but I also understand the visibility benefits if this is done through Stanford.

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  • Pat O’Neill

    As a part-time college instructor, I don’t disagree that many of the people seeking a degree probably shouldn’t be doing it.

    Academia isn’t broken just because a few bright startup founders were successful – our industry is very, very different from the rest of the world and is a small subset.

    The real problem is that people go into it without direction – they just turn 18, pick something, and meander through their 4 years assuming they’ll get a job because they have a degree. College is worthless if you treat it like a chore or as a means to an end.

    As they say, you get out of it what you put into it.

    There’s also the question of education for its own sake – knowledge as its own reward, exposure to human history and culture, and so on. These things are critically valuable – perhaps not in dollars and cents, but in their own right. If you want to major in fine art (like I did!) or something else in the humanities/liberal arts, then by all means do it if you have the money – but understand that it alone will not do much for you in the job market. My $100,000 art education is virtually worthless in the job market, but I don’t think that makes it value-less.

    And there are plenty of people for whom college is critically necessary – science and engineering, law, medicine. Nobody dies or is bankrupted if someone starts a web product and they don’t have a degree, but I wouldn’t fly in an airplane that was designed by someone without a degree in engineering. I wouldn’t let a doctor work on me without at least an MD. I wouldn’t hire a lawyer who wasn’t at least a JD. All for good reasons.

  • Calvin Froedge

    Great post, Kenny! Those support networks, etc. become available to anyone who works hard and reaches out to others. The only thing that I really feel I missed out on by not attending an elite school was the opportunity to work and live with elite kids for a couple years.

    I totally agree with you on what really counts.

    @Pat Oneil: Man, when I was 17 and started college I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was a freaking business major = (. It took going my own way, making mistakes in the real world and working for a living to figure it out. If I had it to do over, I might try and bust my ass to get into MIT, but I’m pretty satisfied with the way things have ended up.

  • Kenny Katzgrau

    Thanks Calvin!