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Peter Thiel's Message Is Simply Wrong

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A recent 60 Minutes segment profiled billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel's "20 Under 20" fellowship program in which he pays selected students $100,000 apiece to forgo college and devote their time to working on their inventions. Thiel contends that college is a debt-fueled waste of time for many, and points to innovators like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who have achieved success without the benefit of a college diploma. While I admire the entrepreneurial spirit driving Mr. Thiel's venture, his message is simply wrong when considered as a blueprint for young adults considering whether to invest in a college education.

Are there, across this country, young entrepreneurs who have the kernel of a new innovation ready to be developed into a product or market opportunity? I do not doubt that the answer to that question is yes. Could some of those entrepreneurs, working with others, succeed in bringing their ideas to market while bypassing college? The answer to that question is also yes. After all, as Peter Thiel has noted, there are innovators who have done exactly that. And it may be that the "20 under 20" fellowship program is a way of identifying a few of these young entrepreneurs who are likely to succeed.

But this does not mean that forgoing college is the wise choice for the vast majority of young adults. For the majority, such a decision is akin to buying a lottery ticket because somebody else just won a million-dollar prize. The luck of one lottery winner does not predict your likelihood of success. Indeed the odds are stacked against you. And the risks of dispensing with a college education in the hope of winning the entrepreneurship prize are very high. The income discrepancy between those with a higher education degree and those without is substantial -- according to the U.S. Census Bureau the holder of a bachelor's degree will on average earn about $1 million more in the course of his or her working life than a high school graduate.

How do emerging adults across this country view the link between college and successful careers? According to the Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, 82 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 agree that one of the most important keys to success in life is a college education.

The Clark University Poll, which is associated with the research of Clark University Psychology Professor Dr. Jeffrey Arnett, who coined the term "emerging adulthood," also notes a paradox among this demographic group. Despite the clear value they place on a college degree, 66 percent of those surveyed believe they can find a good job even without a college education. This is consistent with Dr. Arnett's research, which reveals that emerging adults are adamantly optimistic about the world and their place in it. Even during bleak times, they maintain a positive outlook about their personal prospects.

The best colleges fuse students' optimism with their big ideas and channel them into successful outcomes. It is in this process of college student growth and transformation that innovation and entrepreneurship have something to teach us. Part of Peter Thiel's message is that there are skills and capabilities important to career success that are most effectively nurtured and deployed in demanding true-life situations. Capabilities such as resilience, the ability to analyze risk and make effective decisions in fast-changing environments, the ability to mobilize others behind important ideas, are all effectively developed when a student's classroom education is closely linked to creative problem-solving in the world.

The good news is that colleges and universities across this country are developing programs to provide more of these opportunities for our students. Indeed, with gathering pace higher education is reconsidering the links between the classroom and the world, implementing a wide variety of creative ways for students to gain the knowledge and perspective that comes from knowledge, theory and understanding while building up capabilities of effective practice. In some cases this takes the form of entrepreneurship programs, such as Clark University's program in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. But it also involves placements in existing businesses, hospitals, art museums and other organizations, cutting-edge student research conducted in the community and around the world, new study-abroad opportunities, and a fresh approach to student volunteerism and civic engagement.

As colleges and universities prepare their students for life after graduation, they do so with a keen sense that today's global economy requires its workers to be nimble, adaptable and resilient. I encourage students to look carefully at the opportunities colleges and universities provide to hone these skills and capabilities beyond the classroom. These robust opportunities enhance the return on education for our students, our country and our world.