Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, recently announced the winners for a private fellowship established to provoke thought about the value of higher education. They do this by granting 24 talented students $100,000 not to attend college for two years, and instead to develop business ideas.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 400 students applied for the fellowship, and 45 of them were eventually flown out to San Francisco to present their ideas to the Thiel Foundation and a network of more than 100 Silicon Valley mentors. This network aims to further develop a fellow's ideas in areas such as biotechnology, education, and energy.
The establishment of the Thiel Fellowship raises important questions about the state of higher education.
Peter raised this issue in April of 2011 during a TechCrunch interview when he shared his believe that Higher Education is the next big bubble. "A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed. Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States." Thiel continued, "to question education is really dangerous. It is absolute taboo."
Perhaps questioning Higher Education in the US is not as taboo as Thiel believes. A book released earlier this year, "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" asks, and attempts to answer, similar questions like "How much do students actually learn in college?" The authors (Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University, and Josipa Roksa, a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia) also question the degree of rigor in higher education.
The University of Richmond's own Joe Ben Hoyle, associate professor of accounting recently presented a keynote address at a Drexel University Teaching Summit with a similar theme. His presentation addresses the apparent disconnect between what the websites of universities say they are doing, and what Arum and Roksa say universities are doing.
Recent findings published by the National Survey of Student Engagement, which polled more than two million students at more than 1,000 colleges and universities over more than a decade, reported that many students spend little time actually studying or writing. Hoyle, like Arum, Roksa, and Thiel are questioning higher education's assertions about what a university can accomplish in four years and with limited resources.
With college students taking on more and more debt due to rising education tuition while adding in the difficulty faced by recent grads when searching for a job after graduation, is attending college worth the cost? In other words, "How do we define success?" Perhaps, the Thiel Foundation's goal to provide real world working experience serves an important purpose in today's economic landscape.
Is Peter Thiel onto something or are folks like Hoyle, Arum and Roksa the equivalent of higher education Henny Pennys?