I cringe at the notion of offering children money on the condition they do our bidding. "I'll pay you $5 if you clean your room." "I'll give you $10 for good behavior at your cousin's wedding." "I'll give you $20 if you can get straight As on your report card." It smacks of bribery. It seems to sidestep important lessons about teaching children why a particular task matters and instead uses power and authority and money to lure them down a particular path

And that's my gut reaction to famed Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel's initiative to get 20 kids under 20 to "stop out of school." "I'll give you $100,000 to drop out of college." That much money from that powerful a person -- it turns my stomach.

Thiel couches the initiative in terms of "the higher ed bubble" -- the notion that college is too expensive, in terms of tuition and opportunity cost. College is a bad investment -- "worse than a bad mortgage." Student debt is a trap; the college education and the college experience simply not worth the time or money.

But honestly I don't think that Thiel's $100,000 has anything to do with college or education, frankly. It's a media ploy. And at the end of the day, it's really just an investment strategy.

Thiel announced this week the kids he's chosen for his fellowship program -- 24 of them. Their projects tackle problems in the industries that you'd expect -- finance, biotech, energy, education -- and range from extending the human lifespan to building a more efficient electric vehicle. Thiel will fund them to the tune of a hundred grand over the next two years, provided they drop out of college to pursue the projects.

No doubt these are smart kids. "Invest in the team, not in the idea" -- that's an investment philosophy I hear a lot, and one that makes a lot of sense. And full disclosure: I have great admiration for one of the fellows, Dale Stephens, after having talked with him a lot about how we can rethink and reshape education.

But it's Dale's projects -- Uncollege and Radmatter -- that I see as far more disruptive and powerful in the education landscape than Thiel's, despite all the hullaballoo that Thiel has garnered over his $100,000 offers wrapped in a critique of higher ed.

Thiel tries to position himself as the outsider here, a voice against the mainstream, even though when it comes to education credentials, he's got plenty -- a law degree from Stanford, for example. And most of the kids he's chosen for the big payout-if-you-dropout come from a similarly elite academic pedigree -- they're dropping out of Yale, Stanford, MIT. These are students who have already been sanctioned as "a good investment" by the educational establishment and already have a ton of opportunities afforded them by their class, by their academic backgrounds, by their gender (I can't help but notice here that of the 24 selected for the program, there are but 2 young women).

So what will Thiel offer -- other than the cash? Mentorship apparently. Networking for certain. But the latter is something that many of these students already have access to, again by virtue of their academic backgrounds. The connections they'll make in this case are introductions to the Silicon Valley investment elite. With Peter Thiel making the first investment here, it smacks to me of buying early "stock," if you will, in some very bright young minds.

And it has little or nothing to do with disrupting education.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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