Foregoing college: The value of an idea

There’s a certain 44-year-old billionaire  you may have heard of, and if you haven’t, you’ve certainly heard of what he’s done. His name is Peter A. Thiel, and before he became Facebook’s first independent investor, he co-founded the payment processing service PayPal. Thiel is currently offering a coveted scholarship to prospective students, but, if you’re reading this, it’s highly likely that you’ve already nullified your chances of winning it.

It’s actually quite simple: Thiel is willing to give you $50,000 a year for two years, as long as you don’t go to college.

I assure you, you read that correctly.

Now, you can’t just waltz into Thiel’s office, declare your plans to live your life cap-and-gownless, and expect to walk away $100,000 richer than before. First, you have to have an idea.

A good idea.

An extraordinarily good idea.

I think this is a brilliant move on Thiel’s part. Here we have a highly successful businessperson investing in the futures of bright would-be innovators, all the while turning up his nose at academia in a move so beautifully executed that no one, no matter how small their contrarian streak, could help but be impressed.

Let the ideas of the Thiel Scholars, those who have won the scholarships, speak for themselves. One of the scholars has designed a solar panel that moves as the sun moves during the day and is already experimenting with her prototypes in Uganda and Tanzania. Another scholar is interested in the aging process and whether it is possible to combat senescence. A third scholar is working on economic development within poorer nations. Thiel has invested in all of their ideas.

As a student currently attending a traditional four-year university, I would have assumed that my first thought upon hearing about Thiel scholarships would have been terrific indignation coupled with more than slight jealousy. “How dare they assume they can make it in the world without first spending an unhealthy amount of time in Earl Gregg Swem Library?! The nerve of them to think that they can become successful, fully-functioning adults without taking British Literature I!” Interestingly enough, this was not the case.

By creating this scholarship, Thiel has financially recognized something that has been well known since the time a few clever troglodytes figured out that perhaps food is better when hot and surfaces are easier to move when round. Thiel has recognized that our world is moved and shaped by ideas, and by the bright men and women who have them. At the risk of sounding a bit more objectivist than I’m comfortable with (please, for the love of all that is good and just and true, don’t think I’m an objectivist), I think he’s right.

From the moveable type which originally would have allowed you to read The Flat Hat, to the Apple computer on which I am writing this article, everything we use in our daily lives is the product of someone’s ideas. Sometimes a person who has an idea — an idea so powerful that it could completely change the way we live, like a revolutionary form of solar power or anti-aging techniques­ — simply has the misfortune of being born 30 years younger than the typical angel investor, and, through no fault of their own, that person invites the investor’s ageist skepticism. Thiel is trying to correct for that discrepancy.

Let us, for a moment, work under the assumption that the doctrine of Eternal Return is wrong. This means that people only have one shot at life and that they only have one chance to succeed. Don’t get me wrong — college can be wonderful, and I certainly don’t regret my decision to enroll. However, I could also never be a Thiel Scholar — I simply don’t have a good enough idea.

A lot of us don’t. Not yet, anyway.

But if somebody has an idea, an idea that they truly believe can revolutionize life for the better, and if Thiel is offering them the chance to make it happen, why shouldn’t they at least try?

Why wait?

Email Zachary Frank at


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