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Skip college and build a business, entrepreneur urges

Skip college and build a business, entrepreneur urges

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Tech industry entrepreneur Peter Thiel wants to prove that many people are better off pursuing business opportunities than spending four or more years in a classroom, accruing massive debt.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are college dropouts -- they left to pursue dreams of building businesses. The rest is history. The question is, are these three individuals exceptional outliers, or did they pave a path more people could and should follow?

Last year, Peter Thiel, a tech industry entrepreneur, set out to prove that many people are better off pursuing business opportunities than spending four or more years in a classroom and accruing massive debt. As he recently told CBS' Morley Safer on CBS 60 Minutes: "You have to look at the cost side of the equation. It costs up to a quarter of a million dollars to go through four years of college today. Unfortunately, you have to think about the practical things and are you actually gonna get a job where you can pay off this incredible debt you take on?" (CBS is the owner of this site.)

Many colleges are unaccountable, bloated institutions where students are learning less than ever before, he says -- and a degree has little more than snob value. "There are all sorts of vocational careers that pay extremely well today so the average plumber makes as much as the average doctor."

Thiel even equates many of the for-profit schools and substandard colleges with subprime mortgage lenders, "where people are being conned into thinking that this credential is the one thing you need to do better in life. And they're actually not any better off after having gone to college; they typically are worse off because they've amassed all this debt."

And that debt keeps piling up. "We now have $1 trillion in student debt in the U.S.," Thiel says. "You can say it's paid for $1 trillion of lies about how good education is."

Thiel puts his money where his mouth is. Every year, his Thiel Fellowship program selects 20 students and pays them $100,000 to drop out of college and pursue new business ideas.  "People should think hard about why they're going to college. If your life plan is to be a professor or to be a doctor or some other career where you need a specific credential, you should and probably have to go to college. If your plan is to do something very different you should think really hard about it."

Not everyone agrees with Thiel. Tech entrepreneur and educator Vivek Wadhwa, for one, accuses Thiel, a billionaire, of being "out of touch with the real world," adding that "he doesn't understand how important education is for the masses. You can take 24 children and make them successful by giving them on-the-job training. But that's not a lesson for the rest of America. What I worry about is a message that's getting out there to America that it's okay to drop out of school -- that you don't have to get college. Absolutely dead wrong."

Still, Thiel is sticking to his guns: "We have a society where successful people are encouraged to go to college. But it's a mistake to think that that's what makes people successful."

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure