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When Is It Worth It To Drop Out Of College?

When Is It Worth It To Drop Out Of College?


Peter Thiel and Thiel Fellows Laura Deming and Delian Asparouhov discuss whether or not college is worth it at Forbes' inaugural Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia on October 20. (Credit: Glen Davis for Forbes)

Want to set off a firestorm of a debate? Ask one simple question: “Is college really worth it?”

On one side are the people who say absolutely, that the pay gap between college graduates and everybody else reached a record high last year, that a college degree is the key to economic mobility and that college-educated adults even have a lower likelihood of divorcing their spouse. On the other side of the debate are people who say absolutely not: students are graduating more indebted than ever before, college isn’t for everyone and a bachelor’s degree won’t guarantee economic prosperity.

And then there is billionaire and venture capitalist Peter Thiel and MIT dropouts and Thiel Fellows Delian Asparouhov and Laura Deming, who all recognize that higher education has its merits but that a traditional four-year degree only goes so far for so many — especially for budding entrepreneurs who have an idea that’s ready for primetime, with or without an accompanying diploma.

“My view is there is no one approach that works for everybody,” Thiel said during a panel at Forbes’ inaugural Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia on Monday. “I’d never claim that everyone should drop out of college and become an entrepreneur. I don’t think everyone should become a celebrity; I don’t think it makes sense for everyone to go to an elite school, and they won’t let everyone go to an elite school.”

Deming and Asparouhov, though, are two people for whom it is paying to have left school to pursue an entrepreneurial idea: as Thiel Fellows, they each got $100,000 from Thiel to develop their business ideas — for Deming, the idea was The Longevity Fund, an anti-aging focused venture capital fund; for Asparouhov, it was Nightingale, a service he describes as a mobile electronic record for Autism therapy —  but they had to drop out of school for two years in order to take this opportunity. Both were MIT undergrads when they received the fellowship, and while both value the things they learned in the two years they each attended (“Together we add up to a full MIT degree!” Asparouhov joked), they don’t regret their decision to leave school before getting a degree.

“I sprinted through MIT; one semester I did three times the normal course-load — that’s one of the reasons I feel like I left. I got that framework, I know how to learn,” Asparouhov said in an interview after his panel in Philadelphia. The son of two Caltech PhDs, Asparouhov said he grew up thinking he’d get a PhD and knew by the age of 9 that he wanted to go to MIT. But by the end of his freshman year, he was ready to leave. The only reason he came back for sophomore year, he said, was because he was on MIT’s “ring comm,” a committee in charge of designing a brass ring that all MIT undergraduates receive. He actually made the decision to leave school before the $100,000 from the Thiel Fellowship came through; the support from the billionaire venture capitalist was icing on the cake. Or, as he puts it, rent money.

“I was moving out to California and signing this lease that’s like three times my net worth,” he recalled. “Three days before moving out I got the fellowship and was like. ‘Oh, yeah, I can pay rent!’”

For Deming, who did not attend a traditional middle school or high school and instead learned from auditing graduate classes or reading textbooks her parents gave her, going to college was almost more of an anomaly in her educational path than dropping out was. Plus, the startup world is an education in an of itself, one that she says doesn’t necessitate a college degree.

“Not having a degree can be a problem sometimes, but of all the problems you encounter in the startup world, it’s by far the smallest,” she said, adding that going back to MIT would be nice if only because it would be a “vacation from work.”


 

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