Thoughts on Thiel and the value of college

This is just the latest article I have seen about Peter Thiel’s scholarships to students to develop entrepreneurial ideas instead of going to college, motivated by a belief that college is not serving these students well.
Listening to the interview and things he has actually said elsewhere, I think that Thiel is focusing on a very small set of students – highly motivated students with specific ideas for projects they would like to take on – and he is saying that these students ought to be encouraged to take a chance on those ideas. I have no issue with the idea that high school students should be more thoughtful about whether they want to go to college and when they want to go to college.
However, the description I usually see, and I think there is a piece of this also in what Thiel says, is that college education isn’t necessary, particularly when the internet makes it so easy to learn skills or even watch lectures from major universities online for free. Why should you pay for college when you can learn without the cost? The quote from Thiel that sums it up for me is “Learning is good. Credentialing and debt is very bad”. And this appears to be a statement not about the twenty most motivated young people in the country, but about the prospects for the mass of young people of college age. As the article puts it, “New York Magazine recently rated the worthlessness of a college degree as ‘one of the year’s most fashionable ideas.'”
So my question is, if Thiel and others believe this, are we going to see companies look more seriously at hiring young people without college degrees for interesting jobs? The tech industry used to embrace the self-taught – will we see a return to that? If credentialing is unimportant, will companies stop listing desired certifications in their job listings? Will Thiel press his counterparts outside the tech industry to do the same? Or are we going to raise the spectre of the uselessness of college, without discussing what it is that college actually provides a student, and based on the example of the exception people who, at eighteen, have enough vision, knowledge and motivation to jump right into starting their own company?
I look at the students that Thiel is funding, and at the range of colleges they have been accepted to, and it seems to me that these are students who have a combination of the personality and abilities, but probably also the right opportunities before college, to develop into people who perhaps don’t need college. It probably took resources, or encouragement, or both. It took them believing that they could teach themselves, and having the skill to do it. And not everybody gets those things by the time they are eighteen, and college can provide them. College isn’t about learning facts that could now be looked up online, or sitting in a hall listening to a lecture that could be streamed to your computer instead. It is, to use a cliche, about developing lifelong learners. That is the essential skill that college imparts.

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