Peter Thiel gives new class of students $100K to forgo college

Posted on June 13, 2012 by nina

Published by Venture Beat

They can’t buy a celebratory bottle of champagne, but they’re hoping to start a new business. Meet the new class of under 20 would-be college kids dropping out of college to work on their entrepreneurial dreams under the watchful eye of investor Peter Thiel.

The early Facebook investor set up a program last year to give 20 teens and young adults the chance to play around with $100,000 while building a business. Now in its second year, The Thiel Fellowship is unveiling the newest fellows to join the program.

Thiel’s Fellowship is simple; select 20 promising students, no older than 20, with grand ideas to change the world or start a new business. Then, give them $100,000 over two years of the program and surround them with mentors to teach them. Instead of going straight to college, these kids learn how to start a business the “real-world” way.

Ambitions are high for the 2012 class. Taylor Wilson18, is the youngest person in history to create nuclear fusion and will spend time at the Fellowship producing medical isotopes for use in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Connor Zwick, 19, wants to reform the education system, starting with a mobile study tool.

It’d be most parent’s nightmare to hear their child was dropping out of college. Zwick’s parents were supportive, but hesitant.

“My parents obviously had mixed feelings [about me joining the Fellowship]. On one hand, they sort of wished I hadn’t made it and the decision to stay in school would be more obvious. On the other, they were happy because obviously being in a situation with more choices is always better,” said Zwick in an email statement to VentureBeat.

Thiel started this venture last year, pointing out that we were in an “education bubble.” Graduates leave college with thousands in debt and often few marketable skills that will get them a job, Thiel contends.

“Pundits and hand-wringers love to claim that universities are the only path to a successful life. In truth, an inquisitive mind, rigorously applied to a deep-rooted problem can change the world as readily as the plushest academic lab,” said Thiel in a statement.

The Fellowship has obviously sparked a lot of controversy. Public opinion still holds a degree in high regard and many employers require it to get a job. Few people who’ve gone through school would admit that it was a waste of time and left them with nothing but debt.

Fellows are banking on the knowledge they gain to propel their career. In a way, the risk is low for these students. They might end up with a business they can continue to grow after the Fellowship ends. And if they fail, college will still be waiting for them.

On July 11 and 12, CNBC will air a documentary about the selection process for the 2012 class. The full list of 2012 Fellows is below.