A few weeks ago, Intelligence Squared U.S. hosted a live debate on NPR as part of Chicago Idea Week titled, “Too Many Kids Go to College”. Peter Thiel, Paypal co-founder, and another expert, squared off with two educators over the statement and the final vote was 47% for vs. 46% against. By the end of the debate, the debaters convinced 8% of the audience to change their minds to support the motion.

Who is Peter Thiel and why is he squaring off on education?

The legendary Facebook investor and PayPal founder Peter Thiel recently chose 24 students to stop going to school and start getting real–in business. Thiel is giving them two years of mentoring from a network of tech and entrepreneurial experts and $100,000 to start a business. He has been making waves by arguing that college is an “overhyped, overpriced bubble, and that the world needs better ways to recognize young talent.” His words and actions have caused supporters of higher education to lash out in blogs, newspapers and recently during the live debate.

The argument against higher education

During the debate,Thiel argued that, while college was an important step for some, many young people could better benefit society by pursuing other endeavors rather than accruing massive debt through higher education.

Thiel won his argument with statements like this:

The amount of debt that people leave college with has gone up tremendously so the choices are very different from the ones people had 25 years ago. High school college costs in nominal dollars have gone up by more than a factor of 10 since 1980. Even after inflation, it’s gone up by 300 percent. Costs about four times as much. Inflation adjusted to go to college now as it did 30 years ago, it’s gone up more than anything else in our society, more than health care, more than housing, more than any of a number of other things we think of as having been subject to runaway cost inflation and escalation.

In a recent interview with TechCrunch, Thiel explained clearly why he thinks higher education is a failure:

It’s fundamentally wrong for a society to pin people’s best hope for a better life on  something that is by definition exclusionary. If Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?It’s something about the scarcity and the status. In education your value depends on other people failing. Whenever Darwinism is invoked it’s usually a justification for doing something mean. It’s a way to ignore that people are falling through the cracks, because you pretend that if they could just go to Harvard, they’d be fine. Maybe that’s not true.

The argument for higher education

During the debate, the resolution was argued against by two educators. They asserted that higher education is a necessary and important stepping stone to success, and that young people still see higher chances of success after attending college.

Vivek Wadhwa, Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University stated during the debate:

Look at the industry [in China and India] in which everyone is moving, technology, engineering. 1.5 million versus about 100, 150,000 ofours. They’re eating our lunch. You should — you know, they have become — India has become an $80 billion IT industry which came out of nothing at all the last 15 years. How? By educating its people. Zero to $80 billion in 15 years.

In writing for the Washington prior to the debate, Mr. Wadhwa discussed why he supports higher education:

The Chinese and Indian students are going to eat our children’s lunch if we continue down this path. Peter Thiel may get a jump on other investors by being able to invest in 20 smart kids, but the vast majority of these start-ups are likely to fail. A significant failure at such a critical period in their lives will significantly damage – if not entirely ruin — their future career prospects. Worse still, the message that is getting out to American children is that formal education isn’t necessary – that it’s okay to skip college.

In my mind, it’s black or white. We are in a knowledge economy and face brutal competition from all over the world. The weapons in these battles are education and innovation.  We certainly need to get the cost of education under control and improve its effectiveness and quality. But if we say that education isn’t worthwhile and that children shouldn’t complete bachelors degrees, we lose.

You decide

Wadhaw issued a challenge to Peter Thiel in response to his assertion that higher education is costly and ineffective:

Why don’t you put your money and energy behind your convictions? If you indeed believe that we are headed for disaster, please work on averting it. Early in your career, you revolutionized the global exchange of currency by founding PayPal. You helped change the world by financing Facebook. The world is ripe for another revolution — this time in education. Technology has advanced so much over the last two decades that we can virtually change the way we educate.

 

Isn’t that the underlying question within this debate? If the system is broken, change it but don’t discount its value altogether. Universities should change how they are educating students. It is time for universities to improve the cost effectiveness of their education. It’s easy to criticize, but its more difficult to offer viable solutions. Twenty four bright students may be benefiting by Thiel’s solution, but what about the rest of the students? You decide.

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