Peter Thiel created a media frenzy -- and drew the ire of many in higher education -- when he announced  he’d be giving young entrepreneurs $100,000 to drop out of college for two years on the grounds that great ideas can’t wait for college degrees. But it turns out that sometimes they can.
The idea of paying people to leave college attracted attention, inspiring headlines like "Drop Out, Start Up ," and "Peter Thiel Gives Whiz Kids $100K to Quit College, Start Businesses ." The Thiel Fellowship website even says , “Thiel Fellows are given a no-strings-attached grant of $100,000 to skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education.”
Apparently, “skip” can also mean “delay” or, in some cases, “graduate first.”
A handful of Thiel Fellows – the program director, Danielle Strachman, wasn’t sure of the exact number, but she estimated 5 out of 44 – finished college before entering the two-year fellowship program. The fellowship is restricted to entrepreneurs who are under 19 years old when they apply, but that leaves room for students who might have started college at younger ages to apply, earn a fellowship and graduate rather than dropping out.
That college graduates are eligible may come as a surprise to many, as the fellowship was widely touted as the “no college” fellowship, and Peter Thiel, in promoting the program, was aggressive in raising questions about the value of higher education.
But Strachman says the media gave the fellowship a slant that was not inherent to the program.
“The headlines in particular have not been very nuanced,” she said. “They’re spreading the message that Thiel is saying no one should go to college, and that’s not the message. We really think people should think very, very strongly before they go to school.”
It’s hard to deny the foundation’s edu-skeptic bent, though. The website describes the fellowship as “the greatest class you’ll never have to take” and there’s an entire section  devoted to “The Education Bubble.” The site does acknowledge in the FAQ section  that fellows can return to college after their two years with Thiel, but foundation officials have not to date corrected all the articles about how students receive money to drop out.
“Thiel is definitely known as the drop-out-of-college program,” said Tara Seshan, a senior at the University of North Carolina who has won a Thiel Fellowship but was given permission to start it in December, after she graduates. Seshan’s project  aims to give chronic disease patients a way to track and regulate their treatments, hospital schedules, and other data.
In fact, Strachman said that in the first year of the program, there were conversations among fellows who were worried about admitting they wanted to return to college after completing their two years.
“The concern up front was that initial gut reaction of, ‘Oh, the foundation’s not going to like it and they’re supporting me right now,’” Strachman said. “But over time they got to know us more and learned that we’re here to support them.”
Though the fellowship is based on the idea that college isn’t always necessary, Strachman said the foundation does not make recommendations as to whether students should or should not earn a degree. Instead, she says, it tries to educate students – both fellows and applicants – about the potential costs and benefits of either path.
“We don’t want anyone not thinking for themselves,” she said.
She notes that the world of entrepreneurship is different from academe, and a lot of the skills needed to succeed in Silicon Valley can’t be learned in class. For example, she says, fellows are responsible for setting their own course and building their own plans, and many struggle with this, because it’s not the same as being handed a syllabus. She also noted that most entrepreneurs work in teams, so a fellow could found a company based on his vision and then recruit outside experts, like media experts or tax lawyers, to fill in the knowledge gaps.
“For a lot of them, I don’t think finishing a college degree is a major advantage,” Strachman said.
Seshan said she appreciates this viewpoint, but she’s glad she took the time to earn a degree.
“College has helped me learn how to deal with people, a lot of the friends I’ve made are from college, and a lot of my path to maturity has definitely taken place in college,” she said. “I know that right out of high school I would not have been ready to do the Thiel Fellowship.”
Academically, though, she understands why some people might see college as a waste of time or money. “Maybe it’s because I’m a science major and maybe it’s because I’ve taken large classes, but really I don’t feel like college has helped me grow as an intellectual,” she said.
UNC did, however, afford Seshan the opportunity to do an internship in Silicon Valley and to do research in Vietnam, two experiences that sparked her interest in using data and technology to improve global health outcomes. The Thiel Fellowship, she knows, will hold its fair share of opportunities, too, but without her college experience she might never have discovered her passion for startups.
Seshan is excited to be a part of the Thiel community, and is looking forward to working with people she describes as “brilliant geniuses.” As for being a college graduate in a “no college” fellowship, she says even though college was the right choice for her, she thinks it’s a discussion worth having.
“The underlying principle behind dropping out of college and going to work on a fellowship comes from an interesting place,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of reform needed in higher ed.”