Peter Thiel questions the value of higher education in America… Does he have a point?

Peter Thiel, one of the cofounders of PayPal, is credited in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education with saying, essentially, that higher education may be overvalued in America. Theil, who today announced the names of the 24 students who would be dropping out of college to accept $100,000 cash awards as part of his new eponymous fellowship program, stated that college could be a mistake for some. The following clip comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

…Students today are taking on more debt, and recently tightened bankruptcy laws make it more difficult to shake that debt, he argues, and those factors make higher education a risky investment. “If you get this wrong, it’s actually a mistake that’s hard to undo for the rest of your life,” he said…

With tuition, room, and board coming in at over $60k a year at some schools, it’s not an unfair question, especially as well-paying entry-level jobs for college graduates are becoming more and more difficult to come by. Thiel was speaking specifically about entrepreneurially-inclined students, but, in today’s America, it’s a fair question for many. Can someone studying graphic design in college, for instance, expect to make enough when they get out to recoup their investment in a reasonable amount of time? It’s a question that more and more people are asking themselves these days.

The following comes from NPR’s coverage of the Thiel Fellowship:

…Some of the recipients are leaving first-rate institutions like Harvard and Stanford to take the fellowship. In a press release, the foundation’s head, James O’Neill, said that in taking the fellowship they were “challenging the authority of the present and the familiar.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Thiel thinks ideas can develop in a start-up environment much faster than at a university. And the project is also intended to question the idea of higher education. Thiel told TechCrunch in April that the United Sates was in a higher education bubble.

“A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he told Techcrunch. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus”…

I’d like to go on and write a bit about all of these new Law Schools and the like that are popping up due to the fact that student loans are easy to come by, without any regard for the fact that their graduates likely won’t find work, but it’s late, and I’ve got to read about Newt Gingrich’s love of high-end jewelry.

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  1. LaidOffTeacherPatti
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Shit, I’ve been saying this to my kiddos forever; specifically wondering if they want $60k or more in debt for a $30k per year job (and let’s face it, I’m being generous with my numbers). I mean, there are thousands of students getting certified to teach special ed, gym, art, social studies, English, etc. and they will simply never get jobs in the field.

    The law school thing really pisses me off..when I was in, I knew folks with loans up in the six figures. The dirty secret is that, unless you go Big Firm, you ain’t gonna be making as much money as you think. Most people end up in small firms that rely on private clients to pay their bills…if they can’t bring in clients, or rely on appointments from courts, or if clients don’t pay, well, then the associate won’t be making much money either but s/he will have a mountain of debt.

    And while we are on the subject of higher education, I think the whole system needs to be revised (come on, take a look at some of the majors out there!), but that’s another post….

  2. LisaD
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    I think this is a really interesting question. For me, the value I got out of college wasn’t really academic. There is such a stunning lack of ability to think critically and to have a range of general knowledge in this county. This doesn’t have to come from college – in many other countries it doesn’t – but here it seems to almost exclusively come from college educated folks. I can’t imagine a country in which even fewer people have the ability to question what a news outlet is saying, and why, and what isn’t included, and what their bias is. If somebody can find a way to encourage this sort of critical thinking without college, I would be over the moon. (and I might add, college doesn’t guarantee it. A good third of my graduate social work cohort lacked this ability…)

    In terms of investment, it really seems to depend a lot on if you go to a decent college for 4 or 5 years right after high school. THAT seems to be worth it – in connections, in experience, in internships, etc. Getting a degree at some point, at some time, or after 8 years… that may not be worth it depending on your ambitions or goals.

  3. Posted May 26, 2011 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately, this discussion that’s being thrown around is merely encouraging my less than ambitious son to be even less ambitious. He’s doing a great job at getting other people to pay his rent, however.

    Maybe college isn’t worth it, maybe Americans just shouldn’t do anything at all.

    I would point out, that a person can still go to EMU and take advantage of federal aid (grants) and out of pocket payments. It’s quite easy to do. It’s not Harvard, but so what? The question we should be asking is, why don’t people want to go to schools they can afford?

  4. Edward
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Agreed. It’s a very interesting conversation. I think, if anything, it speaks to the value of state schools, like EMU and UM. UM is expensive, but, comparatively speaking, it’s a bargain. Still, graduates leave the school with debt, and, especially if they graduated in non-scientific disciplines, they’ll find it difficult to find jobs. If I had a kid who wanted to study film, for instance, I think I’d have a hard time encouraging her to run up the debt. Still, though, I don’t think we’ve reached the tipping point, where the case can be made that it’s not worth the money. A good, solid liberal arts education is always a good thing to have.

  5. LaidOffTeacherPatti
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    LisaD makes a good point…for me, college was really learning about how to live on my own (hadn’t even been away from home for camp or anything other than slumber parties), do my own laundry, figure out what to do when I was sick, etc. My majors were Communcation and Political Science which did little to prepare me for law school or the real world. But I did learn how to live with folks who were “different” than me, how to get myself up and to class, etc. My situation was a bit different though because my dad (thankfully) paid for my schooling and so I knew that I could be a dillentante (sp? Is that the right word?) for a few years.

    Having said that, I went to school with folks whose sole goal was to be a DJ which hello cool! But a $15,000 per year private college?! Seriously? And of course there were the girls that were there for the almight “Mrs” degree but don’t even GET me started on those broads.

  6. gary
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    stop stereotyping college graduates. not everyone went to college for american studies. there are still good paying jobs out there for people with real degrees.

  7. Ricky
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    This kind of thinking is just a plot by the right to keep people ignorant. Ignorant people are conservative, smart people are liberal. End of story.

  8. EOS
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    My boss paid $5 a credit hour for his undergrad degree at U of M. It cost $75 a credit hour 25 years later, but there was no additional charge above 12 credits per semester, so carrying 20 credit hours was a bargain. Today it costs upwards of 25K a year for tuition and expenses. Increased federal aid has fueled rising tuition while the level of instruction has bottomed out. Most with a bachelor’s degree today don’t have the equivalent of a high school level education 40 years ago. Universities are a business designed to employ more professors.

  9. Peter Larson
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    My son has yet to learn to do his wash but has learned how to appeal to his mom for rent money.

    The question is not the value of having a degree, but rather what one can’t do without some type of degree or education. I learned early on that the people who insisted that education wasn’t worth the time or the money had degrees and jobs. Those that did not have degrees were working with me in the kitchen making minimum wage at 40. Needless to say, the guys in the kitchen never once attempted to discourage anyone from going to school.

    College comes with no guarantees, but having only a high school degree or less does.

  10. 'Ff'lo
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    It’s a risk for people who have to borrow money. It’s not for people who don’t. Why, look— class disparity. Again. And a-freakin’-gain and again and again.

  11. LaidOffTeacherPatti
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    gary, I’m sorry if you thought I or we were stereotyping just because we didn’t take pains to point out the people who DO have useful degrees…no reason to take it so personally. My husband got an engineering degree and works as an IT engineer. People with teaching degrees-IF they can get teaching jobs–will find them useful. I still think we need to re-look at degrees as a whole though…my friend who majored in Geology, for example, is working as a manager at Target and my friend who double majored in Art History and French is a secretary. There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with either major but both tried to get jobs in their fields and couldn’t and both have expressed extreme regret at incurring huge debt. Of course, they are not crediting college for the intangibles that they received….

  12. kjc
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    i think we need to look at the word “useful”. i know engineers who never read a fucking novel and came to regret it later. and got out of the field to learn something less useful so they could be a more fulfilled person. i would never encourage my kids not to get an English degree if they wanted. the height of wisdom is not “never make 30K”. jesus.

  13. Edward
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    College degrees are necessary. As others have noted, you aren’t just learning facts, but how to think, work together and solve problems. It’s an invaluable experience. It is, however, over priced.

  14. EOS
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

  15. Mr. X
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    I happen to have an American Studies degree from UM and I’ve found it quite valuable. I might feel differently, however, had I wanted to go into academia instead of business.

  16. Brainless
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I think this debate could be framed such that it’s not a debate at all.

    The point isn’t whether college degrees have value. Obviously, they have tons of value – for many people, not all and not everybody who goes. The point is how to educate everybody as much as possible. It’s not limited to A or B – go or don’t go. It’s more like A or B or C or D or E, etc. What we lack is the “C, D, E, etc.” that is as robust and valued as A or B.

    Where I work, you could not even have a HS diploma and still succeed. I have, in fact, never inquired of any of my employees about their degrees. The industry is too new to benefit from any college degree. (That’s not to say that the people wouldn’t benefit from the intangible reasons listed above. But the work will not.) Work is the only place where you will find the education necessary to do some jobs. How man of you in college were ever handed 14 XL sheets with messy data and told to “do what you can with this”. THAT is some real-world training that is simply not percolating into college.

    Instead of “degree or no degree”, it’s more a matter of, “Where can I learn NOW?” Not to rain on a general liberal arts degree (of which, I hold one), but it’s just not for everybody. I believe that a lot of people who have absolutely no business going to a general-education college (aka, public U) go there simply because there aren’t enough really solid other choices.

    Perhaps it’s just an attitude that holds people back. For example, we have a world-class trade school at Washtenaw. Is the program full? Is it fully funded? I have no idea, but why can I only name one program? Shouldn’t we have dozens is other fields that are well-known? Do people avoid welding because they look down on trades? Where is the Harvard of technical education?

  17. Peter Larson
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    We can certainly see that EOS’s high school education not only taught her how to surf the web at work, but also taught her how to use YouTube.

    For me, I’m not good at much. The only place that would have a loser like me was an institution of higher education. As for college propaganda, we should blame parents for creating unrealistic expectations for their children, rather than repeatedly reminding children of how miserable life can be post high school.

  18. dr
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    why do you think EOS is a girl?

  19. Brainless
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink


  20. Meta
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    From today’s Huffington Post:

    For-profit colleges devote less than a third of what public universities spend on educating students, even though the for-profit institutions charge nearly twice as much as their public counterparts for tuition, according to new federal government data released Thursday.

    Students attending bachelor’s degree programs at for-profit schools are also much less likely to graduate than students who attend public universities or private non-profit schools, concludes the report from the National Center for Education Statistics. One in five students graduate from for-profit bachelor’s degree programs within six years, compared to more than half of students at public universities.

    The new federal data lands amid fierce debate over the practices of for-profit colleges, which confront the stiffest government scrutiny in decades. The Obama administration has been crafting new rules aimed at preventing schools from promising more than they can deliver, in response to reports that many tout their training programs as stepping stones to lucrative careers only to set up students up for jobs whose wages will rarely keep pace with their resulting debt burdens. The for-profit industry relies heavily on federal student aid as part of its business model, but the industry is responsible for an increasing number of defaults in the federal student loan program.

    The Department of Education is expected to finalize the new rules within the next few weeks. The rules could limit federal student aid money flowing to programs at for-profit schools and some non-profit vocational programs that yield too many graduates who are unable to pay off their debts.

    Congress requires the Department of Education to publish the “Condition of Education” report every year. But this year, the government took a closer look at trends in higher education, analyzing statistics pertaining to students across different college sectors.

    Undergraduate enrollment has skyrocketed overall throughout the past decade, but some of the fastest growth has occurred at for-profit schools. Publicly traded education companies such as Education Management Corp. and the Apollo Group, which owns University of Phoenix, have expanded online offerings and marketed aggressively to older students who may not have attended college in the past.

    “One thing that kept jumping out is that the universe of postsecondary education has really changed over the last decade,” said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. “We thought it was a good time to highlight it.”

    The rest of the article can be found here.

  21. Peter Larson
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Do you have any evidence to the contrary? Why assume it’s a man?

  22. EOS
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    You only want to know my sex so that your ridicule would be aptly gender specific. Peter even hurls personal insults under multiple pseudonyms. It’s not about me and never has been.

  23. dr
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I think EOS is a man who lives in the township and holds a township office. Right Stan?

  24. Posted May 26, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I think she’s a woman that works the front desk at a pool cleaning company in Ypsilanti who has never attended college.

  25. EOS
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re both nuts.

  26. Anonymatt
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Would gary confirm whether his post is a subtle dig at Mark? I’d like to know.

  27. No Cash Value
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    I have multiple degrees. I’m top percentile in critical thinking. I’m a poverty level wage earner. I met a couple folks in my kids class who, I, prejudicially, thought had no college degree. Turns out they both have master’s degrees and the related debt. One manages a fast food joint. The other stocks shelves at a major retailer.

    Of all in my social circle, the one who earns the most (by far) dropped out after a year of college. He sells educational programs to colleges. He’s also a smart, liberal, critical thinker.

    Not only does college add debt, people who forgo it can get a four-plus year head start on job experience, earning and saving.

    Of course their are many people who can credit their wealth to their education. But to make a blanket statement that a college degree is needed for financial stability is idiotic. It’s equally idiotic to equate college education with critical thinking skills considering the range of colleges and programs. What kind of critical thinking is taught at Bob Jones University today or Yale in 1910? Answer: you learn to question everything but the institution.

  28. Posted May 27, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    College isn’t for everyone, no. But I’ll agree with others who say that it’s also not just a financial transaction.

    Obviously, I came from a situation where I had some flexibility, as the white male offspring of two college-educated parents, and others may not have the same choice, but my choices in college and grad school were based on interests and aspirations that didn’t necessarily have a price tag attached to them.

    Recently, when someone was railing about the padded bank accounts of those in the public sector, I did some opportunity cost calculations. When I was 23, I chose to go into urban planning rather than stick with my engineering degree for a career. That decision has so far cost me something north of $250,000. Part of that’s tuition, though I managed to pay a lot less than many. More of it is the fact that I wasn’t working at my theoretical earning capacity for two years, and the fact that I stepped down by several payscales by going to grad school — my take-home pay isn’t much more now, on an hourly basis, than it was when I was working part-time in software a decade ago, as an undergrad student, and my salary is half what some of my undergrad peers were making in their first jobs out of school.

    It’s a good thing I’m not in this to make bank — just to make a living and a difference — but I’m definitely a datapoint that more school doesn’t mean higher salary.

    The outstanding question is, should it? Is that the point? Does schooling only exist to feed people’s fantasies that they could someday break into the ranks of the fabulously wealthy by some formula of diligent hard work? I don’t think a higher salary is, or should be, the only expectation of schooling — and I also don’t think “finding a job in your field” is the point of a lot of undergrad degrees. (Professional graduate degrees, yes.)

  29. wobblie
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    EOS, You need some basic remedial economic education. Federal tuition support does not cause higher tuition. Hillsdale College which does not accept a dime of Federal support charges,
    Basic expenses for the 2011-2012 academic year at Hillsdale are as follows:
    Tuition (12- to 17-credit hours)…………………………$20,760.00
    Board (Knorr Family Dining Room)………………………$4,180.00
    General Fees…………………………………………………….$540.00
    Your willful ignorance in the face of knowable facts is clearly driven by the brainwashing the LaRouchites have given you.
    A basic college degree is essential for newbies entering the work force. Wages for us lowly high schoolers have been falling relative to inflation for 20 years. My daughters boy friend is doing the same type of warehouse work I did up till 1991 when we closed. His pay 20 years later is about the same in actual dollars as mine was in 20 years ago. Inflation has of course reduced its purchasing power considerably

    I think EOS is an ex-UAW auto-worker, probably worked up at Willow Run at one point. The LaRushites engaged in a long term (failed) boring from within strategy at several UAW locals–I believe that is where EOS ultimately fell into bad company who have ultimately warped his brain to think like Lyndon LaRush .

    As an aside -l year at EMU is about 60% of the cost as at Hillsdale-that fountain of right thinking thought and free interprise

  30. EOS
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    The difference is that Hillsdale will give you an education where EMU will just take your money. I’ve never worked in a factory or subscribed to Lyndon LaRush’ doctrines. Sorry to burst your bubble.

  31. kjc
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    “The difference is that Hillsdale will give you an education where EMU will just take your money.”

    Ideology-free, always.

  32. EOS
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    No, EMU is very biased.

  33. EOS
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    O.K., I looked up Larouche. He’s a Democrat and a Marxist and “a political leader in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt”. Exactly the type of man that I would support.??? Sorry wobblie, go sit in the corner with peter and dr.

  34. fleursmaintenant
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    i’ve viewed an undergraduate education as ‘the price you have to pay’ to be eligible for a white-collar job in this country, at least for my generation (on the cusp of gen x and gen y). regardless if you want to make bank or not, you must have a degree to be even considered to be a librarian, planner, teacher, social worker, nurse, project manager, editor, marketing director, etc. it’s simply the toll.

  35. Posted May 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I never thought you were a LaRouchite, I just think you’re a bigot, because that’s what you are.

  36. Mr. X
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    For-profit colleges devote less than a third of what public universities spend on educating students, even though the for-profit institutions charge nearly twice as much as their public counterparts for tuition, according to new federal government data

    Who in their right mind would attend a private university? I can see maybe spending the money for a Harvard, Stanford or MIT degree, but once you get out of that league does it really make a difference? Does a Sarah Lawrence education (at $36,008 in annual tuition) really have that much more prestige than one from the University of Michigan (at $11,837 for annual in-state tuition)?

  37. LaidOffTeacherPatti
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Hey, I just wanted to say that I had this most awesome experience at the Produce Station yesterday (it’s on my FB page in great detail) wherein a nice lady paid for my food and coffee b/c I couldn’t find my debit card (I found it) and then I left money for coffee for the next person. As I pulled out of the parking lot, I thought, “What if that was EOS?! How cool would that be?!”
    I think I read too much.

  38. Posted May 27, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I can honestly say that my degree has not really helped me out in the labor market but that is my choice. I already had a decent career when I decided to go back to school at EMU and after receiving my degree, I’ve stayed on the same career path.

    But my Economics degree from EMU was worth every penny. I learned enough about Economics to hold my own in a lot of arguments on the internet. I never would have learned as much without the assistance of EMU’s excellent Economics faculty. Learning something is the point of higher education, is it not?

    With that said, to assume that higher education is the ONLY way to learn something is a little bit silly. As much as I think Peter Thiel is a total douchebag (he once opined that women’s suffrage has not been good for our country), he may be right about this education bubble thing. If the only reason a person is going to college is to increase their future earnings, they really should explore other options including starting their own business.

  39. Posted May 27, 2011 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    I have three degrees and by next year will have two more, and possibly three if I submit my papers to finally get my associates from WCC. Every single one of them was absolutely worth it, even the supposed “useless” literature degree I got in undergrad.

    Will I become a millionaire? No, but so what. I’m not in debt and have gotten more memorable experiences out of school than I could ever have gotten doing anything else.

    I am total trailer trash. Even as a graduate student, I make more money than anyone else in my family ever has. I am the first (and still the only) person in my family to have health insurance. Education has been the key to every single success in my adult life. I could have never started a business, simply because I have no access to capital. Banks don’t give trailer trash loans.

    I tried to have a business once, but it failed.

    As for Hillsdale vs. EMU, both are fine schools, but different in approach, price and philosophy. Both will take your money, but both will educate. I know a couple of Hillsdale faculty. They are fine people, and as lefty as I am. I know a few Hillsdale graduates. Some of right leaning, some aren’t, but they are just as bright or as stupid as anyone at EMU or UM.

    As for bias, I don’t know of any school that isn’t biased. That’s what school and departmental philosophies are about. There’s nothing to say that UM is more “biased” than Oral Roberts University. They are both biased, just in different ways. Both are good at what they offere, which is also very different. That a person would be willing to dedicate a significant chunk of their life should be an encouraging feature, even if what they choose to pursue is flat wrong.

    For example, many people choose to study the Bible, which is mostly horseshit, but there’s lots to be gained from studying a several thousand year old book. Learning is better for society than killing people.

  40. Del
    Posted May 28, 2011 at 12:58 am | Permalink

    What about killing unlearned people?
    Wouldn’t that be good for society?

  41. Posted May 28, 2011 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Usually, it’s the other way around. The first thing revolutionaries usually do is to kill the educated.

  42. BEetle
    Posted June 14, 2011 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    I heard Laura Ingraham on her radio show interviewing him. She said that he was her friend. I bought what he was selling up until that point.

  43. FA
    Posted August 19, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to say he has a good point, but I’m typing this at a public library keyboard.

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