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Do these kids have what it takes to make it without a degree?

Steve Henn May 25, 2011

Written by Steve Henn and Amy Scott

Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and one of the first investors in Facebook, is a billionaire and a Stanford graduate. But Thiel believes there is a higher education bubble in America. He says college in this country is overpriced and overvalued. So he’s paying 20 of the best young minds of this generation $100,000 each to skip school and start businesses instead.

If you want feel like a lazy slacker, check out the bios of some of the Thiel Fellows (pdf). Many of these kids are idealistic, ambitious and impressive. If you can’t stomach reading about all two dozen, here are a couple highlights.

Eden Full is a sophomore at Princeton. She’s developed a low-cost technology that allows solar panels to track the sun throughout the day. She believes the device can boost electrical output on a typical panel by up to 40 percent. She calls her invention the Sun Saluter (think yoga). Last summer, she built a working prototype in Kenya, bringing electricity to a rural village for the first time.

You can’t watch this video or talk to her for two minutes and not walk away rooting for this kid.

Andrew Hsu is also pretty impressive. He’s not dropping out of college because he already got his degree. Instead, he is walking away from the fourth year of his Ph.D program at Stanford. This was Hsu in a university genetics lab at age 12.

Still, no matter how brilliant and precocious you are, life without a degree can be daunting. Just ask Joi Ito. Ito’s the new head of MIT’s Media Lab. He’s also a college dropout.

“A lot of things that I learned on my own could have been more easily learned at a university, if you happened to be in the right place and the right university with the right people around,” he said. Before MIT, and after leaving college without a degree, Ito became a successful Silicon Valley venture capitalist. He’s helping launch LinkedIn in Japan.

“Obviously some people will learn a lot and will be fine dropping out,” Ito said during an interview from Japan. “But just because you drop out and get a job doesn’t mean you’re going to be learning a lot.”

And he warns even for the exceptionally talented kid, and many of the Thiel fellows are exceptional, not having a degree can present some challenges. Just because you happen to be brilliant doesn’t mean your story will end like Bill Gates’.

“One of my mentors is Stanford Ovshinsky, who invented the field of amorphous materials,” Ito said. “He’s a high school dropout, but he’s got [hundreds] of patents and is one of the most amazing physicists around.” But it took years — and ultimately recognition by an academic — before Ovshinsky’s research was acknowledged. “It required a higher institution like MIT to give this validity,” Ito said.

Learn more by listening to our story on the Thiel fellowship and the value of college education today on Marketplace.

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