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Idea that college is unnecessary isn’t smart

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on June 12, 2013)

Mark Daniel, a Brentwood college student and a budding entrepreneur, recently won an acclaimed 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship from the foundation named for Peter Thiel, a technology entrepreneur and investor who co-founded PayPal. The Thiel Fellowship provides recipients with $100,000 along with mentoring from a network of technology entrepreneurs for two years as fellows work to turn their bright ideas into marketable realities.

But there’s a rub. Recipients of the Thiel Fellowship cannot attend college while they are working to establish their companies. The Thiel Foun- dation believes that innovation should not wait, and it challenges the notion that there is only one way to get an education.

Sympathizers point to innovators such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg as examples of individuals with ideas that were too good to postpone for college. And we have all benefited from their incredible success. It’s also true that traditional classroom education, including higher education, is not always the right path for everyone.

Without taking credit away from Mark Daniel — he’s clearly a smart and energetic young man — when the Thiel Foundation and the media promote the idea that college isn’t needed, they create an unfortunate narrative and do a disservice to many learners.

People such as Jobs, Gates or Zuckerberg are exceptions to the rule. For just about everyone else (and that’s just about everyone), a two-year or four-year degree has become the threshold to meaningful employment and long-term success. It’s a bit like having an uncle who lived to 95 and smoked every day — that still doesn’t make it advisable to smoke.

My own research involves highly talented individuals such as the Thiel Fellows. Through the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, since the 1970s we have been following more than 5,000 individuals who qualified (at age 13) in the top 3 percent of intelligence, including many in the top 0.01 percent. Over time, these individuals have earned advanced degrees; received patents; founded major companies; published research; become scientists, doctors, lawyers and business leaders; written novels and plays; and received prestigious grants.

We know they have been successful in part because they have worked very hard. But we also know they have been successful because they received educations that equaled their talents.

Most prosperous companies are run by people who are well-educated and who look to hire interesting and thoughtful people like themselves. Google’s co-founders and executive chairman, for example, have both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and all have spent time in doctoral programs. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman, completed his Ph.D. in computer science at UC-Berkeley. Even Thiel completed a philosophy degree at Stanford and earned a J.D. from the Stanford Law School.

Students looking for role models would be wise to emulate those who took their educations as far as possible before beginning to capitalize on what they had learned. Even some college is beneficial. The Thiel Fellows may well end up being quite successful. And some may go back to school later. We can only wonder what else they might be capable of dreaming up with a little more education under their belts — and how humanity might benefit.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.