Sawa Kurotani / Special to The Daily Yomiuri (Jun. 19, 2012)
One Sunday evening, I was lazily lying on my couch and channel-surfing. When I was about to give up on finding anything remotely interesting to watch, I caught a segment on a CBS news show. A man named Peter Thiel was talking about the dubious value of college education and explaining how his foundation was providing alternative opportunities for gifted young people to help them pursue their dreams right now instead of wasting their time in college.

Thiel is a well-known high-tech venture capitalist with significant interests in such Internet ventures as Facebook and PayPal. He studied philosophy at Stanford University, obtained a law degree, and applied his chess-master strategic skills to capital investment, which made him a billionaire. He likens the current state of higher education to the housing bubble that burst several years ago: Everyone thought purchasing a home was a sound investment, which turned out to be untrue for many. Similarly, he argues, people are in error for thinking that college education, as expensive as it is, will one day “pay off.” He points out that many vocational careers, like plumbing, pay “extremely well” without college education.

I sat up on my couch, thinking. Thiel’s general point–that college education is not the only way to build a successful career and good life–seemed valid. I was not sure if an average plumber really made as much as an average physician, as Thiel claimed in his interview, but I knew for sure well-trained tradespeople made way more than I do as a college professor. I also thought of a CPA friend of mine who hated her job and my hair stylist who’s been cutting hair since she was 18 and loving it. But is college education as useless as he made it appear?

Thiel’s views echo a growing sentiment among Americans–and perhaps among many Japanese as well–that college education is a bad investment. One side of this equation is the rising cost of college education. College tuition has been rising at 7 percent to 8 percent a year, and in the academic year 2009-2010, the average cost of attending college is estimated to be 12,804 dollars at public institutions and 32,184 dollars at private institutions. This represents increases of 37 percent and 25 percent, respectively, over a 10-year period (after adjustment for inflation). Economic uncertainty is forcing parents to prioritize building their retirement funds over their children’s education. Recent studies show that two-thirds of college students take out student loans, and that the average student debt incurred was nearly 28,000 dollars.

On the other hand, the benefit of a college degree appears to be decreasing. While a college graduate 20 years ago had a reasonable expectation to land a good job shortly after graduation, today’s job market is much tougher, and in many professions, a bachelor’s degree has become merely a prerequisite for further professional/graduate training. Some calculations indicate that college graduates make 1 million dollars more over their lifetime than those who do not graduate from college, but the experience of college graduates doesn’t jive with such an estimation. Many fear they will not be able to find decent employment for months after graduation, or before the grace period for their loan repayment runs out. Graduates often enroll in a postgraduate program to postpone this repayment, which results in even more debt for additional education that may or may not add to their desirability in the job market.

Into this bleak landscape comes Thiel’s “20 under 20” Fellowship as an alternative to college education. His foundation handpicks up to 20 people under the age of 20, gives them 100,000 dollars over two years and connects them with Silicon Valley’s most successful inventers and entrepreneurs. They are give the freedom to pursue projects that range from “cure of aging” (in the words of one of the Thiel fellows) to alternative energy and innovation in information technology. The fellowship website ( encourages bright, ambitious young people to drop out of the university system, and “[for] those students who want to strike out on their own, there’s a fellowship that will pay you to do so.”

Once you start watching the introductory videos for the fellowship program, the picture gets a little more complicated. For one thing, these fellows are extremely talented young people–geniuses, if you like–who began to distinguish themselves from a very young age, not only with their intellectual abilities, but also with their uncommon sense of purpose. Obviously they are a very select few, and whatever formula for success that applies to them doesn’t apply to everyone.

Furthermore, Thiel’s fellows (as well as Thiel himself) are often the products of the best college education the United States, and arguably the world, has to offer. Many of them were students at the nation’s premier universities, including Stanford, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most came from well-educated families where academic achievement was encouraged and valued. If they didn’t actually make it there, they at least understood the importance of education and expected to go to college throughout their early lives. I doubt that these young geniuses became who they were without the benefit of such socialization.

Thiel can concern himself with 20 bright youngsters at a time, only because the rest of us–not so young, brilliant or fortunate–go to college, find our passions, get necessary training, and become doctors, teachers, accountants, artists, and the like. If higher education is not doing what it’s supposed to, then, we need to improve it, instead of dismissing it as unnecessary. Let us not forget that a handful of geniuses may come up with a way to change the world, but it takes a whole world of people to actually do the work of changing it.

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands in California and the author of “Home Away from Home: Japanese Corporate Wives in the United States” (Duke University Press, 2005).