In a recent piece for TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy highlights the views of Peter Thiel—the PayPal co-founder, hedge fund manager and venture capitalist—on higher education in America. According to Lacy, Thiel believes that America is under the spell of a bubble in higher education. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” Thiel explained. “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.”
OK fine, but in Lacy’s article, Thiel never actually questions education. What he questions is its price. Thiel says a college education costs too much. He also says college education is exclusionary. People “pretend that if they could just go to Harvard, they’d be fine,” he says. “Maybe that’s not true.”
Maybe it’s a good thing Thiel didn’t question a college education per se, since for all its inefficiencies and uneven quality, it’s clearly a good thing to have from an economic standpoint. The median income for US adults with a bachelor’s degree is $53,000 per year. That number is $33,000 for those who have only a high school diploma, and lower still for people who didn’t graduate high school. Over the course of a lifetime, an American citizen who has a college degree will earn nearly $1 million more than one who doesn’t. And unemployment rates for people without college degrees are more than twice as high as the rates among those who have such degrees.
As for America’s competitiveness, education policy experts from the left and the right agree that the US needs a more educated workforce if it is to compete successfully with China, the EU nations and rising Asian nations, all of which place enormous importance on education. Many of these countries have already passed the US on several measures of national competitiveness that would be of interest to Thiel, like per capita economic performance, entrepreneurship, human capital and innovation capacity.
Well then, what about Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and many other entrepreneurs who achieved success without a college degree?
It turns out that they have something in common with Thiel. They grew up in a comfortable, middle- to upper-middle-class environment. Thus, in all likelihood, they had caring, educated parents who made sure they never had to worry about where their next meal would come from or fear for their personal safety. They were educated at the dinner table, and attended top-flight elementary and high schools. Thiel himself attended Stanford and Stanford Law School. (more…)