The Genius of Peter Thiel in attacking the Ivy Leagues and high school dropouts shattering the college gospel
Attacking the top 1% colleges has the potential to burst the college gospel
College as gospel
It’s 1am. Sigil Wen is laying on his bed screaming. Screaming with joy. He just received his O-1 visa, a visa for immigrants with exceptional abilities to work in the U.S. Sigil is exceptional indeed. In high school, he started a company which he bootstrapped to $250k in revenue. Even though he was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania, he deferred his college decision to pivot into building another company which was funded by top Silicon Valley investors. However, a few years in, the company’s prospects were not looking great, and Sigil decided to shut it down. He took some time off to contemplate his next move.
Contrary to what most people might predict, Sigil’s next move was not enrolling at Penn. Instead, Sigil boldly decided to skip college and joined the engineering team at Airchat, a Silicon Valley startup founded by Naval Ravikant, the founder of Angelist and one of the most well-regarded angel investors in Silicon Valley.
In deciding to skip college, Sigil might be a rebel in your eyes. However, only ~60 years ago, not going to college was the norm. In the 1970s, only 11% of the U.S. population1 completed a 4-year college, whereas in 2022 the number was 37%2. Prior to the 1990s, college was less ingrained in people’s minds as the standard path to take. The path to success was showing capability at the workplace, instead of showing capability by taking tests.
In 1850, Andrew Carnegie was a poor 14 year when he immigrated from Scotland to Pittsburgh and started working in the factories. Through hard work and some sales acumen, he managed to climb his way from the factory floor to being a telegram operator, to ultimately controlling the largest steel company in the world. John D. Rockefeller too started working at age 16 as an assistant bookkeeper. He needed no college degree to eventually become a business magnate and the richest American in history.
Similar to Carnegie and Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, Michael Faraday, Henry Ford, Coco Chanel, Ray Croc (founder of McDonald’s) didn’t go to college. More recently, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Joe Rogan, Ralph Lauren, Anna Wintour, and Ellen DeGeneres either dropped out of college or didn’t attend at all.
All these people were extremely successful. And no one made a big fuss about them not attending college the way Mark Zuckerberg made headlines for dropping out of Harvard in the 21st century. Why the fuss? Because the late 20th and early 21st century has seen the college degree turned into an ideology. Unlike in previous generations, today most people assume that in order to be successful, one must go to college. College is the new religion for any student who wants to embark on a successful career3.
However, will college continue to be the religion for our youth 50 years from now? Will it hold such a strong grip on society? Will our kids and grandkids continue to unquestioningly go to college? I’m not so sure I’d say yes. The tides are already turning. You may not see it yet but the bubble is beginning to burst. Students are taking matters in their own hands. You’ve already met Sigil, and now it’s time to meet some of his friends.
Samir Vasavada dropped out of high school, and started his company Vise, a platform that automates investment management for financial advisors, which is valued at over $1bn.
Robert Westbury dropped out of high school to start his own company before taking a job as a software engineer at Primer, a startup building microschools to revolutionize the education landscape in the U.S.
Andrew Kirby decided to start his online business which made him financially free at 22.
Arjun Khemani dropped out of high school to work at Airchat and to spend more time writing his newsletter.
Alex Gyrov decided to apprentice at a tech startup in London at 17 years old instead of going to University.
Zelda dropped out of high school and worked in Edtech startups, before writing a book on how to help teenagers hack their education.
Sigil and his friends are young revolutionaries who’ve launched a fire against the University system. In this essay, I highlight why their fire is not merely an inconsequential flame but has the potential to be the most powerful attack at the University system.
You may not recognize it but this fire was started by none other than Peter Thiel.
Tech billionaire Peter Thiel strikes top Universities
Peter Thiel casually launched the Thiel Fellowship at a conference in 2010. His claim was that Universities were molding students into conformists and the degree was largely becoming a credentialing mechanism. He would award $100k to a select few students each year to drop out of college and pursue an ambitious entrepreneurial endeavor.
Naturally, such a bold endeavor drew plenty of criticism. 10+ years later, all the critics have been shunned. The Thiel Fellowship has been wildly successful creating companies that are together valued at ~$50bn, excluding Ethereum which is valued at a whopping $450bn.
However, the Thiel Fellowship remains underrated. I want to underscore two important characteristics of the Thiel Fellowship that have played a significant role in attacking college unlike any other college attack in history.
One, Thiel was the first person to directly attack the Ivy League and the 1-2% most prestigious Universities. This is not only bold because it’s the first attack at the Ivy’s, but it’s also bold because it’s the critical attack needed to burst the college gospel.
Two, Thiel didn’t start a fellowship, he started a movement! He inspired other brilliant students to shun college in favor of their ambitious dreams. And now, students are carrying forward this renegade torch.
Let me detail each point.
(1) Thiel was the first person to directly attack the Ivy Leagues
When most people criticize college, they tend to criticize the lower ranked and questionable return on investment (ROI)4 Universities. Thiel was different. Through his fellowship, he launched a direct attack at the Ivory tower (By Ivory tower, I refer to the Ivy Leagues & other highly prestigious Universities ranking in the top 1-2%). Although he didn’t explicitly say so, his fellowship’s results are a clear indication.
For his inaugural class in 2011, I found information on 21 out of the 24 fellows. Here are the stats on which colleges they dropped out from:
So, 14 out of 21 were Ivy League + Stanford dropouts and 2 didn’t enroll in college at all.
What about the stats from 2012, the 2nd year of running the program? I found information on 18 out of the 20 fellows:
11 out of 17 dropped out of Ivy Leagues + Stanford + Berkeley, the other 3 dropped out of prestigious Universities often considered “Public Ivies”, and 4 didn’t enroll in college in the first place!
The results above show that most of the inaugural Thiel fellows came from the Ivy’s and other prestigious Universities5. This is attested by Michael Gibson who ran the fellowship for Thiel and notes in his book The Paper Belt on Fire, how he and his colleague Danielle Strachman toured top University campuses to recruit the Thiel fellows.
By doing so, Thiel was directly attacking the Ivory tower. And the program was perfectly constructed to hurl such an attack. Thiel’s name, the program’s exclusivity (“20 under 20”) and recruiting students from top Universities allowed the program to match, if not surpass, the Ivy’s in prestige, thereby making it easier for students to pick the fellowship over continuing their Ivy League college degree.
As such, Thiel was the first one who even dared to attack the Ivory tower.
The Genius of Thiel: Why an attack at the Ivy’s has the power to burst the entire college gospel
And the Ivory tower felt the heat from Thiel’s attack. Larry Summers, former Harvard University president, lashed out against Thiel in a bid to protect his baby Harvard:
“I think the single most misdirected bit of philanthropy in this decade is Peter Thiel’s special program to bribe people to drop out of college,”
“I think it’s hard to look back and say it’s a sad thing that Bill Gates dropped out of college — world’s OK, he’s OK. I think it’s a hard thing to say that it’s sad that Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college. But they are extraordinary exceptions, and if any significant number of intellectually able people, of the kind that would have the opportunity to attend top schools are dropping out, I think it’s tragic.”
What Larry left out is who it’s “tragic for”. Dropping out to start a company or take a job is not tragic for the students. It’s tragic for Harvard. And it’s tragic for the entire University system.
But how can a tiny attack targeted at the top 1% make a dent to Harvard, let alone the college system? What’s the big deal about an attack at the 1%? To truly burst the college gospel, doesn’t one have to create alternatives for the other 99%?
No, because the power in the University system resides in the top 1%. Thiel knew that the Ivy Leagues and other prestigious Universities are largely responsible for inflating the value of the college degree and for making college a religion in today's world. Established in 1636, Harvard University is considered the first American University. Many of the other Ivy’s were founded soon after, years before the widespread establishment of public universities. Their founding role in the University system coupled with their association to an aristocratic education, has enabled them not only to control the power in the University system but to also set the precedent for “University-as-a-status”. Thiel’s genius lay in recognizing this one point – that the University degree prestige rests with the Ivy’s.
Recognizing this was brilliant in 2 major ways:
(i) Breaking the college gospel requires an attack on the 1%:
Not only is the attack on the 1% critical, but an attack on only the 99% (without an attack on the 1%) is not sufficient to break the college gospel. The prestige of the University system comes from the 1% and breaking that prestige requires an attack on the 1%.
(ii) An attack on the 1% will weaken the other 99%:
Further, an attack on the 1% will bring down the 99%. If the prestige of Harvard goes down, the prestige of other Universities and that of the entire University system goes down. If students begin to question the value of Harvard, then certainly more of them will question the value of other Universities.
The weight of Thiel’s attack is tugging at the Ivory tower and pushing them closer to the precipice of losing their status. Given that the other universities are chained to the 1%, a fall in the 1% will take the 99% down with them.
Thiel’s war forced society, culture, and employers to begin to re-examine the religion of college. It ignited questions on the gospel of college. Big employers like Google and Tesla no longer require college degrees for many roles. And importantly, by creating another alternative through the fellowship, it directly brought down the prestige of college, thereby leading the change on the religious beliefs surrounding the University degree.
Larry Summers is right to feel threatened.
Thiel had successfully deployed a crucial war strategy – attack the source of the power to win the war. In the college war, the Ivy’s are the source of the power or the army generals, while the other Universities are soldiers. Thiel knew that if he attacked the soldiers, but the army generals were unscathed, the war would be far from being won. But a successful attack on the army generals would make the soldiers eventually surrender themselves.
However, despite the Thiel fellowship’s savvy stratagem in attacking the 1% and its critical role in challenging the gospel of college, isn’t it still too tiny to melt the gold off of the degree papers? By itself it might be. But the Thiel fellows are not alone. As I said, Thiel has ignited a movement.
This brings me to my 2nd point on why the fellowship is underrated.
(2) Thiel didn’t just start a fellowship. He started a movement!
Thiel assured the earlier generations of bold students that they weren’t crazy to harbor thoughts on the futility of college. In essence, he gave permission to top students to drop out of prestigious Universities. In doing so, he was the first person to encourage students to leave the Ivory tower, an idea most would and did balk at.
However, few people realize that Thiel’s impact has spread outside of merely the Thiel fellows. Having shown the world how students can create world-changing companies without a college degree, Thiel awakened more smart students to think beyond University as their default option and to chart their own paths. Thiel’s contribution to this awakening remains underrated.
Now, a newer generation doesn’t necessarily need Thiel’s stamp to drop out of college. You’ve already met Sigil and his friends who’ve started companies, sought incredible jobs and apprenticeships, built their own projects and reputation in the absence of a college degree. And I’m sure there are more that I don’t know of.
This newer generation has its own traits, 4 of which I want to highlight:
(i) They’re a step ahead by dropping out of High School:
Earlier generations of dropouts signaled their credibility by enrolling in top Universities before they dropped out. Badges of “Stanford dropout” or “Harvard dropout" are flouted to indicate that they’re smart enough to get into the Ivory tower, but they’re even smarter to not need it eventually.
Sigil’s friends are beyond applying to University in the first place! They don’t care for the badge of “Stanford dropout.” In fact, they proudly wear their own badge of “High School dropout”. They’re turning “High School dropout” into something that’s cool, not something to be ashamed of.
The previous era of bold students were top college dropouts. Now, we’re entering an era of bold high school dropouts.
(ii) They need no one’s permission; they’ve established their own alternative credential:
Previous generations signaled their value though the degree credential, or the Stanford dropout badge, or the “Thiel fellow” badge. This generation needs no one else’s badge. Armed with the Internet era, they display their capabilities through projects of their own. By creating code, newsletters, podcasts, businesses, and startups, they display their worth through proof of work as opposed to a badge someone else bestowed upon them. And in doing so, they’ve established their own alternative credential: “portfolio of projects.”
This has greater implications: not needing someone else to crown a badge on you allows a lot more people to chart their unique paths. The movement won’t be restricted to merely 20 Thiel fellows. Anyone can create their unique portfolio of projects and seek their own meritocratic path based on their interests.
(iii) They’re inspiring others like them:
Memes and sharing stories on social media seems to come more naturally to this generation. Similar to how Thiel inspired them to drop out of high school, they in turn are inspiring more high schoolers to build their own “portfolio of projects” and seize control of their future.
(iv) They are carrying forward Thiel’s attack on the Ivory tower:
Lastly, and most importantly, these high school dropouts are extremely talented and smart. They likely could have been accepted at top Universities. So, by choosing to not apply to University at all, they too are hurling an attack at the top Universities and the Ivory tower. Emboldened by Thiel, they are doing their part in carrying forward his torch.
Conclusion: Rite of Passage, Universities as Luxury goods & Students hold the power
In the last 50 years, college has established itself as the rite of passage for an academically smart high school student. Is it a worthwhile rite of passage? Back in the days of hunter gatherers, once 12-14 year old boys were trained well, they were sent into the jungle by themselves for a few days to fend off predators and catch prey. If they survived, they successfully transitioned into men. The harsh jungle was the rite of passage for these boys. Today, the rite of passage for our young generation are college classes where most students don’t learn, tests that can be gamed, and parties. Sigh.
However, as we’ve seen, students are taking matters into their own hands, especially as Universities become less valuable and inflate prices at the same time. Increasingly, the business model of top Universities is becoming similar to that of luxury goods – charge exorbitant prices for the prestige. Seen from this vantage point, students are the celebrities who buy these luxury goods. However, what happens when celebrities fall out of favor with a luxury brand?
Imagine if celebrities stop buying Louis Vuitton and Tiffany in favor of a different brand. Do you think Louis Vuitton and Tiffany will hold the same appeal and be able to command high prices? No. Similarly, if top students drop out of Ivy Leagues or choose not to enroll at all, then Ivy leagues will begin to lose their power. Just like there is no Louis Vuitton without celebrities, there is no Harvard without its top students.
The bewildering part about education is that everyone seems to have an opinion on it, but no one seeks to ask students, the real consumers of education, as to what they think about the system! People assume that students are too young to make their own decisions and the adults must decide what education should look like. This is a fallacy. Students are capable of a lot more than adults incorrectly assume, and with the growing estrangement of students by Universities, they are left with no choice but to actively lead the charge in showing their discontent.
It's students who are attacking Universities on all fronts. Without students, Universities don’t exist. They have more power in these fortresses than they recognize. Students, the power resides in you.
“Like any other social structure, school needs to be accepted by its participants. It will not survive very long beyond the time when children can no longer be persuaded to accord it a degree of legitimation.” - Seymour Papert, author of Mindstorms.
I’ll be releasing Part 2 and Part 3 on the college bubble burst, so subscribe to be notified.
Please share this essay with anyone who might be interested in alternatives to college. You can follow me on X @aasthajs for more on the topic of alternative education.
College being idolized is not the only problem of course, there are other problems with college which I will discuss in Part 2
ROI stands for “return on investment.” In the University context, it means what are the financial returns to the cost of tuition and the opportunity cost of attending college. High tuition without the corroborating incremental pay for careers relative to not attending college is resulting in low ROI for many students attending University.
I haven’t done the analysis on what the make-up looks like today, although I think it still skews heavy Ivy League, and a lot more international.