“I see this as a big publicity stunt by Peter Thiel,” says Vivel Wadhwa, director of research, Center for Entrepreneurship at Duke University. "What the Silicon Valley elite fail to realize is that the rest of the world isn't like Silicon Valley. A Stanford dropout has many options. Students who follow this path in the rest of the U.S. and the world don’t. The majority who take this path will end up selling fries at McDonalds.”
That said, many of the students in the Thiel fellowship consider it a good opportunity.
Ben Yu left Harvard University after one semester and was interviewed by the Thiel Foundation after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. He is now looking at building an e-commerce-based start-up to change comparison shopping. Yu says his time away from school has already been put to good use.
“It has been worth so much more than I would have gotten in two years at school, even Harvard,” he says. “Regardless of what school you go through, there is the same progress.”
Yu sees the end of Web 2.0 technology underway, and that the next thing could be on the horizon. With the addition of apps, tablet computers, mobile phones, and other ways that information is accessed, he sees new challenges and says he is lucky to be able to tackle them head on with his venture.
“This is more than I could have gotten at school,” Yu adds. “And for some reason, even if I went back to school this time wouldn’t have been wasted.”
Thiel Fellow Chris Rueth, who dropped out of high school, and is now working on a satellite-delivery method to bring uncensored Internet to regions with strict censorship laws, says that the tech bubble of the 1990s made his career path possible. “The fellowship allowed bright minds to connect,” he says.
Rueth isn’t alone in seeing the potential of this type of entrepreneurial program.
“I think the skills and level of innovation that you will acquire in the real world is worth the $100,000 of a four-year school,” says Andrew Cohen, founder and CEO of Brainscape, who has long argued has that many college programs, especially those in the computer-science field, teach theory instead of inspiring innovation.
“If I had a kid who was going to college, I would rather use the money to have him start a business," adds Cohen. "It would be a much cooler thing on his resume and could result in a great series of contacts for his next job.”
But the question is whether Gates or Zuckerberg could have made those connections, were it not for attending Harvard in the first place? Indeed, all the Thiel fellows interviewed by CNBC.com emphasized they are working on making connections.