When Noor Siddiqui learned about a fellowship that would give her $100,000 to pursue her dream to create an alternative educational system for the world’s poor, she saw her future.
“I had this moment—‘This is the perfect thing for me,’” remembers Siddiqui, who at the time was attending high school in Fairfax County, Va., where she had already helped create a not-for-profit organization.
She didn’t blink at the terms, though she knew her parents would — the Thiel Foundationfellowships open to applicants under 20 years old require postponing college or interrupting it during the two years they work on their project. They must also move to the San Francisco area.
Siddiqui applied, but didn’t tell her Pakistani-immigrant parents. Once accepted, of course, she confronted the inevitable. “My parents thought it was a horrible idea,” she remembers.
Their opposition was one-part immigrant aspiration, one-part conventional wisdom.
Noor, however, prevailed and passed on attending her choices of Brown University or the University of Chicago. She is now looking for companies to support her venture while working the foundation’s mentor network to further develop her idea — community centers in developed countries that provide vocational training.
“I know education is really important to them, but they don’t think the two years are going to be a free ride,” says Siddiqui, now 18, summarizing the issues of her parent’s conversion. “It will probably be one of the most important learning experiences of my life.”
Some of Noor’s peers in the Thiel Foundation fellowship program had similar reactions to the opportunity and fought similar battles with their parents to chase their dreams, which are hardly the typical career aspirations of teenage Americans.
Yoonseo Kang, 18, wanted to skip studying engineering and move to Missouri to participate in the Open Source Ecology project, where people are building a platform for the easy fabrication of 50 key industrial machines necessary to build a small, sustainable civilization.
“They were adamant about me not going,” says Kang, adding that his immigrant parents even threatened to send him back to South Korea to perform mandatory military service.
“They really wanted me to go to university, because that’s normal,” says Kang.
In some ways, Kang and Siddiqui are veritable poster children for the anti-college movement, which happens to include Peter Thiel — a self-made billionaire with two degrees, who says faulty thinking has led the public to believe everyone needs to go to college even if they can’t afford it. On the other hand, the two teens are smart, driven and likely to be successful, whether or not they eventually attend college.
The value-of-college debate tends to come and go in America, but it’s been particularly loud in the past few years — even though, some say, the number of critical voices is small.
“It’s not an active conversation among parents and high school kids,” says Education Trust President Kati Haycock, of the anti-college argument — which she roundly rejects. “There are a lot of things driving it. It’s mostly an echo chamber, though.”
And also, perhaps, a reflection of hard times in America.
“Every economy goes through a period of growth and a period of decline," says Ted Zoller, a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation’s entrepreneur program. “People are really hungry for heroes. They’re disappointed.”
Two decades of wealthy, charismatic and brilliant tech entrepreneurs — who may have passed or skimped on their education — have underscored Zoller’s point. Meanwhile, the job market is dismal, the U.S. seems adrift in the global economy and millions of debt-burdened, college grads are bunking with their parents as they hustle to start a career.
Even President Obama, who has set a goal of the U.S. leading the world in college graduates by 2020, has drilled down, saying the goal of college isn’t to simply earn a degree, but to get something concrete from it — a job, a pay raise, a promotion.
So has Harvard University, of all places.
A 2011 studyby its graduate school of education cast doubt on the job prospects of those with a four-year’s bachelor degree in the labor market of the near future, and said vocational jobs requiring only occupational licenses — dental hygienist, electrician — may be more plentiful and pay well enough to support a family.
That may be a good argument for some, given the fact that only four in ten students graduate college in four years, and two-thirds of those who do owe an average of $28,500 in student loans, according to the Census Bureau and the Institute of Education Science.
At the same time, however, the IES says college graduates earn 50 percent more than high school ones, which is argument enough for many.
That said, even educators admit that a four-year bachelor’s degree isn’t what it used to be.
“It’s very clear the upper middle class had decided that a graduate degree is what a B.A. used to be,” says Haycock, who adds. “It’s clear we don’t have enough college educated workers and that there’s a bigger payoff from having a college degree than not having one.”
In most cases, more education means more student loan debt, which has now topped $1 trillion in the U.S.
Some experts are pushing for more vocational training for high school students whose grades suggest they are not college material. In Germany and other European countries, educational systems essentially pre-determine who goes to college or vocational school, but in Germany high school runs five years and college only three.
“By no means are we telling all college students that they should drop out. But we do encourage all of those students on the threshold to think hard about their choices,” Michael Gibson, VP of grants for the Thiel Foundation, said in a commentary on CNBC.com. “If going to college requires taking on tens of thousands of dollars in debt, we advise you to learn a set of skills to pay it off. And above all, don’t go into debt if you can avoid it.”
Educators across the nation are certainly tinkering with the system.
“I realized a lot of kids are not going to go to college,” said Margaret Marie Butler, who became director of Syracuse University’s new Student Entrepreneurial Experience (SEE), which teaches teens the basics of entrepreneurism. Butler is a college dropout and former business owner herself.
Stephen Christensen, who teaches entrepreneurial studies at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., has adapted his course work into a summer-program for high school students.
“I’m responding to a need,” he says, explaining why he created the Teen Entrepreneur Academy. “There’s no job security for anyone these days, so let’s teach them entrepreneurial skills. It’s sort of a job-creation strategy responding to the realities of today.”
It’s those realities along with the hopes of a better future that seem to be driving many young Americans, like Spencer Hewett.
The 20-year-old Hewett left Washington University in St. Louis to accept a Thiel fellowship this spring. He’s renting out a garage in Palo Alto, Calif., waiting for his equipment to arrive while looking for a better place to live.
The Philadelphia native has figured out a way to use radio-frequency identification, RFID, and electronic payment technology to eliminate retail check-out lines. He’s already hired a lawyer and is talking to clients, partners and investors.
“University was awesome,” says Hewett. “This is a better option for me, though. “You’re learning in different ways; there’s real world experience.”
Watch "20 Under 20" on CNBC. Part I Premieres August 13 and Part II Premieres August 14 at 10p ET