It used to be a given that a college education was always worth the investment even if you had to take out student loans to get one. But today, as unemployment hovers around double digits in the US and many other parts of the world, tuition continues to soar and kids graduate only to move back home with their parents to chip away at their oppressive debt, the once-heretical question of whether education is worth the exorbitant price has started to be re-examined even by the most devout members of American intelligentsia.
Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder, hedge fund manager and venture capitalist who has a knack for spotting bubbles (he was one of the few who saw the 2000 NASDAQ crash coming) thinks we are now facing an education bubble which is getting pushed to inappropriate levels. He thinks it’s fundamentally wrong for a society to pin people’s best hope for a better life on something that is by definition exclusionary. To put actions behind words, he launched a program called “20 under 20,” in which he picks the best 20 kids he can find under 20 years of age and pays them $100 000 (USD) over two years to leave school and start a company instead.
Thiel is not the first one to get overtly critical of the ‘Ivy league’ theatre: Jim Rogers, the American investor who co-founded the Quantum Fund with George Soros, warns that there’s going to be a huge shift in American society and American culture in terms of the places where one is going to get rich. “I wish I could sell Harvard short,” he concludes.
But of all people, the best analysis might very well be coming from Stephan Chambers, who heads the MBA program at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. He thinks that universities are producing students that are not fit for the world. “Take a look at the world and ask yourself what is newly emerging...for the first time ever, everything is correlated; the financial crisis taught us that. There is nowhere in the world in which really catastrophic things won’t happen if they start to happen. It’s true at the climate level, it’s true at the energy level, it’s true at the viral level, in the complex interaction of fertility-mortality-migration. Everywhere you look, things are pretty complicated. If you then map that stuff to what universities do, you see an extraordinary mismatch. So then, who decides what the most appropriate forms of resilient capacity is? The clear consensus seems to be that it has something to do with critical thinking, with what you may call ‘revised enlightenment’, with being this interested, adaptive, socially literate and philosophically competent. But that’s not true if your entire culture is about the ‘average net labour cost’ and other banal things; it’s not true if ‘excellence’ is simply correlated with conformity and quantitative tests capacity. It’s not true when the biggest question you face is inundation or drought.”