Who needs college? Maybe tech innovators

I was moderating the GIL 2012: Silicon Valley panel on innovation today when a debate on the value of college broke out.

OK, so maybe I baited the panel a bit, but the ensuing venture capitalists cage match exposed an intriguing argument about whether students (and their parents) get what they pay for in a college education and whether there are larger questions involved.

“Our universities are obsolete,” said panelist Jim O’Neill, a partner at Mithril capital and co-founder of the 20 under 20 Thiel Fellowship. Maybe you’ve heard of the fellowship, which offers young entrepreneurs $100,000 grants to drop out of college to pursue their business plans. O’Neill continued:

“The whole very-19th century, if not earlier, model of stopping your career, spending four years accumulating random bits of knowledge and immense amounts of debt and then trying to restart your career, it doesn’t make a lot of economic sense. It probably never did.”

Feeling pretty good about writing that first semester tuition check for your kid, aren’t you?

In fairness, O’Neill and others involved with the fellowships promoted by PayPal co-founder and valley investor Peter Thiel, have said that college might be right for some. But for entrepreneurs with a ready (and good) idea it serves only as an impediment and a source of debt that makes funding a start-up all the more difficult, the Thiel camp argues.

But panelist and veteran valley venture guy Andy Rappaport had a different way of looking at the college experience. Not only is it a chance to think big thoughts and contemplate your way forward, the August Capital general partner said, universities are vital to an innovation culture. His take:

“What would we do if we didn’t have the research institutions that were not just  focused on the immediately practical applications of the things that they were doing? There  are a lot of things we take for granted now, like every technological device that we have that we wouldn’t have. There are a lot of cultural contributions that we take for granted that we wouldn’t have. The idea that we have created through the world, and especially in the United States, institutions that are particularly good at getting very very bight people organized around thoughts and ideas, problems etc., in an environment that is not strictly focused on the immediate commercial application of those things, I think is integral to the fabric of who we are and to innovation and our economic growth.”

I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of this debate. I’d be interested to hear what you think.




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