TRENDING NEWS:  Monday, Feb 9th 2015

Whatever happened to the teenage entrepreneurs whom Peter Thiel paid to forgo college?

The Rich Man's Dropout Club

Paul Gu dropped out of Yale University four years ago to become an entrepreneur. In the time since he has moved to California and teamed up with two former Google executives to create a company, Upstart, that matches borrowers with lenders online.

Mr. Gu is like many other Silicon Valley hopefuls, except in one respect. He is a Theil fellow, one of a select few who were given $100,000 each to leave college to pursue their start-up dreams. "It has sort of good and bad associated with it," Mr. Gu says of how people react when they find out that he is a fellow. "It comes with a whole set of assumptions and mixed views. People want to know if you think nobody should go to college."

In the five years since the billionaire investor Peter Thiel announced his eponymous fellowship, the project has assumed outsize social significance, as Mr. Gu discovered. Mr. Thiel’s outspoken nature and his view that the value of college is oversold have earned him both enemies and accolades.

For some, Mr. Thiel is a dangerous man, seeking to undermine a system that has proved the surest path to economic success for millions of Americans. For others, his ideas represent the future of American education, in which brilliant minds are freed from the convention of college and are encouraged to educate themselves on their own terms.

For Mr. Gu and other members of that first class of fellows, their experiences have been neither as dire nor as dramatically successful as observers on both sides predicted. While many fellows say they appreciate what college gave them, they also didn’t feel they needed a credential to pursue their dreams. And while they agree that dropping out isn’t the right choice for many students, they hope they’re proof that there’s not just one path to success.

Indeed, while higher-education experts debate his philosophy, they agree that Mr. Thiel has succeeded in getting more Americans to ask what college provides that the working world cannot.

Jake Schwartz, who heads General Assembly, a company that offers business- and web-development courses as an alternative to formal degree programs, agrees with Mr. Thiel that there is an almost "religious" dedication to higher education.

"I mean religious in a sense in that we don’t necessarily ask why, we just presume it’s important and deserves all the resources we can throw at it," he says. "It’s probably a healthy thing to ask why and ask which are the benefits to society and which aren’t. That requires alternatives, counterfactuals."

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Headlines: Monday, Feb 9 2015