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Dear Peter Thiel: Let’s Fix College, the Right Way

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  • Dear Peter Thiel:

    We disagree on whether college is necessary. First we debated whether too many kids go to college last October, and we just duked it out on CBS 60 Minutes. Judging by the feedback, America is deeply divided on this issue. Most people agree with you that college has become too expensive and that the trillion-dollar student debt is a serious problem. So do I. 

    But the solution isn’t to skip college. According to the U.S. census, 30.4 % of U.S. adults 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree. You may think this is high and point out that the number is increasing, but to me this is shockingly low. I believe that every young man and woman should have the same opportunity of going to college. It’s not only education; young people also gain valuable social skills from college. They learn how to interact and work with others, how to compromise, and how to deal with rejection and failure; they learn how to learn. 

    For the record, I am not advocating elite or expensive education. There are many state universities and community colleges that do a good job. That’s why the debt burden of the average American isn’t $250,000 as you often say, but $25,000 — which is less than the average car loan. This isn’t as hard to pay off when the yearly salary premium for a college graduate is $17,037 over a high school diploma holder.

    I do agree that education costs are rising too rapidly and that with the fragile state of the economy many people can’t find jobs which allow them to pay off their loans. Not to mention, as you have said, it is wrong for a society to pin people’s best hope for a better life on something that, by definition, can be exclusionary. But isn’t handpicking a group of once-college-bound teens for the Thiel Fellowship program essentially the same thing? 

    You created this fellowship program to give students an alternative to college and tried to level the playing field by making it accessible to anyone with a smart idea. But many of the students selected were headed to elite schools anyway. And what about the average student who may not have the kind of ideas that get them into a program such as yours? Don’t you think they deserve similar opportunities? That’s why there has to be a better answer than the one you’ve given.

    So, I propose this. Why don’t we work to create more options for graduates to walk away from debt as the government lets businesses do, or as you and other investors let entrepreneurs do? And when it comes to educating future generations, why don’t we do things the Silicon Valley way: Change the equation with innovation. Technology, the very thing that made you who you are, can do that. 

    It has advanced so much over the last two decades that we can create a revolution in the way we educate and learn. After all, it wasn’t long ago that books like the Encyclopedia Britannica were our best sources of knowledge. But these were so expensive that access was restricted to the elite classes. Today, information is abundant and free. Britannica is now equivalent to a drop of water in this new ocean. 

    The technology to access information and transform it into digestible knowledge is also advancing rapidly. Tablet-type devices such as the iPad have become ubiquitous. Even the poor in India and China carry around internet-enabled smartphones. The graphics capability of these devices is so advanced that we can teach students geography by taking them into virtual worlds. We can teach math using interactive games. Students anywhere can watch lectures from universities like MIT and Harvard. Essentially, technology now makes it possible for us to change the teaching paradigm. 

    In fact, there are some venture capitalists who already see the value in this move. Former Silicon Valley CEO Ben Nelson just received $25 million in funding to create an elite global online university meant to compete with the likes of Harvard but at half of the admission cost. 

    What I’m saying here is that elite universities no longer have a monopoly on education. We can make the old-style college degree obsolete. We can do to traditional education what PayPal did to banks and do to college networks what Facebook did to friendships. Just as it happened to information, we can make education abundant and available to all. Isn’t that better than debating who should go to college?

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