Vivek Wadhwa, a former high-tech entrepreneur in the Triangle who now teaches at Duke and Stanford universities, is matched against billionaire Peter Thiel Sunday night in a CBS “60 Minutes” segment exploring the value of a college degree.
Thiel is paying 20 young people $100,000 a year to drop out or not go to college in order to pursue new business ideas.
Wadhwa says Thiel is sending the wrong message.
“My friends abroad are always amazed when they hear about Americans questioning the value of education,” Wadhwa wrote to friends and colleagues by e-mail ahead of the program. “After all, this is what made America what it is — and what other countries are striving for.”
Thiel, who made his fortune as an Internet entrepreneur, defends the “The 20 Under 20 Fellowship” plan as an alternative to higher education costs even though, as CBS notes, critics have called it an “elitist ploy.”
The program’s website describes it as “a radical re-thinking of what it takes to succeed.” The fellowship plan “encourages lifelong learning and independent thought. With $100,000 and two years free to pursue their dreams, Thiel Fellows are changing the world one entrepreneurial venture at a time.”
In the “60 Minutes” interview, Thiel tells CBSs Morley Safer: “We have a bubble in education, like we had a bubble in housing. … Everybody believed you had to have a house; they’d pay whatever it took.
“Today,” he adds, “everybody believes that we need to go to college, and people will pay – whatever it takes.”
That cost is too high, he adds, when comparing other careers.
“There are all sorts of vocational careers that pay extremely well today, so the average plumber makes as much as the average doctor,” Thiel says.
CBS, noting that “only half of recent college grads are employed full-time and tuition has quadrupled over the past 30 years,” points out that Thiel “believes the system is broken and its promises are hollow.”
“I did not realize how … screwed up the education system is,” Thiel says.”We now have $1 trillion in student debt in the U.S. … Cynically, you can say it’s paid for $1 trillion of lies about how good education is.”
“You can take 24 children and make them successful by giving them on-the-job training, but that’s not a lesson for the rest of America,” Wadhwa tells Safer. “What I worry about is a message that’s getting out there to America that it’s OK to drop out of school, that you don’t have to get college. Absolutely dead wrong.”
Wadhwa concedes that the people chosen for the “20 Under 20” have good ideas, but he insists a college education is needed to “turn those ideas into inventions and companies,” CBS notes.
“The majority of them will fail. And they’re going to regret not having completed their education,” Wadhwa says.
Wadhwa, a naturalized U.S. citizen who immigrated to the U.S. from India, launched and ran a high-tech firm in the Triangle called Relativity. He turned to academia after leaving that firm, which later was sold to IBM. Wadhwa has become an outspoken proponent of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education and immigration reform that would encourage more foreign-born entrepreneurs to come to the U.S. then stay here after completing their education.
At Duke, he is director of Research, Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization and executive-in-residence at the Pratt School of Engineering. That research has focused in part on whether the U.S. produces enough engineers to meet job demand and whether more engineers are produced overseas such as in China and India.
Wadhwa also has become a widely published pundit with columns published by The Washington Post and Bloomberg BusinessWeek, as well as Tech Crunch. Many of his writings also have been published in WRAL Tech Wire. He recently was named vice president of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University. He also has testified before Congress about these issues.
The “60 Minutes” debate is not the first between Thiel and Wadhwa about higher education. The two and others squared off in Chicago last fall, and Wadhwa concedes that the Thiel side prevailed as judged by the audience.
“The audience concluded that education was too costly and that fewer kids should go to college,” Wadhwa noted in his e-mail. “It is never people’s own kids – it is always someone else’s.”
Watch the CBS interview here.