The Thiel Fellowship has proven somewhat controversial, and understandably so. Traditional education is already wildly in flux, with community colleges and online courses growing in popularity over the traditional four year university track. The state of Tennessee is about to enact the Tennessee Promise, which will make community college free. Other states are considering similar measures. Even Starbucks is shaking up education by promising to pay college tuition for employees.
Life after college is equally in flux. Many fields don’t look the way they did even ten years ago, from the decline of tenure positions in academia to rapid leaps in the tech industry requiring specific, fast-moving knowledge of code and digital architecture. It’s no surprise that Thiel jumped into the fray with a radical alternative— giving young visionaries $100,000 to skip collage and get to work on their passions.
Lamp Post Group sponsored a screening of Wired Magazine’s Teen Technorarti web series, which follows a recent class of finalists for the competitive Thiel Fellowship. One of the finalists was a Chattanoogan— recent Baylor school graduate and Ms. Tennessee competitor Darby Schumacher.
Thiel Foundation Community Manager Nick Arnett flew in to be a part of a panel discussion with local fifteen year old entrepreneur Jack Skowronnek, 2013 Thiel finalist Rachael Phillips, CoLab Events and Finance Director Allison Reedy, Lamp Post Group partner Jack Studer, and Chattanooga chapter member and Lamp Post intern Mae Stuart.
The discussion that followed was, unsurprisingly, highly focused on education. Many of the young people in the audience were looking for advice on what kind of educational track would help them best pursue their goals. The panel had plenty to offer up in response to their questions, and they generally agreed that a college education is no longer the best preparation for every career. Instead it is one options out of many that young people might pick as they prepare for and start their careers.
“I’d like my doctor to go to school for a long, long time,” Jack Studer said. “My accountant should go to school for al ing time. But not all professions need that level of schooling.”
Part of the reason a college education isn’t always a plus in some fields is because increasingly it’s inexperience that makes young professionals valuable. They come to the business at hand with a fresh eye, objectivity, imagination, and out-of-the-box thinking, specifically because they have never seen or experienced the box.
Studer explained that many companies can provide the opportunity for young hires to develop personally and professional within the business environment. Allison Reedy added “When we say college might not be the best option for you, it’s because we mean that lifelong learning is possible. If you can figure out a way to really understand people, that’s what you need to survive and thrive. You are going to have to figure out what is unique to you that is going to make people want you on their team.”
For all its controversy, the Thiel Fellowship model is not necessarily anti-college, but rather pro-diversification of education, empowering people to create their own best solution for success. The education revolution took off when many Millennials who graduated during the recession felt trapped by student debt, limited job opportunities, and how poorly the traditional system prepared them for what positions and fields and growing. Partly because of those frustrations, the next generation of young people will find they have more paths than ever toward fulfilling careers.
As for today’s startups, today’s open positions, and today’s workplace culture, it’s up to young people to focus not only on gaining the skills they need, but to change workplace culture to be more equal, welcoming, and diverse so that the next generation has no roadblocks to opportunity.
Whatever path future generations take, the panel had one piece of advice for all of them— to never stop learning. “We get to have so many different jobs throughout out lives, so why do we only get to go to college once?” asked Studer. Whether you choose college, have one major, and work in that field forever, or skip it to try one of numerous alternatives that lead you through many companies and career pivots, you will only benefit from continuing to learn and grow.