Billionaire investor Peter Thiel's plan to pay college students to drop out is showing mixed results

A lot of people raised eyebrows when billionaire investor Peter Thiel when he first brought up the idea of the Thiel Fellowship in 2010. He wanted to pay 20 teenagers $US100,000 each to drop out of college and start their own companies.

So how’s it working out?

According to an article by The Chronicle of Higher Education, pretty well.

Thiel’s fellowship program received 400 applications in the first year, of which 24 were accepted. In the four years since, it’s had 83 total fellows, who launched companies that raised $US72 million in total investments and $US29 million in net revenue.

It’s hard to gauge how those numbers stack up against other startup incubators like Y Combinator. But at most of the fellows seem happy with their experience at the two year program.

The Chronicle spoke to 11 of the first 24 fellows, and all but one said they learned more about “their abilities and the business world” than through a college education. Although the fellowship program lacks the social and intellectual aspect of college, they said the fellowship experience was so valuable that they would recommend it to others.

Eden W. Full is one of the success stories of the program. She left Princeton to join the program and work on her startup called SunSaluter, a maker of a device that provides cheaper solar energy and clean water in developing countries. She says the fellowship provided her with lots of connections, and now SunSaluter is distributed in 15 countries with a factory in India.

But many of the fellows either had to pivot or start over again during their fellowships. Paul Gu, for example, abandoned his e-commerce idea for an online lending platform called Upstart. His company now has 25 employees and more than $US6 million in funding.

Another participant, John Marbach, left the program because it felt isolating — the Thiel Foundation was happy to introduce him to VCs and CEOs, but there was no way to meet “normal friends.” But Marbach said he’d do it again now that the program has more of a support system.

But Gu sounded sceptical when asked if dropping out of school was for everyone. “Are there alternatives to college?” Gu told the Chronicle. “Yes, but you have to work pretty hard…most people would be better going to college.”

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