The billionaire dropout is Silicon Valley's golden archetype—the image of software Christ toward which all youngs should march. It worked for Mark Zuckerberg (although let's remember, he only left Harvard after Facebook was picking up steam), so it could work for you, right?
Peter Thiel's "20 Under 20" grant is sort of an anti-scholarship, promising young winners with a startup idea $100,000 paid out over two years, and a chance to stop going to silly classes and work on that idea instead. It's not really a chance—you must stop going to college in order to get the money. The no school part is serious business: certain exceptions can be made for audited classes not for credit, but actual, formalized learning is verboten—unless you want to give up that cash, which you'll need to live in San Francisco (where the fellowship strongly urges winners to relocate).
Let's meet this year's dropouts (and their ideas worth dropping out for)
Andrew Brackin (18, London) — Bunchy, a funding platform that allows organizations to raise money from their audience on their social platforms and websites.
Austin Russell (18, Newport Beach, Calif.) — Austin will be focusing on 3D depth mapping and projection of interactive holograms through a compact laser-based module.
Christopher Walker (20, Chevy Chase, Md.) — Chris will focus on developing interactive software to teach technical skills like programming, music and mathematics.
Daniel Zulla (19, Regensburg, Germany) — A secure computing architecture used for servers and desktop computers alike.
Darren Lim (19, Singapore) — He is currently working on a startup to improve how we interact with technology.
Delian Asparaouhov (19, Salt Lake City) — Technology to help manage disease and improve patient outcomes.
Diwank Singh Tomer (19, Palo Alto, Calif.) — A collaborative learning platform.
Gary Le (19, East Brunswick, N.H.) — A real-time online identity verification system for various applications in e-commerce, online communities and collaborative consumption businesses.
James Schuler (19, Armonk, N.Y.) — As a Thiel Fellow, James will work to improve crowd funding in order to revolutionize the campaign finance market.
Kevin Wang (18, Vernon Hills, Ill.) — As a Thiel Fellow, he aims to simplify the world of law and open source software to end the wasteful litigation epidemic.
Laura Ball (19, Wauwatosa, Wis.) — She would like to determine how information becomes important, and how important information maintains dominance over other information in order to define our conscious mind-states and behavioral responses.
Maddy Maxey (18, San Diego) Maddy will focus on optimizing the clothing patterns and the enterprise software that make our current garment industry inefficient.
Mark Daniel (19, Nashville) Since then, he has been building StatusHawk, a workplace accountability tool that changes the way that companies handle status reports. As a Thiel Fellow, Mark will focus on building this early stage company into a profitable and sustainable business.
Nelson Zhang (19, Toronto) He is currently working on a desktop fabricator for electronics, aimed at lowering iteration time and costs for hardware companies.
Nick Liow (18, Vancouver) — He’s challenging copyright by building ways for creators to get paid for giving their work to the public domain.
Riley Drake (18, Baltimore) — During her fellowship she intends to apply physical principles to virology: using biophysics to create broad-spectrum viral therapies.
Riley Ennis (19, McLean, Va.) — Immudicon, an early-stage biotechnology company that has developed a novel cancer vaccine platform and telemetric sweat-monitoring device in order to improve diagnosis and treatment.
Ritesh Agarwal (19, New Delhi) — As a Thiel Fellow, Ritesh will use technology to bring affordable and standardized accommodations to emerging economies across the world, starting in India.
Thomas Sohmers (17, Hudson, Mass.) — Currently, Thomas is working on developing a new computing platform that uses very low powered processors in a cluster to transform the server, cloud and research computing industries.
William LeGate (18, Marietta, Ga.) — During his fellowship, he plans to change the way that we discover apps for things around us.
Xinyi Chen (19, Beijing) — She participated in the Tigerlabs accelerator last summer and developed prototypes for her project Helios, which attempts to make telepresence devices accessible to average families.
Zach Hamed (20, Holbrook, N,Y.) — As a Thiel Fellow, Zach wants to develop a suite of beautifully-designed tools for K-12 teachers, saving them time, providing them supplemental income and helping them do what they do best—teach.
All of this probably beats the hell out of whatever you were thinking about when you were 18, sure—and it's terrific that they want to do something new, interesting, and on their own. But there's no guarantee any of these ideas will work, or work better than they would've with a degree in hand. Thiel touts the $34 million that the previous two classes of 40 fellows have raised since dropping out, but that's no indicator of success or longevity. If these startups fizzle, for whatever reason, they'll be on their own, at the mercy of a college that may or may not have granted them a two year deferral.
Thiel would say it's worth it—and for a man like him, it probably is. The more our new economy becomes one that rewards dropouts and hazard, the more horses investors have at the track. For VC firms, years spent in college and not hacking and disrupting are years potentially squandered. Years these kids could have been making the next... something. If they do, great for them. But if they don't, they might wish they'd stayed in the dorm.