Higher education is not a good fit for everyone. Allred is looking to build the vocational school of the future. Allyson Dias, Program Director of the Thiel Fellowship, is helping passionate students drop out of college to pursue their ideas. This week we interviewed Dias and got her thoughts on the future of education.
What is the Thiel Fellowship?
The Thiel Foundation, started in 2011, is Peter Thiel’s philanthropic vehicle and his answer to the notion that there might be an education bubble. Student debt is in the trillions, yet many young people think that higher education is the only path to a high-paying job. We at the fellowship give grants of $100,000 to students 22 and younger to drop out of school and work on a company or project.
What do you look for in Thiel Fellows?
We’re looking for ambitious, self-motivated, self-starting young people. The candidates that we choose see a problem in the world and want to create the solution to that problem; they’re working towards building the future.
Fellows can look very different. We have some fellows that have started nonprofits. We have crypto fellows like Vitalik Buterin, who started Ethereum. We have a lot of computer science and software fellows, as well as hardware fellows. Additionally, we have science fellows like Laura Deming, who is another well-known fellow that has been working on longevity since she was a young girl.
What attracted you to the Fellowship’s mission?
In 2012, I read an article in The New Yorker called “No Death, No Taxes” that profiled Peter Thiel. At the end of the article, he describes starting the fellowship to pay college students $100,000 to drop out of school and work on what they cared about most. I remember thinking that this was the best idea.
I saw a lot of flaws in my own education. I went to university in the US for one year and was very dissatisfied. It didn’t feel like I was learning or getting closer to figuring out what I wanted to do in the world.
So, I dropped out and I re-enrolled at a university in Europe. It was really wonderful to travel, but I saw a lot of the same flaws in my education. Everyone was still on the same hamster wheel. The focus was still on rote learning and memorization, and I wasn’t any closer to figuring out what I wanted to do.
All of the graduates were being funneled into investment banking or consulting. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew that I didn’t want to do either of those two. Ultimately, I dropped out of a master’s program because I didn’t want to go down that path.
When I heard about the fellowship, I thought it was such a great idea. Of course you should be paying great young people to be working on what they’re working on! I think this kind of a program could be even applicable across different industries. I imagine the model itself of this $100,000 grant would do really well for artists, musicians and the places where a lot of creativity comes from: the youth.
Another thing I love about it is that young people have been somewhat disenfranchised in our society, and to give them this opportunity to create and to build is so significant. It’s amazing to tell young people that you believe in them instead of saying, “oh, you’re too young. You don’t get it. You won’t understand.” To me, being open to creativity coming from any source is very exciting.
What do you think the future of higher education is?
I think right now is a pivotal moment with COVID-19 and universities deciding whether or not to hold in person classes. We’re seeing students questioning if it’s worth paying $50,000 a year in tuition for online classes taught via zoom. I think that the current situation is accelerating the decline of the university. I’m not sure what the future of higher education will look like but I imagine that the tipping point will involve student debt.
One of the best things about the university is the access to resources. Students get the knowledge capital of professors and other students. The university’s resources undeniably add value, but we’ve been seeing tuition rates skyrocket over the last 30 years, outpacing inflation. This access will still be desirable to people, but I don’t think it will necessarily continue in its traditional format.
I’m curious what direction this could take. For example, maybe there’ll be different models of higher education that are two years or one year, and the program ends up being more project based or culminates in some sort of contribution that’s directly relevant. This is something that you don’t really see in degree programs right now. Instead, you see this kind of fake structure with tests and a thesis and a GPA that isn’t directly relevant to applying your knowledge in the real world.
I also wonder if there’ll be some sort of education component brought in within private companies. It might be worth it for bigger companies, like Google or Facebook or even Netflix, to have their own version of an education model. If they could teach or train for three to six months and start building out their talent pipelines, that could reduce costs for their hiring. I think this is a possibility as well.
Overall I think part of the problem with universities is that we’ve siloed this age range of 18 to 22 year olds away from the rest of society. In the future I’d like to see more of an integration with society, the way that it used to be in the past with practices like apprenticeships.
This could take the form of vocational school. Society needs electricians and plumbers, and people with those skillsets make good money without needing a college degree. This could also work for Computer Science. Even with computer science, engineers learn a lot from working at a startup or a company. Oftentimes, they learn more from work experience than they do from their degree.
For our readers that are currently unhappy in college and thinking of leaving, do you have any advice?
I think it’s important for young people to think about what’s right for them, what they care most about and how they’d like to see the world. You don’t have to be a tech founder to do that as well.
One of the things that I think is wonderful about universities is this access to so many topics and subjects. When I talk to people that are in school and not happy, one of the first things I recommend is to go take a class that you’ve always wanted to take. Go take a pottery class, go take a music class, just try something new. Because the barrier to entry is so low in university, exposure to many different things is so accessible and I think that’s part of the learning and part of the experience.