By Marcus Wohlsen
May 29, 2011, 3:22 p.m. CDT
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Instead of paying attention in high school, Nick Cammarata preferred to read books on whatever interested him. He also has a gift for coding that got him into Carnegie Mellon University’s esteemed computer science program despite his grades.
But the 18-year-old programmer won’t be going to college this fall. Or maybe ever.
Cammarata is one of two dozen winners of a scholarship just awarded by San Francisco tech tycoon Peter Thiel that comes with a unique catch: The recipients are being paid not to go to college.
Instead, these teenagers and 20-year-olds are getting $100,000 each to chase their entrepreneurial dreams for the next two years.
“It seems like the perfect point in our lives to pursue this kind of project,” says Cammarata of Newburyport, Mass., who along with 17-year-old David Merfield will be working on software to upend the standard approach to teaching in high school classrooms.
Merfield, the valedictorian of his Princeton, N.J., high school class, is turning down a chance to go to Princeton University to take the fellowship.
Thiel himself hand-picked the winners based on the potential of their proposed projects to change the world.
All the proposals have a high technology angle but otherwise span many disciplines.
One winner wants to create a mobile banking system for the developing world. Another is working to create cheaper biofuels. One wants to build robots that can help out around the house.
The prizes come at a time when debate in the U.S. over the value of higher education has become heated. New graduates mired in student loan debt are encountering one of the toughest job markets in decades. Rising tuitions and diminishing prospects have led many to ask whether college is actually worth the time and money.
“Turning people into debt slaves when they’re college students is really not how we end up building a better society,” Thiel says.
Thiel made his fortune as a co-founder of online payment service PayPal shortly after graduating from Stanford Law School. He then became the first major investor in Facebook. In conversation and as a philanthropist, Thiel pushes his strong belief that innovation has stagnated in the U.S. and that radical solutions are needed to push civilization forward.
The “20 Under 20” fellowship is one such effort. Thiel believes that the best young minds can contribute more to society by skipping college and bringing their ideas straight to the real world.
And he has the shining example of Facebook to back up his claim. Thiel’s faith in the world-changing potential of Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg’s idea led him to invest $500,000 in the company, a stake that is now worth billions.
Still, the Zuckerbergs of the tech industry are famous because they are the exceptions. Silicon Valley is littered with decades-worth of failed tech startups.
Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at Duke University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and a writer for TechCrunch and Bloomberg Businessweek, has assailed Thiel’s program for sending what he sees as the message that anyone can be Mark Zuckerberg.
“Silicon Valley lives in its own bubble. It sees the world through its own prism. It’s got a distorted view,” Wadhwa says.
“All the people who are making a fuss are highly educated. They’re rich themselves. They’ve achieved success because of their education. There’s no way in hell we would have heard about Peter Thiel if he hadn’t graduated from Stanford,” he says.
Thiel says the “20 Under 20” program shouldn’t be judged on the basis of his own educational background or even the merits of his critique of higher education. He urges his critics to wait and see what the fellows achieve over the next two years.
According to data compiled by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, workers with college degrees were laid off during the Great Recession at a much lower rate than workers without degrees. College graduates were also more likely to be rehired.
But for fellowship recipients like John Burnham, 18, such concerns pale next to the idealism of youth. At his prep school in western Massachusetts, Burnham started an alternative newspaper to compete with the school’s official publication.
The entrepreneurial experience of creating something out of nothing captured his imagination. Now his ambitions have grown.
Burnham believes that the world’s growing population will put an unsustainable strain on the planet’s natural resources. That’s why he’s looking to other worlds to meet humanity’s needs.
Specifically, he believes that mining operations on asteroids could hold the key. For the next two years, he’ll be studying rocket propulsion technology and puzzling through the economics of interplanetary resource extraction.
“This fellowship is so much of a better fit for my personality than I think college would be,” Burnham says. “When you get an opportunity of the magnitude of this fellowship, I couldn’t see myself being able to wait.”