We’re one step closer to making it socially acceptable to be a college dropout without a real job. At the beginning of September, Stanford announced a fundamentally new type of financial arrangement, in which it would become a VC investor in companies run by students and alumni through the StartX start-up accelerator. Even before that, Stanford appeared to encourage more than a dozen students to drop out and partner with Stanford faculty members to launch a new tech start-up. Is Stanford still a university? As Kevin Roose of New York magazine succinctly answers, “Stanford is now basically a VC fund with some dorms.”
The Stanford VC experiment (hopefully, it is just an experiment) is just the latest attack on the college classroom that is part and parcel of a fundamental re-thinking of the university experience. Nothing, apparently, is off the table anymore. Led by people like Peter Thiel, we are now actually getting to the point where we are seriously having a discussion whether college is even worth it at all. Peter Thiel, of course, famously offers 20 promising students around the nation $100,000 each to drop out of school and launch an innovative new startup. The idea being, of course, that you can significantly shorten the time to market for any great new concept you’re working on if you’re not burdened with the pedestrian concerns of getting a college education.
At the end of the day, what’s better? To graduate with $100,000 in debt and no job, or to drop out, form your own company, and live debt-free for the rest of your life?
What all this talk of college as a financial decision leaves out, though, is a serious discussion of all the soft intangibles provided by the college experience. What is it that really makes Stanford Stanford? Is it really just all about the access and the opportunity, or is there something else? The hallmark of a liberal arts education, for example, has always been the idea that college teaches you how to think and meet diverse types of people you might never again meet in your life. The focus was on building life-long skills, not just learning how to write a few lines of code. Things change, though, if you just consider your professors to be potential investors, your classmates as just nodes in your social network, and alumni status as just a convenient way to get in on an early round of a hot student-run company.
At the same time as the Stanford VC experiment threatens to forever alter the relationship between students, professors, administrators and alumni, other technological experiments funded by venture capitalists are further splintering the college experience into many different pieces. Take, for example, the MOOCs (massive open online courses), which are now becoming so mainstream that they’ve attracted the attention of prestigious institutions like the Ivy League schools, MIT and, of course, Stanford. In fact, Stanford was perhaps the first school to go mainstream with MOOCs, in which it offered a course to over 100,000 people around the world to see what happens when you can learn via online video rather than physically being in the classroom.
What that has done is create incentives for people like Stanford’s Sebastien Thrun to form a for-profit MOOC known as Udacity which essentially grooms students with the right tech skills to land great IT jobs. Udacity launched with the idea of taking a “cut” of the future earnings of its “students.” And, that’s not all. Now Google has entered the mix, with its own financial backing for an online training alliance that features Udacity, as well as other online education innovators like Khan Academy. You can read this latest development as a failure of our nation’s top universities to produce highly-skilled tech graduates — or you can see it as yet another attack on the traditional college classroom.
Remember the days when we thought college athletics were ruining higher education and fundamentally altering (and dumbing down) the university experience? Well, those days will soon be long gone. Now, our greatest fear should be that Silicon Valley venture capitalists – and the vast technology ecosystem that they’ve established of incubators, angels and start-ups – are about to forever change the college experience. For academic purists, the bogeyman is no longer the college athlete who skates through school thanks to generous alumni ties and an easy course load – it’s the 18-year-old who drops out of school entirely to pursue a personal dream of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.
image: Historic Stanford University by Ken Wolter / Shutterstock