Thiel Fellows Program Is “Most Misdirected Piece Of Philanthropy,” Says Larry Summers

Two years after billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel announced an experiment to pay bright high schoolers to drop out of college for $100,000, the Thiel Fellowship program hasn’t won over education leaders.

“I think the single most misdirected bit of philanthropy in this decade is Peter Thiel’s special program to bribe people to drop out of college,” said former Harvard President Larry Summers at the Nantucket Project conference during his first public appearance since removing himself for consideration for federal chairman.

Never one to shy away from an opinion, Summers said his friend’s ongoing education nonprofit is “meretricious in its impact and the signals that it sends to a broader society.”

Summers isn’t the only one leveling criticism.

“Peter Thiel promised flying cars; we got caffeine spray,” wrote Stanford researcher and Wall Street Journal columnist, Vivek Wadhwa. For context, remember that Thiel Fellow Ben Yu made headlines for developing a topical caffeine spray (all the fun of coffee without the hassle of ingestion). Wadhwa argues that this isn’t the world-changing startup that many had expected from top-tier entrepreneurs with the connections of Thiel.

In reality, it’s hard to condemn or praise the fellows program yet. In the context of tech investing, Thiel’s fellows are still greenhorns. Even the most successful startups can take years to stabilize. There’s been one successful exit, and the fellows are hard at work tackling 3D printing, biomedical imaging and solar energy.

Of course, It’s unclear whether Thiel ever expected that his fellows would create world-changing products with their $100K. Instead, the project was funded to show that, on average, the cost of tuition could be better spent on building things. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he told TechCrunch when the program first began.

Summers wasn’t convinced.

“I think it’s hard to look back and say it’s a sad thing that Bill Gates dropped out of college — world’s OK, he’s OK. I think it’s a hard thing to say that it’s sad that Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of college. But they are extraordinary exceptions, and if any significant number of intellectually able people, of the kind that would have the opportunity to attend top schools are dropping out, I think it’s tragic.”

The criticism, in the end, may be premature.

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