Rethinking Higher Education Is Important, But NY Times Analysis Is Lacking

from the we-need-more-than-corporate-pr dept

Recently, the New York Times had a trend piece about the Thiel Fellowship program. The program is very interesting, and I was hoping to garner some insight into its success. However, I was left severely disappointed at the lack of any critical examination of the program, which is still quite controversial. The whole piece read like a PR blast. For instance:

1. The program encourages high achieving individuals to skip college in exchange for $100,000 over two years of fellowship grant, plus access to Thiel’s network. While many projects discussed in the article were interesting, there was virtually no information about the sustainability of any of these projects or whether or not the fellows had achieved any academic success – such as publications – or business success.

2. The article entirely omitted any examination of the fact that Thiel himself has an undergraduate degree from Stanford and a law degree from the same — this was relegated to a parenthetical. Surely some examination into this seeming contradiction is merited.

3. Similarly, the article totally failed to examine the fact that, at best, this program can really only be successful in a narrow slice of fields — computer software being the largest. For applied sciences generally, however, and especially engineering and medicine, you simply cannot be an autodidact and a viable career candidate – I’m not allowing someone without an MD to replace my hip, and I’m certainly not allowing someone without engineering qualifications to design my hospital. Too many professional organizations, professional licenses and research areas require formal schooling for this model to be scalable in our most key STEM disciplines. And yes, clearly some fellows are studying applied engineering, such as solar cells, or going into biotech, but there was no critical examination in this article, whatsoever, of whether it is feasible to be an autodidact in these fields, which typically require years of graduate level tutelage, even for students well into the genius range. For instance, there was a story about a fellow who was studying gerontology and having great difficulty raising funds – is this, perhaps, because a serious VC is not willing to give funding to someone in this field who does not have an MD or equivalent bio degree? I know when raising money for tech startups, VCs frown upon so-called “non-technical” founders – I’d be very surprised if this was not also the case in biotech and electrical engineering.

4. A huge part of Thiel’s argument, from what I gathered, is that the network he introduces his fellows to is a large part of the importance of the program. This article seems to be ignoring the fact that, for the vast majority of us, including Thiel himself, these networks are actually formed at institutions of higher learning.

5. The biggest indicator, I think, of the laziness of this article is that the lede is about a student who left Princeton to become a Thiel Fellow, and the “cost” of Princeton was not even the primary factor in this decision. I should certainly say so. Choosing a Princeton student is an exceptionally poor example, as Princeton is renowned for having possibly the best financial aid department of elite American schools, excepting the military academies. Princeton was the first school to completely eliminate student loans as of 2001, and they give extremely generous aid packages. So, from the very get-go, the author’s credibility was sincerely lessened in my eyes. Additionally, the statement that this article is being written “[a]t a time when the value of a college degree is being called into question…” is highly cynical and glib. What is being questioned is whether colleges are teaching the right things and whether the current college model is appropriate for all students, or if more alternative forms of higher learning need to be explored. What absolutely no one questions is that college degree holders outperform college dropouts, high school graduates, and especially high school dropouts across a wide spectrum of important metrics, including not only lifetime income, but health and divorce rates. This American Life has an interesting and tangentially related piece on the lasting impact of education on young people this week. Fundamentally, the debate is not whether higher education is unnecessary, it is about how higher education can more fundamentally meet the needs of different types of learners and address growth fields in the economy.

So, New York Times, I’d love to see you take a second shot at this. I’m deeply interested in alternative education methods, however, this article was entirely uncritical. It was a fluff piece that, somehow, made the A1 Sunday Headline online — which baffles me.

Instead of merely talking about how fantastic the fellows are (I’m sure they are), how exciting the program is (I’m sure it is), or what a fascinating iconoclast Mr. Thiel is (this goes without saying), let’s see some critical examination of this program. It has been going on long enough that we should be able to see some verifiable data, comparing fellows’ progress to the peers they left behind in school, or, if nothing else, some success stories about gainful employment, fundraising, papers publishing, products brought to market, etc. Instead, this seems like a retweet of corporate PR.

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Comments on “Rethinking Higher Education Is Important, But NY Times Analysis Is Lacking”

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Yogi says:

Why surprised?

Most journalism is just PR releases, with the byline of the “reporter” added instead of the company hack who wrote it in the first place. This has been the reality in journalism for years so I don’t understand why you are expecting anything different.

I’m surprised when the NY Times (or any other MSM outlet) comes up with a well-researched, well-written, balanced report on a major issue of concern. Sadly, I’m rarely surprised…

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Qualifications

I think Utah case is more about the absurd levies they were trying to charge than the fact they want to make it a regulated profession. But in any case I’m quite sure the security issues of a salon without license are way less problematic than some Jon Doe trying to play engineer without registration.

The line is pretty clear for me at least.

abc gum says:

Re: Qualifications

“Or are you going to go with the “I know what porn is when I see it” line of non-reasoning?”

False dichotomy?

Some fields require deep and thorough knowledge accompanied by many hours of real experience in order to achieve successful outcomes, others not so much. Being able to determine these differences with accuracy and repeatability could be accomplished via measurement of the results rather than a simple “I think so” opinion.

For example, one could research the hip replacement success percentage of a particular doctor. Although hairstyling success rate is probably more subjective, I thought the hair salon licensing kerfuffle was driven by an increase in head lice infestation – which apparently is something that can be tracked.

Ninja (profile) says:

It’s unfortunate that most mainstream news outfit have simply dropped critical thinking from their articles. Sure reporting is important but more than that giving a critical and unbiased clothing to the news itself is important. Any1 can report news, very few can develop some critical analysis. This article rises this point clearly.

As for the education model I agree that it will only fully work on very narrow situations. I’d go for a mixed model where there is tutelage (teachers and so) and some sort of hard test to ensure the autodidacts are doing it right. As pointed out medicine and engineering (for instance) would probably need more tutelage than other areas.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Seriously?

I looked at his “blog” thing, and he’s not the best writer in the world. Lawyer, tech guy, etc… but not really bringing all that much to the table.

Mike, this really should be a post on his own site, with maybe your own insight into it. Having it here isn’t really adding anything, it seems everyone is pretty much ignoring it.

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