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Peter Thiel is right: the Ivy League could be a whole lot bigger

Peter Thiel wins Venture Capitalist of the Year in 2012.
Peter Thiel wins Venture Capitalist of the Year in 2012.
Steve Jennings/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Many people in higher education roll their eyes at Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal who gives smart kids $100,000 to skip college. Thiel is certainly right that some very bright, ambitious people can succeed without a college degree. But saying that college is unnecessary is like recommending playing the lottery instead of saving for retirement: it might work out for a few people, but it's terrible general advice.

I didn't used to take Thiel's ideas seriously either. But his fascinating interview with Vox's Ezra Klein — which is worth reading in full — made me think I wasn't giving him enough credit. Thiel has clearly thought a lot about higher education in the US. And while he misunderstands one big thing, he makes at least two other points worth seriously considering.

What Thiel gets wrong: Most colleges don't want to be the Ivy League

Thiel defends his focus on Ivy-caliber students by saying the Ivy League sets the tone for the rest of higher education:

I'm very focused on the question of what happens at the elite universities because they dominate the whole narrative. A lot of lesser colleges are trying to emulate the top ones in one way or another.

It's true that a lot of "lesser colleges" a few rungs down the U.S. News rankings would kill for Ivy-style reputations. And it's certainly true that the Ivy League dominates the conversation in national media.

But the Ivy League isn't as influential as Thiel thinks. Many, many more colleges know they'll never be like the most prestigious, most selective colleges — and more importantly, they're not even trying, because they have a different mission. Leave out community colleges, which educate more than one-third of all undergraduates, for now. Just 18 percent of all four-year college students are enrolled at colleges that accept fewer than half of their applicants:

College Board chart of colleges by selectivity

(College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2014)

Most students aren't going through the selective admissions tournament that Thiel derides.

The real problem with Thiel's approach isn't that it's elitist. It misunderstands how to change higher education, if that's your goal. California's community college system enrolls 20 percent of the entire nation's community college students. Change something there, and you've made an immediate, measurable difference for a lot of students' lives. Change something at Harvard, and it might eventually trickle down to other elite colleges. But not always: Harvard's attempts to end early decision admissions show that even the Ivies' influence is limited.

What Thiel gets right: the Ivy League could be a whole lot bigger

harvard commencement

Harvard could admit many more people and still be selective. (Boston Globe/Getty Images)

Thiel gets something about the Ivy League very right: the application process is a zero-sum tournament to win a golden ticket to the ruling class.

If you were president of one of the top universities, the way you would instantly get all the students, all the alumni, and all the faculty to hunt you down and fire you would be to propose doubling the enrollment over the next 20 years. But why can't Harvard double or triple its enrollment? It's like a Studio 54 nightclub where you have a velvet rope with a very small number of people on the inside and very, very large line of people on the outside.

This could be a rhetorical question, but if Thiel's serious, he's completely right. Nothing (except the availability of college town real estate) is stopping the most prestigious, richest universities in the US from building more dorms, hiring more faculty, and accepting more than a tiny fraction of their applicants every year. Harvard could double the size of its freshman class, double its acceptance rate, and still remain one of the most selective colleges in the US.

Increasing opportunity at the very top rungs of the educational echelon could only be a good thing. At worst, it would create a bigger and perhaps more diverse pool of people with Ivy League credentials. At best, a dramatic expansion of the most selective colleges could lead to a broader definition of academic merit and more willingness to take chances on students who don't fit a cookie-cutter definition of admissibility.

What Thiel gets really, really right: we don't actually know what college is for

Thiel's most trenchant point, though, gets to the biggest question in higher education: What is college, and why do people go?

Is it a consumption decision or is college as a four-year party? Is it an investment decision where you will develop skills to get a better paying job? Is it an insurance policy, so that you don't fall through the big cracks in our society or is it, say, a zero-sum tournament[?]

This matters a lot for just about every debate in higher education — the role of online education, the campus sexual assault crisis, the role of Greek life or college sports, you name it.

If college is a four-year party or a coming-of-age experience to even a significant minority of students, it's going to be hard for online education and other cost-cutting experiments to catch on, because people are going to keep choosing luxurious campuses over cheaper educational options. If a college degree is an insurance policy against unemployment, then what matters most is getting those degrees to more people, and gearing policies at boosting college graduation rates.  If college is about getting skills for a better-paying job, then as long as people are getting those skills and those jobs, it might not matter as much if they make it all the way to a diploma. In that case, colleges shouldn't be penalized for falling short.

The real answer, of course, is that colleges fill all of those roles at once. But designing a student loan system or a state tuition policy means prioritizing some over others, and our confusion about the role higher education should play is one reason that doing so is very complicated.

Thiel's solutions to higher education might not be the right ones. But I can't deny that he's at least thinking about the right questions.

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