Larry Summers Blasts Thiel Foundation Fellowship: 'Single Most Misdirected Bit of Philanthropy This Decade'

Tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel's fellowship program has been the subject of much criticism since it launched in 2010. (Read Peter Theil's IP profile.) The latest round has come from former Harvard President Larry Summers, who has developed something of a reputation for making controversial statements.

"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," Summers said recently at the Nantucket Project conference. Echoing the sentiments expressed by many educators, Summers called the program "meretricious in its impact and the signals that it sends to a broader society."

Thiel's fellowship offers promising young people $100,000 to drop out of college or in some cases forego it entirely. The Thiel Fellows, all under the age of 20, enter a two-year program where they are mentored by Thiel and his colleagues and connected to his networks to help them further their ideas. For Thiel, the idea is to show that college increasingly is not worth the price tag, even for those who may have the opportunity to go to the most prestigious institutions, and that the money might be better spent building a business.

The most notable problem with this idea, aside from the fact that it's pretty much impossible to tell whether the fellows would have been more or less successful had they chosen a more traditional route, is that most kids don't have access to the kind of money or connections that Thiel is providing. Of course, Thiel would be the first to admit that the path he's creating only makes sense for a select few. And it should be noted that several of the Thiel Fellows had already made the decision not to attend college before they applied for the fellowship.

While Summers and others have a point that Thiel's program may send the wrong message to young people, it's still too early to tell what broader contributions the Thiel Fellows will make to society. They are, after all, working on some things that could have a real impact, including innovative products and organizations that deal with everything from 3-D printing to low-cost biomedical equipment to nontraditional education.

The biggest story to come from a Thiel Fellow so far, however, has been Ben Yu's caffeine spray, which does not exactly help further the program's image as one aimed at furthering ideas that are socially beneficial. Combine this with the fellowship's messaging, which seems overfocused on the dropping-out aspect, and it's easy to see why educators and media outlets are quick to criticize. It also makes one question whether Thiel has really thought through what he hopes to achieve with this program.