'Drop out of school': Does that advice work in South Africa?
PayPal founder Peter Thiel has encouraged America's top students to drop out of university and create a company instead. South Africans could benefit from considering entrepreneurship as important as a college degree.
Cape Town, South Africa
Like many other black South African parents, my folks were non-negotiable on one thing: that my siblings and I, at the very minimum, go to university and graduate. They worked slavishly, too, to make it happen. I’m sure many other South African parents held and continue to hold the same view, but I highlight black parents specifically because education beyond high school at an institution of their choosing, sometimes even high school itself, was something often unattainable for many of their generation (and others before) due to Apartheid and its two-level education system.Skip to next paragraph
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They didn’t care – at least my folks didn’t – what degree it was, because for them, along with voting (political freedom) and living in any area they please (social freedom), access to university education (economic freedom) was another affirmation that the bad old days were indeed over.
His reasons? Well, Thiel likens higher education to the housing bubble where the perception of security and insurance against the future has inflated the value of an investment (in this case college education) to well beyond its true value. He also says that higher education feeds off an uncomfortable elitist dynamic where the success of graduates from Ivy League schools depends on the exclusivity they have created – not because the schools (or the graduates themselves) are intrinsically better than others.
Thiel, so convinced of this assertion, has gone on to start a programme that pays the best 20 kids under 20 that he can find $100,000 for two years to leave college and start a company instead.
His comments are timely. The UK, for example, is in the midst of a tuition fee crisis that’s sparked debates about elitism, self interest, and the true value of a university education. And every year in South Africa, universities are flooded by students hoping to be accepted, however, many are turned away.
In as much as it is similar to the US and the UK, the situation in South Africa is also very different. The country is a mix of the developed and developing worlds. The lines between the two, though, aren’t as clearly defined as the symbolic image of the highway between the township of Alexandra and the ritzy suburb of Sandton. There are areas where these two worlds converge, often untidily, and ideas such as Thiel’s may not have universal applicability. The higher education system is one such area.
On one hand, you have kids from the lower rung of the country’s still-persisting two-level basic education system. These are kids from high schools (mostly public) that face developing world problems and as a result, generally, produce students who are ill-prepared for university, let alone dropping out of it to start successful businesses. Then you have kids from private schools and the better-run public schools who were afforded education at (and at times better than) the level offered to kids in the US or the UK.