Perhaps the least controversial thing that President Obama ever said was that "in the coming decades, a high school diploma is not going to be enough. Folks need a college degree." This vision is commonplace, but it implies a bleak future where everyone must work harder just to stay in place, and it's just not true. Nothing forces us to funnel students into a tournament that bankrupts the losers and turns the winners into conformists. But that's what will happen until we start questioning whether college is our only option.
Is higher education an investment? Everyone knows that college graduates earn more than those without degrees. Maybe that earning power comes from learning valuable skills, networking with smart people or obtaining a recognized credential. Well, maybe — it's hard to say exactly, since "college" bundles so many different things into one arbitrary package. And if all the most ambitious kids in our society go to college just because it's the conventional thing to do, then what happens on campus might not matter, anyway. The same kids would probably enjoy a wage premium even if they spent four years in the Peace Corps instead.
Or is college mostly about consumption? One look at a college brochure suggests that students consume much more avidly than they invest. That's why schools compete to attract student-consumers by furnishing a lively singles scene with plenty of time and space to party in glamorous surroundings. Or is college really insurance? Parents who despair of all the partying reassure themselves that college doesn't have to guarantee a bright future so long as it wards off career disaster.
But what if higher education is really just the final stage of a competitive tournament? From grades and test results through the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the colleges themselves, higher education sorts us all into a hierarchy. Kids at the top enjoy prestige because they've defeated everybody else in a competition to reach the schools that proudly exclude the most people. All the hard work at Harvard University is done by the admissions officers who anoint an already-proven hypercompetitive elite. If that weren't true — if superior instruction could explain the value of college — then why not franchise the Ivy League? Why not let more students benefit? It will never happen because the top U.S. colleges draw their mystique from zero-sum competition.
This tournament is obviously bad for the losers, who end up shut out of a self-satisfied "meritocratic" elite. But it's bad for the winners, too, because it trains them to compete on old career tracks such as management consulting and investment banking instead of doing something new. And it's worst of all for society at large because our economy stagnates when its leaders jockey to collect rents from old industries instead of working to create new ones that could raise the standard of living for everyone.
Today that's the tournament-style economy we have. Median household wages are actually lower than they were in 1989 (adjusted for inflation), so Americans have flocked to the few things that seem to promise an escape from stagnation. In the 2000s, that was real estate. Nobody thought very hard about it because everybody believed that house prices would always go up.
Now education has taken the place of housing. If a college degree always means higher wages, then everyone should get a college degree: That's the conventional wisdom encapsulated. But how can everyone win a zero-sum tournament? No single path can work for everyone.
Of course, you can't become successful just by dropping out of college. But you can't become successful just by going to college, either, or by following any formula. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg aren't famous because of the similar ways in which they left school. We know their names because of what each of them did differently from everybody else.
Learning from dropouts doesn't require closing colleges but rather questioning them carefully. Higher education holds itself out as a kind of universal church, outside of which there is no salvation. Critics are cast as heretics or schismatics endangering the flock. But our greatest danger comes from the herd instinct that drives us to competition and crowds out difference.
A Reformation is coming, and its message will be the same as it was 500 years ago: Don't outsource your future to a big institution. You need to figure it out for yourself.
Peter Thiel was a co-founder of PayPal and was the first outside investor in Facebook. He wrote this column for the Washington Post.