Peter Thiel Encapsulates the Student Loan Crisis in One Terrifying Chart
January 6, 2014

Washington Post’s policy blog – Wonkblog – invited movers, shakers and big thinkers to submit their favorite graph of 2013. The one shown below was submitted by billionaire Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal and investor in many other interesting endeavors) that is a crisp visual reminder of the plague that student loans have become on our society and economy.

Peter Thiel's graph of the year 2013

Student loan debt versus income potential.
Image source:

Along with the graph, Thiel wrote:

“Knowledge may be priceless, but a higher education is clearly not. University administrators keep hiking tuition, the wages of graduates keep falling, and a whole generation of Americans is struggling under the crushing burden of debt as they postpone their dreams for a tomorrow that may never come.”

The Motley Fool contends that Thiel went “a step too far” with this selection and, yes, you can debate the numbers behind any chart (lies, damned lies, statistics and all that…) but the point was (I believe) to call attention to the zeitgeist that drives the majority of high school students toward college – and inevitable debt – like eager-to-learn lemmings.

Rather than a step too far, it’s just one more step in Thiel’s ongoing march against college-for-all and the proliferation of student debt. He launched the Thiel Foundation’s Fellowship program back in 2010 to encourage forward thinking young people under age 20 to shun college (at least for a bit) to explore their ideas and gets them started with a $100k nest egg.

Thiel himself has a couple of college degrees – a Bachelor’s in Philosophy from Stanford and a law degree – but were these necessary to put him on the road to PayPal? He’s certainly spent enough time in school to have a perspective on what college can (and perhaps can’t) do for you and what the costs of all that education are.

The dialogue Thiel is generating about college cost versus benefit is worthwhile and the rancor that’s bubbled up by his reminder that plumbers earn as much as doctors is fascinating. Any article about Thiel and his theories on massive college debt also inevitably features a counterpoint by one or more detractors that almost exclusively work in academia.

These are the people that rely on the student loan bubble for their very livelihood and that have likely never held a job outside of the hallowed halls of higher learning. For his part, Thiel doesn’t have a vested interest in keeping colleges full to bursting while his decriers certainly do. And that should give us all pause.

The simple fact is that a college education has lost some of its economic currency because so many people have one now. Once all the Sneetches got a star, it lost its lustre. So why continue to push everyone through the machine? So Sylvester McMonkey McBean could get his $3… If Thiel’s chart scares even a few prospective college students into rethinking borrowing to matriculate, it’s a step in the right direction.

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