Peter Thiel: Is a part of America’s higher ed problem that college students don’t know what they want to be when they grow up?

by Ryan Streeter on February 13, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Francis Fukuyama interviews Peter Thiel in the current American Interest. As one would expect, it’s interesting and touches on the themes Thiel is known for. As Thiel followers know, he was influential on Tyler Cowen’s great stagnation thesis that technological innovation has been decelerating more than we tell ourselves, and the returns to innovation don’t have the impact on the economy and job growth the way it used to. He goes over all that in the interview.

The following passage farther down in the interview touches on something that would be interesting to see debated more vigorously:

When I taught at Stanford Law School last year, I asked students what they planned to do with their lives. Most were headed to big law firms but didn’t expect to become partners and didn’t know the next step after that. They didn’t have long-term plans about what they wanted to achieve in their lives. I think the educational system has become a major factor stopping people from thinking about the future. It’s far from equilibrium. There is something like $1 trillion in student debt. A cynical view is that that represents $1 trillion worth of lies told about the value of higher education. There are incredible incentives to exaggerate its value, and the counter-narrative has been shaky but is coming to the fore. Bubbles end when people stop believing the false narrative and start thinking for themselves. So many students are not getting the jobs they need to repay their debts, are moving back in with their parents, and the contract both parties signed up for is being revealed as false. (emphasis added)

Thiel quickly moves from the bolded section above to the conclusions about the college bubble, but I’d like to see him and others discuss the bolded words in greater depth. Consensus is starting to form that we’re waking up from the college bubble, even if we don’t know what to do about it.

But there’s far less agreement about the prior claim: college students are thinking less constructively about their future than they used to.

There’s a great, old word for what Thiel is talking about: vocation. Vocation is essentially your calling. It’s that thing you’ve been called to, almost as if from without even though you discover it deep inside – that thing you need to do.

Vocation usually works out to be the practical, three-way intersection of what you’re interested in, what you’re good at, and what’s available to do.

Thiel’s claim is that vocation is on the wane among the college-educated crowd. What would be interesting is to see whether we have survey or other data that supports this point.

Recently, a guy I know who has a long history of working with teens in his profession and in his volunteer life, told me, “The biggest change I’ve seen in the past 15 years is upper middle class families putting all their focus on getting into the best university, but very few college-bound seniors seem capable of saying what ‘they want to be when they grow up’ anymore.”

This strikes me as related to, but a separate issue from, the college bubble issue. I’d like to see Thiel unpack it more and hear others with some data in their pockets weigh in on it.