Taylor Wilson has big dreams: to build nuclear fusion reactors that will solve the world’s energy crisis. “I’ve got some technology that will really change the world, so college right now is not the best option for me,” said Mr. Wilson, who is just 18 but built his first working reactor at 14. He plans to start a company, aided by a $100,000 grant as the recipient of a “20 Under 20” Thiel Fellowship. Before tackling a new form of energy, he will address slightly more modest tasks: detecting nuclear weapons and diagnosing cancer with his technology.
The two-year fellowship, for applicants under age 20, was started last year by Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor who believes more young people should be chasing breakthrough technologies instead of wasting their time and money in college. Mr. Wilson is in the second group of grant recipients, announced last month. He joins 43 other fellows — 39 men and 4 women — working on projects like developing unmanned aerial vehicles and building electric car motors with rare earth magnets. […]
But the Thiel Fellowship has also fueled a fierce debate about the value of a college education in a changing economy, one where the skills to write software or build a robot, coupled with an outsize dose of ambition and a youthful belief in one’s ability to change the world, have the potential to produce fame and fortune in a way that few other professions do.
“You increasingly have people who are graduating from college, not being able to get good jobs, moving back home with their parents,” Mr. Thiel said. “I think there’s a surprising openness to the idea that something’s gone badly wrong and needs to be fixed.”
James O’Neill, a founder of the program, blames the cost of college for what he sees as a lack of innovation in areas like energy, transportation, nanotechnology, space travel and robotics. “Not only does college track you into a career with a big company,” he said, “but for many people, it piles on a huge amount of debt that limits people starting a company or quitting your job to tinker in your garage.”