Every year, 20 college educations are put on hold for two years. This group of young adults—many under the age of 20 years old—are among the brightest, most creative and most motivated people in the world. They are all recipients of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship.

Peter Thiel, a co-founder and former CEO of PayPal and the first investor of Facebook, encourages young entrepreneurs to go after their goals. He supports start-up companies around the country and has recently established the Thiel Fellowship. The fellowship is based on the idea that college is not always the best way to gain an education and that a degree does not guarantee success. Thiel announces the 20 fellows in May of every year. This year’s fellows will be the third group awarded the fellowship; the first group was announced in 2011. Thiel fellows are given $50,000 a year for two years “to skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education.” According to the website, this is a “no-strings-attached grant of $100,000.” No rules, no limits.

The chance of being awarded a Thiel Fellowship is lower than the acceptance rate at an Ivy League university (where many of the recipients attended or were accepted). Submitted applications are reviewed by 15 to 20 would-be mentors from the program; these future mentors also then choose the finalists. All finalists then have two-and-a-half minutes to pitch their project ideas to Thiel mentors. Finalists are narrowed down to the final 20 recipients and then announced.

Thiel fellows come from a variety of different backgrounds. Though most of those selected are American, there have been fellows from outside the United States, whose native countries include Britain, China, Canada, Germany, India, Russia and Singapore. The fellows’ fields of study are also diverse. They range from robotics to artificial intelligence, information and communication technology to medical technology, biotechnology, genomics and synthetic biology to nanotechnology, just to name a few. Most fellows focus on science, computer technology and medicine; however, the 2013 class claims a fashion merchandiser from San Diego named Maddy Maxey, the first of her kind among the fellows.

During the two-year program, a network of successful mentors guides the fellows. They include doctors, developers, inventors and entrepreneurs who offer business connections and advice that are hard to find in a traditional classroom. Some of this year’s mentors include Rob Meagley, CEO of One Nanotechnologies; Jonathan Baudanza, founder of Beatlab.com; Lindy Fishburne, executive director of Breakout Labs; Michael Ellsberg, author of The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to Be Successful; and Peter Thiel himself. The fellows are also encouraged to work and engage with each other, creating their own network of connections. In order to get the most benefit possible from the fellowship, it is suggested that the fellows stay in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the fellowship is headquartered. However, if necessary, they may travel around the world to work on their projects.

While the Thiel Fellowship claims some success stories since its launch in 2011—it has raised over $34 million from investors and been the foundation for 30 new companies—not all the fellows have been successful. Most don’t make an income during their fellowship, and many switch from one project to another. Critics who favor traditional schooling use low success rates as evidence against the program; the chance at becoming a successful college-dropout-turned-entrepreneur like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs is slim. However, for Peter Thiel, the rate of success is secondary. What’s most important is the fact that these 20 young adults are given real-world experience and the chance to try.

Did You Know?
Although a lack of funding for school arts programs is not a new problem, it seems pro-arts initiatives are finally being given the attention they deserve. Individual states and districts are doing their best to revitalize their programs, arts being a main priority. Thanks to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, at least “some arts instruction and cultural programming” is available in almost all city schools—a stark contrast to the low 45 and 33 percent of schools that provided arts education in elementary and middle schools, respectively. Dallas is another up-and-coming pro-arts community. For the first time in over 30 years, every single elementary student within the Dallas Independent School District is required to participate in 45 minutes of art and music instruction each week. Communities in Minneapolis, Chicago and Arizona follow Dallas and New York City as making the most notable changes to their programs in an effort to infuse the arts back into their curricula. (DYK by Emeli Warren)