Continued from page 1

“These are exceptional people,” he said of those who avoid college but succeed in the business world. “If you look at lifetime earnings of high school graduates and people who are college undergraduates … you see important differences. You’re talking about millions of dollars in lifetime earnings. But when you have a classmate who [drops out and finds success], it’s easy to say, ‘Well, hey, I wonder if?’ “

The brightest minds with the best ideas, Mr. Holtom added, increase their chances of success with a college education.

“Having the theories, the framework from school, you increase the odds that you can execute on that idea,” he said.

The chances of an average student founding a cutting-edge company like Apple or a wildly popular website like Facebook, Mr. Holtom said, are slim.

The vast majority of students instead will find work with established companies, which are rarely interested in people without college degrees. Most people, he said, “are average,” and shouldn’t convince themselves that a better life awaits if they drop out of college or skip it altogether.

The average college graduate will earn about $20,000 more each year than the average person with only a high school diploma, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Those with master’s or doctorate degrees typically further enhance their earning power.

With that in mind, the Thiel Foundation isn’t recommending that every student drop out of college.

“For some people, college is a really shrewd investment,” foundation Director James O’Neill said. “But for other people, college is basically a debt-fueled luxury good” that doesn’t lead to a good job.

He said innovators often have to set aside their ideas and find steady jobs to pay off thousands of dollars in college debt. By working with Mr. Kurek, Mr. Rueth and others, Mr. O’Neill said, their creativity will be more easily unleashed.

Even while pursuing their dreams, the 20 Under 20 participants aren’t closing any doors.

“In two years, if my company goes belly up … I can always just go back to school,” Mr. Kurek said.