Studying Cards Over Chemistry: An Alternative Approach To Higher Education
It was 5 a.m., and Matt had spent the entire night peering at his 22-inch computer monitor. His chemistry textbooks lay at the foot of his bed, unopened. He was expected to be in class in three hours, but he didn't care.
The screen was filled with dark green boxes—sometimes one or two, sometimes as many as seven or eight—which he’d been watching, analyzing, and reacting to simultaneously.
Those boxes were online poker games, and Matt was making a killing.
That night, he made nearly $3,000—enough money to fail the class he wasn't studying for, then retake the three units again.
Matt did some more math and realized that completing his undergraduate chemical engineering degree wouldn’t pencil out. Full tuition at USC in the Fall 2010 semester was $20,192.00—a 4-percent increase from the year before.
That comes out to more than $40,000 a year, just to take classes. It's a big number for anyone, but particularly a middle class kid from the South Side of Chicago. Sure, USC offered financial aid, but Matt was beginning to question why he should spend money on his education when he could be making money playing poker.
Matt completed the first semester of his junior year, then took a leave of absence so that he could move home and start earning some real cash. He supplemented his poker winnings by offering online courses to aspiring players in places as far away as Australia.
But any possibility of a future playing online poker full-time was quashed on April 15 last year, when the United States Justice Department took down the three largest online poker sites in the country.
So Matt moved to Costa Rica, a country in which the government doesn’t have a problem with online gambling. While his friends were returning to school for classes, Matt was spending his days in front of his computer screen, making more than enough money to support himself. (Full disclosure, I was a classmate of Matt’s at USC.)
“I decided to go to university because that’s what our generation does, whereas maybe 30 years ago, not everyone was going to college,” he wrote in an email. “Today, it is almost mandatory to have a degree to have a good opportunity to create the lifestyle you want.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal organization that collects and analyzes education data, the average American male between the ages of 25 and 34 with a bachelor’s degree earns a median income of $51,000 per year. A high school graduate earns $32,900 per year.
So financially speaking, college makes sense. But a bachelor’s degree is more than a financial benefit. It’s an indicator to society that a young adult is ready for the rigors of the real world. An educated public makes for a stronger social fabric.
Traditionally, few would question the value of higher education, though many might object to the price. Lately, however, some have begun to challenge the merits of college. Peter Thiel, the billionaire businessman and PayPal co-founder, believes the price of school is the next big bubble.
“A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he told TechCrunch. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”
While an educated populace is good for society, it might be killing the economy. Student debt reached $1 trillion earlier this year, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Young people who might have been spending their money on consumer goods or housing are instead paying back the loans that put them through college.
Thiel said a bachelor's degree carries no guarantee of a sound future, and the belief that it does is unhealthy. “It’s what you’ve been told all your life, and it’s how schools rationalize a quarter of a million dollars in debt.”
He founded the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, a program that challenges some of this generation's finest minds to drop out of school and pursue "innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow.” Instead of paying one hundred grand in tuition, Thiel fellows are given that amount to fund their startup.
Matt had no idea who Peter Thiel was when he chose to drop out of school. But their philosophies are remarkably similar.
“School was taking up poker time, which was almost $1,000 a day,” Matt explained. Why would any intelligent, self-motivated 21-year-old want to spend his days in class instead of making $300 an hour doing something he actually enjoyed?
“I was also more motivated in pursuing other interests that USC couldn’t offer—traveling, business opportunities, and trading stocks.” He was also sick of the Spartan college existence. “Living in a frat is loud, not private, and has shitty Internet," he said. "Sometimes I’d want to sleep after staying up all night but couldn’t. Or I’d have someone bugging me about how online poker is rigged.”
Matt said aside from trading and investing in real estate, he’s “spent a lot of time working with a startup—Draftday, founded by two very successful poker players," Taylor Caby and Andrew Wiggin. “Working with the right poker players is amazing," Matt said. "Plus, they have the experience of already running a successful business for over six years. I really think the industry will boom and am spending a ton of my time in downtown Chicago working on it.”
And while he may no longer be enrolled at USC, Matt finds ways to educate himself. “I still enjoy learning, but schools like Stanford and MIT have free classes online," he said. "I signed up for two Stanford classes in entrepreneurship, two in programming, and am able to spend eight hours on some days going through stuff, then taking maybe a week off to golf."
“I also don’t have to study anything not ‘useful,’" Matt continued. "In addition, I’m involved in a handful of other job opportunities and investments in startups, so I wouldn’t ever really need a degree to get to that next step. However, I do miss the social part of school.”
Matt’s success is remarkable for someone so young, but he’s also disarmingly humble. He’s the kind of guy who’ll tell you many great stories about high school, but forget to mention he was valedictorian.
When I ask him if he thinks he’s made the best use of his money, intelligence and mathematical skills, it’s clear that he has a conscience, too.
“There probably isn’t a selfless answer,” he said. “I guess you might say that the money I am investing in startups will be able to better the lives of those who wouldn’t have the opportunity without proper funding,” he said.
“But really, I’m greedy. I think a lot of businesses have to be in order to succeed."
Reach Contributor Kunal Bambawale here.