Susan Bartell, a psychologist based in Port Washington, N.Y., who works with adolescents and their families, says she frequently encounters parents who are convinced that their kids are extraordinarily gifted. But she cautions that it's "the very rare exception when this decision (to drop out) makes sense." In the case of Karp, she said, "it worked out, but almost always it doesn't — even if a kid is extremely gifted. School is about much more than just academics and in most cases, even the most gifted kids need the socializing."
And not all young moguls take Karp's route. Earlier this year, a 17-year-old from London, Nick D'Aloisio, sold an app he created to Yahoo for $30 million — but he decided to stay in school.
On the other hand, there are examples of successful individuals in many fields who lack a high school diploma, from top performers such as Jay-Z to billionaire businessmen such as Richard Branson.
But the tech community may be different from other industries. Degrees are not necessarily seen as a hallmark of achievement and programmers are judged on their ability to type lines of code. You are what you create.
What also sets the field apart is that computer programming is not taught at every high school, and even when it is, the most talented students often either "surpass the curriculum or feel it's not relevant to them," said Danielle Strachman, program director for the Thiel Fellowship. "They want to move at their own pace."
Strachman also emphasized that just because someone has left school, doesn't mean they've stopped learning. The Thiel program provides not just funding, but a community of peers and mentors to help recipients reach their goals. And they can always go back to pursue a degree when the fellowship is over.
It's a goal that even Karp has his eye on— despite his newfound wealth. "I hope I have an opportunity to go to school at some point," he said, "and study something completely different."
Online: Thiel Fellowship: http://www.thielfellowship.org/
Associated Press writers Meghan Barr in New York and Michael Liedtke in San Francisco contributed to this story.
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