Thomas Sohmers, 17, of Hudson, Mass., has been working at a research lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since he was 13, developing projects ranging from augmented reality eyewear to laser communications systems. This spring, his mom, Penny Mills, let him drop out of 11th grade. She says she “could see how much of the work he was doing at school wasn’t relevant to what he wanted to learn.”
On Monday, Thomas and his mom learned that he is in esteemed company as a high-school dropout with a knack for computers: David Karp, 26, sold Tumblr, the online blogging forum he created, to Yahoo for $1.1 billion.
Examples of tech geniuses who lack college degrees are well-known — Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg among them. But Karp left high school after his freshman year, with his mother’s blessing, at the tender age of 14.
Critics say dropping out of school to pursue a dream is a terrible idea. Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford Law School who teaches and advises startup companies, says it’s like “buying a lottery ticket — that’s how good your odds are here. More likely than not, you will become unemployed. For every success, there are 100,000 failures.”
But what about kids who are so good at computer programming that schools can’t teach them what they need to know? “That’s what internships are for; that’s what extracurricular activities are for,” says Wadhwa, who has founded two companies.