Which raises the question: When is it OK for a wunderkind to drop out of school?
Some folks in Silicon Valley and elsewhere say a conventional education can't possibly give kids with outsize talents what they need. Others, like Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at Stanford Law School who teaches and advises startup companies, say dropping out to pursue a dream is 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.
Karp, in an interview Monday, said he hopes teenagers don't look at his success as an excuse for leaving school. "That is not a path that I would haphazardly recommend to kids out there," he said. "I was in a very unique position of knowing exactly what I wanted to do at a time when computer science education certainly wasn't that good in high school in New York City."
Karp's mother gave him the option of home schooling when he was 14, after he completed his freshman year at the Bronx High School of Science, an elite New York City public school that only admits students who score well on a difficult entrance exam.
Karp took Japanese classes and had a math tutor while continuing with an internship at an animation production company, but by age 16 he was working for a website and was on his way to become a tech entrepreneur. He never did get his diploma. Karp's mother said she let him leave school because she realized "he needed the time in the day in order to create."
Susan Bartell, a Port Washington psychologist who works with adolescents and their families, says she frequently encounters parents who are convinced 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.