America is a dreamland for many. Take any survey and chances are that half of them would be brimming with world-class universities from this continent. Scores of students from all over the globe head to Uncle Sam’s abode, a preferred higher education destination. But dismissing the entire idea of colleges and degrees is Dale Stephens — paying too much for collegiate education and getting little in return is this 21-year-old’s grouse. This led to UnCollege.org on January 21, 2011, where Stephens offers a variety of resources to help achieve success sans degrees.
The story unfolds
Stephens, a Thiel Fellow, quit Hendrix University, USA, where he was pursuing holocaust literature, history and French in spring of 2011, because he was convinced he could achieve his goals on his own. An average student in USA graduates with a debt of $27,000 and a credential that does nothing to differentiate him/her to employers or give the required skills. It is not just tuition fee, he advises. “You have to think about the wages you’re giving up by being in school, the opportunity to learn and actually use life and work skills rather than simply studying them. The time that is spent on school could actually be going into achieving your goals and pursuing what you’re passionate about. If someone acknowledges the degree they are pursuing to be worthless, I would encourage them to step out of the university system and pursue education, skills, and experiences that will contribute to work and life success,” he says.
With Stephens’ mother being a former public school teacher, one might expect his parents to be reticent about his work. However, they have been very supportive of him taking decisions about his life. “They let me quit school when I was 12 and home-schooled me for a while. Again, no eyebrows were raised when I decided to leave college at 19. They are incredibly proud of my work in revolutionising higher education,” he says.
After dropping out of college, Stephens couldn’t have landed a better deal than the Thiel Fellowship in May 2011. Thiel Fellows work on the field rather than confine themselves to the four walls of the classroom. Though Thiel has had quite an impact on Stephens, he says he was long convinced of the uselessness of degrees before he met Thiel. However, he does give due credit to the entrepreneur-cum-visionary. “The Thiel Fellowship experience was invaluable in getting UnCollege off the ground. The fellowship gave me the resources needed to focus on the project cent per cent and build the movement into something groundbreaking. I think any encouragement for young people to drop out of or completely forgo college to pursue a real-world project or opportunity is a great thing, and the fellowship provides a very practical and helpful way for exceptional young people to do just that.” UnCollege too offers a similar programme.
The Gap Year Program
To be launched this fall, this programme allows 10 enterprising individuals to commence a year-long process of self-learning. While Peter Thiel has completely shut his doors for academically-inclined youngsters, Stephens is reasonable when he says the programme is also open for ones who are proud of their degrees.
Stephen’s plans for fellows are as ambitious as his own. “Our goal is to assist them in developing skills and experiences that will put them far ahead of college graduates in just one year’s time,” he says. The programme starts with the Launch Pad phase, which is a 10-week residential programme in Cisco. During this time, fellows live together in a shared house and pursue a set of challenges designed to develop skills necessary for lifelong self-directed learning. Next is the Voyage stage where participants spend three months in a country they have never been to before, and where they do not speak the language. The UnCollege team will help organise the voyage and give $2,500 (approx `1.3 lakh) for expenses. Following that is the Internship phase where participants will be placed in Silicon Valley companies and NGOs looking for people who aren’t constrained by the mindset of school. The final stage is the Project phase where participants will create a real project that someone pays them for. “Receiving payment is their sign that they’ve created something of real-world value. That’s more impressive than a college degree,” asserts Stephens. The cost of the gap year program is $12,000 (approx `7 lakh). Details at www.uncollege.org. Applications for 2014 will open in May, 2014.
Response so far
UnCollege has received a good response. “There are so many people out there struggling with conventional methods of education and they see UnCollege as a meaningful respite. From high-schoolers deciding what to do after graduation to college graduates who realise their degree isn’t going to land them a job to parents who want something better than debt and a worthless degree for their children, we have hit the target bang on. Even my short time at the university ended in only frustration and gave wings to UnCollege,” Stephens says.
A solution for India?
Indians attach a lot of importance to degrees despite their savings being meagre. Can UnCollege be replicated here? “With more and more Indians obtaining college degrees, they will start facing the same problem that we have in America and other countries where people are highly educated. The job market becomes saturated with degree holders to the point where that credential no longer differentiates you when seeking a job. Employers then have to start looking beyond degrees to real skills and knowledge that an individual possesses. That is why UnCollege advocates hacking your education in order to develop the necessary knowledge and skills to be successful.”
UnCollege maintains a website that features an array of resources for those interested in self-directed learning, as well as a weekly blog that showcases articles and interviews with people who have successfully applied a self-directed approach to education and career. “We host quarterly Hackademic Camps in Cisco where we bring 14 young people to Silicon Valley to learn about and take on some of the biggest problems in education,” says Stephens, who is a regular at high-profile events from debating Vivek Wadhwa onstage at TED 2012 to lecturing at The New York Times and speaking to C-level executives at NBC Universal. Stephens also helps edu and tech companies. Perigree (Penguin in India) published Stephens’ first book Hacking Your Education this month. So far 3,000 copies have been sold, informs Stephens, who spent nine months on the book.
Before bidding adieu, Stephens offers gyaan for budding entrepreneurs. “I would encourage an aspiring entrepreneur to take the leap and build something. Even if you aren’t sure about your project’s success, or even if it fails completely, you will learn so much by simply launching and building a project. If it’s successful, that’s awesome, run with it! If not, you can look at what you did wrong and what you did right and it will make you that much better the next time.”