A little over a year ago, Dale Stephens left his northern California home for the ideal educational experience. A small, liberal arts school in the Midwest. An almostfull tuition scholarship. A college that promised to change his life.
Instead, what he found was a cliché - one with a hefty price tag and a dubious return on investment. After eight months, he left.
What Stephens had hoped would be four years of formative intellectual exploration seemed to his peers to be nothing more than the thing to do after high school. "College has become more of a rite of passage to adulthood than an actual vehicle for learning," he says.
As a former unschooler and self-directed homeschooler growing up just outside Sacramento, Stephens says his fleeting college career at least exposed him to a cultural mix of people he had never known before. But he also found that the mediocre, cookie-cutter education typical of most colleges today does not justify the exorbitant and ever-rising costs of an expanding higher education system.
The aspect of college that he found most troubling, however, was the closed nature of the learning experience he had signed up for. He saw a yawning gap between thought and action.
"At college there were smart people with awesome ideas, but they were writing research papers, not changing the world," he says. "Even if they wanted to change the world, they didn"t know where to start."
A standard college education, according to Stephens, doesn"t nurture qualities that help students thrive in the so-called real world: creativity, initiative, leadership and the ability to self-start. Sadly, he notes, many of these qualities are already disappearing when students first arrive at their freshman dorms.
"Everybody has natural curiosity," Stephens say, "but by the time most people come out of twelve years of school, often disillusioned by it, their curiosity and natural passion are beaten out of them."
Stephens"s answer to an unfulfilling college experience has been to create a new type of college, an "UnCollege" where students direct their own learning, seek out their own mentors, and "hack their education" in a way that personally suits them.
While he says it is "ludicrous" to expect that all 18-year-olds will know exactly what they want to do with their lives, there are plenty of students who can figure it out. UnCollege is geared for those intrinsically-motivated individuals who have the desire to learn outside the classroom and the motivation to make it happen.
Since its inception in February, UnCollege is gaining steady momentum. Most of the major media attention is focused on the school"s proudly "contrarian" founder, who is already on the lecture circuit and writing a book to convince parents that the higher education system may not be such a great investment.
Stephens has also attracted impressive philanthropic support. He was recently awarded a $100,000 "20 Under 20" Thiel Fellowship for promising young individuals who forego a traditional college education to work on innovative projects.
As he continues to refine his educational philosophy, Stephens points out that UnCollege is not just about fixing a broken system. He sees it as a social movement aimed at changing people"s minds about what constitutes a solid education, and ultimately, about the meaning of work. "We have to change the notion that college is the only path to success," he says.
And he is not the only one questioning the status quo of higher education. Even college educators are concerned about the value of the experience they are providing. But resistance to the UnCollege movement is coming from a surprising quarter, Stephens says.
"Most college and university professors and administrators are generally interested in improving the student experience," Stephens notes. "It"s the student themselves who feel that their experience is being devalued" by the prospect of an alternative type of school.
That said, over 2,000 "educational deviants" have signed up for UnCollege, which has so far defined three majors: organization, technology and entrepreneurship; computer engineering; and design. Working with six people and 30 volunteers, Stephens is creating a crowdsourced curriculum built by like-minded individuals who sense the urgency to reshape the college ideal.
The support is encouraging, Stephens says, but he feels the pressure to keep the movement on track: "The most powerful thing I have right now is my voice."
Dale J. Stephens brings a unique perspective on the future of education, talent, and innovation. At 19, Dale leads UnCollege, a social movement that applies the methods of unschooling—the self-directed brand of homeschooling with which he was raised—to the realm of higher education. In May 2011 Dale was selected out of hundreds of individuals around the world as a Thiel Fellow. The Thiel Fellowship recognizes the top changemakers around the world under the age of twenty. He is currently writing on a book about the opportunity cost of going to college and how to create your education from the world.