The notion of not going to college as a distinct vocation made headlines in 2010 when Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, announced the Thiel Fellowship: a program that would award twenty students a year $100,000 if they promised to bag college and instead focus on starting or developing a business or engaging in research or some other mode of self-propelled education.

While there is a Silicon Valley vibe to the projects and ambitions of the first classes of Thiel Fellows (many of whom were already planning or running high-tech startups when they applied), one Thiel graduate has been using the resources obtained through his involvement in the program (which includes not just money, but mentoring, connections, support and prestige) to move the “Not Going to College U” concept one step further with a program he calls Uncollege.

Dale Stephens knew traditional schooling was not for him when, in fifth grade, he asked his parents if he could be home schooled.  And with the exception of a few months enrolled in college after middle- and high-school years spent in internships, mentorships, travel and other self-learning projects, Stephens’ education has remained a self-constructed work.

Given his own experience in leveraging new educational alternatives and technologies, (not to mention rubbing elbows with similar independent learners through his involvement with Thiel) Stephens has put his entrepreneurial energies into expanding the universe of self-made learners through:

  • His new book Hacking Your Education which lays out his experience and educational philosophy
  • Hackademic Boot Camps where groups of students are trained on how to find resources, seek out mentors, and other techniques for independent education; and
  • A new Gap Year program that will take a dozen students each year through a twelve-month training program as an alternative to college

At the core of the Uncollege philosophy is a belief that the meta- skills required to be successful can be taught quickly, but can also be unlearned in an environment (like that of traditional K-12 and college) where students are taught to follow instructions and stay on track, rather than push at boundaries and perpetually question why.

According to Stephens, the students he met during his brief stint at college were more interested in the jobs they would get after college than what they were learning before they graduated.  And while some critics have questioned whether the Uncollege movement is a complete break from conventional higher ed or just a new option within an expanding menu of choices for high-school grads, the success Stephens has had so far points to more interesting trends than just the familiar head- and fist-shaking debate over whether traditional college still warrants its hefty price tag.

For example, Stephens’ K-12 experience demonstrates the breadth of experiences that travel under the name of “home schooling.”

While that term still invokes the image of parents pulling their kids out of the public school system for religious reasons, the majority of parents (and kids) going down the home-schooling route do so as a purely academic choice (such as the desire to avoid the cookie-cutter approach to public education).  And whatever the motivation behind their decisions, home-school families have an enormous wealth of resources to draw upon such as MOOCs and other online classes, virtual projects and meet ups, internship and mentorship programs, and growing communities of independent learners who get together for common classes or field trips (countering the image of the isolated home-school student).

And then there are new employment trends, notably within a high-tech industry that values programming skill and experience over college grades.  While this new meritocracy originally made a virtue out of abandoning college a la Jobs and Gates, the current era of low-barrier-to-entry startups has made a virtue out of not going to college at all.

Now enthusiasm for these changes in education and employment need to be grounded in broader realities.  For the vast majority of kids still learn in traditional teaching environments, and the vast majority of people who brought us the high-tech world undergirding the new educational models learned their stuff in college (where many of them also teach).

But Uncollege does demonstrate the existence of a cohort for whom traditional education is not the best alternative.  And while the meta-learning skills Stephens teaches through his book, his Hackademic camps and other programs provides such learners resources they might not get otherwise, probably the most significant thing Uncollege brings to the mix is a normalization (even a vitalization) of a life choice previously known as “dropping out.”

Next Up – My MIT Doppleganger

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