Young entrepreneur makes case against college

Friday , March 08, 2013 - 4:40 PM

Julian Guthrie

SAN FRANCISCO — Dale Stephens was an inquisitive child who found school to be more about teachers trying to discipline kids rather than inspiring young minds.

At the end of fifth grade, Stephens informed his parents that school wasn’t for him and that he wanted to be a part of the “unschool” movement, which believes that learning outside of school can be “massively successful.”

Stephens, who is from the small town of Winters, Calif., now lives in San Francisco and has written a book, “Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will.”

Stephens, 21, said, “We shouldn’t be asking, ‘How can I get a college degree?’ Instead, we should ask, ‘How can I get the things a degree promises?’ “

In light of ballooning student debt (averaging $27,000 per graduate), soaring tuition (averaging $33,000 a year at a private university in 2011) and questionable returns (22 percent of college grads under 25 are unemployed and another 22 percent are in jobs that don’t require a college degree), Stephens believes he has an alternative education model that costs little but reaps huge rewards.

His book, released March 5, is part memoir and part blueprint for dropping out of school and custom-designing a more successful model. He writes of the “hackademic mind-set” of learning outside the classroom, finding like-minded peers and inspiring mentors, and incubating ideas and starting a business.

He runs a nonprofit, UnCollege.org, traveling the world to study education systems and consult on how to foster successful independent learning.

“When people ask me what I do, I say that I try to get people to drop out of college,” Stephens said, smiling. “I didn’t leave school and flounder. I left school and thrived -- and had a lot of structure.”



Stephens didn’t attend primary school after fifth grade but earned his high school diploma through a charter school. His group of “unschoolers” -- not the same as homeschoolers, who follow the traditional model of schooling, only at home -- had loose supervision from a state charter school. They were able to apply $2,200 in state funds toward their yearly education.

“When sixth-graders were sitting in school and learning geometry, we were making quilts to learn geometry,” Stephens said. “When other kids were taking P.E., we were taking skiing lessons. We designed our curriculum to make sure we were learning according to the state standards, but we did it very differently.”

Stephens credits his parents -- his mom is a teacher and dad an engineer -- with supporting him in his nontraditional path.

After charter school, Stephens felt the pull of university and spent six months at Hendrix, a private liberal arts college in Conway, Ark. Despite his alternative education plan, he took the SAT and ACT exams, did well, and had his choice of colleges. But once enrolled, he felt the same discontent he had felt in primary school.

Two months after dropping out of college Stephens was selected as one of the inaugural members of the Thiel Fellowship, a program started by PayPal founder Peter Thiel in which entrepreneurial youth are given grants of $100,000 for dropping out of college to pursue specific goals.

“I am living a great life,” Stephens said. “I live in a great city, I am meeting great people. Last year I traveled to 15 countries. What I’m working toward is for us to get to a place where we don’t ask where will we go to college, but we ask why am I going to college?”

(Reach reporter Julian Guthrie at jguthrie@sfchronicle.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, shns.com.)

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