College? Cost, uncertain value fuel UnCollege movement

Jun 10 2011 - 2:00pm

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Dale Stephens, 19, started the "UnCollege" movement, which advocates that young people are better off learning through work than in college. (SHNS photo by Manny Crisostomo / The Sacramento Bee)
Dale Stephens, 19, started the "UnCollege" movement, which advocates that young people are better off learning through work than in college. (SHNS photo by Manny Crisostomo / The Sacramento Bee)

He calls it the UnCollege movement.

Nineteen-year-old Dale Stephens is urging his peers to rethink the need for college, arguing that they can get more out of pursuing real-world skills than completing homework assignments and studying for exams.

"I want to change the notion that a college degree is the only path to professional success," said Stephens, a San Francisco resident who is building the UnCollege movement and developing a Web-based company.

Stephens is part of a small but growing chorus of entrepreneurs, free thinkers and former students who are questioning the value of higher education. The attack is coming from multiple directions: those who say college costs far more than it should; those who say students learn far less than they should; and those who argue the graduation rates are abysmal.

With tuition rising much faster than inflation, borrowing for college has reached record heights. Two-thirds of graduates now leave school with debt, averaging more than $34,000, according to FinAid.org, a student lending authority. Nationwide, student debt is likely to top $1 trillion this year, signaling to some that education is the next mortgage bubble.

The backlash against college comes, paradoxically, at the same time demand for higher education is soaring.

But the economic downturn could be responsible for both the rise in college applications -- as students seek a leg up in the job market -- and the sentiment that college isn't necessary, as they take on more debt for degrees.

"As family incomes ... are stretched and strained, and tuitions rise and state support lessens," questions about the value of college aren't surprising, said Jerry Lucido, executive director of the University of Southern California's Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice.

The high price of undergraduate education hampers technological innovation, said a spokesman for Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook.

"By the time people are 24, 25 or 26, they often have so much student debt and are tracked into certain careers that they can't take a short-term risk and start a company," said Jim O'Neill, who heads the Thiel Foundation.

Last month, the foundation named recipients of its controversial fellowship for people under age 20, giving $100,000 each to 24 students who promised to drop out of college and pursue entrepreneurship.

Stephens was one of them. The money is supporting him for two years while he works on building the UnCollege movement and launching an associated business called RadMatter. It aims to make it easier for job-hunters to market themselves, regardless of their educational credentials.

Stephens dropped out during his freshman year at Hendrix College in Arkansas when he realized that "the direct impact I could have on the world by engaging the community around UnCollege far exceeded the impact I could have by completing homework assignments."

He said he'd been frustrated. "There were people with good ideas, but we weren't applying them. We got to talk and write research reports, but there was no execution," Stephens said.

In promoting UnCollege, Stephens urges young people to do the opposite: get experiences in areas they're passionate about, without worrying about the book knowledge.

Attacking higher education from another direction are two professors who recently published a book called "Academically Adrift: Limited learning on college campuses."

Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of University of Virginia argue that many students gain surprisingly little knowledge during college. Their research shows that over four years of college, 36 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning."

Many of those arguing that college is unnecessary are like Stephens: technological whizzes who have taught themselves computer programming and other highly marketable skills. Some hope to follow in the footsteps of two famous college dropouts: Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.

But for most Americans, evidence shows a college degree is increasingly valuable.

College graduates earn 65 percent more on average than high school graduates, according to a College Board report last year. During the recession, employment rates have been far higher among college graduates than those with less education. Economists predict that the future labor market will demand even more college graduates than today.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

 

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