Unschool Yourself


A controversial idea arose from entrepreneur Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and investor of Facebook: don’t go to college. This was his basic belief when he created the 20 Under 20 fellowship, a program that rewards 20 college students under 20 years old $100,000 to drop out of school and shape the innovative companies for tomorrow.

“We’re bringing together the brightest, the most enthusiastic, the most passionate young people in the world,” Danielle Strachman, Program Director of 20 Under 20, said.

The 20 Under 20 program questions whether going to college is a necessary step.

“It’s not that we hope that people will blindly bypass college, it’s that we hope that people truly start examining the choices offered to them in life,” Strachman said.

John Burnham applied and won the 20 Under 20 Fellowship. According to him, he was always open to more ideas than just college. He never wanted to think about plans that seemed too far away.

“People tend to over-plan their future experiences. I couldn’t really stand the thought of coming up with a spreadsheet of what I was going to do the next four years of my life,” Burnham said.

Another one of the winners of the 2010 grant from 20 Under 20 was Dale J. Stephens. Stephens dropped out of Hendrix college and now lives in California. He used his money and ran with the idea that college can be a misuse of time (four+ years) and money ($25,250 is the average debt of a college graduate), and developed UnCollege. UnCollege is a company dedicated to providing resources to students who are tired of the traditional education system.

“UnCollege is about taking control of your education. It’s about breaking out of the traditional, one-size-fits-all education system and saying no to conformity,” Stephens said.

Raised as a home-schooler, Stephens was used to going by his own pace. He had always taken his education into his own hands.

“Being unschooled, I was taught to take control of my education from a young age. I have always believed that my education is my responsibility, and that has been the foundation for UnCollege,” Stephens said.

Stephens came upon the idea of forming UnCollege after spending a semester at college and finding the experience dissatisfying. He talked to some friends who had similar concerns.

“We all had the same problems of finding college frustrating and unchallenging,” Stephens said.

Stephens set up the UnCollege website to aid ‘unschoolers’, as they are so-called, work through the process of educating themselves without college. The site has lessons, reading lists, courses and open discussions.

A book with a similar idea of changing the current higher education system is also on its way and is to be published in 2013. Stephens wrote “Hacking Your Education” to make some waves and change peoples’ mindset on how education can be obtained.

“The book is a practical guide to gaining the skills school isn’t teaching but are requisites for success in the real world,” Stephens said.

Stephens’ idea of UnCollege might catch on as more people find problems with college.

“There are a lot of people who are starting to see the problems in the current higher education system, and each of them have their own approach to fixing the problem. I think these alternatives will become more and more popular in the future, and UnCollege will certainly be one of them,” Stephens said.

Still, the unconventional idea may not be for many.

“It’s [college] going to give certain skills needed to be employable. Employers look at that and see you as a person who can commit,” Rick Rogers, counselor, said.

According to Rogers, college can give students the time to grow up and explore new interests. College graduates also earn about $2.3 million over their lifespan, whereas those who only complete high school earn $1.3 million.

The idea of not going to college to pursue other interests or expediting the education process doesn’t settle well with some.

“Some people are thrilled with what we’re doing and others not so much.  However we’re glad that the dialogue is started and hope to see it continue,” Strachman said about the 20 Under 20 program.

“Whether people agree with us or not, this conversation is overdue.”

Photo: UnCollege.org screenshot

This feature story was originally in the third issue of “The Epic” on page 14.