Dale Stephens was an inquisitive child who found school to be more about teachers trying to discipline kids rather than inspire 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 near Davis, 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.” He is leading a movement to let people know that they can skip college entirely.
Sitting in a cafe in the Mission District, a few doors down from where he lives, Stephens, who is 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, being released next week, 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. He also offers “hackademic weekend seminars” and is launching a gap-year program in September where 10 high school graduates (he received more than 400 applications) will spend a year before college interning, traveling and learning real-world skills.
“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 never attended school after the fifth grade but earned his high school diploma through the South Sutter Charter School in Placerville (El Dorado County). 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.
“They didn’t like the idea at first, but they saw that there was this group and there was structure,” Stephens said of the unschooling movement. “My mom and dad have always been my biggest supporters. I think they both had parents who said no to them a lot. It surprises me how many parents just don’t believe in their children.”
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.
“University does not exist to train you for the real world,” Stephens said. “It exists to make money. The professors are researching; the students are partying; and the administrators are building new state-of-the-art gyms. Of course, if you want to be a doctor, medical school is a wise choice – I don’t recommend keeping cadavers in your garage. It would be ridiculous to say that no one should go to college. However, for non-licensed professions, college may no longer be a good investment.”
Two months after dropping out of college – he was already working on creating UnCollege.org – 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 (under age 20) are given grants of $100,000 for dropping out of college to pursue specific goals over a two-year period.
With the fellowship funds, Stephens focused on UnCollege and on writing his book. At Maxfield’s House of Caffeine in the Mission, Stephens kept an eye on his phone. A producer from the “Today” show was set to call to discuss his appearance Monday live in New York. Tuesday he is to be interviewed by Katie Couric.
“I am living a great life,” Stephens said, noting that he would be a junior in college in Arkansas if he had stayed on that track. “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?”