The case against college

August 17, 2011

Dale Stephens leads UnCollege, a social movement that aims to turn conventional wisdom on its head when it comes to the role college plays in one’s overall success. At 19, Stephens is a Thiel Fellow and currently working on a book about “hacking your education.” We asked him to answer five questions about the UnCollege movement, as thousands of students prepare to attend college, and thousands more high school students prepare to apply. This is the second in a series where we pose questions to industry and academic leaders on innovation.

1. How does an uncollege experience make someone more innovative? Isn’t the propensity for creativity innate?

Creativity is innate — the problem is that schools kill creativity. Our education system cultivates a mind-set where students are rewarded for following directions. If we still needed public education to fulfill its original purpose — to train factory workers in the industrial revolution — then school would work brilliantly. But times have changed — a May 2010 IBM poll of CEOs found that they deemed creativity to be “the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise of the future.”

In their 1998 book “Breakpoint and Beyond,” George Land and Beth Jarman refer to a study in which 1,500 kindergartners between 3 and 5 years old were given a divergent thinking test. Divergent thinking tests don’t measure creativity, but rather one’s propensity for creativity. The test asks questions such as “How many ways could you use this paperclip?” or “How many ways could you improve this toy fire truck?” — questions designed to encourage creative thought rather than elicit right-or-wrong answers. Ninety-eight percent of kindergartners tested at the genius level. After five years of formal education, only 50 percent of children tested at the genius level. This study shows the deleterious effects school can have on a child’s creativity and desire to learn.

What Robinson doesn’t mention is that there is an alternative: unschooling, and by extension, uncollege. Instead of sitting in class, unschoolers create their education from the world by finding mentors, taking college classes only when they want to, starting businesses and learning collaboratively. By freeing yourself from the strictures of the classroom and the authority of teachers you escape the system that schools use to inadvertently squander creativity.

2. I see Peter Thiel, an advocate for the uncollege experience, has a B.A. and a J.D. from Stanford. Why should I listen when he says my kid should drop out of school?

The Thiel Fellowship is not about dropping out of school — it’s about making a sound investment in your future. There are a little over 19 million college students in the United States, each of whom are graduating with an average of $24,000 in debt, according to the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success. After college, they are forced to find a job to pay off that debt instead of being allowed to take the time to start companies, projects, causes or initiatives. They are, essentially, mortgaging their freedom in exchange for a degree. What many may find scarier still is that student loan debt is nearly impossible to erase in the case of bankruptcy. The bank can repossess your house, but they can’t repossess your degree.

It’s not just Peter Thiel — that is to say people with advanced degrees — who question the system, but also professors and university administrators. Those who work in academia are sometimes most in tune to its problems. They realize that if universities want to stay competitive in an age where technology changes faster than bureaucracy they will have to innovate. Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, the largest public university in the United States, prominently states on his homepage: “American higher education cannot assume that its competitive position in the world is unassailable.” It’s inspiring to see that administrators are reaching out to me — I’ve been invited to MIT, Stanford, and Harvard to see how the uncollege learning philosophy can help inform the next generation’s educational experience.

3. If children aren’t learning the science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects when they’re in school, what’s to say they will learn them outside of the classroom?

This question assumes that STEM subjects are more important than other subjects. While STEM subjects have been deemed critically important to economic development, I’m not convinced that what one studies in school has anything to do with what one does after school.

Education is undergoing a transformation, thanks to the explosion of available data online. Universities and libraries no longer have a monopoly on information. Education is going from being about the acquisition of information to being about the application of information. I believe we mistake the pursuit of STEM subjects in academia with the general need to have people pursue scientific knowledge for practical applications. The latter, underlying need is the definition of “technology” almost word for word. And it’s worth noting that, although Facebook and Microsoft may have started at universities, the innovation took place outside the classroom.

4. How do I convince a prospective employer that my uncollege experience is just as valuable as another person’s college degree?

With an increasing number of students acquiring degrees, employers are finding it more difficult to evaluate potential employees. This is one reason why academic inflation is rampant. It’s easier to say “this job now requires a master’s degree” than to qualitatively evaluate every interested applicant. Although requiring people to get advanced degrees currently works, over the long term we face the potential for a degree-saturated market. Global demand for education is skyrocketing. According to UNESCO, India would have to build a new campus every two weeks between now and 2025 just to meet the demand. In 2025, will we require low-wage workers to get two PhDs? While the scenario might seem ridiculous, that reality might not be far off.

The hiring process is also changing, thanks to the Internet. Résumés show where you worked, and where you went to school, but not what you can actually do. Innovation in hiring is happening for both the creative and technical professions. This is not because these are subjects easily learned outside of college, rather it’s because the product of one’s labor is tangible and easy to evaluate. Job posting and networking Web sites Krop and Behance allow creative professionals to showcase their work, meanwhile code-hosting site Github and technology Q&A platform StackOverflow serve technical professionals. These networks both host job boards and allow recruiters to search talent databases. Other career verticals, such as sales or media, are ripe for disruption because, like creative and technical professions, you can easily demonstrate your knowledge in a digital format.

5. What do you say to lower-income students who are the first in their family to have a shot at college? Is the uncollege experience right for them?

Elite colleges function effectively as social elevators. If you’re a first-generation college student and get a full-ride scholarship to Harvard — by all means go. But realize it isn’t going to Harvard that will put you ahead in life. Your success depends not upon whether you graduate from Harvard — or even whether you’re accepted — but rather whether you applied.

Earlier this year, economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger found that even if you apply to Harvard and are rejected you’ll earn the same amount as someone who graduated from Harvard. This shows that colleges self-select talent. There’s nothing to show that college creates talent.

Interestingly, home-schoolers — students who engage in full-time informal learning — outperform traditional students across the spectrum. The National Home Education Research Institute found that, on a standardized reading test, home school students perform at the 87th percentile while formal school students perform at the 50th percentile. What’s more, the gap remains roughly the same despite parents’ education level, the amount of money spent on education or minority status — three factors that greatly influence the performance of traditional students. For example, both white and minority home school students performed at the 87th percentile on reading tests, while white public school students performed at the 61st percentile and minority public school students performed at the 49th percentile.

There haven’t been studies conducted about informal learning at the college level yet. But I imagine we would observe similar results showing that those with an informal education would perform better than those with a formal education. Unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer as to why informal learners do better, but I believe it’s because students outside the classroom are able to think more freely and encouraged to follow their passion instead of memorizing facts. The upshot is this: Don’t make a decision to stay or leave school based upon your background because research shows that we’re all equal players outside the classroom.

Did you miss the live chat with Dale Stephens? Read the transcript.

Dale Stephens leads UnCollege, the global social movement that aims to change the notion that college is the only path to success. In May 2011 Dale was named a Thiel Fellow. The Thiel Fellowship recognizes the top global change-makers under the age of 20. He is a sought-after education expert appearing on major news networks including CNN, ABC, NPR, CBS, and Fox. Stephens’s first book about “hacking your education” will be published by Perigee/Penguin in early 2013.

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