Dale Stephens leads UnCollege, a social movement that challenges the conventional wisdom that a college education is the surest path to success. Stephens, 19, is a Thiel fellow — which means he received $100,000 to pursue innovative and entreprenurial interests for two years instead of going to college — and he is working on a book about “hacking your education.” He was interviewed online by Emi Kolawole of The Washington Post.

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

Stephens: 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. Times have changed — a 2010 IBM poll of CEOs found that they deemed creativity to be “the number one leadership competency of the successful enterprise.”

Instead of sitting in class, unschoolers create their education from the world by finding mentors, taking college classes when they want to, starting businesses and learning collaboratively.

College Q&A

I see Peter Thiel, an advocate for the uncollege experience, has a BA and a JD from Stanford. Why should I listen when he says my kid should drop out ?

The Thiel Fellowship is not about dropping out of school — it’s about making a sound investment in your future. There are over 19 million college students in the United States, each graduating with an average of $24,000 in debt. After college, they are forced to find a job to pay off that debt instead of taking the time to start companies, projects, causes or initiatives. They are, essentially, mortgaging their freedom in exchange for a degree.

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

Education is undergoing a transformation, thanks to the explosion of 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.

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.

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.