'Education Futurist' Dale Stephens on the Benefits of Bypassing College

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Dale Stephens, founder of UnCollege.org. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED)

Sometimes a simple concept can turn into a revolutionary idea. In the case of Dale Stephens, his idea has even sparked a social revolution.

The 23-year-old entrepreneur is being called an “education futurist” because he’s encouraging high school graduates to ditch college on purpose and forge their own educational path.

Four years ago he founded UnCollege.org, a trend-setting online program that allows young adults to sidestep college and get real-world skills through a combination of internships, workshops, online classes and studying abroad. Stephens calls it hacking your education.

“It’s the process of taking a system, in this case education, and figuring out how it can work for you,” says Stephens.

“It’s akin to creating, to making, to building. I think when we’re at a time when making the right educational decisions is more important than ever, and it's also more expensive than ever, you have to really be careful about what you do and how you choose to learn.”

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Stephens was born and raised in Winters -- a small rural town in Yolo County. He chose his own educational path at 5 years old, when he decided to be home-schooled. At 18, he followed his parents’ advice and went to a small private college in Arkansas.

But during his first year, Stephens grew frustrated with the large classes and what seemed like pointless lectures. He was sitting in his Religion 101 class when he decided to drop out.

“The professor had put on a movie about Shabbat dinners,” Stephens recalls. “I frankly knew the material … so I said, ‘If your idea of good teaching is putting on a movie, then I really think you shouldn’t be a professor.’”

Stephens walked out of the classroom and filed his papers to leave.

Several months later, he was inspired to create UnCollege.org after the movie "Accepted" jump-started a late-night conversation with his best friend.

In that movie, a high school senior is rejected by every college to which he applies, so he creates his own school.

Stephens' message of choosing not to go to college resonates in the Golden State, where the cost of tuition has tripled over the last 20 years.

Students have staged protests and demonstrations on campuses and at the state capital. However, Stephens says young people should be more concerned about the quality of education they're getting for that high price tag.

“The cost is really easy for people to grasp onto because it's visceral and real, but I think the questions around efficacy are way more important.” Stephens says.

It's no surprise that some in the education establishment have come out against Stephens.

Critics say his philosophy is shortsighted and reckless.

But Stephens counters that college degrees are becoming less of a factor in landing a job. About two years ago, Google made news when it dropped degree requirements for hiring. Ernst & Young, as well as Deloitte, have since followed suit.

“I think it’s becoming very clear that people are open to all kinds of walks of life,” he says.

When it comes to parents, Stephens says they need to have a change of heart, too, and learn to let go.

“At some point, you have to let your kids make their own choices.” Stephens says. “They’re never going to grow up to be financially independent adults if you don’t give them a little bit of freedom.”

For those ready for that leap, Dale and his UnCollege staff have launched a program called “Gap Year.” Students get an entire year of in-person training and mentorship in their area of interest, plus a trip abroad.

The cost is roughly $16,000 -- a fraction of what most universities are charging, Stephens says.

He says this route may not be for everyone, but it just might be the thing for the state's next visionary.