20 year-old Dale Stephens dropped out of school in the 5th grade because he was bored. In his observation, school wasn’t really a place for learning — it was a place to discuss Pokémon. Determined to embrace his idea of learning he then created his own curriculum in lieu of a formal education. In subsequent years he’s gone on to build a library in his hometown, live in France, and work in Silicon Valley — despite having dropped out of school again. This time college. He now runs uncollege.org, a site for those seeking unconventional education, and has just published a book Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will, that tells millennials college isn’t the only way to gain success — it’s all about experiences outside the classroom.
Is this notion a stroke of simplistic genius or detrimental?
In May 2011 Stephens was selected out of hundreds of individuals around the world as a Thiel Fellow, which offers students a total of $100,000 over two years as well as guidance and other resources, to drop out of college and pursue other work. He says the fellowship gave him the opportunity to network and utilizes the brand name to further his visibility and value.
Well, that’s nice.
We’ll just point out that Stephens is a young, white male who had book agents clamoring to get him a writing deal a few years ago for his thoughts on circumventing the college experience. He’s also a self-proclaimed educational futurist and speaker on issues facing Generation Y, who delivers core insights about learning, technology, and success.
When the staggering unemployment rate for millennials was brought to his attention — as was just covered in an article by the New York Times, “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk”, which illustrates just how difficult and competitive it is to find a job even those doing the most menial of tasks — Stephens tells Forbes:
It’s downright scary to be a college graduate with an average of $27,000 in debt hanging over your head – and you likely have much more if you went to graduate school. My best advice to you is this: realize that you have agency. Don’t expect going to school to get you a job, and understand that if you want to be successful you’re going to have to hustle and create opportunities for yourself.
I think a degree from Harvard is still highly valued – but the reality is that most people don’t go to Harvard. Most people, like me, go to mid-tier schools without any distinguishing features. For us, there is no brand value of your degree and you’re likely going to be competing for jobs against others who have similarly meaningless degrees. If you want to get a job, create a portfolio and start your own projects. You need to prove that you’re more than a piece of paper.
Interestingly, he also discusses how networking and internships are helpful in obtaining goals and jobs. Many of us acknowledge that whatever else universities and higher education may bring — it still serves as good places to either uncover internships or use college credit to attain them, and that goes without saying with regard to networking. Making connections “student-to-alum” is one of the time-tested ways of getting a leg up. (This writer can count connecting to an alum as the way her résumé landed on the top of the pile for her full-time job.)
So the questions remain; without college how does more than just one standout person accomplish these tasks without the education safety net? How do you secure an internship or a fellowship without being enrolled in college? Is there any real proof that hiring managers will be more apt to take a second look at the candidate who has the interesting “Portfolio” over the mid-tier college grad who meets the basic pre-requisites for the job? And what if you are a minority? How difficult is it to use Stephens’ methods to gain success when diversity in the workplace can still be a challenge? Is this a way in, or a way to screen yourself out?
It is not a new idea to suggest that a college education has copious amounts of “filler” included, and as Stephens says, “the value of going to college has nothing to do with the content.”
And on some levels that may even be true, however, despite the growing lack of ability to pinpoint the superstars in the bunch when many applicants have the same degrees and experiences, is it realistic to think that U.S. employers are ready to give up its educational standard bearer and start considering candidates for good paying, valuable jobs who haven’t paid their dues in lectures and elective courses — but who instead have opted to travel and take on pet projects which 1) take money to accomplish 2) require access 3) a support system 4) and the ability to prove that you are a better hire than a Harvard grad just on the strength of a dynamic experience abroad in place of four-years in study?
Is Stephens right?