Dale Stephens thinks the educational system is broken and unnecessary. To prove it, he left school at 19, explored different business ventures, won a Thiel Fellowship, a $100,000 award given to enterprising college dropouts, and is now leading a self-described “social movement changing the notion that college is the only path to success.” Featured in various big-name media outlets, from the New York Times to Fast Company to the Chronicle of Higher Education and beyond, Stephens has received substantial media attention for UnCollege, a website that aims to create a learning community where “unstudents” learn from their peers.
Stephens’ ideas about education have entered the scene at a time when many are questioning the value of a college degree. Skyrocketing tuition costs and a shrinking job market have led many students and parents to wonder—is an average $25,000 debt-load worth it when graduates cannot find full-time jobs that enable loan repayment? More alarming still, a relatively recent study indicates that college students, for all the money they are paying, aren’t necessarily learning very much. An increasingly cynical attitude toward higher education is precisely what Stephens taps into with UnCollege and his upcoming book Hacking your Education.
But strip away the “revolutionary”, mostly empty rhetoric, and UnCollege leaves us with little that is valuable to a typical student, whether or not she decides to stay in school or drop out. A brief reading of UnCollege’s “manifesto” demonstrates the same tired, motivational speaker tropes—the importance of finding yourself, doing what you love, etc. Much of his site is aimed toward self-promotion. And for those who don’t receive funding for startups, for those who don’t get book deals and write entire articles congratulating themselves for it, dropping out of college is probably the worst decision anyone can make. A recent Association of Career and Technical Education article notes that by 2020, an overwhelming 75% of jobs will require at least a two or four year college degree.
Of course, there is no denying that many institutions of higher education are financially bloated and inefficient, and it is often the case that students lose out intellectually and professionally in the process. But to persuade the youth of today that a college degree is something that should be skipped out on altogether is to rob many of what is, at the very least, a backup plan. As Atlantic columnist Edward Tenner notes:
“American culture loves extreme points of view, whether it’s extolling the virtues of advanced math and science education or encouraging leaving it. Occasionally the timing of dropping or “stopping” out does work perfectly, as with Microsoft and Google (whose founders were in a prestigious Ph.D. program). But there’s something to be said for a degree as employability insurance. After all, startups can be as profitable as a few are, only because the great majority of other entrepreneurs with similar ideas fail. It’s better to discourage than to encourage dropping out, so that it’s done only for compelling reasons.”
In the final analysis, what the media, parents, and college students should understand about future success is this: a college degree does not guarantee a job, nor does hard work, nor does talent, nor does luck. It is a combination of all of these factors that enhances the possibility of rewarding career prospects. Why deliberately sell yourself short on one factor?