Is UnCollege the College For You?

The “everyone should go to college” belief is coming under more and more criticism. One of the critics is Dale Stephens, the founder of UnCollege. His book Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More than Your Peers Ever Will has been published recently and after reading it, I asked him to answer ten questions about the book and his views on education generally.

To many older readers, “hacking” sounds like a destructive activity. How do people “hack” their education and how does it compare with the old-fashioned approach to college?

I think hacking is very much constructive because it relies on the learners to construct their education. People hack their education by pulling together pieces of different kinds of learning, everything from college courses to community workshops and online classes to create an education.

You have organized “Hackademic Camps” for self-directed learners. What goes on at the camps? Have there been any success stories you can point to?

We have done four camps, and it’s been amazing the see the communities that form from the camps. We had a couple of the participants in the October camp fly to Europe to meet some others and spend New Year’s together.  A group of five went to the SXSW (South by Southwest) film and music conference together. It’s been beautiful to see the friendships that have formed. At the camps we focus on learning meta-skills: how to find mentors, how to keep yourself motivated, and so on.

Your experience at Hendrix College convinced you that it was a huge expense for little value. Please elaborate on that.

Most people were not at college to learn—it was simply a four-year process of growing up, and an expensive one at that.  There’s value in partying and making mistakes, but that doesn’t need to cost thousands of dollars! It seems pointless to me to spend money to send people to learn things that they don’t want to and are just going to forget.

Unlike you, most young Americans have been schooled for twelve years — how can they break out of the schooling habit and take control of their education? 

Focusing on meta-skills is the way to break out of the system. These are the things that most schools try to teach but never focus on directly. Instead, we expect people to learn how to work in groups by assigning history projects, or how to speak by doing book reports. We never teach these things directly.  My book focuses on how to learn these skills, and all the work we do at UnCollege tries to help people learn these skills.

You write that most people see college as “an insurance policy.” What do you mean by that? What’s wrong with that view? 

We often go to college as a safety net with the idea that it’ll get us a job if our skills aren’t good enough proof of our worth to an employer. This makes people complacent. Imagine if instead we required people to demonstrate actual skills on resumes, not college degrees.

Is the traditional college route the best one for some people? If so, what kinds of people are they and how can they get good value for the expense?

I don’t think there is a “best route,” but it could be worth it for some people. I think you really need to look at the time and money invested. Is getting a psychology degree worth it? Not if you look at unemployment rates by degree. Engineering? Perhaps. Even then, what is Kentucky State worth versus Stanford?  If you do choose to pay for college, make the most of it. Go to professors’ office hours, get grants from your school, and get the most value you can.

Most employers insist on “proper educational credentials” or they won’t consider a person. How can those who can’t afford or just don’t want to do what it takes to get those credentials overcome that barrier?

There are three options here. The first is to start your own company. Obviously, not everyone will do that, but it is an option. The second is to do something creative or technical, that is to say, enter a field where your work can be easily evaluated. When hiring a writer or a coder, we don’t ask to see a college degree, but instead we ask to see their prose or code. The third is to work in a traditional company, but to not apply for a job.  Of course you won’t get past HR without a degree. But if you want a job in a company, build a network so you get recommended.  

Your book tells quite a few intriguing stories about people who have done well even though they didn’t finish (or even start) college. One of those is Stephen Johnson. What did he accomplish and what can we learn from him? 

Stephen Johnson became an architect not through formal study, but as an apprentice. He literally started sweeping floors and worked his way up to become a fellow with the American Institute of Architects and has won many awards for his designs. He is one of the last architects who does not have a college degree. His story shows that even people who want to enter into traditional careers can be self-directed. 

You write that schools, including colleges, are bad at teaching two vital skills: writing and programming. Why is that, given the importance of those skills for so much of the work people need to do? And since schools don’t usually teach those skills, how can students learn them?

We often forget that the people who evaluate our work in school are paid to do so, which is one reason why it is difficult to teach writing and programming. What I mean that is in the real world, you would only get feedback on a piece of writing that meets a certain level of quality. If it didn’t, you’d have to do it over again. In school, you just get a low grade, but there is little incentive for you to actually learn to write well, only to get a better grade.  

The simple answer for how to learn these is public practice.  If you want to learn to write, write a lot. Publish it to your blog. If no one is reading it, find out why. Ask for feedback from other bloggers when you submit guest blog posts.  

Many writers have been arguing that higher education is on the verge of dramatic change. Do you think it will change and could your book help to catalyze change?

The system is being forced to change, as there are now cheaper and more meaningful ways to learn outside of universities. Why pay $40,000 to go to a university when you can watch the classes free online? If you’re worried about missing out on the community, join a hackerspace. If you are afraid no one will hire you, create a portfolio on