Dale Stephens: Why UnCollege Is The New University

A 21-year-old who dropped out of school at the age of 12 is hoping to change the face of learning by encouraging students to "hack their education" and turn their backs on university.

Dale Stephens, the man behind social movement UnCollege, is hoping to transform the face of education - by telling young people they don't need it. Stephens, who was home-schooled between the ages of 12 and 18 in his native America, believes he has the solution to those who don't want to go to university.

"If you want to gain the skills requisite for success, you must hack your education," his website states confidently. "You can get an amazing education anywhere—but you’ll have to stop writing papers and start doing things."

And that's exactly what Stephens did. After enrolling in college, Stephens realised the system was not for him, and left after six months.

"I didn't go to a traditional middle school or high school," he tells The Huffington Post UK. "I was underprepared for the culture shock. It was surprising; there were more people there interested in getting the degree than the actual learning."

Dale Stephens set up UnCollege when he was 20, after becoming frustrated with the education system

The entrepreneur was granted $100,000 (£67,000) by PayPal founder Peter Thiel's foundation, which every year gives 20 under 20-year-olds the cash to "do" instead of study. On 21 January, 2011, Stephens, who's just published his first book 'Hacking Your Education', launched UnCollege.

Currently with 2,000 students under its wing, UnCollege provides them with a free manifesto titled "Your Guide To Academic Deviance", which tutors on how to gain the "passion, hustle, and contrarianism requisite for success — all without setting foot inside a classroom".

"We're starting to work with colleges and universities too across the globe who are trying to figure out how they can stay competitive in a world where education is changing. We're trying to advise them on how they can give students more choice. There's a lot of low-hanging fruit, really basic things, which can be accomplished.

"They need to think long and hard about what they're offering."

Stephens says his main gripe with university is the lack of choice.

"We're told you need to go to university to get a good job. You need to go to be successful, and if you don't, you'll let down your parents. And that's not the reality.

"It's not that everyone should drop out of college, that would be as ridiculous as saying everyone should absolutely go.

"But I do believe people should be free to make choices about how they educate themselves without facing negative social consequences. Right now that's difficulty getting jobs, getting visas, and trying to convince people you're a valuable person even though you may not have letters after your name."

UnCollege runs Hackademic camps, which, now in their seventh session, bring 10 of the brightest young minds from around the world together to "solve the world's biggest problem in education".

The camps are described as "an intense weekend human accelerator" and take place throughout the States, and are launching in India and Malaysia.

"It's really awesome to see people come together who feel like the misfits who have anyone else who's frustrated with the system," Stephens explains. "There's absolutely a need for a community of people who are doing something different."

In May, the movement is launching a new gap year for "smart as hell" young people, who don't want to wait years to change the world. Ten chosen 18 to 28-year-olds will spend three months in San Francisco being taught how to make their own learning plans, and will be taught skills in maths, design, programming - to name a few.

The gap year aims to teach students the skills which are a requisite for the real world but are not taught in school. The 12 months is divided into four segments and consists of living abroad, pursuing a creative project and doing an internship.

The catch? The $12,000 price tag, which Stephens, naturally, insists is worth the investment.

"For one, it includes room and board for six months, so it's not too much more than the cost of living. University tuition is generally on top of that.

"Employers are saying we have all of these job opportunities but we can't find employees with the skills we need. It makes sense to invest in yourself in a period of time and be learning the things which are actually in demand.

"We can guarantee a better outcome than universities because we're not teaching a particular subject. We're focusing on the mental learning skills, the skills which make you a better learner and a more effective learner. Instead of learning these skills by studying History, for example, we're teaching them directly."

Stephens' backing from Peter Thiel, who was the first investor in Facebook, has set him in good stead to source internships for his pupils - something which most universities would be hard pressed to compete with.

"I have companies, like Google, approaching me most weeks," he says nonchalantly. "They want innovative young people who can be autonomous, make decisions, and they say they're just not finding that."

So for someone who's already achieved so much so young, what's next for the social thinker?

"I'd like to see our gap year programmes running in different countries across the world. I'd like UnCollege houses, micro-communities of self-directive learners."