Dale Stephens: 'You Don't Need a College Degree to Change the World'

The landscape of education reform in the United States is turbulent, and there may be no idea more radical than that of 20-year-old Dale Stephens: He thinks you don’t need to go to college.

Stephens is the leader of UnCollege, a social crusade that challenges the commonly-accepted notion that a college degree is the only vehicle for success in today’s world. Grounded in the belief that higher education doesn’t always provide the inspiration, curriculum, or opportunities young people need to succeed in the world, UnCollege operates under a simple premise: higher education needs a makeover.

Traditional education systems aren’t getting the job done—the U.S. high-school graduation rate somehow remains below 70 percent—which is why visionary innovations for 21st century learning are so important (even if attending college isn’t part of the picture). “I think this need to go to college is tied very closely with the American dream—owning a car, buying a house,” Stephens said. “But increasingly today, we’re becoming less and less interested in those things.”

Instead, we’re interested in living lives full of truly engaging learning experiences. We’re interested in succeeding in the world and making a name for ourselves.

Stephens is passionate about developing a space for people to pursue all of those things and more. He’s less concerned about the latest trend in education reform than he is about being a catalyst behind empowering students to take charge of their education.

Stephens’ take on higher education might shock some, but there are well-respected leaders who share his thinking. Peter Thiel, co-founder and former CEO of PayPal, started a foundation that encourages college-bound grads to chase their dreams instead of degrees; fellows are armed with $100,000 and given two years to change the world, one business venture at a time.

Tech giant Apple Inc. has also entered the market for independent, innovative education. Apple’s iTunesU is one of the easiest ways to design and distribute courses for K-12 and college students, and it’s available free with an all-new app for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch.

Stephens boasts an untraditional academic trajectory himself. He left school in sixth grade, and skipped middle school in exchange for unschooling (or self-directed learning). He enrolled in Hendrix College in Arkansas but became very frustrated because he found people “more interested in getting degrees than in learning.”

Stephens began talking with other students who had the same grievances towards the ineffectiveness of higher education, and decided to do something about it. He registered a website and started writing.

One week later, he was met with a barrage of media attention. Since then, his ideas, writing, and leadership have cultivated a community of students who want to hack their education for something more meaningful than a college degree.

Stephens is currently authoring a book called “Hacking Your Education,” about how a college degree is not a prerequisite for success or happiness. The book supports the belief that you should be able to control what, why, and how you learn. 

It tells the stories of inspiring people from around the country who are instigating change in their discipline because they didn’t go to college, not despite the fact. It debunks the belief that to be competent and reliable, a person needs a $40,000-a-year tuition bill.

There are many reasons the average person aspires to attend college. But what does that diploma mean? Does it mean you’ve developed the competencies and reputation needed to truly succeed in the real world, or simply that you’ve managed to get through the “system” and checked the right boxes along the way?

The common thread among the people he’s interviewing, Stephens said, is that “they didn’t rely on school” to start learning. They didn’t take “no” for an answer and were willing to take charge of their education.

They didn’t drop out of school because they lacked intelligence, drive, or because it was too hard. They did it because they wanted to control their education.

According to Stephens, the UnCollege movement isn’t about a radical rejection of the entire institution of education. The UnCollege website asserts that they don’t want to “end university, raze classrooms, burn books, or fire professors.” Instead, the movement strives to alter the perceptions of how our society sees the value of a degree.

The UnCollege Manifesto, which is a 25-page document outlining the principles of this movement, provides some insight into how it all works, and how the current infrastructure of universities is failing our students.

“We’re about proving that you can live a happy, productive live without getting diploma,” Stephens said. “The argument goes that if you want to be successful, you should go to college since graduates earn more money than non-graduates.

“The entire system doesn’t have to come down tomorrow. So much of change is incremental, and there is definitely potential to make the current system better.”

And UnCollege has become a key player in that change. The amount of traction it’s developed in the last year is a harbinger for what’s to come. Since it became public in January of 2011, UnCollege has gathered 6,000 fans on Facebook, 6,000 people on its email list, and about 2,000 unique visits each day on its website, uncollege.org.

UnCollege is launching coaching and a guidebook this spring, running a “Learning to Hack Your Education Month” this summer, and creating an UnCollege fellowship in the fall of 2013 to provide a somewhat structured experience for people who want to leave college. And with his book deal and message, Stephens has flown across the world many times over to speak and share at conferences.

So what can we learn from UnCollege, and from the story of a 20-year-old called a “drop-out entrepreneur” by The New York Times who will be speaking at TEDxAshokaU this weekend in Phoenix?

Passion makes everything. Standards can be challenged. And the most important driver in success is the willingness to say “no” when someone tries to take your educational opportunities away.

“You don’t need to rely on teachers, parents, or schools,” he said. “ Nobody has to tell you what to learn, and you don’t need to wait on a degree to start tinkering.”