Q&A With UnCollege Founder Dale Stephens

Is his new website a solution for students dissatisfied with academia?

April 6, 2011, 4:23 PM

April 6, 2011— -- Dale Stephens was home schooled for most of his life. And after his first semester of higher education at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., Stephens said he became frustrated with secondary education.

Now, just a couple months from finishing his freshman year, Stephens said he's learned college is not for him and he plans to drop out. So in February, Stephens created a website for people who may feel the same way. For $100 a month, students from all over the world can sign up online to receive a mentor in a field they want to pursue.

UnCollege officially launches in September and already it's caused a stir among educators and the media. Stephens' website was featured in a blog in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which called him a "disgruntled college student." Stephens has also been featured in The Huffington Post and several campus newspaper publications across the country -- each begging the question: could this 19-year-old college freshman be onto something?

ABC News: What is UnCollege?

Stephens: UnCollege is about helping people create their own education in the real world. We're connecting independent learners to mentors to support real world experience and passion-based learning. It's meant to compliment or replace traditional higher education. Ultimately we believe that there are some things you can only learn outside of a college classroom and that a college degree no longer guarantees success.

ABC News: What caused you to create UnCollege?

Stephens: Instead of just whining and complaining about my frustrations with higher education, I decided that I should practice what I preach and instead try to channel my frustrations into making a positive impact.

ABC News:

What's the story behind its creation?

Stephens: Rebecca Goldman [a student at Dartmouth and friend of Stephens] and I met up over winter break and we were going back and forth about our frustrations with higher education. We found that even though we attended completely different institutions… we had precisely the same frustrations. And after having this conversation, I came to the conclusion that our frustrations were not due to the schools that we attended, but rather due to the common experience we shared.

ABC News: What kind of frustrations did you have with the current education system?

Stephens: We were frustrated that college is seen as prerequisite for professional success in society. We found that, academically, college shifted the focus from learning to performance. We were frustrated that a college education could easily cost upwards of $80,000. All of this led to the creation of a gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application.

And so that got me away from thinking negatively about the institution I attend. Hendrix is a wonderful place and my frustrations are not due to this place or the people that go here. Rather, they're due to the system.

A couple days later I realized that we could start an educational institution. I had been thinking within the framework of traditional schooling but realized that UnCollege did not have to form to any kind of traditional standard. It could be a framework for self-directed learning.

ABC News: How much do you think the fact that you were home-schooled played a role in your frustrations with the formal education system?

Stephens: I was home-schooled from 6th until 12th grade. Most of all, homeschooling allowed me to understand that the path to success, what I used to consider acceptance to college, didn't require jumping through the hurdles of structured learning. It is this attitude of alternative approaches to success that has allowed me to think outside the system of higher education.

ABC News: You've received quite a bit of media coverage for UnCollege. How has that attention made you re-think the concept of UnCollege?

Stephens: The media response has made me come to think of UnCollege as more of a social movement that a finite organization. The fact that I received national press attention just four weeks after launching the site was indicative that I've struck a societal chord and encouraged me to think of UnCollege in broader terms.

ABC News: When you created UnCollege, who did you have in mind would use it?

Stephens: UnCollege can be used by anyone at any age. My vision of the typical UnCollege student is someone in the adolescent years. Someone between the ages of 15 and 25 who is self-motivated… who is willing to challenge themselves and is probably dissatisfied with school. I don't think typical UnCollege students will be former home schoolers themselves or home schoolers themselves. I think that UnCollege can be just as beneficial, if not more, to students who have pushed their traditional education up until this point.

UnCollege Founder's Interview With ABC News

ABC News: What types of skills would people go to UnCollege for?

Stephens: People should come to UnCollege if they want to learn how to apply their theoretical knowledge to the real world. If you want to learn math, you can do it with the UnCollege mindset. It means that you're not going to take math just because the institution you're going to requires you to take math. You're going to take math by going out and finding a mentor who perhaps has a degree in mathematics or does something related in the field.

ABC News: From the moment someone signs up for UnCollege until the very end project, what is the process and experience like?

Stephens: Right now, it consists of sending an email and adding your name to a list. There are 16 students, or so, on the list currently. And what we'll be doing over the next several months is developing a curriculum -- outlining projects and outlining the steps for students to build up a network. So once that is completed, and we'll be ready in September, students can start UnCollege projects, ranging from introspective writing experiences to going not another country, to creating an internship.

ABC News: How does someone find a mentor for UnCollege?

Stephens: Since the press got out for UnCollege, I've received more than 100 emails from people volunteering to be mentors.They're volunteering their time and expertise to UnStudents who want to get this up and running.

ABC News: Where are these mentors from?

Stephens: A sample of people who have volunteered to be mentors include: Bern Beatty, a professor at Wake Forest University who holds an MBA and DBA from Harvard Business School, Jordan Siedel, a college professor in from Warsaw, Poland, and Sean Perkins, an academic advisor for an embassy in Washington, D.C.

ABC News: What are some examples of the projects and curriculum?

Stephens: Things like create an internship in whatever field you want to pursue. Also things like traveling around the world and learning foreign languages, attending conferences, becoming a mentor…or taking college classes and learning how to write. They're skills that will allow students to function successfully in the real world where they will hopefully be learning these skills as well.

ABC News: So, what's the difference between an internship in your field of choice and the UnCollege experience?

Stephens: UnCollege is a holistic life philosophy about learning from life, not a singular experience. A singular experience, be an internship, a class, a trip, or a volunteer position, would all collectively constitute the UnCollege experience.

ABC News: How far along are you in the process of finishing the structure of the curriculum?

Stephens: I just published the UnCollege manifesto, 'Your Guide to Academic Deviance.' This report is about 30 pages long and contains some of the first part of the curriculum. I'm also in talks with an educational design studio in New York City, called DerringDoDesign, about collaborating to create an online platform to support UnCollege. I'm also writing a book proposal to get the curriculum published. Nothing is decided yet, but I have meetings in New York with some publishers and agents.

ABC News: How far along are you with the book deal?

Stephens: It's nothing that I can share quite yet, unfortunately. I can tell you that we are building a platform that will disrupt higher education, enabling people to live happy, productive lives without following a traditional path through college.

ABC News: But don't you think college is something people should at least try?

Stephens: For somebody who has followed the path of traditional education for all of their lives, I would advocate going out into the real world over pursuing a traditional college experience. I would hope that someone who has never been in a traditional learning environment would at least try taking a college class or two. I think that there are valuable things to learn.

ABC News: What does college have to offer then?

Stephens: I think the biggest value of college is the sense of community. While it's easiest to find that community within the university setting, what UnCollege does is help an individual create that academic community in the real world.

ABC News: Do you think there are some things in the classroom that you can't learn in the real world and can't re-create online?

Stephens: Yes. Things like how to operate in a classroom environment.

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