Uncollege: Can Unschooling Offer An Alternative to a College Education?

There's a lot of muttering about whether or not college is "worth it" -- from tech investors like Peter Thiel who are encouraging students to stop out of school and become entrepreneurs instead, from the authors of Academically Adrift who argue that over a third of college students learn nothing demonstrable over the course of a 4-year university program, from folks who are struggling to pay off massive student loan debt in the face of lousy job prospects.

Is college a guarantee of success? Is college worth the money? Is college the best way to learn? Is college about the degree, the learning, or the experience?

Dale Stephens thinks it should be about the latter, and he's just launched a new endeavor called Uncollege that aims to bring the idea of unschooling to higher education and create a self-directed learning community -- both on and offline -- for college-age students.

Stephens, age 19 and himself (ironically) a college student, has long been a proponent of the unschooling, the philosophy that students should direct their own learning experiences rather than follow a curriculum dictated by others. Stephens was homeschooled from sixth grade through high school, and says that he wants to bring some of that same openness and exploration to the college experience.

And it is very much about the experience as much as the education to Stephens. He stresses the community aspect of college in particular when he talks about his vision for Uncollege -- Community is arguably to biggest value a college campus offers, he says. He sees Uncollege as a community of like-minded students and mentors, supported via social networks and an online platform and brought together via offline gatherings and extreme education field trips.

Stephens recognizes that Uncollege won't be for everyone. But he'd like to build a viable platform for those who want to learn, but who don't want the restrictions and requirements associated with a formal degree program. There will be some structure to Uncollege, a curriculum framework that Stephens says will be broken into introspection, experience, and application. Initially, he says, he'll be very involved in helping each student build out their course of study, design their projects, and connect with mentors. But he insists he's not going to institutionalize unschooling.

It sounds like a brave and bold plan, and it's worth pointing out it's one undertaken by the same teen who, last year had plans to disrupt the travel industry with cheap flights from London to New York. No doubt the capital requirements for an alternative higher education program are quite a bit looser than an alternative airline. But Stephens has an uphill battle with Uncollege, no doubt, as he's taking on an institution hundreds of years old.

Nevertheless as more and more learners are turning to the Internet for free and open content, building their own personal learning networks, and wondering if the student loan debt is really worth it, there might just be a demand for this type of endeavor.

Uncollege doesn't offer a degree. Stephens does say that, down the road, accreditation is something he'd like to provide. But for now, Having an UnCollege experience transcript instead of a degree from an accredited institution shows that you're willing to challenge the status quo, to go beyond the classroom. Unlike some other unschooling alternatives (such as Zero Tuition College) Uncollege does charge tuition. And much like the questions that students themselves ask when they weigh whether college is worth it, prospective Uncollege students will probably want Stephens to show he can provide a solid network of mentors and that he can really pull together this alternative education community.


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