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Anti-college activism: The growing movement against the 4-year degree

With the cost of a college diploma soaring, some tout a different route to success

As Nick Sherinian searched for colleges, his mother Eva was well aware of the grim statistics.

The average cost to attend a four-year public college is more than $18,000 a year; a staggering $40,000 a year for a private school. For the first time, Americans' total student debt – more than $1.2 trillion – has exceeded our total credit card debt. The average student now graduates with more than $30,000 in loans.

That pricey investment seemed all the riskier, since the young man wasn't sure what he wanted to do.

“I said, 'I really feel like we might as well just throw a pile of money in the backyard and set it on fire if you just go off to school right now,'” Eva Sherinian recalled.

So they started looking around for alternatives and came across UnCollege, a one-year program in San Francisco that eschews the classics in favor of hard skills that employers want, at a tenth the price of a four-year degree.

“We've got this conundrum of people who are being told that they have to go to a college to get a degree to get a job," explained UnCollege's 22-year-old founder Dale Stephens, whose calls himself its chief educational deviant. "They're not necessarily obtaining the right skills to actually be employable."

Getting unschooled

At UnCollege, students spend three months on "campus," a house in the Mission District of San Francisco, refining their interests and learning how to sell themselves. As part of the program, students also travel abroad, create a project to show potential employers and intern with a company related to their future careers.

The idea behind UnCollege came from Stephens' own brief stint in formal education, an experience so dispiriting that he dropped out of elementary school.

“I came to my parents when I was 12 after having a really terrible time in fifth grade and said that I didn't want to go to school,” said Stephens. “I came across an ad in a local newspaper for a 'not-back-to-school' night that was being hosted by some local 'unschooolers.'"

Unlike most parents confronted with a child claiming to hate school, Stephens' parents agreed to let him leave formal education. They helped create a curriculum based around his own interests, guided by the philosophy of unschooling, a grassroots homeschooling movement focused on self-directed, unstructured learning.

“I spent the years from 12 to 18 as an unschooler,” said Stephens. “And was able to do and engage in activities that I never would have been able to engage in had I been locked in a classroom eight to 10 hours a day.”

After getting his high school diploma through a charter school, Stephens applied for and was accepted to college. But after years of self-directed study, he found the top-down teaching culture a huge shock.

“I was surrounded by people who didn't really care about what they were learning, didn't really want to be there and didn't really want to learn that much either.”

So Stephens set out to apply the unschooling philosophy to higher education. And in UnCollege's incoming class of 2014, he sees a lot of young adults similar to himself.

“It's the people who were kind of geeky and a little bit nerdy," he said. "It's the folks who couldn't concentrate and didn't like spending time in the classroom and needed to do things with their hands."

Stephens isn't opposed to spending four years exploring the liberal arts, reading Shakespeare and writing essays on post-modern theory.

"Having the freedom to pursue knowledge for knowledge's sake is a huge privilege," he said. "And I admire anyone who has the resources and flexibility to do that. But for many, that's not possible."  

Where the misfits thrive

Members of UnCollege's Class of 2015 gather at the start of the school year on their "campus," a house in San Francisco's Mission District.
America Tonight

The idea of creating an alternative to a high-priced college degree caught the eye of Peter Thiel, who poured some of the money he made as the founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook into the Thiel Fellowship. Starting in 2011, Thiel (whose own formal education includes a B.A. and law degree from Stanford) began offering some young adults $100,000 to postpone college and focus on immediately developing their unique ideas. Stephens was one of the first 20 fellows.

Eighty-three young adults have received the award, working on everything from small-scale nuclear reactors to new crypto-currencies. Each success, the foundation says, is an argument against a traditional four-year diploma.

“We wanted to get young people thinking a lot harder about what they're doing while they're still young enough to not be overcome with debt,” says Jonathan Cain, president of the Thiel Foundation. “We’ve been blown away by what so many fellows have built and what they’ve been doing.”

The fellowship wants to invest in the Mark Zuckerbergs of the future, but also hopes to send a broader message that college simply may not be for everyone – and that's OK.

“Only something like half of young Americans actually go to college. Only a third end up with a B.A.,” says Cain, referring to the country's staggering dropout rates. “What about all of the rest of the people? If the society says to have a meaningful life and get a good job you need to go to college, well what about everyone else? What kinds of opportunities are we trying to create for them?”

If the society says to have a meaningful life and get a good job you need to go to college, well what about everyone else? What kinds of opportunities are we trying to create for them?

Jonathan Cain

Thiel Foundation president

Of course, most 18-year-olds won't win $100,000 to build nuclear reactors. And when it comes to the research, there's little doubt about the value of a college degree.

"The only thing more expensive than going to college is not going to college," explained Anthony Carnevale, an economist and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. He estimates the overall lifetime wage boost of a bachelor's degree at "a cool $1 million." 

Eva Sherinian drops her son Nick off at UnCollege, thankful for an alternative to a traditional college and the overwhelming cost.
America Tonight

But Stephens has his own numbers: 76 percent of last year's crop of UnCollege graduates have been offered employment in the field of their choice, he said. That's compared to 67 percent of 2012 and 2013 graduates from traditional colleges who are working in their chosen field, Forbes reported.

And even Carnevale admits, those who go to college without an eye on the prize don't necessary reap those rewards. "What you take largely determines what you make," he said.

And with the sticker shock of college intensifying by the year, Stephens says demand for UnCollege's dozen or so slots is steadily rising.

“We have proven that there's at least 200 people a year who want to do this. Will it go to 1,000? Probably. Will it go to 10,000?  I don't know," he said, "Our motivation in doing this is to create a place where people who are misfits in the educational system can be themselves and grow and thrive.”

As Eva Sherinian hugged her son goodbye and prepared to return to an empty house, she felt happy that she'd been able to give Nick this chance without emptying the family's savings.

“I've given him the foundation," she said. "He is the person he was meant to be at this point in his life. Now this is the last opportunity I can give him to give him a tool and use it.”

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