UnCollege – Fantasy, or Fantastic?

UncollegeAccording to a recent interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Tech Therapy, a few years ago, Dale Stephens was a just another typical first semester freshman at Hendrick College. And yet, as a former home-schooled student, Stephens felt that his life in a classroom was missing something stimulating. This lack of a spark caused him to drop out of college and begin to conceive what he sees as an alternative way to the traditional, four-year, rather expensive route through higher education.  The result is UnCollege. Its founder saw high tuition costs coupled with a traditional system of “encouraging others to follow directions” as good reason and inspiration to create an alternative solution.

UnCollege started off small with a series of “hackademic” campswhich aim to teach students how to become more independent (also, as Stephens sees it, simply better) learners themselves. But today, we find that his ideas are really beginning to take root and grow. One new development is a Gap Year program, with five employees on staff in San Francisco, CA and well over 400 applicants in the heat of the competition for just 10 spots. Because this next $12,000 step is still in its first stages, Dale Stephens explains that for now, he must be selective when accepting students for this program, which includes three months abroad and a separate internship of the same length.

Critics have noted that these features seem to share some (and maybe too many?) characteristics with the typical university track. On the other hand, Stephens sees both forms as trying to achieve similar goals. But he also feels that institutions have become “disconnected” from such goals as of late.

The popularity of MOOCs and other forms of independent learning tends to indicate that people want good education to be accessible to the masses. But how we go about providing and obtaining that education is key. Do we turn to cheaper methods? Hybrid classrooms? Or do we simply set the current system aside and drive forward on a new path?  Will it scale? After all, if only 10 hackademics are going to be accepted (and need $12,000 to play), how realistic is an un-college education for those seeking alternative pathways?

If you can’t afford a gap year, you can at least probably afford Stephens’ new book, Hacking Your Education. It has his story and about 50 others from among those who have had success forging their own paths outside of the traditional college experience. No doubt, plenty is contained to feed both enthusiasts and skeptics.

In our look at the the recent Gallup/Lumina poll, we noted that Americans — employers, professionals, students, professors, etc.  tend to value higher education and its outcomes. As word spreads about contrarians like Dale Stephens, and about new models like MOOCs, will those views begin to change?

Hard to say. Most of us here at Saylor have one foot in open, online, self-paced education and the other in a full-time degree program…we’ve got plenty of old-school credentials (and new-school debt) to show for it. It would seem we’re not quite ready to take the UnSchool plunge, even as we take keen interest in others forms of disrupting higher education.

How about you? Do you think the UnSchool way is courageous? Foolhardy? Exceptional? What would it take you get you to drop out of school or continue to choose not to go?

Photo Credit: Emilio Quintana via photopin CC BY NC-SA 2.0.

4 thoughts on “UnCollege – Fantasy, or Fantastic?

  1. December 3, 2015

    Ryan Cooper Reply

    I think Uncollege has become the type of program that parents and students need to look at. It’s not a solution for everyone, but I think they do a great job of forcing young people to think critically about their future and figure out what they might want to do. Internships, travel and learning skills in the real world never hurt anybody. If they provide the structure that people like Tim on their website say they give, then I think it’s worth giving a shot.

    • December 4, 2015

      Sean Connor Reply

      Thanks for you comments, Ryan! You might also be interested in these folks: http://blackmountainsole.org/ — they are a “self-organized learning community”, kind of a big study hall where everyone is there only because they want to be.

      Some college campuses manage to combine the best of both worlds, collecting students who, with guidance, create and follow unique programs of study…though, usually, for a pretty hefty price tag.

  2. April 21, 2016

    Liane Allen Reply

    My daughter did the Gap Year program, and really enjoyed it. There were some glitches (the students not knowing that they were going to need BART $$ to get to some events, for example), but overall it was a very positive experience for her. She gained immense confidence by making her way, solo, for 6 months in Japan, where she doesn’t speak the language – a key part of the program (students pick their own travel destinations). She maintains connections with the friends she made both in SF and in Tokyo, and has a whole different outlook on life. She has since been the assistant director on a feature length film, and is about to embark on a new adventure in Europe. She fundraised the bulk of the tuition for the program via an online fundraising site, so the tuition, while steep, was manageable when we were on relatively limited income.

    One caveat – It’s a program that requires the students to have a strong sense of purpose and the initiative to follow through. No one will hold their hand. There are regular check-ins to discuss progress, road-blocks and potential solutions, but it’s entirely up to the student to take the next steps. Students will get out of it what they put into it. If a student is thinking of it as a vacation away from home, they can make it that, and get little or nothing out of it. On the other hand, if the student is driven to accomplish a goal, the program will help them learn how to make it happen.

    • April 29, 2016

      Sean Connor Reply

      Thanks for sharing your daughter’s story — good details and an important caveat that also applies to this growing “gig economy” that new grads are coming into.

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