Creator Of UnCollege Gets 100K From Thiel Foundation

on Friday, May. 27th

Peter Thiel, who is the co-founder of PayPal and president of the Thiel Foundation, just announced the inaugural class of his Twenty Under Twenty fellows.  These young people will be given $100,000 each to drop out of school, and pursue their ideas in the areas of science and technology.

Dale Stephens is one of those lucky winners. For Stephens, leaving school was an easy decision. “I was sitting in religion class. I was leaving the next day to interview for the Thiel fellowship – the professor was playing a video about Shabbat dinners… I decided I didn’t need to watch a half hour video about something that I experienced on a monthly basis for a number of years, so I took out  a notebook and started making notes about my Thiel interviews. The professor walked up to me and said, ‘If you’re not going to listen you should probably leave.’ I said, ‘That’s a great idea,’ and I left.”

Stephens has never been a traditionalist in terms of education. On the first day of kindergarten, his mom reminded him, he told the teacher that the classroom should be rearranged because it was inefficient. In fifth grade, Stephens was fed up with school and demanded an alternative. That’s when he found out about unschooling – a specific type of homeschooling that is unstructured and self-directed. He was unschooled from then on. Stephens started UnCollege in February- an online movement and program that aims to contradict the conclusion that college degrees equals success, and connect students with other options for real-world experience.

Stephens plans to use the $100,000 from the Thiel Foundation to continue supporting people who choose self-directed learning. The first thing Stephens plans on doing is writing a book, “about evaluating the opportunity cost of going to college. I want to help individuals to evaluate whether or not they should leave school and give them the skills for success in today’s entrepreneurial economy,” he said.

Secondly, Stephens plans on developing a project called RadMatter. “RadMatter is to help people demonstrate and develop their talents and bypass the college experience. If we can allow people to directly connect their life-wide experiences, whether in classes, service, or travel – to opportunities, jobs, internships, and externships, we can bypass the monopoly that colleges have on accredidation,” said Stephens.

In addition, he will tour around the world speaking to students and young people about self-directed learning and exploring their options beyond college classrooms.

“I think the idea behind the Thiel fellowship is  to get individuals to pursue their ideas in the real world instead of in class. I’m a big believer that human talent is being wasted in the classroom and on homework assignments. I truly believe that if we empower individuals to take their education beyond the classroom we can enable everyone to change the world,” he said.

At the time he would have been a senior in high school, Stephens finished his college applications and went to work for a San Francisco start-up company called Zinch. He never questioned going to college in the fall, until he got there – and realized the culture he was looking for was in San Francisco.

“At the start up I was charged with hiring my replacement – this person had just graduated from Harvard Business School – and it wasn’t until I got to Arkansas that I realized I spent the week before college training a Harvard Business School grad to do something that I had taught myself,” said Stephens.

When Stephens found out he had been awarded the scholarship, he received congratulatory emails from his former college professors.  But he also received nasty emails from other college students at Hendrix College in Arkansas who told him he’s on the wrong track.   “The biggest push-back comes from those who think that the choice I’m making is a value judgment on their decision to stay in college. That’s not the case at all. I believe individuals should make informed educational choices based on their experiences, their background, their learning styles, and their goals,” he said.

“One criticism of the Thiel Fellowship that I’ve heard, and that I agree with to some extent, is that it’s wrong to pay people to drop out of school. While ideally I would like to see a world where individuals leave college on their own fruition when they have enough traction with something – the fact is that people need incentives. I left college on April 1 because the opportunity cost was simply too high, there were too many people to meet, too many places to be,” he said.

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