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Disgruntled College Student Starts ‘UnCollege’ to Challenge System

Dale Stephens, a 19-year-old entrepreneur, wants to bring the idea of home-schooling to the college level, with an unusual new Web service he calls UnCollege.

Mr. Stephens is now a freshman at Hendrix College, but not for long. He feels he can learn more outside the traditional college system than as a formal student, and he is leaning toward dropping out at the end of the term and taking his education into his own hands. His new online service is designed to help others do the same.

So far UnCollege is more a concept than a reality, and Mr. Stephens admits that he hasn’t worked out many of the details (the site went up just a few days ago as a kind of trial balloon). But he is tapping into growing frustrations about the high costs of college and the value of a college degree, and the site seems as much a means to spark discussion as a serious educational institution.

Essentially, UnCollege plans to serve as a social group for self-learners to trade tips on how to learn enough through nontraditional means to get the job they’re aiming for. Mr. Stephens has been home-schooled since fifth grade, and he says that has taught him how to find ways to learn outside of classrooms—by finding internships, seeking out mentors, and designing projects on his own. And he says he is frustrated with his experience so far at college, mainly because of what he calls “a gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application of that knowledge.” In other words, he spent his time in class thinking to himself, Why do I need to know this?

“I don’t feel that I’ve learned things that I couldn’t have learned on my own,” he said.

The plan for UnCollege so far is to charge participants $100 per month to gain access to the Web site and a network of mentors that Mr. Stephens is pulling together. Everything will be self-directed—unstudents will decide what “assignments” they should complete and then evaluate how well they think they’ve done. Participants are encouraged to post their projects and self-evaluations online to form their “experience transcript.”

Unstudents also largely decide for themselves when they’ve graduated, though the site does specify that participants should complete “at least 15 projects divided into three learning domains.”

Does Mr. Stephens worry that employers would fail to take seriously the nontraditional transcripts? “It’s true that degrees open doors currently,” he said, adding, “I would like to see that change.”

He allowed that the approach may not work for some fields. “I’m not going to recommend if you want to become a doctor to skip out on medical school,” he said. But for many jobs (he named law among them), students who pass necessary certifications should be able to practice without a formal college degree, he said.

Hillel Levine, a professor of sociology and religion at Boston University, says he was impressed with Mr. Stephens’s energy when he met him after a recent speech the professor gave, though he questions the student’s model. “The problem is real, but I’m not sure he’s come up with the solution” is how Mr. Levine put it. “Experiential things are important,” he said, and he thinks colleges should do a better job of offering real-world opportunities within a structured learning environment. He added, though, that there is a need for people to learn basic skills and gain a liberal-arts education that teaches “how to be a decent person, how to be moral.”

The biggest irony of the student’s project is that it rails against institutional education by setting up a new kind of educational institution. When asked about that, Mr. Stephens admitted that true unstudents could do without his site as well: “Individuals that are motivated to do it themselves definitely don’t need UnCollege.”

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