Is college worth it? High school seniors anxiously awaiting admissions decisions might find that question bizarre, but recently some strenuous arguments have been leveled against the value of a college degree.
For more insight into those arguments, we turned to Dale J. Stephens, 20, the founder of UnCollege, which urges students to "hack their education" by finding their own pathways to success. Mr. Stephens, 20, is a Thiel fellow who spent his middle and high school years "unschooling," and then left college after a brief time there.
Mr. Stephens envisions "a world where people make their own decisions," where college is not a foregone conclusion and young people forge their own paths to fulfillment.
We asked Mr. Stephens for his responses to the five main arguments most often given for going to college. Here's what he had to say.
Reason 1: Learning in a rigorous, supported educational environment
"If you want to learn, college is the last place you should go," Mr. Stephens said. "A lot of learning isn't happening on college campuses."
That may sound surprising, given that college is virtually defined as an institution devoted to nourishing learning and intellectualism.
Not true, Mr. Stephens said. "What you learn in college is generally the same skill set that you learn in a traditional school environment," he said. "You learn how to follow directions, meet deadlines and memorize facts."
Although college provides structure and resources for learning, "I don't know that structure is a good thing," he said. "When you go out into the world, there's no structure like that. A job doesn't give you a syllabus." He added, "Learners should be able to access resources on their own terms." He described initiatives that provide laboratory, research and other facilities to the general public. Although these are not yet widely available, he said, they seem to be growing.
And he criticized the education system - and standardized testing in particular - for being "efficient but not effective." His ideal is self-directed education forged on the principles of project-based learning, perhaps with the guidance of mentors.
Reason 2: Socializing and developing a network of friends and contacts
Mr. Stephens said that many have advised him that he's missing out by not going to college, where, the rationale goes, he could be meeting women and drinking beer. His retort: "I like guys and Champagne."
Underlying this flip yet frank answer is his conviction that the social world of college is a self-selecting, largely homogenous "bubble."
"You might end up limiting yourself if you only socialize with people on your dorm floor and in your classes," he said. Campus demographics might be diverse, he said, but "people are still there for the same reason." In contrast, he said, unschooling has allowed him to actively seek opportunities to meet people who travel different walks in life.
As for the value of making connections in college to nurture a professional network, people are increasingly using social media resources like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to make connections, Mr. Stephens said.
Reason 3: Status
"I think that's the most valid reason to go to college," Mr. Stephens allowed. "If you can go to a top school, by all means, go. It doesn't mean that you need to finish." A semester or two may be all you need, he said, to gain the advantages associated with the school's name brand.
Reason 4: Self-discovery
Many college graduates believe that they discovered themselves in their years on campus. But Mr. Stephens said the typical student's lack of real responsibility, coupled with an emphasis on rote memorization and test taking, hampers true personal growth.
"College is a sandbox that gives you a false sense of reality," he said. "It's much more beneficial to learn what it means to direct your own life." Learners are better off spending early adulthood developing self-reliance, he said.
Self-discovery might best be achieved doing something constructive, he argued, like creating a start-up.
The idea of taking a gap year off from school to explore the world and find yourself raised his hackles. "Why does it have to be a year off? Why can't it be a year on? Why should you have to take time out of the system to engage?" he asked.
Reason 5: Attaining a marketable degree and developing earning potential
Statistics show that college graduation correlates positively with economic factors like lower rates of unemployment and higher earnings.
The key factor may be not the degree itself but the degree earner, Mr. Stephens contended. "It's not that college creates success," he said. "It's that smart and motivated people in our society tend to go to college. I bet if you took those smart and motivated people and put them out into the work force, they would earn more than other people."
He believes that typical college coursework is largely divorced from reality: "Taking a psychology course doesn't mean you know what it's like to work as a psychologist." Better to observe, shadow and perhaps intern with professionals, he said, noting that coursework or a degree may be required to enter a profession or gain licensing.
He also took issue with some of the data, noting, "The lower unemployment rates are only for college graduates over 25." (Indeed, as The Times reported last spring, only slightly more than 55 percent of young college graduates are working in jobs that require a college degree.) He thought one reason might be that young graduates simply aren't developing useful skills in college.
Rising levels of college debt, he said, further complicate the financial picture for college graduates. Young people might look at the time and money they would invest in a college education and determine a better way to use those resources.
In the end, perhaps the point that Mr. Stephens most wanted to make is that even those who opt for college should reflect on their goals and make good, clear-eyed decisions. "Understand why you're going so you can make the most of your experience. Be honest about it," he said.