‘Hacking your Education’: Key Takeaways for Higher Ed

“For those who have absolutely no idea of their interests, a four-year institution is a waste of money and time.” Dale J. Stephens, “Hacking your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will”

Dale J. Stephens. From the cover of his book “Hacking your Education”

This quote is from a twenty-one year old college dropout. He not only is the author of the book Hacking Your Education, but is founder of the website and movement, UnCollege. Stephens insists he is not advocating that young people don’t go to college, but is suggesting students only go to college if they know what they want to study and why. Seems reasonable enough. Yet Stephens argument and advice for hacking your education lacks credibility. Yes he is a college dropout and hacked his education, but he is also a Thiel Fellow, a recipient of a $100,000 award through a program for college dropouts. The $100,000 award allowed Stephens to explore what he wanted to do, hack is education as part of a two-year program to “skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education” [thielfellowship.org]. Though after reading more on the Thiel website, it appears that entrepreneurship is the focus.  And Stephens did take the entrepreneurship route by founding UnCollege and writing his book.

The Message in Hacking Your Education
However, there is message within the book and website that is worth examining, both for higher education institutions and parents. The main message when delving further and reading between the lines, is how differently these kids think—how education [even employment] methods, norms and traditions don’t align with their values and desires. I’ll expand further in this post, but before I do, first a brief background on the Thiel award.

Thiel Fellows: Awards $100,000 to College Dropouts
The Thiel Fellowship is controversial, both with educators and employers. It is funded and founded by Peter Thiel, a wealthy venture capitalist and critic of the higher education system. He started the ‘Thiel Fellows,” program in 2011. The program awards twenty individuals under the age of twenty— $100,000. It’s a highly competitive application process. Though given the vast sum of money at stake it’s not surprising.

“Thiel Fellows are given a no-strings-attached grant of $100,000 to skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education. Our network of visionary thinkers, investors, scientists, and entrepreneurs, who provide guidance and business connections that can’t be replicated in any classroom, mentors them. Rather than just studying, you’re doing.” [thielfellowhip.com]

Mr. Stephens is from the Thiel class of 2011. Ironically, Stephens business model for UnCollege is loosely based on the Thiel model. Except in Stephens model students are customers, they pay for the UnCollege experience.  UnCollege experiences come in two versions, the Gap Year Program, and a weekend conference, Hack Camp. The price is dear, $750 tuition for the three-day camp, and $13,000 for the Gap Year Program.


UnCollege: Hacking your Education
I can see how UnCollege is appealing to teenagers, especially young men that seem to be less motivated than young women to apply to and complete college as the statistics show.  It is especially appealing to those that don’t have the inclination or desire to go to college, but want to do something, but don’t know what that something is [though really,  isn’t this common to most teenagers, especially high school seniors?].

What the UnCollege website does provide for teenagers is reassurance. The site subtly states that it is normal and okay to not know what to do, and to question the notion that college education is the only alternative after high school or the only path to success. It also promotes self-directed learning, and encourages students to take charge of their lives and create their own paths. This latter part about taking responsibility for one’s own learning is excellent advice – and more so that it comes from a peer.

Stephens Message to Students
There are also some worthy points in the book for young adults. Though the advice has are more to do with lifestyle choices and finding personal interests rather than education choices. Stephens encourages readers to be productive, i.e. getting up early every morning, and to be learning everyday with a direction and a plan. Each chapter ends with a “HACK Of THE DAY’ that includes practical tips and advice. The ‘hack’ ideas are helpful, but I do wonder how many young people have the motivation and drive to follow what Stephens suggests.

Why UnCollege Misses the Mark
However, the UnCollege website itself lacks breadth. There are few viable options presented other than entrepreneurship that students could consider if unsure about college. The site does provide a few free resources and idea for students seeking guidance, but overall it is heavily slanted to entrepreneurship and little else. In fairness, it really is a platform for selling its programs, book and Stephens’ services as a speaker. It is a business, despite its .org suffix in its web address that may lead some to believe it is a not-for-profit organization.

The site would be far more valuable to students if it included a variety of resources with information on alternative paths and options to traditional higher education. Imagine how this site could truly benefit teenagers that are confused about college, unsure of what to do, but want to make a difference. With multiple options to consider, perhaps it could put kids on the right path to higher education by suggesting alternatives to the traditional path. Or the site could provide options where young people can be productive in communities while figuring out what they really want to do. I’ve listed a couple of ideas below [though there are many more out there]:

  • Volunteer programs that are study abroad lasting for one year. Some examples: from the UK: VSO Program for 18 – 25 year-old individuals,  Peace Corps, or the Go Overseas Program, which has its own Gap Year Program
  • Alternative Degree Programs: University Now [US], or The Open University [UK]
  • Education Platforms that offer courses earning certificates with direct links to employers, i.e. Udacity

Closing Thoughts for Educators
What can be gleaned from the book and site is that a large group of students find the thought of studying in traditional settings unappealing. They want to do something but are unsure of what. Some have a vague idea but don’t know where to start. Students [the 20 and under crowd] don’t value traditional education the way that we do. Perhaps presenting options for students that deviate from traditional study is the answer, project-based learning for example, where students begin the program in their first year of college. We need to share and promote alternatives to traditional higher education that provide productive real-life learning experiences. Getting students involved in volunteer programs to learn new skills and experience other cultures is a worthy endeavor. I am not discounting traditional education and study by any means, there are students that will take this route, but there are thousands that don’t want to, or would benefit from life experience first. Perhaps colleges can develop an UnCollege program of its own. Does this seem far-fetched? Maybe, but it is worth thinking about.

Further Reading:

11 thoughts on “‘Hacking your Education’: Key Takeaways for Higher Ed

  1. I tend to agree with the headline statement about college/uni being a waste of time if you don’t know what you want to do. I also think that this is how it has always been.

    Far too many people drop out early or worse, waste years before they realise the path they have chosen (or more likely the path that was chosen for them), is not the path that will make them feel happy or engaged. This is a huge waste of resources.

    I think today’s young people find themselves in a challenging environment. The education sector is in a state of rapid disruption. As digital natives, they are predisposed to a worldview where information is online and ubiquitous. Further, college/uni is often no longer seen as a ticket to permanent employment. It doesn’t surprise me that “hacking your education” would be an attractive concept.

    I think the disruption occurring to the education sector is a fantastic thing. Learning can now be leveraged higher, delivered faster, and be more tailored than ever before. Individuals can time-shift, connect widely and save travel effort.

    I think this presents a great challenge for traditional educators. Will they reinvent themselves? I hope so, because in my opinion, an experience which blends online learning with the best of traditional learning (eg meaningful physical interactions and campus social activity!), and is not stifled by the restrictions of traditional lecture formats etc would be great!


    1. Hi Tim,
      It is a challenging time for both, I agree, both students and educators. Each have different views of education and its purpose, and with the changing economy, digital world with information available 24/7 at our fingertips it shifts the paradigm of education completely.

      The disruption is a good thing I agree, for the long term, yet for the students caught right now in the infancy of the disruptive forces, it’s not such a good thing for them. I have an eighteen year old daughter who will enter university this Fall here in the US. The application process was arduous, the number of tests she had to take to even prove that she is worthy of a spot in a fairly good program was intense, and now that she is in, the cost per year is $45,000 / year, which is typical for a US university. Something needs to change as this model will not be sustainable in the long term.

      I also agree with you the reinvention is needed by educators – and the blended model you mention is the best of both worlds.

      Thanks for commenting and reading Tim!


  2. Carole Calenso-Fair
    Center for Teaching & Learning
    Room 968, Bell e-Learning Centre
    Phone: 403-556-4622

    “What have you learned today?”


    1. What have I learned? I’m not a teacher though I do provide instructional support and was reminded today of the importance of teaching being at the core of what we are doing. Our college is in grave crisis, may close and though it is sad we have already lost some good people it seems sadder that staff and faculty have been ordered by administration to “stay positive” when we should be fighting back. It shows what over-managing something as vital as education leads to. Students are paying attention to this demonstration of values abandoned.


  3. Agree that the concept of hacking your own education could help young people discover other models for becoming aware adults. Unfortunately it feel more like the story of a self-centered person playing the system for personal gain. We have students who attend trades courses for the dollars they will make on graduation only to find high paying jobs often require undesirable shifts in unpleasant places, the money isn’t sufficient reward and they move on. Others who go into the trades with the intention of becoming good at the it and proud of their work are more comfortable and stable under whatever circumstances they run across. A person makes all sorts of decisions, some don’t pay off as expected and it can take a long time to realize the cause may be more complex than “the system failed me.”

    As a college drop-out I have to say (obviously) school didn’t suit me at that time in my life. I don’t feel the time was wasted. Not learning from an experience comes closer to defining wasted time and maybe Dale’s success is more that he identified a market that would pay him for being him. My sense is that Dale knows how to market himself and what he is saying is a product of that. His story is even interesting–right up to accepting the money when it suddenly becomes another small example of human nature.


    1. HI Scott,
      You bring up some good points about student and their motivations for working [or not working]. Though I think many students today are more disillusioned with the system than thinking it failed them.

      I like you point about the feeling that your time was not wasted, and that time is wasted only if one does not learn from experiences.

      Thanks for commenting! 🙂


  4. On volunteer programs, also consider NCCC AmeriCorps. We have hosted three eight-week teams at our museum and the experience has been phenomenal. Community service learning at its best.


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