Hacking Your EducationIf a prophet came and told me that dropping out would be the best decision I ever made, I wouldn’t have believed him. In fact, at the age of 15, it seemed like I had more chances of committing a Ghirardelli chocolate robbery then I did of dropping out of college.

But, looking back, it might not seem that way. I’ve been out of school since I was 12 – looks like I was setting myself up to fail, right?

To put it delicately, I’ve realized that not going to school was exactly what set me free. You don’t need physical chains to tell you that you’re being subjugated. But what many don’t realize, is that it wasn’t blindly dropping out that saved me. Instead, it was refusing to throw myself away, that did.

College kids act like college kids because they go to college – you don’t need a forensics team to figure that out. It’s the societal structure that dictates their own behavior, and we can’t blame them. But, within the thousands that go to college, there are many that are hacking their own education, as we speak.

Sure, they’re taking on $26,000 in debt (the national average), and pandering around impossible course loads that are begging (and receiving) their attention. Sure, 44% of graduates under 25 are unemployed, and they’re fighting an uphill battle. But, hacking your education isn’t about circumstance – it’s about choice.

Hackademics – as I like to call them – are refusing to settle for, dare I say it, the status quo. You’ll find them leaving marks on the real world, not receiving ones on a slew of academic papers. They’ll be traveling, interning, apprenticing, and running companies. They’ll be succeeding – wildly. Most of all, they’ll be free.

What does it take to be a Hackademic? Like I said, Hackademia isn’t about circumstance, but choice. If you’re in college, the path will be uphill – but, like many that have come before you, it’ll still be possible.

The first mistake is philosophy. College kids believe that education ends at 22, that learning is a 4 year process, and then, it’s lights out for your neural circuits. This couldn’t be further from the truth – many people, including myself at one point in time, confuse education for college. But what education is, and what it’ll always be, is learning. And, if you leave this piece with one thing, I hope it’s this: learning is lifelong. It doesn’t take the physical walls of a collegiate institution to learn – what it takes is life. And with an internet connection literally a pocket away, you can do that from books, websites and experience.

Hackademics read for pleasure, and they read a lot. But they also do things. Reading about abstract business tactics in a classroom is a 3rd rate experience compared to that of actually starting one. To quote Good Will Hunting, “I’ll bet you can’t tell me what is smells like in the Sistine Chapel”. The real world is accessible. It’s just up to you to access it.

Another problem is the student mentality. It’s the one that says this: education happens to you. You go to your lecture hall, and your professor proceeds to shotgun blast you the material. That is not what will get you ahead. Instead, it’ll be precisely the moment you decide to seek an education, rather than let it happen to you, that things will start to happen. When you seek opportunities because of the learning experience and because you want to use that knowledge, then you’re already two steps ahead of the game.

When you seek out knowledge, you’ll see it as the student chasing after an apprenticeship with a bestselling author. The kid next door launching a startup. Your cousin learning to code. The college kid purchasing The Elements of Style, with no intention of using it on 100 page research papers. This is the plague of the Hackademic – but the side effects are all good.

The last bit that I think defines the Hackademic, is a morbid one: You are going to die. Charlie Hoehn puts this aptly in his own TEDx talk, but what the lesson he draws is a valuable one. You are going to be on this earth for a very short period of time. And life is too precious to do what other people say you have to do, even when the results aren’t compelling.

When you see that the norm is a boring day job, why settle for the norm? Hackademics are in on a secret – you can work for projects you care about, you can learn the skills you need without taking on coursework, and you can reach people to buy from you. Now, in the connection economy, we’re living in a world that is filled with opportunity.

It’s just that you won’t realize it. That, in the fake constructs of college, it’s hard to see past classes, GPAs, and rambling professors. Paul Graham makes a point in his own essay ‘Why Nerds Are Unpopular’, that high school is a fake, social construct that doesn’t reflect the world at large. While college is nothing like high school, I think the same goes for college. It’s hard to see past this. It’s hard to see that the truth is buried somewhere beneath the linoleum floors.

But it’s there. I’m not especially smart or talented. I wasn’t born in a golden throne. But, in today’s world, I didn’t have to be. Reaping the benefits of the Hackademic lifestyle, I’d say I’m pretty grateful to say that.


Hacking Your EducationMillions of college student are at stake. And it’s not just their debt that’s on the line; now, more than ever, it’s their livelihood. It’s these hidden costs, I believe, that are so great, that the public domain is willfully choosing to ignore them, because to admit, would be to admit “we were wrong.”

When Fatima al-Fihri founded the first degree-granting college back in 859 in Fes, Morocco, she effectively created, years later, a paradigm: that a college degree was the only stamp of approval you needed to stand out against the rest.

If only things were that simple.

Getting a typical degree doesn’t make you unique – if anything, it makes you just like everyone else. When thousands of MBA’s are applying to the same dream jobs, why does your degree make you different? The truth is that it doesn’t, yet, many students believe that a degree, a high GPA and a pinch of luck are all it takes to live their dreams. Yet, with unemployment rates rising for graduates, realizing that a college degree wasn’t enough will be hard medicine to swallow.

On top of this, there’s a crippling misrepresentation of learning.

Learning in school is not the same as learning in life. Times have changed. Yes, schools have certain elements intact, like repetition. But in the real world, where information is a touch screen away, why memorize? It’s been proven that creativity is essential to the 21st century worker – so why is it being replaced by institutions with dry bubble-in score sheets? And when the brain is neurologically proven to learn when engaged in active project-based learning, than why are we hitting students with passive lectures that go on for hours?

A college degree has not only spread an illusion, but it’s also misconfigured learning. The worst part, though, is that these factors aren’t talked about. Debt is the national discussion, but an American education, consisting of a linear path from kindergarten to college, has been nearly synonymous with ‘learning’ for so long, that it gives the wrong idea to students as to what the future can hold. When students face difficulty with employers, it might be too late before they realize that it was precisely their education that was stopping them.

With medicine, law, and engineering, your GPA matters, and the collegiate hoops you go through do as well. But, in nearly every other profession, it’s what you accomplish outside of college, which counts for experience. Running a startup, a non-profit, undergoing apprenticeships, and creating art for a real, unpredictable audience is what will catch the attention of employers looking to hire. Not starting the key club on campus, or being President for Student Government (keep in mind, you are one of thousands of Student Government Presidents across the country).

As an AA session might tell you, admitting that you have a problem, is the first step to solving it. There are costs, to personal expectations and learning, which many students don’t have a conceptual grasp over. Yet, when students show up with no job, lower standards, and tons of debt, it worries me that they’d never even think to blame college for the ordeal that they’ve gotten themselves into.

For them, the costs are hidden. And, for many, it might remain that way, for the rest of their lives. Colleges haven’t admitted that there is a problem. Will you?

Dale Stephens was homeschooled and then unschooled. Now he leads UnCollege.org. His first book is Hacking Your Education.


Hacking Your EducationOur culture puts so much emphasis on a college education that it can be hard to see the alternatives. Even though I was unschooled as a child, I still headed off to college at the appointed time like everyone else. What I quickly discovered was that college was not right for me. I wanted to be out in the real world meeting people, exploring other cultures, and experiencing life as the vibrant and unpredictable cacophony it is. Sitting in an office chair listening to lectures about the world I wanted to be living in just wasn’t cutting it. Why read a textbook about Taiwan when I could go and explore it firsthand for far less money than a semester of college?

Soon after this realization I moved to San Francisco and started UnCollege to spread the word. I figured there were many other college students in my situation who didn’t realize there were other options. I began spreading the word about an alternate educational model in which students take their future into their own hands, say no to student debt, and set out into the real world to find mentors, learn applicable skills, and experience the world firsthand through travel, volunteer work, internships, and entrepreneurship.

Critics argue that skipping college is too risky but I think that graduating college with $26,000 plus in debt and a questionable skillset is at least as risky in the current job market.

Some say looking at college as a financial decision is narrow minded because college is not just an financial investment but a place to learn who you are and gain independence and life skills. While growing up is important, college may not be the most healthy environment for a young adult. According to a 2007 study by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that Forty-nine percent (3.8 million) of full time college students binge drink and/or abuse prescription and illegal drugs and 1.8 million college students (22.9%) meet the medical criteria for full blown substance abuse and dependence. As if that isn’t bad enough the Department of Justice found that over 40% of undergraduate girls engage in “heavy drinking” with that number rising to over 60% for those in a sorority. Alcohol on campus is responsible for “1,400 deaths from alcohol-related causes; 500,000 unintentional injuries; 600,000 assaults; and 70,000 cases of sexual assault and acquaintance rape” per year. Not necessarily the idealized coming of age environment envision by most parents.

Of course the most obvious argument is simply that kids need to attend college in order to learn the skills they will need in order to be valuable members of society.Unfortunately there are also problems in this area. According to recent study titled Academically Adrift, as many as 45% of students show “no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning or written communication during their first two years in college.”

Fast forwarding past graduation day paints a similarly dismal picture for college grads in the job market. According to a 2011 study by Andrew Sum of Northeastern University over 44% of college grads under 25 were unemployed or working in a job that did not require their degree.

Put all of these facts together and then realize that college is still the only socially acceptable choice for high school grads and I knew that I had to spread the word about an alternate path. In my book Hacking Your Education I explain a practical process for hands on learning outside the classroom. I explain how to find mentors, build a community of like minded self educators, and leverage all the new resources of the 21st century to learn skills, grow as a person, and eventually get a job doing something you love; all without setting foot in a classroom.  With a bias towards action and experience over dry lectures, self directed education may be a better fit for many students than a traditional college experience.

If you are interested in learning more about uncollege and self directed learning head over to our blog at www.uncollege.org