Tune In, Drop Out, Go Far: Kio Stark and Dale Stephens on Hacking Your Education

Higher education is failing many Americans. What once seemed like a sound investment increasingly resembles a bill of goods. A recent high-profile post by a Yale senior articulates a prevailing sentiment: “We Millennials don’t stand a chance.”

The situation goes beyond mere post-grad angst during a flat economy: Tuition rose more than 400% since 1985, outpacing inflation and increasing the US student debt tally to $1 trillion. On average, members of the Class of 2011 owe $26,600 in debt, up from an estimated $22,900 owed upon graduation. Meanwhile, stable employment for grads remains elusive, with roughly 53.6 percent of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 un- or underemployed in 2012. Holders of advanced degrees fare little better, scrambling to pay mounting debt through a patchwork of adjunct teaching positions and part-time contract work.

In a bitter irony for the underemployed and indebted legions of college graduates, some of the most celebrated and successful figures of the past two decades — Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page — are billionaire dropouts. Successful dropouts are often considered flukes, a lucky handful who prospered despite choosing a life path far more likely to land you behind the counter at a Wal-Mart than in the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company. Despite this, the increasingly dubious value of a college education is prompting a growing number of people to reconsider that calculus.

In her new book Don’t Go Back to School, Kio Stark documents the experiences of over 20 professionals who have forgone advanced degrees and thrived, if perhaps not to a Jobsian level. They range from nuclear power expert Rita J. King to artist Molly Crabapple, sanitation expert Molly Danielsson to Obama 2012 CTO Harper Reed. In her interviews, Stark documents these independent learners’ perspectives, tactics, and what unites them — a passion for learning, strong knowledge-sharing communities, and a disregard for traditional gatekeepers and conventional wisdom.

Dale J. Stephens’s path is even more iconoclastic. The 20 year old founder of Uncollege, an organization offering resources and programs to “hack your education,” Stephens was awarded a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship in 2010, founded by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, an outspoken critic of the higher education system. In his book Hacking Your Education, Stephens details his experience as an “elementary school dropout” who pursued independent learning from an early age, and why he believes college is not only a bad investment, but also a substandard learning experience that fails to prepare students for professional or personal success.

I spoke with Stark and Stephens about their experiences, the advantages and challenges of blazing your own academic trail, the tactics of successful self-learners, and the key role learning communities play in any educational path.

Paul M. Davis (PD): Why do you both believe that students should consider taking a non-institutional approach to higher learning?

Dale J. Stephens (DS): For me the issue is the combination of the fact that we’re paying too much and learning too little. It just doesn’t make sense to spend four years and go into an average $27k in debt without guaranteed return, especially if you don’t know what you want to do with life.

Kio Stark (KS): There is just no scenario in which a degree is going to become cheaper to get and more valuable to have. I wrote the book to show people that there are alternatives, and to give them role models and strategies for succeeding as independent learners. I’d add that for many people, learning outside of school is more meaningful than learning inside it.

PD: For all of the well-documented issues with higher education, skipping college requires a certain leap of faith. There is a persisting conventional wisdom shared by students, their families, and many employers that for all of its problems, a Bachelor’s or advanced degree is the most sensible life path.

DS: I think that’s the case because the assumed default is that going to college is a productive use of time, while not going to college is an unproductive use of time. There can be false positives in both cases. You can go to college and spend all of your time drinking and partying, or you can go ahead and do exactly the same thing out of college.

What we’re writing about is less a call for people to not go to college, and more as a call for people to wake up and realize that they have to take advantage of the precious time they have to learn. Education isn’t something that is going to be given to them.

KS: I totally agree. One of the things that I was doing with Don’t Go Back to School is give people some methods and strategies, and give them some ammunition when they talk to people, whether it’s friends or family, who say, ‘why would you do this?’. During my research, I heard hundreds of examples of people doing this, who were happy they did it.

For the people who did finish college in my book who maybe didn’t want to, family pressure was the first, most central reason that they stayed in school, which isn’t necessarily a good reason.

PD: Yeah, I think a lot of people who are in undergrad believe they don’t have a choice in the decision. They feel that the path has been laid out by their family.

KS: Right. Dale, you were talking about how you can do your drinking with school or without school. For the people who didn’t go to college, one of the things I heard quite a bit is, ‘one of the things that I missed out on is the social parts of college, the Jello shots. It’s not like I needed to do that, but there’s a disconnection between me and a lot of people my age who did that.’

DS: I make jokes in my talks about beer and girls and champagne and guys being one of the more valid reasons to go to college, and I’m actually not joking. I think that there is an absolutely valid part of life where you go and do crazy shit, have sex with people you regret, and you learn from those mistakes. You don’t have to pay $40,000 a year to make it socially acceptable to do that, but I do think that is one of the absolutely valuable parts of college that we should consider.

KS: One of the geekiest guys that I talked to, who went to college off and on before deciding to finish, said, ‘y’know, the main thing I got out of it is that I learned how to talk to girls.’

PD: Yeah, I went to college for 4 1/2 years, mostly commuter schools, and missed a lot of those social aspects. So for a number of years after college, I just worked at coffee shops and played in bands, and it was almost like I was making up for lost time, while actually learning how to be social.

Kio Stark. Photo by <a target="_blank" href="http://brepettis.com">Bre Pettis</a>.
Kio Stark. Photo by Bre Pettis.
KS: I think the other thing to remember here is that the picture we’ve been describing of college, where it’s a pretty campus and most people are of undergrad age, is not the experience of most people in college. For most people, it’s more like what Paul described — it may be in and out, or going to a commuter or community college, or it may be going to college while you have a job and are taking care of kids. So the whole conversation around education is skewed towards a very narrow experience that most Americans aren’t having.

DS: That’s totally true. As well as the fact that I think Americans forget, that the vast majority of European colleges are not residential. The idea of a college campus is a concept that only really exists in America and Canada. Most people are off living on their own in their own apartments, supporting themselves, cleaning their own bathrooms.

KS: It’s interesting, that is a very important part of being independent.

DS: I think it is though! Do you not agree?

KS: I do. It’s a perfect symbol.

PD: I’m always surprised when I meet people who have gone on the track of high school to undergrad, and then directly into a grad program. I’ll meet these people when they get out in their late 20s or early 30s, and in a weird way, they’re often not quite socialized or maybe not prepared for, say, working in a non-academic work environment or taking care of themselves.

KS: Yeah, I think for both Dale and I, part of the issue is that you also don’t learn to take care of yourself intellectually.

DS: For sure. There’s a dependency on people who know more, or will give you permission, as opposed to having the agency to go out and start something yourself.

KS: It’s funny about the word ‘permission.’ One of the things with my book is that a lot of people wrote to me and said, ‘do you have a minute for me to tell you about my situation and whether or not I should go to college?’ I would ask them what they wanted to learn, and give them feedback about how they could go about learning this outside of college. Most of them would say, ‘oh, I’m already doing that — great!’ They just needed their experience validated.

PD: Yeah I think agency and asking permission are really important issues here. You’re both sort of empowering people to realize that they can do this. Which brings me to a point stated explicitly in both your books: once you take this step, it’s crucial to build or connect to communities of people who are also self-learning and teaching one another. It’s not the traditional idea of the autodidact that you’re talking about. Why do you both believe that these communities are so important, and how do you connect with these people?

DS: I left school when I was 12, and for me, finding a community of people was the only thing that allowed that to happen. There was no manual to teach me how to go out and find mentors, how to create my own courses, find educational resources, and develop my own agency. It was only through a process of osmosis that I was able to engage in this way.

Having a community of young people, who specifically had parents who were successful in traditional terms — doctors, lawyers, college professors — who had given their kids the freedom to try something else really validated my choice to my parents. They were afraid that I’d be going off and doing my thing all alone, and not meeting people who could support me.

KS: In the interviews I did, it was very clear that in almost every case, people were helping and learning from each other, and importantly teaching one another, which is one of the ways that they know that they have really learned what they’re learning — they could turn around and teach it to someone else.

But among the people I talked to, even the people who liked college said that the other students were the most educationally useful thing to them. It was that they had a readymade learning community, and that attests to how important learning communities are.

PD: Of course, there’s no single way to form or connect to a learning community, but in your research Kio, were there recurring approaches people took?

KS: Yeah. A lot of people looked around on the Internet, found people using technology, but they also found people in the places they went to, by putting up notes on the cafe bulletin board. There’s one woman I interviewed named Molly Danielson who wanted to start a composting toilet business, and she had to learn quite a bit of science as well as the legal situation. She was volunteering for an advocacy group, and started a salon called “Talking Shit” at her house, to invite a community to learn together about the scientific and legal questions.

One of the important things about joining or starting a learning community is that you have to be a good community member and be generous, by inviting people into your house as much as you’re going to their meetings, and sharing what you know.

Dale J. Stephens.
Dale J. Stephens.
DS: There are a lot of stories about creating salons in my book. There was a conversation group started at Michigan State University by a group of people who all ended up dropping out, but have since stayed in touch. They have a conversation group on Fridays called Gumball, and everyone gets together and shares their challenges, and that’s a way for them to build a community. One of the other people from that group decided that she was going to meet a new person every week and interview for them for an entire year.

I think the lesson to be learned there is that there’s a lot to be said about intentionality in doing this. It’s not something that just happens — you have to be conscious of it, you have to allocate a portion of your budget to buy people coffee and slowly learn from these people.

KS: I had a lot of people who said that you can get a whole education for the price of lunch, basically.

It’s also important, and I know Dale talks about this too, that the learning community is a reality check. If you were learning in isolation, you’d have no idea if you were internalizing information, you’d have no way of deepening your understanding of it, you’d have no way of knowing if you’re being intellectually sloppy. Being part of a community is what keeps you honest and on track.

DS: If you’re only learning in an echo chamber, it just doesn’t work. The biggest value of a school is that it has a monopoly on smart young people, and you’re able to find people who have similar interests, at similar places in life, with similar maturity levels. Going through that learning process with other people is what makes it valuable.

If you’re trying to replace the experience of school with something else, you’ve got to take into account all the aspects that go into that experience, whether it’s the people that you do it with, whether it’s the parties you go to, or the actual content.

PD: It seems it takes self-confidence and a sense of agency to take this leap, to reach out to strangers and take what may seem a risky life choice. That may come naturally to people with self-assured personalities, but what about people who are insecure or risk-adverse or don’t feel comfortable reaching out to strangers?

KS: I don’t think it’s about personality, actually. Both of our books are about giving people models and strategies outside of traditional school, so it’s not about depending on your personality, it’s about having models that have been successful.

DS: And even if there are some things that are traditionally related to personality traits, there are ways that you can develop these skills. Early in my book, some of the first chapters are about building self-confidence, getting used to being rejected, and defining success internally, so that you’re comfortable with yourself before you go out exploring the world.

KS: Definitely. Understanding that failure is a good thing can be very difficult for people, but everyone I talked to said they learned by taking risks and failing — not only by themselves, but in some cases, by failing in public, which can be an ideal learning experience.

PD: What are your thoughts on issues of privilege and access? The approaches you describe seem to favor those with the technical skills and access to find resources and communities, creating the risk that it becomes a self-selecting and homogenous group of people. Are there ways those in the self-learning and/or Unschooling communities can reach out to individuals who may lack access or opportunities enjoyed by other members?

KS: My book — both our books — were written to make sure that independent learning is open and accessible to anyone who wants to try it. There are socioeconomic barriers to learning both in and outside of school, and no mere book can solve those problems. The other barriers have to do with not having any models of people who are independent learners, and not knowing how to go about it, where to find resources, and how to join forces with others. I want to make sure nobody is stopped by those barriers, which are barriers a book can knock down.

DS: I think an interesting point is that self-education is free. Also, it’s not part of the whole class hierarchy that school perpetuates. But of course a book won’t solve that alone.

KS: Free, yes, I forgot to mention that! In terms of the class hierarchy, it’s so important that self-education doesn’t perpetuate that. Dale is spot on.

It’s also the case that you have the same challenges as an independent learner that you would have as a traditional student, in terms of being privileged or not, your access or lack of access to financial and cultural capital. School doesn’t solve that and neither does self-education. But self-education gives you more life/job skills, like being able to learn on the job, which is the thing that every employer I talked to said was critical in their hiring decisions.

PD: What surprised you both most during the research process? What did you, yourselves, learn during the process?

KS: I was surprised by how many people came out of the woodwork to announce that they were dropouts when they heard I was writing this book.

DS: Everyone told me dropouts had to be self-motivated. In fact, I found the opposite. Many were quite lazy, and because they were lazy didn’t have the patience to deal with the school system. This also lead to them finding high-leverage opportunities.

PD: That’s an interesting point, Dale. Most people don’t have a positive connection with the term "lazy,” but it sounds like in this case, a certain kind of laziness can be an asset.

DS: Being lazy allowed them to find high leverage opportunities. Also, they had a habit of not asking permission.

PD: Beyond productive laziness, what are some of the other key strategies or observations shared by the folks you talked to, Kio?

KS: My favorite strategy is summed up as “you can get a whole education for the price of lunch.” It’s really important to know you don’t have to be in an educational institution to get access to experts. If you have questions about their work, they’re more often than not totally happy to talk to you about it. A lot of people also told me that their best learning trick was “having smart friends.”

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