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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The High School Dropout Who Wants to Create Alternatives to Traditional Education

For the month of April we're profiling the individuals who made our inaugural list of the 30 top thinkers under 30, the young men and women we predict will have a serious impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day here at Pacific Standard.
(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

Dale J. Stephens, 22, Education

Dale J. Stephens quit school when he was 12 years old. A decade later, he’s not your typical dropout. Far from being stuck in a minimum-wage, blue-collar job, Stephens is an author, an entrepreneur, a fixture on the speaker circuit, and one of the 24 original Thiel fellows.

He’s also the founder of UnCollege, a company that runs a gap-year program for students who want to take time off from their formal education. “I hope to change the notion that going to college is the only step after high school,” Stephens says.

(Photo: Dale J. Stephens)


UnCollege’s curriculum includes an internship, workshops that “focus on the habits and practices of successful people,” and “three months living in a country where you haven’t lived and do not speak the language, doing things you’ve never done, and getting outside of your comfort zone.” Tuition is $15,000 and includes travel expenses, “practical assistance in building your own learning plan,” and, perhaps most valuably, “access to networks in Silicon Valley.”

Peter Thiel, the billionaire PayPal co-founder who hands $100,000—and plenty of guidance—to worthy applicants who are willing to drop out of college, handpicked Stephens based on his proposal to launch a budget international airline. Over the course of his fellowship, Stephens’ focus changed; he decided instead to become a spokesperson for what he calls “the social movement changing the notion that college is the only path to success.”

Of his many accomplishments, Stephens is proudest of writing his recent book, the title of which says it all: Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will.

“When I left school,” Stephens says, “I decided to become a self-directed learner. Later on, I realized that six years of self-learning had made me an expert.”

Growing up in Winters, a small town near Sacramento, California, Stephens was raised by a mother who is a public-school teacher, and an engineer father—“both products of the system,” Stephens says. Still, the couple supported their son’s decision to shirk the classroom but only on the condition that he keep learning.

Keep learning he did. He helped build a library, made music, worked on political campaigns, crashed conferences, worked at start-ups, and lived in France for six months (“Je ne regrette rien” is his guiding philosophy). “I was choosing what, where, when, why, and how to learn,” he said during a TEDx talk he gave. He remembers telling his mom, on his first day of “unschooling,” that he’d learned more in that single day than over the course of his entire fifth-grade year.

Eventually, Stephens matriculated at Hendrix College in Arkansas, only to drop out before finishing his freshman year. When he approached that school two years later about a book-tour stop, he was told to stay away.

“I am motivated by creating a community of people who care about learning,” Stephens says, though he emphasizes that the best, most productive learning happens outside the lecture hall. Traditional education, he believes, promotes conformity and rewards rote performance over real learning.

Unlike other kids, Stephens didn’t have a specific something he wanted to be when he grew up. “I never had a job I dreamed of,” he says, “instead, I stumbled into it.” In 10 years, though, he says, “I see myself running a creative storytelling agency.”

Asked whether he has advice for aspiring unschoolers, Stephens says, “Spend your time—years—learning whatever subject you want to learn.”

See our complete 2014 list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 here.