Who needs college?

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Blog reader JRB points me to an interesting New York magazine article about the notion that college is a waste of time and money. The article focuses on a couple of venture capitalists who are pushing the idea, one of them in hopes that driving down attendance might break the cycle of hyperinflation of college costs, pushed up by debt-laden students chasing unrealistic returns on their borrowed investment.

One is Peter Thiel, who's soliciting applications for a $100,000 fellowship to be given to students 19 and younger who promise to stay out of college for two years and work with entrepreneurial mentors. Applicants included a student from Arkansas:

Among the first responses I came across, in February, was on the website of Dale Stephens, a freshman at Hendrix College, in Central Arkansas, which routinely shows up on rankings of the best liberal-arts schools in America. Stephens’s answer to the second question was to propose a new airline that would utilize a single aircraft family, secondary airports, and a single-class seating system to provide inexpensive transatlantic flights. This was no mere daydream: He had already forged contacts with Boeing, Southwest, and several major airport authorities, and he’d devised a business plan that, with adequate seed money, he was convinced could be brought to profitable fruition.

After I read his proposal, I tried to schedule an interview with Stephens. This proved harder than expected. He told me to check his online calendar for an opening; he was booked solid for weeks. When I finally did get through, a couple of days later, it became clear why he was so busy. Stephens’s 19-year-old life is crammed full with intellectual and creative ventures. He is writing a book. He participates in workshops, seminars, conferences. A month before we spoke, he put his airline idea on ice in order to launch an organization that applies the methods of “unschooling”—the self-directed brand of homeschooling with which he was raised—to the realm of higher education. UnCollege, as Stephens calls it, has already garnered coverage from The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Huffington Post, and ABC News. Then, of course, there was his classwork—though he’d already resolved to jettison that distraction. Whether he was awarded a Thiel Fellowship or not, he said, he was going to drop out. He did, at the beginning of last month.

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