College or UnCollege?

We live in an era where technology has brought radical changes to our society. UnCollege movement is one such change that has recently started and is being debated. Having followed the debate for some time now and having adopted a hybrid approach in my personal life, I wanted to jot few things on the topic.

For those of you who haven’t heard about UnCollege yet, it is the concept that attending college is not always the right choice after high-school. I think that the  following factors have fueled the UnCollege movement in recent past:

  • the increasing cost of attending college
  • the increasing availability of alternatives to academic resources (for example, see this list of OpenCourseware Consortrium Members in US)
  • the increasing emphasis on skills than degrees (this does not apply to all disciplines, nor does the UnCollege movement)
  • the increasing gap between academics and the skills desired by the industry
  • the increasing celebrity status of College drop-outs (post The Social Network)

The Debate

I first came across the “Should you drop-out from college to launch your own start-up?” debate in this TechCrunch video where Vivek Wadhwa interviews Michael Arrington (the interview was conducted in front of University of California, Berkeley students) about entrepreneurship where Michael advocates for learning outside the college to such an extent that Vivek comes back with this post: Students: You Are Probably Not Mark Zuckerberg, So Stay In School

This thread in Hacker News illustrates how the HN community was divided on the topic.

The Milestone

In any debate, you know people are serious when people put their money where their mouth is. Peter Thiel, an established entrepreneur and VC, anounced the The Thiel Fellowship: 20 under 20 last September that gave a significant boost to the UnCollege movement. Here is an extract from the anouncement:

From Facebook to SpaceX to Halcyon Molecular, some of the world’s most transformational technologies were created by people who stopped out of school because they had ideas that couldn’t wait until graduation. This fellowship will encourage the most brilliant and promising young people not to wait on their ideas, either. The Thiel Fellows will change the world and call it a senior thesis.

Here is Vivek’s criticism of the fellowship: Friends Don’t Let Friends Take Education Advice From Peter Thiel and an extract below:

I find it particularly amusing that two of the most vocal advocates of dropping out of college are Peter Thiel and Mike Arrington—both of whom completed Stanford Law degrees. College dropouts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are strong proponents of finishing your degrees. Even Steve Jobs talks about the importance of liberal arts education.

The Hybrid Approach

Both critics and advocates of UnCollege emphasis on the importance of knowledge; the debate is about the need to attend a college to gain the knowledge. There are many disciplines where there aren’t enough resources to master the skills needed; many other (like medicine) require formal training and licensing. If you are not planning to be in one of those disciplines and if you are smart and committed enough to pursue the knowledge on your own then UnCollege is an option, you always have attending college as a fallback plan. If you are not ready yet to start your own start-up or to follow your dream (which is very often the case) then college is the obvious choice.

I graduated from college in 2003. I attended a college because I didn’t have a better alternative. But, looking back now, I adopted a hybrid approach. Realizing that the course work was not going to help me get prepared for the industry, I self-learned different programming languages, undertook different projects, read research papers not required by the course, participated in competitions and student clubs. My grades took a hit but I didn’t care. I was optimizing my efforts to get the best of both worlds; I wanted a degree and at the same time wanted to be competitive in the industry right out of the door. In other words, I was following the UnCollege philosophy while attending college.

In my opinion, it is a good idea to evaluate whether college is worth the time and money it takes. If you value education and want to pursue a degree, you still have the option to learn a great deal on your own. Just like you have the option to go back to college when you drop-out.


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