More teens asking: College? Who needs it?

Nineteen-year-old Dale Stephens has founded the "UnCollege" movement, which is spreading the idea that young people are better off pursuing their dreams than going to college.

He calls it the UnCollege movement: Nineteen-year-old Dale Stephens is urging his peers to rethink the need for college, arguing that they can get more out of pursuing real-world skills than completing homework assignments and studying for exams.

“I want to change the notion that a college degree is the only path to professional success,” said Stephens, who grew up in Winters, Calif., and now lives in San Francisco, where he is building the UnCollege movement and developing a web-based company.

Stephens is part of a small but growing chorus of entrepreneurs, free thinkers, and former students who are questioning the value of higher education. The attack is coming from multiple directions: those who say college costs far more than it should; those who say students learn far less than they should; and those who argue that graduation rates are abysmal.

With tuition rising much faster than inflation, borrowing for college has reached record heights. Two-thirds of graduates now leave school with debt, with the typical borrower owing more than $34,000, according to, an authority on student lending.

Nationwide, student debt is likely to top $1 trillion this year—signaling to some that education is the next mortgage bubble.

The backlash against college comes, paradoxically, at the same time demand for higher education is soaring. Applications to the University of California and California State University reached record numbers this year.

But it could be that the economic downturn is responsible for both the rise in college applications—as students seek a leg up in the job market—and the sentiment that college isn’t necessary, as they take on more debt to get their degrees.

In any case, the growing anti-college movement could put campus officials on the defensive, forcing them to explain why tuition has risen so sharply in the last few decades and how their programs meet the needs of today’s students.

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