“As family incomes, particularly in the middle class, are stretched and strained, and tuitions rise and state support lessens, [it’s not surprising] you would begin to hear voices that say, ‘What’s the value here?'” said Jerry Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California.

The high price of undergraduate education is at risk of hampering technological innovation, said a spokesman for Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook.

“By the time people are 24, 25, or 26, they often have so much student debt and are tracked into certain careers that they can’t take a short-term risk and start a company,” said Jim O’Neill, who heads the Thiel Foundation.

Last month, the Thiel Foundation named the recipients of its controversial fellowship for people under age 20, giving $100,000 each to 24 students who promised to drop out of college and pursue entrepreneurship.

Stephens was one of them. The money is supporting him for two years while he works on building the UnCollege movement and launching an associated business called RadMatter that’s aimed at making it easier for job-hunters to market themselves to employers, regardless of their educational credentials.

Stephens dropped out mid-way through his freshman year at Hendrix College in Arkansas when he realized that “the direct impact I could have on the world by engaging the community around UnCollege far exceeded the impact I could have by completing homework assignments,” he said.

He said he was frustrated by learning things in the classroom that weren’t applied in real life.

“There were people with good ideas, but we weren’t applying them. We got to talk and write research reports, but there was no execution,” Stephens said.

In promoting UnCollege, Stephens is urging young people to do the opposite—get experiences in areas they’re passionate about, without worrying about the book knowledge that comes from school.

Attacking higher education from another direction are two professors who recently published a book called “Academically Adrift: Limited learning on college campuses.”

Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia argue that many students gain surprisingly little knowledge during college. Their research shows that over four years of college, 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning.” Too many students, the authors say, are “drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose.”


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