Carrie Kirby is a writer based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in San Francisco magazine, CoinDesk, and The Best Women's Travel Writing.
A San Francisco startup that hoped to replace college with real-world experience switches to a middle path: an intensive, post-high-school “gap year.”
Dale Stephens got into the education business as the ultimate outsider. “Unschooled” since age 12—meaning he basically homeschooled himself—he dropped out of Hendrix College in Arkansas in 2011 to accept a $100,000 fellowship from Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who has compared Ivy League schools to exclusive nightclubs (and is now a member of President-elect Trump’s transition team).
Stephens put the money toward UnCollege, a startup whose very name challenged the desirability of a university degree. “I believe higher education is broken,” he wrote at the time. “College fails to empower us with the skills necessary to become productive members of today's global entrepreneurial economy.”
Nowadays, Stephens is forging partnerships within the system he once shunned.
UnCollege has morphed into Gap Year Global, a $19,000 program from which about three-quarters of participants proceed to a traditional university. Taking a “gap year” to work or travel after high school, before proceeding onto college, is common in the United Kingdom and other countries, and is growing in popularity in the U.S.
Stephens’ initial vision of “a social movement empowering individuals to take their education beyond the classroom,” with millions of young Americans launching businesses or learning to code instead of dozing through college lectures, has shifted. People with the option of attending college usually didn’t want to give it up, he discovered.
“When we started the program, we envisioned a full-on college replacement,” he acknowledges. “What we’ve learned over the last three years is, while that’s feasible for some students, it’s not the path for most people.” Stephens found that many participants wanted to pair experiential and personal growth with training or academic study.
UnCollege is part of what Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, calls “an explosion of alternatives” in the post-secondary schooling market, from coding boot camps to internship institutes.
“We’re unbundling higher education,” Carnevale says, likening students to frustrated cable TV subscribers looking for ways to get what they most need— job-applicable skills—without subscribing to the $40,000-a-year package that comes with modern dance and a winning football team.
Looking at it that way, it’s not surprising that Stephens is now treating his nine-month program as a module that can be plugged into a traditional college education, or mix-and-matched with skills training. He hopes to convince universities to allow his students to get credits for the time they spend in the Gap Year program, so they can finish the rest of a bachelor’s degree in three years.
Gap Year helps kids get the “what do I want to be when I grow up?” phase out of the way more efficiently and cheaply than spending a couple of years bouncing from subject to subject on a college campus, Stephens explains.
UnCollege students first spend 10 weeks in an overseas volunteer program, in Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, Tanzania or India. Then they move into a San Francisco dormitory and spend their days at incubator 1776, attending seminars and building up a portfolio of whatever type of work they’re into. For the final phase, UnCollege places them in an internship.
Vaughan Richards, 21, joined the program after spending six semesters at the University of Louisville, where he felt like he’d been “waiting for permission to learn.” At Gap Year Global, “they give you a few weeks to just study different things and figure out what you want to study more. You waste a lot less time,” he says.
Richards settled on making videos. Gap Year hooked him up with some professional local filmmakers, and for his internship, he produced videos for Nasdaq’s Twitter team. While the program hasn’t led directly to a job in the film industry—he’s now back in Kentucky working at a factory—Richards says that it set him on the path to his goals.
“I know how to network a lot better from my UnCollege experience, and I know how to make use of my time.”
For Abbey Yacoe, 21, the program’s coaching was vital. Coaches meet weekly with students and go over goals in detail, a process that helped her gain confidence by accomplishing something every day—a feeling she’d never had in college.
When she landed an internship paying $20 an hour as a tech company project manager, and launched her own arts web site, she felt she was “slaying it.” Still, she worried.
“I was expecting to get out of the program and think I’d made a terrible mistake by taking that time off of school. But it’s actually only grown as one of the most important things that I’ve done in my life so far,” she says a year after finishing the program. She’s now working as a web engineer for an advertising agency.
High-school seniors and recent graduates who tell their parents they want to spend the next year in a co-working space instead of lecture halls usually meet resistance. Although college costs have skyrocketed, college graduates earn some $800,0000 more over their working lives than workers with only a high-school diploma.
At $19,000, UnCollege isn’t cheap. Then again, it’s a lot less than the average tuition at a private four-year college.
Stephens got pushback, too, when he floated the idea of replacing college with self-directed learning in his 2013 book, Hacking Your Education. The New Republic included him in the “Web-inebriated movement to abandon study for wealth,” and Slate branded the Thiel Fellowship that encouraged him to drop out of college in the first place a “nasty idea.” But Stephens says the tone has changed lately.
“When I started UnCollege six years ago and went to talk to university and college presidents, they thought I was kind of crazy,” Stephens says. “These days the unequivocal response is, ‘We know that universities needs to change. How can we learn from what you’re doing?’”
As the program has grown—it’s more than tripled since 2014, enrolling 45 students this fall—and as Stephens has progressed with his plans, he’s also distanced himself from Thiel, who has attracted increasing controversy as his profile has grown (by funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the website Gawker, for example). The Thiel Fellowship came with no strings attached and Thiel has no equity in UnCollege.
“The most valuable thing that that fellowship did was start a conversation around the value of college and whether everyone should be blindly marching towards college, regardless of their income status and of what degree they’re going to pursue,” Stephens said last year, when he was thinking of approaching the fellowship for scholarships for his students.
That’s not on his agenda any more. “Frankly, the things that Peter has supported in the last year are not the kind of things that make me want to further my association with him,” Stephens says.