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Why dropping out in Grade 5 can be the best education

Dale J. Stephens dropped out of school in Grade 5 and educated himself with the help of college professors and teachers in his small town of Winters, Calif. He did end up enrolling in college, but dropped out of that too: Formal education could not measure up to the learning experiences he'd had on his own. With Hacking your Education, a new book published this month, Stephens, who is now 21, is setting out to teach other students who are considering university how to do better without.

There is a mini-movement to forgo formal education, particularly university. The Thiel Foundation gives $100,000 to U.S. students to pursue a business idea rather than go to college. Your group,, will be offering a similar program this year. Still, aren't the chances of succeeding without a formal education about as high as making it into the NHL, or the NBA?

You can call it risky. It's also risky to commit four years and have an average of $27,000 in debt. Those are pretty grim prospects for college investment and education and kids should be aware of the money and time they're spending.

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In the book, you cite a New York Times article as saying that 22.4 per cent of college grads are unemployed. But the article reported that 22.4 are "not working," which includes those who are not looking for work as well as those going on to graduate degrees. When you look at the unemployment rate in the States it's only 4.5 per cent for those with a B.A., versus 12.4 for people who haven't finished high school. In Canada, it's around 5 per cent for those with a university degree.

I think it's really important to think about the economics of scarcity. Each college degree is worth less than for my parents.... Learning and jobs are both important. The one I find more concerning is that we are learning in one way; it's hard to get people to think about that. When we think about jobs, about how do we measure success, we focus on metrics. In the real world, people have to feed their families and get jobs.

So the story of Julian - the student who goes to Paris and lives on very little money - I liked it a lot, but it doesn't tell a story of success about the other option, the not going to college.

He's not very successful but he's very happy. ... Is life a linear path of going to school and getting a job and buying a nice car? It's about what makes us fulfilled and makes us a success.

When people first hear about dropping out of school they might think that it will be easier than going to school, but you make it pretty clear that it's harder. Get up at 6 a.m. and work for three hours, train yourself to pass the marshmallow test, seek out an education plan and implement it. You did all that. Doesn't school train all those abilities bit by bit?

Everyone is capable of self-learning. School trains us to listen, to do homework. You don't develop learning skills that are important to get resources and will use every day for the rest of life. It is definitely harder and it's also more impressive if you can show the same accomplishment as someone who went to school and developed talents and abilities. When I was applying to colleges, I thought it would be harder to convince them to take me. But colleges were seeking people who were self-motivated and independent. That was an interesting case to me, the first thing that opened my eyes to the ability [to drop out.]

You write that perhaps the reason America is not on the level of Hungary and Latvia even though the academic scores are very close to each other is because it still has lots of people who are not highly educated. What do you mean? Have you been to Hungary?

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No, I have not been to Hungary, but I've been to Russia and other East European countries. I was on a panel with Andreas Schleicher of the OECD who does the PISA tests and I was talking to him about the motivations behind trying to quantify. ... PISA tells us how countries relate to each other, but tells us little about the school systems themselves. If you look at the way Finland made a conscious decision to invest in education, the GDP per capita in Finland has not improved any more than any other country in Europe. The per cent growth in 40 years was the same. ... I wish someone would do research on suicide rates and PISA test scores. Seven of the top 10 countries are the same. I have yet to find studies on this, but it's more than I would think would be a coincidence.

Even without school, your social life and your sex life are both good - that's what you report. But there are all these books and studies out there about the rise of women in education and the workplace that say that university-educated women are only looking for similarly-educated men. How do you explain the appeal of an education hacktivist to them?

I do think it's a valid point that one of the functions that no one talks about for school is meeting potential partners. I'll get back to you on that.

Education Evolution 2.0 is a series examining the transformation of Canada's postsecondary system. Participate in the discussion: Send us your thoughts at

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About the Author
Postsecondary Education Reporter

Simona Chiose covers postsecondary education for The Globe and Mail. She was previously the paper’s Education Editor, coordinating coverage of all aspects of education, from kindergarten to college and university. She has a PhD in political science from the University of Toronto. More


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