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Learning is not confined to classrooms. (John Lehmann/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)
Learning is not confined to classrooms. (John Lehmann/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)

Education Memo

Why these students are paying not to go to university Add to ...

You think postsecondary fees are expensive? What about paying to graduate from a program where there is no degree at the end of that tuition bill? That’s exactly what a group of 10 students are doing this year – three Canadians among them.

Following in the footsteps of the Thiel Fellowships, the UnCollege program was begun by Dale Stephens, author of Hacking Your Education and a former Thiel graduate himself. Where Thiel provides a $100,000 grant to 20 young Americans, students who choose to pursue creative ideas rather than go on to formal postsecondary education, UnCollege asks the students to pay about $14,000 for an academic year. For that money, students get 10 weeks in a residential program in San Francisco, assistance with travel costs to pursue an experience they’ve chosen and networking assistance from mentors and entrepreneurs.

The Canadian students in the inaugural class talked over e-mail about why they prefer the “real world” to the four walls of a classroom.

Q: What frustrated you about traditional university education?

Lindsay Levine, former McGill student in software engineering: Traditional classroom education is completely directed by teachers, professors, teaching assistants, etc. Instructors provide time frames during which assignments and studying should be completed; departments outline rigid curricula for students to follow. From my experience, there is little room for self-directed learning in a setting that dictates a student’s entire education, especially when the course load starves a student of his time and energy.

Julia Kavuma, taking a break from Waterloo University in Systems Design Engineering: I applied for the UnCollege program on a whim. I had no expectations of being accepted to the program, or that I would interrupt my studies. I applied because I noticed there was a disconnect between my academic and workplace experiences and the type of work that I would like to see myself doing after I graduate.

Jordan Boyd, former University of Calgary undergrad: My experience was missing excitement, technology, mentors, travelling and a way for me to showcase who I am and what I love to potential employers. In my opinion, [UnCollege] incorporates these elements and offers much better tech-related opportunities than any institution I attended in Canada. I’ve been hacking my education since 2004 and this program is the first of its kind to appeal to a hands on life hacker like myself.

Q: Should this type of self-directed learning be funded by governments, much the way universities and colleges are now?

Kavuma: I think that if such a program were to be publicly funded through existing postsecondary institutions, participants may lose some of their freedom of choice and their range of experiences may be limited to suit the agenda of the institutions running the program.

Boyd: If I reflect back on my time at HootSuite where I spoke with professors, administrators and faculty on a daily basis, my guess would be that they aren’t ready to support a program like Dale’s, based on the perceived ROI. That could change if those perceptions are reconceived.

Levine: Instead of passing the baton and merely funding a program of this nature, I’d vote that existing institutions look closely at what this type of program is teaching and promoting, and follow suit.

The program does not provide a piece of paper that you can show a prospective employer at the end. How will you prove your credentials?

Levine: It would be paradoxical if we graduated from the program with a “piece of paper” since the whole idea is proving our worth to employers without a degree. At the end of the day, it’s about whether we’re qualified for a job and how we’ll perform in a position, and I truly believe that the things we accomplish throughout the year can prove our competence on their own.

Kavuma: I intend to use my time in the UnCollege program to add to my portfolio of professional and personal experiences that I will be able to add to my resume to share with prospective employers. I think that formal credentials are a single method of demonstrating one’s skills and the results of one’s work.

Boyd: Depending on the industry, you no longer need a degree. The careers I’m interested in, being unschooled or a dropout is sought after.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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