9780399159961Dale Stephens, founder of UnCollege, a movement that challenges the notion that “college is the only path to success,” has some advice for students who are willing to take the nontraditional route between school and work.

In his book, Hacking Your Education, Stephens outlines a path that he says will allow students to “ditch the lectures, save tens of thousands, and learn more than your peers ever will.”

Below, a few excerpts from the book, among many useful ideas called “Hack of the Day” that are sprinkled throughout the book among personal anecdotes.




Crash a Class

This hack is pretty easy; I want you to do what I did at community college and what Kirill did at Stanford. I want you to go to a university that you don’t attend and show up for a class. It doesn’t matter which university, and it doesn’t matter what class. I can’t guarantee what you’re going to learn, but I can guarantee that you’re going to learn more by crashing a class than you would sitting at home on Facebook.

1.   Identify a university near you. CollegeBoard is helpful for this.

2.   Go onto the university’s website and look up the course schedule. Choose a class that interests you and note the time. You can find the course catalogs on the university website that will list the time and location of classes.

3.   Be sure to choose classes that are in big lecture halls so no one will notice or care that you drop in.

4.   Show up to the next class. Participate in class. Pretend you’re a student. Ask a fellow student what last week’s homework assignment was.

5.   If you enjoyed the class, go again. If not, choose a different class and repeat until you find a class you enjoy.

Reach Out to an Expert

If you aren’t enrolled in college, you can easily seek mentorship, guidance, and advice from professors. Office hours are open to anyone, not just students. If you’re genuinely interested in learning, professors are often happy to share their knowledge, no matter if you’re a student or not. Universities post directories of their faculty public on their websites, so you can easily find email addresses and sometimes even phone numbers. I know there is a subject that you’d love to learn more about. Is it biology? English? History? Math? Whatever it is, chances are that your local university has someone that knows about it.

1.   Identify the subject for which you want to speak to an expert.

2.   Find a local university. CollegeBoard has a nice directory if you don’t already know one close to home.

3.   Browse the university’s website by department, looking for the likely experts. Sometimes this is easy: Math people are in the math department. Other times this can take more sleuthing: for example, statistics experts might be a social science department.

4.   Once you’ve found that person, find her email address. If not already listed on the department web page, universities have a “people search” function that you can access from the home page.

5.   Send your potential mentor an email. The key to sending such an email is twofold: Ask for a very short amount of time. Ask for something very specific.


Apply for an Incubator

Increasingly, cities are becoming the new universities. With spaces like YCombinator, Techshop and General Assembly, hackademics have lots of opportunities to come together and learn. But these aren’t the only incubators that exist; there are many others in cities around the world. Here’s how to find an incubator space near you:

1.   Google “startup incubator in ______” and insert the name of your town or state.

2.   Find out when the deadline to apply is, and send in an application. If you don’t have an idea now, think of one.

3.   Even if you’re rejected early in the process, you’ll still have learned something through the process of applying.

4.   There are incubators for specific types of companies (health companies, for example) and incubators for social enterprises. We keep a list at Uncollege.

5.   Some incubators are very competitive; YC accepts only 2 percent of applicants. But that’s because YC is in the center of Silicon Valley. If you want a better shot at getting funding for your idea, apply to incubators in less-sexy areas: Kansas City or Minneapolis or Calgary.

  • The “Crash a Class” hack seems disingenuous. It is basically enjoying the benefits of the class without paying for it. It is very similar to the attitude of those who copy mp3 files.

    • Your comment does seem true. But if the campus and professor are not checking attendance, this practice may not be illegal or even uncommon.

      • Melanie, asking the professor if you can sit in her class would be the right thing to do. And it is a nice bridge to “reach out to an expert” (Which is a fantastic idea, to apprentice under an expert). I’ve learned the most by having long lasting relationships with experts in my field. Especially when the expert loves to share their knowledge.

    • Cameron

      The first bit of advice on getting out of the college loop is to crash a college course? Lazy.

      • tbarseghian

        In the book, it’s not the first — or by any stretch, the only — advice Stephens offers. Just one of many listed throughout the book.

    • Alicia Lee

      I disagree. Crashing a class does not come with all of the benefits one
      would get when paying for it. For instance, no record of performance, no
      credits, no degree. It would be a great way to flirt with different
      material to explore what one would be most interested in studying
      further. Or learning the material and then paying to test out of the
      credits. Or learning the material and just going out and acting on that
      new knowledge. Without the benefits of a degree.

    • Letha Hansen

      This would be a very good thing for those who don’t yet have a direction for their education. Crash a few classes to see what interests you. It’s horrible to put yourself deep into debt to find out that you hate the major you’ve chosen and have wasted your income for the next 40 years….

  • Lisa

    It’s interesting how this uncollege movement is gaining so much traction…I wonder if there is a class correlation though. It seems like you would have to come from a middle class or privileged background to entertain this idea–this assumes you understand the social norms of that circle.

    • Has access to information always been for the privileged classes? How do we change that?

      We’ve reduced publishing costs with the internet. But we need to find a way to reduce access costs.

      For example: I can publish this comment for no expense to me, but in order to read it you need to have a 30USD+ a month internet service.

      • Lisa

        You’re right, it’s a systemic problem. But I think it goes beyond access…Community colleges that were built on the idea of open access have alarmingly high attrition rates, and I think it has to do with the challenges that certain student populations face–financial or otherwise. And so while this uncollege route may seem appealing in some ways, it also poses more of a risk for some more than others.

      • bob

        When there’s a will, there’s a way. I haven’t paid for the internet in years. I am able to do this through other convoluted means that most practical people wouldn’t consider.

  • Lupita Tucker

    Crashing a class, although it might sound fun, is advocating trespassing, which is not legal. Since you put it out there, and given recent fatal events in colleges around the country, I’m sure that schools will get very serious in trying to prevent unenrolled people from accessing student areas.

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  • Bob

    I don’t think it’s necessary to “crash” college courses, and I seriously doubt any of us have dedicated enough time to any one skill in the sciences to join an incubator or kickstart program. But I have become increasingly aware that becoming educated, really is dependant on the individual; regardless of a college institute. A serious academic can have a plethora of knowledge without having set foot on a college campus. The problem lies with the bureaucracy in any respective field. Which is to say what looks good on paper rules. Said person won’t have a credential(degree), which signifies his/her worth in the job market. Employers are wary of this. I know few people with degrees in their respective fields of study who get by in their jobs on social stature and appearance alone.. and I know people who have never been to college teach these people things they never knew. Especially in the realm of the Information Technology and Computer Science. You can learn anything you want, but it boils down to where you went to school, and what degree you hold… even if that means your knowledge is vastly inferior to the single dad next door to me who never graduated high school.

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