How can I survive my college

University? No thanks!

• On the website www.uncollege.org, a large black number immediately catches the eye: $ 25,250. "Average debt after graduation" is written below. There are sentences like: "We pay too much for college and learn too little". Or, "If you want to be low-key and average, go to college." The site is run by Dale Stephens, a 19-year-old who dropped out of college after a semester and signed his emails with "Chief Educational Deviant". He said that he found the course foreign to the world and the contacts with the professors superficial. If he wanted a really good education, he realized, he couldn't rely on a university.

When Uncollege went online in February 2011, the Chronicle of Higher Education responded promptly, describing the website as a project by a frustrated youth trying to provoke the establishment. But Dale Stephens is not alone with his criticism. If a small but vocal group of college skeptics is to be believed, going to college is a useless, if not harmful, pastime for many students. University education is too bad, too expensive and keeps away from the important things in life.

The boycotters also get support from the academic world, for example from a mysterious Professor X, who in the magazine "Atlantic" declared the practice of burdening millions of young people with enormous debts for their education to be immoral, or from economics professor Richard Vedder, who worked in the The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that already today 17 million university graduates would work as postmen, stewardesses or in other jobs that one can do well without a degree. This created a small movement that could transform universities in the United States.

There are many ideas, you just have to tackle them

Because numerous business leaders also doubt the need for a college degree. For example, James Altucher, a New York hedge fund manager, investor, and author, preaches that young people can spend their time more meaningfully than in the classroom or library. On his blog he has made a list of alternatives: traveling the world, working in development aid, learning stand-up comedy or - ideally, starting a company. Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake also came out as a college skeptic. Although she has a degree in English literature, she believes that colleges are not suitable for training entrepreneurs. The skills required for this can be acquired much better by working for a start-up. "If you want to become an entrepreneur," she advises, "drop out of college."

Peter Thiel attracted the greatest attention. The billion dollar PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor regularly gives interviews in which he describes the college system as a brake on innovation. Graduates who are in heavy debt after graduation, he argues, could hardly take the risk of starting a company. In the higher education market, he warns, a bubble is forming. As before with internet stocks and real estate, today people are paying too much for a college degree. Questioning the value of education is like questioning the existence of Santa Claus to a three-year-old, he said at a panel discussion in Chicago: "Nobody wants to scare children, but we cannot afford a third bubble in this country. "

The provocateur did not stop at warnings. Through his foundation, he started a program that awards $ 100,000 grants to young people up to the age of 20. The condition: A scholarship holder must stay away from the university for two years and instead pursue a future-oriented project with all their might. At the end of May 2011, 24 adolescents received their first check.

Ben Yu is one of them. He's been living in a chic apartment tower in the middle of San Francisco for a few months. This world is still new to him, you can tell from the 19-year-old. The son of Chinese immigrants grew up in one of the typically American suburbs in Illinois. For the parents and for himself it was never a question that he would go to university. By the end of high school, he applied to Harvard and was promptly accepted. He chose molecular biology, regenerative biology and economics, subjects that interest him passionately. Still, he was unhappy.

Everything was so sedate, narrow and mapped out. The fellow students seemed to see the course only as a stepping stone for a career. He wanted to get to know other cultures and get involved socially. Most of all, he dreamed of working on a large project. But at Harvard he seemed to be running out of time: "I was afraid that if I spent years on a campus, I would never be able to achieve my goals."

He decided to take some time off to travel to Africa and China. Then he read an article about Peter Thiel's program in the magazine "Slate". It said he had a "hair-raising plan": "To pay students to drop out of college." Yu decided, "This is just the thing."

Before leaving, he applied with an idea for a website that improves price comparisons on the Internet. Since then, his life has changed radically. Not only did he climb Kilimanjaro - an adventure that pushed him to his limits - thanks to the scholarship he can now devote himself entirely to the development of his company, Pricemash.

He's an avid bargain hunter himself and can spend hours searching the internet for great deals. Its service is supposed to work better than the ones that already exist and help users find the best price for a product in the shortest possible time. He firmly believes that the business model will be profitable.

Even without a scholarship, he emphasizes, he would have left Harvard to implement his idea. But Thiel's program brings him more than money. On the last day of the interviews, he invited the candidates to a meeting with other entrepreneurs at his home. It was the most exciting three hours in Yu's life: "They were people like I had never met them before. Many in their twenties and thirties who have already founded companies and are successful with them. To see how many have taken this path and I was impressed by everything that is possible. I knew then that I had to pursue my business idea now, regardless of what happens to the scholarship. "

With his project, Thiel hits the heart of the middle-class educational ideal of the USA. The majority of the nation agrees that the more school leavers enroll in their studies, the better. Nearly nine in ten Americans believe that people without a college degree face personal and professional disadvantages. The number of students is correspondingly high: in 2009, more high school graduates enrolled at a university than ever before.

There is practically no model comparable to the German dual training system in the USA. If you want to start your professional life straight after school, you have little choice but to start a temporary job or as an unskilled worker. Most shy away from that. Many are prepared to spend a lot of money on studying, because it is an investment in the future.

Statistics seem to agree with that. According to the College Board, the median annual income of college graduates in 2008 was $ 55,700, nearly $ 22,000 more than those who had just finished high school. But university skeptics warn against taking such numbers at face value. The hedge fund manager James Altucher argues that the income differences between academics and non-academics should be understood as a correlation, but not necessarily as a causal link. Since almost every reasonably talented young person goes to college today, the comparison with the financial situation of workers without further education is inevitably distorted.

In any case, the numbers that are making the headlines at the moment are completely different. Tuition fees have been rising rapidly for years. Those attending a public four-year college now have to plan a budget of at least $ 34,000 annually for their studies; private colleges are around $ 42,200. Two thirds of all undergraduate students graduate with debts. In 2011, student loans arguably exceeded the $ 1 trillion mark for the first time - that's more than the nation's credit card debt. The college graduate unemployment rate was 12.1 percent in June, an all-time high.

Anti-college activist Dale Stephens doesn't have to worry about education debt. His first and only semester was $ 8,000, which he'll soon have paid off. He now regards the fact that he even enrolled in college as a mistake: "It was just what everyone does."

The confident 19-year-old never went to high school. After the fifth grade, his parents, an engineer and a teacher, allowed him to leave school because he complained of boredom, uninterested classmates and overworked teachers. They left it up to him to choose what and how to learn. This concept is called unschooling, a term coined by the educator John Holt in the 1970s. Dale found 20 other school dropouts meeting in study groups; he looked for mentors and pestered experts with his questions; He spent half a year in France and learned how to take photos so well that he was able to sell his pictures. In comparison, everyday university life at Hendrix College seemed rigid and uninspired.

To learn in practice means to learn to survive

With Uncollege, he now wants to transfer the principles of unschooling to studies. The idea earned him not only a Thiel scholarship, but also a lot of public attention. In January he is invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos. He is writing a book that will appear in 2013. In it he interviews personalities like Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, who achieved great things even without a diploma, and gives advice on self-determined learning. Of the 19 million students in the United States, he estimates ten percent would be better off if they took their education into their own hands.

This assessment can be disputed. But regardless of that, the American education system has come under fire. A large number of American students learn shockingly little, warn Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa in their book "Academically Adrift". The sociologists followed the development of 2,300 students at 24 universities over a period of four years. The results were discouraging: 45 percent showed no significant progress in critical thinking, written expression, and problem-solving behavior within the first two years of study; 36 percent remained practically at the starting level even after four years.

It was different with Nick Cammarata, another Thiel Fellow. After high school, he moved straight from Massachusetts to Silicon Valley. Although he had a place at a renowned university, he preferred to devote himself to building an Internet company.

Obviously, this is not a pleasant undertaking. The 19-year-old comes to the interview in a café in Palo Alto rather rushed. The last business meeting took longer, he apologizes. Even after the conversation, he says goodbye quickly. An important test run is due in four weeks.

Cammarata has been programming computers since he was eight years old, first for small companies and in open source projects, and later for large customers such as Microsoft. In the ninth grade, he and his current business partner developed an application that allowed the administration and transmission of data on the Internet. Within four years, the business has grown to 15,000 registered users and 80 million downloads, he says. Cammarata already did all of this as a student. While his classmates listened to the teacher, he programmed or read the latest software books. "My grades were pretty bad," he admits. "I was only there half the time."

Now he is working on a new idea: an internet platform for school and university teaching. The idea is that pupils and students could learn a lot more if teachers didn't have to spend so much time in class teaching knowledge. Tablo is a system that allows teachers to create digital lectures. Schoolchildren and students can view these online at home. The lessons remain free for discussions and questions. 400 teachers have applied for the trial run, from prison educators to Ivy League professors; They have chosen 50. The public launch is planned for September 2012.

Those who venture into self-employment after high school have to overcome high hurdles, at least higher than the intellectual dry runs that students of this age normally deal with. The everyday life of young entrepreneurs may be unacademic, but it is undoubtedly extremely demanding: negotiating with business partners and investors, understanding the legal intricacies of setting up a company, building a team, organizing yourself. The learning curves are correspondingly steep.

Danielle Strachman, Director of the Thiel Fellowship, was therefore amazed at how quickly the scholarship holders develop: "You soon realized that as an entrepreneur, personal qualities are also important: listening, showing appreciation, not just taking but also giving back."

Still, some don't want to write off college altogether. Ben Yu could imagine returning to Harvard at some point: "But only for the sake of the pure acquisition of knowledge and only when I am financially independent and do not have to make the choice of course dependent on career considerations."

Even Dale Stephens believes colleges have a future. Universities could well be structured in such a way, he says, that they enable good learning experiences for students, namely as meeting points and resource centers: "There would be no more lectures and seminars, but professors who advise and supervise students." He himself, he leaves no doubt, wants to contribute to this change, although - or precisely because - he dropped out of college himself.