Whiz kid gets $100,000, to drop out of college

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What’s better than getting a six-figure scholarship to go to college? How about a fellowship to drop out?

That’s exactly what happened to 19-year-old Dale Stephens of Winters, one of 24 students — some of whom already have earned Ph.D.s at the age of 19 — who were chosen out of 500 worldwide to receive a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship.

According to the website, www.20under20.org, the 24 recipients are the first members of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, and will use the money and the time not spent pursuing traditional college educations to “pursue innovative scientific and technical projects, learn entrepreneurship, and begin to build the technology companies of tomorrow.”

The fellows will have two-year tenures, and will receive mentorship from the foundation’s network of tech entrepreneurs and innovators. The designated project areas for this group include biotech, career development, economics and finance, education, energy, information technology, mobility, robotics and space.

Stephens said the Thiel Fellowship is sponsored by its namesake, Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal and the first investor in Facebook. He owns 10 percent of Facebook and is a venture capitalist in the Silicon Valley.

Stephens found out about the fellowship through connections he made while working at a technology startup company in San Francisco last summer.

Given that Stephens already has a $28,500-per-year scholarship to attend Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., did he think long and hard before walking away from college to accept the fellowship and its inherent challenge?

Hardly. He’d already dropped out after eight months, because “the costs of going to class were too high.”

“There were too many other things I could be doing with my time, too many emails to write, too many phone calls to make, too many lines of code to write,” Stephens said.

His mother, Lisa Nalbone, said she had mixed feelings when Stephens announced his intentions.

“I was thrilled, excited, surprised, bewildered,” she said. “It’s not exactly the college path we had envisioned, but it sounds like Dale is learning a lot, connecting with many interesting folks, writing, traveling. It’s certainly educational.”

After giving Hendrix College a try, he decided an alternative route to education was what he needed. So he set out to learn on his own and founded Uncollege.org, which he describes as “a social movement I’m leading.” No, it’s not just another blog or website. It caught the attention of the Huffington Post, ABC News and New York Magazine, all trying to find out more about Stephens’ mission: “Leveraging the resources of the world around you to create a coherent educational environment.”

In other words, striking out on your own and using the information available both online and in the world around you to pursue your own education at your own pace, and putting it into use.

“I was frustrated by the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical education,” Stephens said. “There were smart people in college but they didn’t know how to put that into practice.

“People are paying exorbitantly for a pretty crappy education,” he added. “Higher education is a bubble — skyrocketing costs, increasing at twice the rate of inflation, and the quality of undergraduate learning is plummeting. Thirty-six percent of college students showed no increase in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing over four years in college.”

Since being awarded the Thiel Fellowship on April 29, Stephens hasn’t wasted any time putting the money to use. He is already funding his living and travel expenses for an international speaking tour. He left for New York on Tuesday to discuss an appearance on “The Early Show” on CBS, and leaves for St. Petersburg, Fla., on June 13 to speak at the Youth International Economic Forum, for Paris on the June 17 for the Ashoka social entrepreneurship event, and for Madrid on June 25 for a TedEx event.

Stephens’ topics include youth, education, entrepreneurship and “how we come to understand success in today’s economy.” He said he spends his time talking to youths, parents and educators “about the human talent we’re squandering in college that we could be using to build a better world.”

Noting the “millions of 18- to 22-year-olds sitting in class copying their professors’ words verbatim instead of getting out there and creating,” he queries, “What could we create in the world?”

Besides viewing time spent in class memorizing notes as time that could be better spent, Stephens said, “College isn’t preparing its graduates for the world. It isn’t giving them the ability to translate their book smarts into street smarts. It isn’t giving them the passion, motivation, charisma, drive and network to thrive in today’s entrepreneurial global economy.”

And, of course, Stephens hopes to change all that.

Ultimately, he would like to run “a seed stage investment fund,” which is a company that invests money in start-up companies. In the meantime, like Henry David Thoreau, Stephens will march to the beat of his own academic drum.

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