Let’s bring back apprenticeships!

March 23, 2012 by Dale J. Stephens

Dale J. Stephens, age 20, is a Thiel Fellow and leads UnCollege, the social movement changing the notion that college is the only path to success. His first book, Hacking Your Education, will be published by Penguin in 2013.

The idea that the world is constantly changing — and faster than ever before — is nothing new. But what’s new is that companies and organizations are starting to realize that our generation needs to be educated — through action, not theory — on just how this new world works.

Imagine that, instead of college, you worked directly in a field that interested you, learning how someone before you has been successful in that field. Learning the critical responsibilities that are only learned from actually doing, no matter how much theory you understand. Imagine if you lived in a community with other inspired, ambitious apprentices, where after work you’d get together and share your experiences with one another.

E[nstitute], a New York City based organization, will provide fifteen fellows with apprenticeships and living space in NYC. The cofounders of E[nstitute], Shaila Ittycheria and Kane Sarhan, are focused on providing E[nstitute]’s 15 fellows with the knowledge necessary to adapt to an unpredictable future. The fellows will be placed in positions to learn and work directly from some of New York City’s most innovative entrepreneurs.

E[nstitute] will serve as a building block for future entrepreneurs and innovators by teaching its fellows how to create a tangible result from an idea—to take the back of a napkin and turn it into the next Twitter. Most of know that ideas are abundant—what’s often lacking is the discipline and knowledge to turn that idea into a business, organization, movement, or whatever it is that you want to build.

It’s great that a few organizations — the Thiel Fellowship, now E[nstitute] — are providing apprenticeships and resources for alternative sources of education, incubating ideas and proving that college is not the only path to an education, much less to success. It’s a start. But this needs to scale.

We need apprenticeship programs in every city that ambitious “students” can partake in. We need companies and organizations to team up with high schools to provide an alternative route. We need this to be accessible to anybody — not just the select few who are admitted to these currently limited and exclusive programs.

A few companies, such as Groupon’s Dave Hoover, Senior Engineering Manager, are working to make apprenticeships broadly available. He’s been running an apprenticeship program since 2007 which is now being implemented at Groupon. At Groupon, apprentices are given a stipend and living quarters and expected to learn the ropes in six months. Dave is currently working to implement this apprenticeship model at other companies.

If you or your friends will be in Vancouver this weekend, please join me Friday evening (March 23) at VEF Momentum Connect, where I’ll be delivering a talk about UnCollege.  You’ll get a sneak-peek at my forthcoming book, and I’ll share some of the secrets I’ve learned about self-education after interviewing 50 people.

What’s Uncollege?

The deal used to be that if you went to college, gave up four years of your life and incurred tens of thousands of dollars in debt, tuition, and foregone earnings, you’d be set for life with a cushy job.

That’s no longer true.

The Occupy movement has shown us that the rising cost of college is not a trivial issue.  Thousands of people were willing to take to the street to protest the tens of thousands — and sometimes hundreds of thousands — of dollars in student debt they carry. Knowledge about the true cost of college — and the risk of taking on debt — is now mainstream.

In the United States, 70.1% of high school seniors go to college. A college degree has become the new high school diploma. Academically Adrift found that 36% of students showed no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or writing after four years of college, and less than half of students surveyed had taken a class that required more than 20 pages of writing over the entire semester.

In college, failure is punished instead of viewed as a learning opportunity, even though the courage to try, fail, and iterate is vital for innovation. Too often, college teaches us conformity rather than innovation, competition rather than collaboration, regurgitation rather than learning, and theory rather than application.

If college were teaching the skills required for success, 22.4% of college grads under 25 wouldn’t be unemployed, and another 22%wouldn’t be working jobs that don’t require a college degree. When we graduate college with astronomical debt — an average of $27,000 in the U.S. — we’re stuck in a narrow track, needing to find a job to pay off the debt.  We’re mortgaging away our freedom to innovate in exchange for a degree.

No longer a good investment

If you want to be a doctor, medical school is a wise choice — I don’t recommend keeping cadavers in your garage. However, for non-licensed professions, college may no longer be a good investment.  Since 1980, college tuition has risen more than 350% adjusted for inflation. Yes, the College Board will point out that there is a wage premium for college graduates: each year of college education leads to an 8% increase in overall lifetime earnings. And yes, this is true today, but will it be true in the future?

In 2010, student loan debt outpaced credit card debit and it was projected to top one trillion dollars by the end of 2011. We’re facing a crisis that will be as bad, if not worse, than the housing bubble crash because in the U.S., student loans are unforgiveable in the case of bankruptcy.

What happens when students begin defaulting on their loans? The bank can repossess your house, but they can’t repossess your education. We may think higher education lives in an ivory tower of BA, but it really lives in a glass castle of BS. When that glass castle shatters, university will never be the same.

Start your own company or cause

The problems I’ve outlined reflect a cultural shift from college being a vehicle to gain knowledge to a right of passage to adulthood. We don’t go to university knowing exactly what we want to major in — we go because our parents went, our peers are going, and society expects it. I know.  I experienced the same thought process.

When we 18-year-olds embolden ourselves in this manner, we think of ourselves as customers. We expect certain things from college. We’re interested in the end product — the credential — not the intellectual journey that leads there.  And in capitalism, the customer is always right. What students demand, we get. This leads to schools building lavish dorms instead of hiring professors.

Imagine if the millions of 18–22 year-olds currently sitting in class, copying their professor’s words verbatim off the blackboard, started their own companies, their own causes, their own initiatives. Imagine if we approached learning like French Salons, gathering to discuss, challenge, and support each other in creating tomorrow.

My goal isn’t to take down the academy, but I believe we have enough universities.

We can do better. We can unleash the power of youth to change the world.