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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And see if you can guess what these billionaires have in common. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Larry Ellison. Yes, they're icons of the tech world, and none of them graduated from college.

With total student debt in the U.S. now higher than credit card debt, and with good jobs for most young people still hard to find, it's hard not to wonder, is college really worth it?

One young person asking that is Dale Stephens. He's founder of UnCollege.org and author of a new book, "Hacking Your Education." Good morning.

DALE STEPHENS: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Right off, what is your basic argument for not getting a degree?

STEPHENS: When you think about education as an investment, you have to think about what the return is going to be. And as you mentioned, with the cost skyrocketing out of control, you really have to think cogently whether or not it makes sense to spend four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars getting a degree. Especially when the 22.5 percent of college grads under 25 are unemployed, and another 22 percent are working jobs that don't actually require their degree.

MONTAGNE: When you talk about hacking your education, which is the title of your book, what exactly do you mean?

STEPHENS: Hacking your education is about figuring out how to create an education for yourself. There are all these different parts of an education that are currently just given to us. And hacking your education is figuring out how to find the mentors, how to build the network, how to find the content; and put those together in a package that works for you. One of the great myths of the school system is that we tell people that everyone should learn exactly the same thing and exactly the same way, at roughly the same speed. And that's just not true. People learn in different ways, at different speeds, at different times. And so, hacking your education allows you to learn what, when, how and where you want.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about you for a moment. He left college after less than a year. And this was a private liberal arts college, probably a little pricey for most people. Why did you leave?

STEPHENS: I left school because I didn't feel like school was an environment that left me free to learn. Actually left school when I was 12 and I didn't go to middle school or high school. So I had a six-year background in what's called un-schooling, which is a self-directed form of home schooling. And I got to college and started wondering if I managed to get into college and learned everything that I should've learned in high school, why was there any reason that I needed to go to college and get a degree? Why wasn't there any reason that I can educate myself for that time?

MONTAGNE: So you're taking your personal experience, which is unusual one, and applying it to the notion that there are ways to learn that will give you more, and sustain you better, over time, than just going to college.

STEPHENS: I think for anyone in college today, just going to college is not going to be enough, right? The competition for a job is insanely fierce. We keep hearing about the extent to which there's a gap in skills between what people learn and what companies are actually hiring for. And whether you go to college or not, it's your responsibility to figure out what it is that you need to learn, and how you can learn those things so that you can get a job after school.

MONTAGNE: But can you fairly urge most young people who would be college students to forgo the experience - an experience that brings with it, you know, not just a degree, but skill sets, expanding their horizons, they make connections sometimes, can you say they'll just be fine?

STEPHENS: It's an even bigger gamble to spend - to commit to four years into an institution, when the average student graduates with $27,000 in debt, which is an astronomical amount of debt to be saddled with, as you're coming out and trying to find an entry-level job and being forced to pay off that debt. If college were free, this would be an entirely different question, right? But when you're faced with the economic reality of how much college costs and how little self-directed learning costs, I think the cost is fairly low. College is not going away anytime soon. If you want to go back, it will always be there. But the cost of taking a year to learn for yourself is nothing.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

STEPHENS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Dale Stephens is the founder of UnCollege.org and author of a new book, "Hacking Your Education."

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