Born in Winters, California, Stephens left school when he was 12 years old and spent the next seven years educating himself as a so-called unschooler, which many other children in his area were doing at the time. This meant he was taking a French class online, volunteering at his local library and studying history and all the standard subjects at home, on walks and during field trips.
Eventually, as his fellow home-schooled friends started going to college, Stephens applied and was accepted to Hendrix College in Arkansas. He quickly found himself disillusioned and detached from what he was learning. "Overworked professors showed up to class and expected us to care about what they were saying. Learning requires personal context and engagement, so sitting in a lecture hall is not how your brain works," he said.
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So like any millennial, he went online to find some answers. UnCollege was created in classic start-up fashion: Stephens created a landing page to see if there was interest and willingness to put down money.
He first blogged about his disgruntled feelings on the higher-education system. Within 18 months those thoughts turned into a 100-page book called "Hacking Your Education," which he sold to Penguin. That led to about 30,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter and a weekly newsletter and $20,000 in speaking fees, which he invested into founding the organization. Stephens was also chosen as a Thiel Fellow, a program offering young entrepreneurs an alternative to higher education, created by tech icon and PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who is a vocal critic of colleges.
Based on his growing online following, Stephens created the non-college accredited program, the Gap Year, basically an online outline at first. To his surprise, people applied. "I got 250 applications in May 2013, and people from Seattle to San Paulo, Brazil, put down money for deposits," Stephens said. He designed the curriculum and launched the program in the fall of 2013. This year he's anticipating about 1,000 applications.
UnCollege has raised more than $100,000 in funding from investors, including from the founders of Generally Assembly, a digital trade school, and Learn Capital, an education-focused venture capitalist firm based in Silicon Valley, which has also invested directly in Generally Assembly.