He calls it the UnCollege movement.
Nineteen-year-old Dale Stephens is urging his peers to rethink the need for college, arguing that they can get more out of pursuing real-world skills than completing homework assignments and studying for exams.
"I want to change the notion that a college degree is the only path to professional success," said Stephens, who grew up in Winters and now lives in San Francisco, where he is building the UnCollege movement and developing a Web-based company.
Stephens is part of a small but growing chorus of entrepreneurs, free thinkers and former students who are questioning the value of higher education. The attack is coming from multiple directions: those who say college costs far more than it should; those who say students learn far less than they should; and those who argue the graduation rates are abysmal.
With tuition rising much faster than inflation, borrowing for college has reached record heights. Two-thirds of graduates now leave school with debt, with the typical borrower owing more than $34,000, according to FinAid.org, an authority on student lending. Nationwide, student debt is likely to top $1 trillion this year signaling to some that education is the next mortgage bubble.
The backlash against college comes, paradoxically, at the same time demand for higher education is soaring. Applications to the University of California and California State University reached record numbers this year.
But it could be that the economic downturn is responsible for both the rise in college applications as students seek a leg up in the job market and the sentiment that college isn't necessary, as they take on more debt to get their degrees.
"As family incomes, particularly in the middle class, are stretched and strained, and tuitions rise and state support lessens, (it's not surprising) you would begin to hear voices that say, 'What's the value here?' " said Jerry Lucido, executive director of the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California.
A call for dropouts
The high price of undergraduate education is at risk of hampering technological innovation, said a spokesman for Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist who founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook.
"By the time people are 24, 25 or 26 they often have so much student debt and are tracked into certain careers that they can't take a short-term risk and start a company," said Jim O'Neill, who heads the Thiel Foundation.
Last month, the Thiel Foundation named the recipients of its controversial fellowship for people under age 20, giving $100,000 each to 24 students who promised to drop out of college and pursue entrepreneurship.
Stephens was one of them. The money is supporting him for two years while he works on building the UnCollege movement and launching an associated business called RadMatter that's aimed at making it easier for job-hunters to market themselves to employers, regardless of their educational credentials.
Stephens dropped out mid-way through his freshman year at Hendrix College in Arkansas when he realized that "the direct impact I could have on the world by engaging the community around UnCollege far exceeded the impact I could have by completing homework assignments," he said.
He said he was frustrated by learning things in the classroom that weren't applied in real life.
"There were people with good ideas, but we weren't applying them. We got to talk and write research reports, but there was no execution," Stephens said.
In promoting UnCollege, Stephens is urging young people to do the opposite get experiences in areas they're passionate about, without worrying about the book knowledge that comes from school.
Drifting without purpose
Attacking higher education from another direction are two professors who recently published a book called "Academically Adrift: Limited learning on college campuses."
Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of University of Virginia argue that many students gain surprisingly little knowledge during college. Their research shows that over four years of college, 36 percent of students "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning." Too many students, the authors say, are "drifting through college without a clear sense of purpose."
That, said UnCollege member Erica Goldson, is exactly why she left after one semester at the State University of New York, Buffalo.
"I didn't know what I wanted to go to school for," said Goldson, 19. "I felt like I had been pressured into thinking college was my path, and I was going through all these majors but I couldn't see myself being happy with whatever jobs I was researching."
Now she's living in New Jersey, working as a waitress and making plans to move to Argentina to learn Spanish. Goldson wants to support the UnCollege movement by helping other students persuade their parents that it's OK to drop out.
Many of those arguing that college is unnecessary for success are like Stephens technological whizzes who have taught themselves computer programming and other highly marketable skills. Some hope to follow in the footsteps of two famous college dropouts: Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg.
Those guys did not need a degree to make it big in the business world. But for the majority of Americans, piles of evidence show a college degree is increasingly valuable.
College graduates earn 65 percent more on average than high school graduates, according to a College Board report last year. And during the recession, employment rates have been far higher among college graduates than those with less education. Economists predict that the labor market of the future will demand even more college graduates than today a million more in California alone.
"We are not saying that every single person has to go to college," said Hans Johnson, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, which has determined that by 2025, 40 percent of the state's jobs will require a college degree.
"But by and large, when you look at the averages, you are much more advantaged and have more opportunities if you have more education."