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11 Great Reasons to Skip College

Why in the world would you purposefully skip college? Isn’t the value of higher education the one that we can all agree upon, regardless of politics, race, class, gender, shoe size, or whatever? How could everyone be wrong?

College today sells itself on a large number of myths and assumptions. Let’s hold these to the light of reality and see how many evaporate faster than a puddle in the sunlight.

Here are the big reasons to consider jumping ship from sinking hull of college in America.

1) Higher education is important. College is optional.

In our oft-heralded “modern age”—with its global competition and ever-shifting technological landscape—higher education is unquestionably important. It gives you the perspective and tools to deal with rapid change. But assuming that higher education only comes from college is like assuming that all delicious meals only come from restaurants.

College is a convenient package deal. It offers dorms, classes, counselors, professors, and a ready-made social life, all bundled together—for a steep price. Restaurants also offer a convenient package deal: when you go out to dinner, someone else does the shopping, prepares the food, refills the water, wipes the table, and washes the dishes. All you have to do is chew the food, enjoy yourself, and foot the bill.

But no one assumes that all delicious meals come from a restaurant. With preparation, dedication, mentorship, and a few good recipes, most people could cook a well-balanced meal.

In the same vein, the real ingredients of a higher education—competency, exposure, critical reading ability, independence, interpersonal skills, and more—are available to the curious seeker through hundreds of non-college challenges and adventures. With preparation, persistence, a few good suggestions, and solid mentorship, you can craft your own higher education.

(If you want to enter a licensed profession, some amount of traditional college will be necessary; but don’t confuse certification with higher education.)

2) College is incredibly expensive and becoming more so.

The average college family pays $15,000 to $30,000 per year in tuition and living expenses—after potential grants, scholarships, and family gifts are added into the equation. That’s a ton of money. But let’s not forget about the debt!

Today the average student graduates with $20,000 to $30,000 in debt. That’s a big burden to shoulder as a 23-year-old when the world is supposed to be your oyster. (Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s take.) And unlike a home mortgage, you can’t run away from student loans. Those loan officers will track you and your family down, dock future wages, and do anything else in their power to get back what’s rightfully theirs.

If you think that there’s no way these crazy prices can continue, you must recognize that this isn’t a short-term trend. Since the 1980s college tuition has risen faster than inflation. Elite college won’t drop their prices in fear of seeming less elite. Formerly low-cost public universities are increasingly unaffordable due to recession-inspired budget cuts.

Unless you can score a big scholarship or find your way into one of the Ivy League’s full-ride programs for low-income families, the incredible cost of college is a strong reason to jump ship.

3) College degree holders earn more money over their lifetime…if they’re engineers.

Perhaps you’ve heard the stories of master’s graduates competing for barista jobs; recent B.A.’s scrambling for unpaid internships; and countless 22- to 28-year-olds moving back in with their parents thanks to student debt. These stories reveal the frailty of the assumption that a college degree is a sure-fire ticket to financial security. But let’s forget about anecdotes for a moment and talk cold hard cash.

When you hear that “college graduates make more money,” $800,000 is the figure usually touted. This is the College Board’s widely circulated “lifetime earnings gap” between high school graduates and college graduates. But this number is highly suspect and, based on more recent data, may be closer to $280,000.

The lifetime earnings gap also doesn’t express the huge variations in average income based on the major and college that you choose.

If you’re a Petroleum or Chemical Engineering major, for example, you have a good chance of earning $100,000-150,000 mid-way through your career. But as a Child and Family Studies or Social Work major, it’s more like $39,000-45,000. (Here’s the full list.)  Additionally, the top earners overwhelmingly come from the Ivy Leagues and engineering colleges. An MIT graduate earns roughly $120,000 in mid-career salary; a Portland State University graduate earns  $71,000. (Here’s that list.)

What does this mean for you? Firstly, if your goal is make a ton of money, then don’t assume that any old college degree will do it. The lifetime earning gap is highly skewed by all those Ivy League engineers and financiers. Secondly, don’t be so quick to believe statistics; no one wants to think that they’re on the wrong side of the average. Thirdly, consider some of the highest earners today—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg—and ask yourself whether their (aborted) college educations were more important than their entrepreneurship and passionate dedication to the up-and-coming tech industry. There are a million ways to make a buck in this world; college is not the only path to financial stability.

4) College is a bubble.

After decades of promoting the political panacea of “college for all” and providing easy college loans to anyone who wants one, we’re finally wising up.

Replace the words “college” in the previous sentence with the phrase “home ownership”—and then ask yourself about the root causes of the 2008-2009 recession. The parallels are obvious and alarming (though not all believe so).

5) A hardcore academic experience is increasingly difficult to find.

As documented by a flurry of recent books (with such titles as Academically Adrift, The Five-Year Party, Crisis on Campus, and No Sucker Left Behind) your chances of finding an intensive academic experience are dwindling.

We tell ourselves about college is that it’s a place where ideas are taken seriously, where knowledge is revered for its own sake, and where people come together to learn. But the reality for many students is starkly different. Excessive partying, grade inflation, and the army of online “degree mills” each herald a departure from our classic vision of the rigorous college experience.

6) You can find great mentorship without college.

Without college, where will a young adult find the guidance necessary to make smart life decisions? How will they design an alternative to college with so little experience? How will they take the right steps toward the career of their dreams?

These are important questions, but the answers aren’t only found in college. In fact, the life guidance that a college provides is often self-perpetuating. (Want to get ahead? Get a Master’s!) And while colleges are filled with smart professors and other potential mentors, few students make the proactive decisions to ask for their guidance.

Young people who purposefully skip college have the chance get involved in business teams, internships, apprenticeships, and innovative projects where mentors with real-world experience are a stone’s throw away. They can also purposefully seek out mentors to help guide their non-traditional education. Zero Tuition College offers a directory of MAGEs (Mentors, Advisors, Guides, and Experts) geared specifically for the challenge of skipping college.

Finding great mentorship is not a choice between college life or gang life; it’s a choice between purposefully seeking out a variety of experienced mentors or taking what life gives you.

7) Few colleges offer lessons in entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is one obvious choice for college graduates facing a tough job market. Young people always have the option of starting their own small businesses, non-profits, creative gigs, or becoming freelancers. But few do, settling for low-paid employment instead. Why? Because you’re unlikely to get lessons in entrepreneurship from college.

The word “entrepreneur” was coined by the 18th-century Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon who divided society into two general classes: those with a “fixed income” (wage-earners) and those with a “non-fixed income”. This second group—the entrepreneurs—earned uncertain incomes due to an unknown demand for their product.

Today, we still talk about workers as Cantillon did 250 years ago. We imagine that employees make a “fixed income” while business owners, artists, freelancers, and other entrepreneurs make an uncertain “non-fixed income.”

But anyone who had their eyes open in the 2008-9 recession must ask: Where are the people with so-called “fixed incomes?” Does it help the laid-off construction worker or office manager with a halved 401k fund to say, “Don’t worry, you’re a wage-earner, so your income is reliable?” Of course not.

We must admit the economic truth of our globalized age: that everyone, employed or not, has a non-fixed, unreliable income. Everyone is an entrepreneur. No one—tenured professors, well-schooled professionals, and government employees included—can escape this fate.

Most colleges don’t—and largely can’t—teach entrepreneurism. (Stanford is a notable exception.) This is because entrepreneurs must create a product of real value to real people, and they must have real possibility of failure.

College assignments, of course, don’t involve actual risks (get an F in sociology and dinner will still be on the table). They don’t require you to create value for other people (how many people will read that sociology paper, anyways?). And the final product—the paper or presentation or homework assignment—typically goes straight into the waste bin.

To teach entrepreneurism, a college would need to support students in crafting big, real-life ventures, taking actual risks, and highlighting their success (and failures too). But most of the time, you have to craft such opportunities for yourself.

8) The internet offers a huge (and ever-increasing) number of free, college-level learning resources.

Wikipedia. TED talks. Academic Earth. Peer2Peer University. YouTube. Blogs. Open-source articles, journalism, books, and research papers. The list goes on and on.

Between these resources and everything else on the Web, you can give yourself an introduction to virtually any subject on earth. You can find free courses by top professors and local geniuses. You can access the same cutting-edge data that college students uses. And you can collaborate with learners across the world.

The trend toward ever-widening access to college-level learning resources is only moving in one direction: up.

9) Social networking makes it easier to find friends without college.

The “social experience” is an important part of the “college experience” that few want to miss. But you don’t need to enroll in college just to meet other people. Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, and other social networking technologies open the doors to peer community when college isn’t in the picture.

Here’s one way to use these technologies if you’re hungry for the college social experience: Relocate to a neat-looking college town, find an off-campus rental with other college students (using Craigslist), and then cruise the campus (taking advantage of ubiquitous Facebook and Twitter links) to find out about parties, events, and activity groups. There, now you’ve got a Zero Tuition Social Life.

Of course, social websites are only a means to an end. The best way to make friends is a friendly smile, a warm handshake, and willingness to strike up conversations.  This method works everywhere in life.

Also, as a college-skipper, the internships, jobs, projects, and groups that you’ll get involved with provide dozens of new social opportunities. And once you get dialed into a group of dynamic individuals, more opportunities quickly flower.

10) There are excellent ways to document and certify your accomplishments in lieu of a college degree.

There are good minds working on this problem. But you don’t need wait for some official “alternative credential” to prove yourself as a non-college-graduate. Here’s the basic recipe for replacing the college degree:

  1. Do hard stuff
  2. Create evidence of the stuff that you’ve done (such as blog posts, photographs, videos, short essays, websites, prototypes, etc.)
  3. Publish that evidence in an online portfolio.
  4. Network and market the hell out of yourself.

That’s the entrepreneur’s path to finding—or creating—good work.

11) DIY is exciting and meaningful.

The DIY (do-it-yourself) path to higher education is more fun, challenging, and exciting than traditional college.

Today, many students graduate with the sinking feeling that they’ve jumped through many hoops—but accomplished little. They wonder how a string of homework sessions, classroom lectures, and keg-stands turned into $20,000 of debt. And they begin to realize, often with bitterness, how unprepared for the actual world of work they are.

Traditional college might be “fun,” but it often fails to give students what they’re secretly looking for: a challenging peak experience that builds real community, real self-knowledge, and and real skills.

When thoughtfully pursued, the DIY college path has a better chance of delivering such a peak experience—at a much lower price. And such an exciting and meaningful adventure won’t quickly be forgotten.

So what can you do instead of college?

Here are a few ideas, and here are a few more. You can also take inspiration from the rest of the world’s college skippers & drop-outs.

Figuring out what to do instead of college need not be complicated. I like to start with a piece of advice that John Taylor Gatto gave to a group of graduating homeschoolers:

The only thing serious you face at the moment, regardless of what you’ve been told, is deciding what quests you will choose for yourself.

Choose your quests. Figure out your biggest dreams. And then pursue them doggedly, with an eye toward building economic self-sufficiency. There’s a recipe for skipping college.

But going it alone is tough. It helps to have friends, accomplices, and great mentors. That’s why I’m launching Zero Tuition College. ZTC is a place where college-level self-directed learners can meet, connect, get inspired, and get support for their DIY higher education. The price to join our “free college for self-directed learners” is, of course, zero.

Whether you skip college or not, we’re all searching for the same thing: a high-quality higher education at a reasonable price. I wish you the best of luck in this journey.

Top photo: pamhule

TEDx: The Unschooling Mindset

Here is the TEDx talk that I gave in Palo Alto, CA, on November 20th 2010.

I was upset with the organizers of this event for a number of reasons. They didn’t know the proper length of a TED talk (18 minutes); they didn’t film the presenters in a compelling way (my talk is all PowerPoint! how boring!); they allowed Q&A from the audience during the talks (I stammered as a girl in the front asked me a question mid-way through the presentation); and they failed to post the videos on YouTube with proper title, description, byline, etc. I had to grab this video from YouTube, add my own intro text, and upload it to Vimeo. Very unprofessional. The organizers were a group of teens from the local high school, and I suspect that they were doing this for extra credit–not because they love TED talks.

Nonetheless…enjoy the talk! It’s the first and only TEDx talk about unschooling that I know of.

My TEDx Talk: The Unschooling Mindset

[Originally posted at:]

Here’s a transcript of the talk that I’ll give on Nov 20, 2010 at TEDxYouthPaloAlto. 18 minutes…first TED talk about unschooling…being filmed…no pressure!!

So there I was in college, studying astronomy and physics with big hopes of becoming a high school science teacher, when a friend handed me a book by John Taylor Gatto. Gatto taught in New York City public schools for decades, took kids out of the classroom in lots of innovative ways, won multiple teacher of the year awards, and then quit. I cracked open his book, and the first line I read was:

I’ve noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years of teaching – that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.

Well, that was a shock. How could I teach high school science if this was true?  It took me just a few days of Googling Gatto’s name to find an even bigger shock: unschooling.  Apparently, there were teens out there who took advice like this seriously and left school on purpose to become “unschoolers”.  And these unschoolers didn’t fail in life—they thrived.

That’s it, I was hooked. I designed a whole major to study the theories behind unschooling full-time, and I haven’t looked back since.

Before we go ahead, let me give you a quick definition. Unschooling is full-time, self-directed learning. Everyone here has experienced self-directed learning: maybe while taking an elective class, or working on a really interesting project, or doing personal reading. It’s when you’re learning for the sake of learning—no matter if it’s structured or unstructured. The Unschooling Mindset says: Why not do this more often?  Why not do this full-time?

I’d like to share the stories of three unschoolers I know who illustrate how full-time self-directed learning can look.

Jenny from Wichita, Kansas

At age 15, Jenny was bored, stressed, and frustrated with school, because it prevented her from following her deepest interests: the study of animals, veterinary medicine, and birds in particular. After she read about unschooling, she left school freshmen year and did something that would make most college-preparatory parents cringe: She spent all her time in online forums for parrot owners. Mind you, Jenny did not own a parrot at this time, but she wanted to know more about them. So she took the questions, researched the answers online, and then posted them on the forum.

When Jenny’s fancy mice got sick, she took them to Wichita’s only exotic animal clinic, hit it off with the lone vet who worked there, and began working as an informal intern.  Jenny shadowed operations, assisted with examinations, took x-rays, and dissected euthanized animals—”it was better than any biology class”, as she put it.

In the time that she was previously spending bored in school, Jenny also volunteered at the county zoo (where she cared for more than 60 species of birds), planted organic gardens, performed violin and taught violin lessons, and went on multiple long-distance bike trips of her own design.

Jonah from central Massachusetts

Jonah went to school through sixth grade, where he was bored, miserable, and constantly getting in trouble. At the beginning of 7th grade, with the help of a homeschooling resource center, Jonah left school and started exploring his interests through the center’s various classes and workshops.

By age 15 Jonah had developed a deep interest in Chemistry and decided to indulge it at the nearby University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  He found a freshmen general chemistry course at U Mass, walked up to the professor on the first day of class, and said “Hi, my name is Jonah, I’m 15, I’m really interested in chemistry, and I’d like to sit in on your class. Would that be okay?”   What do you think the professor’s response was? … He was overjoyed! How many students do you think a freshmen chemistry professor gets who come up and say, “I’m so interested in chemistry that I’d like to take your class, not for a grade, but because it’s fascinating?” Close to zero is my guess. While Jonah didn’t get official credit for the class, he did get a letter of recommendation to get the course waived when he enrolled in future chemistry classes. And the professor and Jonah became good friends.

Today Jonah is shadowing a geology class at U Mass, taking community college classes, and he’s an avid rock climber.

Ben from Seattle

Finally we have Ben, a 17-year-old life-long unschooler. Ben’s parents—one of whom is a former school teacher—decided never to put him in school at all.

Ben’s passion is for building bass guitars and longboard skateboards. A month ago Ben brought one of his newly built longboards into the local boardshop to show them to the shop owners. The owners had previously helped Ben with his questions about board-building materials and techniques, and they were impressed by his accomplishments. A traveling sales rep for a high-performance longboarding company in British Columbia was in the store, and he was also impressed by Ben’s boards.  He asked Ben if building longboards was something he might want to do in the future. Ben smiled and replied: “Yes, but I’m doing it now.”

The rep enjoyed the forthrightness of Ben’s response, and he invited Ben to visit the company’s factory store and talk with their main board builder. He said there are only a handful of good board builders and designers, and they’re always looking for new talent.

When he’s not building, Ben takes Fire Service Technology classes, does long-distance runs, and hangs out with a very cool group of North Seattle teen unschoolers.

Jenny, Jonah and Ben are examples of what teens who don’t go to traditional school can accomplish with the unschooling mindset.  But unschooling is often misunderstood.  Here are a few key points to keep in mind:

  1. Yes, it’s legal.
    Legally, unschooling falls under the umbrella of homeschooling, which is legal in every state (and many countries abroad). While certain states are less friendly to homeschooling, it doesn’t take long to become a homeschooler no matter where you are.
  2. No, it’s not the same thing as homeschooling.
    Traditional school-at-home homeschooling and unschooling are very different creatures. Highly traditional homeschoolers aren’t really practicing self-directed learning. Unschooling starts with the student’s interests, questions, and curiosities, and then finds the resources that answer them. If this sounds to you like a recipe for narrow-mindedness, I’ll tell you that unschoolers I know are incredibly “rounded” and “exposed” to the world. I largely thank the internet for that.
  3. Yes, they’re socialized.
    This was my introduction to the world of teenage unschoolers: Not Back to School Camp. NBTSC is just one of the many places where teenage unschoolers (and their families) find each other. There are conferences, social networking sites, email groups, and local meet-ups galore.  Spend a little bit of time in these groups and you’ll quickly learn that unschoolers are socialized, and more importantly, they’re positively socialized. They’re respectful, thoughtful, inclusive of diversity, and unlike high school, there’s no endless power struggle between adults & teens. As a mentor and teacher to teen unschoolers, I can actually talk to them as young adults. That’s huge.
  4. No, they’re not all geniuses or superhumans.
    Ask all those motivated and passionate unschoolers what they were like before they left school, and you’ll learn that they were bored, unmotivated, and interest-less in school. Their deep passions and intrinsic motivation only flourished when they got their freedom. You don’t have to be a high IQ genius or superhuman to unschool–but you do need the courage to follow your dreams.
  5. Yes, unschoolers find jobs without a high school diploma.
    Ben with his longboards is good example of how this can happen. Through internships, mentorships, independent study, paid work, and lots of personal practice, unschoolers have the opportunity to gain the real-life experience that matters most to good employers. For jobs with strict high school diploma requirements, taking the GED is always an option. And if you’re wondering, “Can unschoolers make serious money?”, just ask multi-millionaire drop-out Whoopi Goldberg, billionaire Richard Branson, or Liz Claiborne, Keith Richards, Frank Lloyd Wright… the list goes on.
  6. Yes, they get into college.
    A common path for unschoolers who are interested in college is to start taking community college classes around age 15. That way, they get an early taste of college-level work and decide if a 4-year program is right for them. Those who do go to 4-year college have gotten into everything from state colleges to private colleges to the Ivy Leagues. But how?

Let’s consider two fictional teens—Elmo and Alma—who are competing for one last space in a competitive university engineering major. While these two individuals aren’t real, they’re modeled after real teens. Elmo is our model high schooler, who has done all the college prep that he was supposed to, and Alma is our model unschooler, who left school freshman year to pursue her budding engineering interest.

Let’s look at Elmo’s and Alma’s college preparatory credentials for their high school years.

In terms of classes, Elmo took a normal 4-year course load while Alma did 2 semesters of community college (stretched over a few years and heavy in the math and sciences). They both got good GPAs—Elmo in high school classes, Alma in community college classes—and took similar standardized tests which the university required.

Elmo was told that extracurriculars are an important part of the college application, so he signed up for a local soup kitchen service gig and put in his hours. Alma, on the other hand, in quirky unschooler fashion, decided to spend her time building a functional trebuchet—a medieval war machine. (I actually met a teen unschooler who built a trebuchet earlier this year!) To help her do this, Alma enrolled in a young engineers summer seminar (offered on college campuses across the US) and created a 6-month internship in a machine-tool shop. Finally, in her “junior” year, Alma decided to spend a few months volunteering in Costa Rica, brushing up on her Spanish and learning to surf in the meanwhile.

When they apply to college, Elmo will send in a normal high school transcript while Alma will send in her community college records and a homemade transcript—which looks more like a résumé—documenting her extensive self-directed learning activities. For the letters of recommendation, Elmo will get letters from his physics teacher, math teacher, and guidance counselor, each of whom is writing letters for 30 other students at the same time. Alma will get hers from people who know her a bit better: her summer seminar director, favorite community college professor, and internship supervisor. In their personal essays, Elmo will recount his favorite physics lecture, his vague interesting engineering, and his soup kitchen experience, while Alma will discuss her decision to leave high school to better focus on engineering, challenges in building a functional trebuchet, and her thoughts on technology in developing countries like Costa Rica.

If you were a college admissions officer, who would you choose: Elmo or Alma?

Alma wins by a landslide. But how? She didn’t graduate from high school, after all.

To get into college, whether you’re a high schooler or homeschooler or whoever, you need to prove five things that you have or are capable of:

  1. Intellectual passion (love of learning)
  2. Leadership (taking initiative)
  3. Logical reasoning (recognizing cause and effect)
  4. Capacity for structured learning (ability to function in a classroom)
  5. Background knowledge (preparation for your program)

Elmo and Alma each proved these in different ways, but Alma did it better. And instead of spending four years in a classroom following someone else’s orders, Alma did this while largely following her passions. Jenny from Wichita got into Wichita State University’s pre-vet biology program by doing her internships, volunteering, and self-directed studies, taking one standardized test (the ACT), and packaging it all in homemade portfolio. That’s the magic of unschooling.

But let’s take the unschooling mindset one step farther and ask: Is enrolling in college really necessary today to gain a liberal arts education? Everyone knows that college tuition prices are strapping parents and students with huge amounts of debt. If you can’t get college cheaply, what’s another option? What if, like doing college prep as unschooler, you replaced the biggest parts of college with self-directed learning?

We go to college for many good reasons, including to:

  • Build competency and employability
  • Gain exposure (become “rounded”)
  • Live independently
  • Meet smart people (social networking)
  • Have fun
  • Signal (future employers)

What if, instead of relying on classes to build your competency, you created a high-level internship or mentorship for yourself with a retired professor, or volunteered for an academic research project, or started your own business?  Could you build high-level skills that way?

What if, to gain exposure to the world’s biggest ideas, you took advantage of the huge number of free online university webcasts from top professors, watched TED talks, and interviewed professionals from many fields—all for free?

What if, to live independently, you used craigslist to find off-campus housing in a college town, and you lived the college life that way, going to parties and having late-night discussions and such?  That would just be the normal cost of living.

What if, to meet other smart people your age, you hung out with your off-campus housemates, met with student interest groups, and joined some of the many community and extracurricular programs that are found in college towns?

If you did all that and totally self-designed your college experience, saving huge amounts of money in the process, what kind of “signal” would you send to future employers, or business partners, or venture capitalists?  Would that signal be more powerful than a college degree?  I suspect that it might.

This is the unschooling mindset: the belief that persistently following your passions, looking for hidden opportunities, and being comfortable as an outsider are the truly important things in life—much more so than a piece of paper from an institution.

The best part is, no matter who you are, whether you’re a high schooler, homeschooler, college student, or working adult, you can start thinking like an unschooler today. Simply ask yourself: What are my deepest passions, interests, and long-term goals—and how can I pursue them full-time?

Thank you.

[This talk is ~2350 words. Adults comfortably listen to 150 words per minute, which gives me a 150 x 18 = 2700 word limit.]

Top photo: The LXD at TED2010, Session 6, “Invention,” Thursday, February 11, 2010, in Long Beach, California. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson