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Proposition #1: College is just too expensive.
Today, the liberal arts college experience offers many valuable things: exposure to new ideas, analytical skills, social networks, support, accountability, and the opportunity to live independently. But these good things come at a high price. The average family will shell out roughly $20,000 per year for tuition and living expenses, while the average student who takes out loans will graduate with more than $25,000 in debt. And this isn’t a recent trend: since the 1950s, college tuition has risen almost twice as fast as inflation.
When the price of oil rises, we look more seriously at alternative energy. When a business raises its prices, we consider different ways that we could obtain the same goods or services. But even though the price of college has skyrocketed, we flood its gates. Why?
Proposition #2: Higher education and college are not the same thing.
We spend big bucks on college because we’ve confused receiving a college degree with getting a higher education. They’re two different things.
A college degree proves that you can survive four years at an institution. It’s a piece of paper that says, “I followed a prescribed path to success.”
Higher education, though, is the capacity to self-direct your life. Someone who has a higher education can define her own vision of success and pursue it, even in the face of difficulty.
College is one path to a higher education, but it’s not the only one. Sometimes college graduates lead self-directed lives, and sometimes they don’t; a college degree does not guarantee a higher education.
Proposition #3: You can give yourself a higher education without college.
So how do you give yourself a higher education, if not via college? That’s the challenge this book addresses. Here’s an overview of the answer.
Instead of following someone else’s curriculum, self-directed learners begin by asking themselves what fascinates and drives them. Their journey begins—and ends—with self-knowledge.
Instead of taking full-time classes, self-directed learners give themselves assignments that they find interesting, eye-opening, and challenging. They start businesses, find internships, travel the world, read and write about things that fascinate them, and work for organizations they admire. Many college students do these things too, but the difference is that self-directed learners don’t wait for anyone’s permission to begin learning.
Instead of working on homework, papers, and presentations destined to be seen once and tossed into a trash can, self-directed learners turn much of their hard work into useful products for other people. They write blogs, build start-ups, create art, record videos, teach their skills, and sell their services. They keep an eye out for the innumerable ways that they can improve someone else’s life.
Instead of relying solely upon professors and college guidance counselors to help direct their educational process, self-directed learners seek the mentorship of a variety of accomplished individuals. They consult family, friends, businesspeople, writers, researchers, working professionals, retirees, or anyone else who might help them. They keep themselves accountable by sharing their goals publicly and asking friends and mentors to keep them on track.
Instead of purchasing peer community through college, self-directed learners meet friends through their work, hobbies, travel, networking, and social media—just as people do in the real world. They try to surround themselves with as many smart people as they can.
To become financially secure, self-directed learners figure out how to market themselves, get hired in unconventional ways, start their own ventures, and live within their means. They recognize that these abilities—not a degree—are the true assets of an economically resilient life.
By doing these things, self-directed learners gain many of the benefits that we associate with higher education—knowledge, skills, self-awareness, exposure, emotional growth, self-discipline, and work opportunities—for a radically lower price than the tuition of a traditional college.
Proposition #4: Skipping college isn’t the best idea for everyone.
Replacing college with self-directed learning is a good idea for many students, but not everyone. There are some people for whom college is clearly the best choice.
If your goal is to enter a licensed profession—to become a doctor, lawyer, architect, public school teacher, engineer, or other government-licensed professional—then you should go to college.
If you want to do PhD-level research—to study cancer, publish neuroscience papers, or teach university-level history—then you should go to college.
If you’d like to work for a major investment bank, consulting firm, or other wealthy institution that heavily values adherence to social norms, then you should go to college.
If you harbor a deep love for a specific academic discipline, want to work with certain professors, or crave the challenge of reading dense academic material, then you should go to college.
But if, on the other hand:
- you suspect that becoming a doctor, lawyer, architect, scientist, professor, or financier is really somebody else’s goal for you,
- you’re interested in the liberal arts, studio art, technology, entrepreneurship, or working with your hands,
- you suspect that you haven’t seen enough of the world to really focus in college,
- you’re mostly interested in the social aspect of college,
- or you’re simply unsure about everything,
then postponing, leaving, or skipping college might be the best thing you ever do.
Proposition #5: It’s a gamble either way.
If you skip or leave college in order to pursue a self-directed, adventurous, and entrepreneurial higher education, you’re taking a gamble. It might not work out. You may live with your parents for a while, have trouble making money, and suffer the embarrassment of trying something different and failing. You may have to go back to school.
But if you go to college because you believe it’s a safe path, because you want to avoid criticism, or even for one of the aforementioned good reasons, you’re also taking a gamble. It might not work out. You may live with your parents for a while and have trouble making money. You may have to go back to school. But—unlike in the self-directed path—you may end up with massive amounts of student loan debt at the time in your life when you’re supposed to be most free.
I’m not able to tell you which gamble is more appropriate for you. But I’m confident that the first gamble—crafting your own adventurous and entrepreneurial higher education—will teach you things about yourself that the second never could.
Proposition #6: There’s a culture of fear around college, and it’s the wrong one.
It’s difficult to make a rational decision about college when parents, politicians, educators, and pretty much everyone else rallies behind a college-for-all banner. When you choose to skip college to pursue your own higher education, you’re truly bucking the establishment. That’s a scary thing to do.
To illustrate: when I started writing articles about Zero Tuition College, my friend Sarah wrote me an e-mail.
“There is a cultural voice that lives inside my head,” Sarah explained. “Whenever I start reading an article that’s critical of college, this voice starts shouting: You need a college degree to be taken seriously and earn a real living! It takes a lot of work to quiet that voice down. Perhaps you can launch a preemptive strike against it?”
That’s when I realized that this book needed to be written. We’re in the midst of a college mania that threatens the livelihoods of indebted students as well as the financial stability of the countries that provide billions of dollars in easy loans to those students.
At the time of writing, total outstanding student loan debt in the US had reached one trillion dollars—roughly equal to the amount of credit debt. But unlike credit cards, student loan debt survives bankruptcy. Short of fleeing the country, you can’t escape your student loans.
This is the real culture of fear that should surround college: not that purposefully skipping college will ruin your life, but that mindlessly attending college (or graduate school) will lock you into a huge pile of debt from which you can never escape.
To Sarah and everyone else who suffers from the little shouting voice: please consider this book an intercontinental ballistic missile aimed at the heart of the assumption that you need a college degree to be taken seriously and earn a real living. You don’t. This book explains why—and shows what to do instead.
 “Average Undergraduate Tuition and Fees and Room and Board Rates,” National Center for Education Statistics, prepared October 2010, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/tables/dt10_345.asp
Blake Ellis, “Average Student Loan Debt Tops $25,000,” CNN Money, November 3, 2011, http://money.cnn.com/2011/11/03/pf/student_loan_debt/index.htm
 “Tuition Inflation,” The Smart Student Guide to Financial Aid, accessed October 14, 2010, http://www.finaid.org/savings/tuition-inflation.phtml
 Eyder Peralta, “Americans’ Student Loan Balance Now Exceeds $1 Trillion,” The Two-Way: NPR’s News Blog, October 19, 2011,
 Why? Because the collateral for a student loan is the student’s brain. When a housing market collapses, a lender can reclaim a house. But when a student defaults on his loan, a lender can’t reclaim the knowledge locked inside the student’s brain. Or, as my friend R. Brent Mattis explains it:
“Imagine you were the loan officer at a bank. A budding entrepreneur comes into your office and says, ‘Hi, I'd like to borrow $100,000 to start a business.’
“You say, ‘Great, what can you pledge as collateral for the loan?’
“He says, ‘Nothing.’
“So you say, ‘How do you plan to use the loan?’
“He says, ‘Oh, I don't know. I'll probably spend four years broadening my skill set and learning the attributes necessary to be an excellent businessman.’”
The loan officer's head would probably explode.
Blake Boles is the 29-year old author of College Without High School, director of Unschool Adventures, and long-time staffer at Not Back to School Camp, the summer camp for teenage unschoolers. Blake founded Zero Tuition College, the free online community for self-directed learners.
His next book, Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree will be released in June 2012.
Visit the book fundraiser:
Read a longer book excerpt: http://www.scribd.com/blake_boles_1/d/81486515-Better-Than-College-How-to-Build-a-Successful-Life-Without-a-Four-Year-Degree-Preface-Excerpt
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