My name is Blake Boles, and I'm honored to speak for this fine group of young adult homeschoolers today. Thank you to the California Homeschool Network for inviting me. Thank you to the parents who successfully fed, sheltered, nurtured, challenged, and supported these graduates who are now ready to launch into the world -- if they haven't already. And thank you, graduates, for waking up before 11 a.m., changing out of sweatpants, closing Minecraft, and making other deep sacrifices to be here.
That's a joke, of course. Homeschooling is riddled with stereotypes, and perhaps the greatest gift you'll receive upon graduation is permanent relief from the incessant questions of strangers, friends, and distant family members who imagine that homeschooling can only ever amount to you living in your parents basement, drug-addicted, unemployed, eating an exclusive diet of Flaming Hot Cheetos.
They make this assumption because you've done something bold -- something that they themselves probably never imagined doing. You made the choice to take an alternative path to one of society's biggest institutions: high school. (Or, if your parents originally made that choice for you, you made the decision to continue as a homeschooler instead of jumping ship and retreating back to school.) Even in the United States, where homeschooling is so much more popular, socially acceptable, and legal than anywhere else in the world, it is still a bold and rare path to take. Doing something so different can scare people, because it questions the assumptions on which they have built their lives. And when people get scared, they stereotype. Thus, the ever-present stereotype of the unsocialized and unworldly homeschooler. Today, graduates, is the day that you get to leave behind this stereotype and leave behind the endless explaining of what you're doing with your time if you're not sitting in a classroom.
Some of you are choosing to go on to colleges and universities. As you've probably discovered by now, it's not nearly as hard or complicated to get into four-year college as you once suspected. It turns out that, by developing and pursuing your interests at an early age, thinking hard about your options instead of just following a prescribed path, and learning in the laboratory of the real world instead of a state-approved, 30-seat classroom, you've gained the necessary hard knowledge and soft skills to succeed in a college environment. Or, if you haven't gained them yet, I suspect you have a pretty clear idea what you need to do to build such skills, you can navigate yourself in that direction, and you can summon the self-motivation needed to see the challenge through to the end. You are, in other words, self-directed learners. And it's no surprise that colleges want you.
Some of you are choosing not to go to a four-year college, opting instead to dabble more casually in academics, seek training in a technical skill, work full-time, develop a body of art, or just keep figuring it out as you go along. I'm equally confident that, as self-directed learners, you will succeed in this path, even if you must endure interrogation by people who see you as avoiding another major institution -- four-year college -- and decide that they must share their fears with you, uninvited.
These busybodies will undoubtedly inform you of the latest article they read about the ever-increasing income premium that a college degree nabs you today. Someone with a four-year college degree earns about 80 percent more than someone with only a high school diploma, they'll say. So why aren't you going to college? Don't you want that free pile of money waiting for you at the end of the rainbow? Not to mention the validation, prestige, and social network that a college graduate enjoys?
Before I continue, I'd like to make clear that I'm not condemning the decision of those of you taking the traditional college path. I myself attended and deeply benefited from a four-year college. Stick with me, college-goers, as I dissect the pro-college argument, and you too will benefit.
So college graduates make more money, on average. The numbers clearly show that. But dig a little deeper, and you'll discover something interesting: for students who do some college but drop out before graduating, the income premium is much less than 80 percent -- it's something closer to 10 percent or 20 percent, depending on how long they go.
Imagine this: two students each do three years of college classes, campus living, socializing, networking, the whole deal. One decides to continue through senior year, while the other decides to leave to pursue other interests. A year later, one of them -- the graduate -- is earning 80 percent more than a high school graduate, while the second is only earning 20 percent more. Does that smell fishy to you? What could have happened in that senior year that made the first student so massively more productive? Did the university save all the really excellent classes -- the ones that transform us in the deep ways promised on their websites and information packages -- for the last two semesters? If so, why don't we just take those two magical semesters in the first place, make college a one-year experience, save a bunch of money in the process, and let everyone walk away with their pay bumps?
The answer to the riddle is: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
I think it's very unlikely that the final few classes, internships, or whatever else a senior in college does that freshmen, sophomores, and juniors do not, magically transform that person into a massively more productive member of society. Instead, I think that the main function of college is to be a giant sorting machine. By completing college, you gain a piece of paper that helps employers and other people in power sort you out from the crowd. The college degree is a symbol, or as economists call it, a signal, that says that you're a reasonably intelligent problem solver who can get along with people, complete assignments on time, and work within a large institution.
A college degree, in other words, is branding.
A degree doesn't necessarily make you smarter -- if it did, then doing three years of a four-year degree would net you far more than a 20 percent pay raise. But it does make you look better. In the same way that an unlabeled t-shirt might sell for $5 or $10, but the same shirt with a designer label may sell for $30 or $50, going to college won't necessarily change what you're made of, but it sure will convince people to give you the jobs that pay more money.
What does this mean for you, graduates? Why am I talking about all these gloomy statistics when I should be quoting Robin Williams' character in The Dead Poets Society or Doctor Suess' Oh the Places You'll Go?
I think the discussion about college and money is worth your time because it tells you that society's traditional institutions may not be as important as you imagine for your success and well-being.
It tells you that, as newly emerging adults, you're not under some obligation to join the college degree arms race.
Because once you realize that college is mostly about branding, then you can address that challenge directly instead of assuming that you must have a four-year degree to be a smart person. You can continue to self-direct your education instead of writing off your childhood homeschooling as a quaint but unrealistic and utopian way to live your life. It's not. You can continue being an interest-driven, self-directed learner. In fact, I believe you must -- no matter whether you go to college or not.
If you are going to college -- and if college is, in fact, more of a giant sorting and branding machine than an actual learning factory -- then you must realize that you, and only you, are responsible for what you learn in college. Simply showing up to classes, doing the homework, and taking the tests won't cut it; that's what everyone else is doing. To get some real learning done, you'll need to go beyond major requirements, beyond scheduled class times, and beyond standard campus social life. To really get something out of college, you'll need look at the entire institution and the world beyond as your canvas.
Here's a story of a young adult self-directed learner who I know that illustrates my point.
Fifteen year-old Jonah Meyer picked up a popular science book one day -- a whirlwind overview of modern research -- and became deeply interested in chemistry.
To sate his curiosity, Jonah began reading more science books and watching free online lectures about chemistry. He even started working through a high school chemistry textbook, but it left him wanting more. He kept searching and soon found something that looked perfect, a freshman Introduction to Chemistry course at the nearby University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Being only 15, Jonah knew that it would be difficult (if not impossible) to enroll as an official student. So instead, he googled the professor's name, found the professor's e-mail address, and wrote an e-mail that essentially read, "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?"
The professor was delighted to hear from a student who was passionate about chemistry -- and not because it was required -- and told Jonah to come by on the first day of class.
Jonah and the professor worked out a deal, and over the course of the semester, Jonah attended every lecture, did every homework assignment, took every test, and passed the course. The professor couldn't offer him official course credit, but he did write him a letter of recommendation, enabling him to skip Introduction to Chemistry if he decided to later enroll at the University of Massachusetts.
My favorite part of the story is that this was the first time that Jonah had set foot in a classroom in three years. As a middle school dropout-turned-unschooler, he had religiously avoided structured learning -- until he had a deeply personal reason to embrace it.
As a college student yourself, I encourage you to find the deeply personal reasons that you joined your specific college and began pursuing your specific academic interests. And then, like Jonah, cross whatever boundaries are necessary in pursuit of deeper learning. Jonah wasn't even an enrolled student, and he convinced a professor to let him audit a course using only his enthusiasm for learning and a well-crafted email. Imagine what you can do as an official card-carrying student. Arrange a meeting with the college's vice president or provost or a department chair or just a professor you like -- you pay their bills, after all -- and interview them about their own lives and journeys. Ask them about the advantages and disadvantages of the academic lifestyle. Ask them what they think they would be doing if they weren't working here. Chat them up as if they were your parent's friends. The boundaries between you as student and they as staff are thinner than you imagine.
Begin to see yourself as a creator, not a mere consumer, of the college experience. In my own four years at UC Berkeley, I became a creator by working as a research assistant to a Ph.D. studying the aurora borealis; by electing to design my own college major in alternative education instead of continuing my path in physics when it no longer felt right; by creating and teaching an education course to other undergraduates; and by living in the Berkeley Student Cooperative houses (instead of the dorms) where I learned to cook for groups of 90 and participate in democratic decision-making. These experiences defined my college years far more than any required classes did, and if I hadn't pursued them, my investment of time and money would surely have been squandered.
You must continue to be an interest-driven, self-directed learner, no matter whether you go to college or not.
For those of you pursuing a path apart from college, you already know that your learning is your responsibility. But I encourage you to see something else as worthy of your attention: your story.
If you choose not to go four-year college (or to start college but not finish it) -- but you're still interested in the kind of jobs that college graduates typically want (and that's pretty much any job nowadays) -- then you'll need to do something to replace the college brand. This is a powerful challenge, but not an insurmountable one.
Branding is storytelling. That means, to replace the college brand, you need a good story. A true story. A story that paints a picture of you as a sharp, resourceful, personable, interesting, and motivated young person. A story that makes someone think, "I don't care if this person doesn't have a degree; they're awesome, and I want to work with them!"
To illustrate this point, let me share another friend's life with you.
Carsie Blanton grew up in rural Virginia where she played on the rolling grassy hills, hunted salamanders, read books, and fiddled around with musical instruments. Seeing a happy and engaged child, Carsie's parents decided to simply never send her to school. They supported Carsie's interests, made her part of adult discussions at the house, and gave her large blocks of undisturbed personal time.
At 13, Carsie discovered a deep love for guitar and songwriting. At 16, she moved to Oregon to join a group house with other artists, where she met a funk band who invited her to sing backup and tour the United States. As she traveled, she began building her own body of musical work.
In her twenties, Carsie independently recorded and released a few albums, leading to new gigs and a few big breaks (like opening for Paul Simon and touring with the Wood Brothers). She worked in coffee shops to pay the bills before her shows and CD sales became profitable.
Instead of going to college, she trained with top musicians, struck up friendships with interesting people she met on the road, and continued her lifelong habit of reading lots of hard books. She fell in love with swing dancing, started taking classes whenever possible, and eventually began teaching her own classes.
Then, at age 28, Carsie mobilized her fans on Kickstarter with the goal of raising $29,000 to produce a new jazz album, offering preorders of the album, personalized songwriting, and other interesting rewards in exchange for donations.
She hit her target and then kept going, all the way to $60,000, enough to produce her album, pay a few big-name jazz musicians to contribute their talent, hire a publicity team, and take her band on tour across the United States.
As someone who has run a few online fundraising campaigns himself, let me tell you: Kickstarters are hard. Convincing people to part with their money for an unfinished product requires creativity, planning, self-promotion, and a giant social network. But more than anything, it requires the ability to tell a great story.
I believe that Carsie developed the ability to tell a great story -- and consequently, to kick total butt with her Kickstarter campaign -- by making her own life a fantastic story itself.
Moving across the country as a 16-year-old to live in an artist's group house? That's the stuff of good stories. It's a tale of adventure, bold risk-taking, and the pursuit of dreams.
Building a body of musical work, independently publishing albums, and working in coffee shops to pay for it all? That's the stuff of good stories. It's a tale of persistence, hard work, and artistic courage.
Opening for Paul Simon, touring with the Wood Brothers, and raising $60,000 to produce a new album -- all without a college degree, the piece of paper that we assume separates the smart and successful from everyone else? Now that's a story worth paying attention to.
So for those of you taking a path that doesn't include college right now, if you're not sure what to do with your life, choose the path that will make the best story later. And for all of you, I'll say it one more time: You must continue to be an interest-driven, self-directed learner, no matter whether you go to college or not. If you wish to lead an unconventional life in a conventional world, I believe it's the only way forward.
Graduates, you've been given an incredible gift of an individualized education, deep family support, and the chance to start building an interesting story earlier than most. You've been given a foundation in self-directed learning. This foundation will serve you in work, studies, relationships, creative pursuits, and pretty much everything else that matters in life. Today, this foundation becomes the blank canvas on which to paint, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver, your one wild and precious life. Cherish what you have been given, use it courageously, and don't forget to pass it on.
Teenagers and college students can download a copy of Blake's book, Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree, for free.
Follow Blake Boles on Twitter: www.twitter.com/blakeboles