It's popular to criticize college today. No matter which way you look, somebody is writing about a student loan horror story, declining academic standards, disruptive technological change, or the narrow work options available to graduates.
Criticizing is easy, of course. Offering solutions is hard.
The reality is that college fills many valuable roles today. It offers young adults the chance to build hard skills (e.g. writing) and soft skills (e.g. teamwork), be part of an exciting community, live independently, get exposed to new ideas, and signal employers with an (increasingly devalued, but still valuable) college degree. College is pretty much the only place that bundles all these good things into one convenient package deal. That's why, despite the voluminous criticism, college as we know it won't disappear anytime soon.
But in an era of skyrocketing tuition fees combined with widespread economic austerity, millions of students will find themselves unable or unwilling to finance the college package deal. Yet they'll still want, and need, to gain a higher education.
Luckily, higher education doesn't have to be delivered by a college institution. You can gain skills, community, independence, exposure, and work opportunities by piecing together a self-directed, a la carte curriculum of real-world projects. It's a like a design-your-own-college-major program — but without college or its inflated costs.
Self-directed learning is one solution to the college debate, and certainly not the only one. But unlike other solutions, you can begin self-directed learning immediately, without spending a ton of money or waiting for policy makers or university administrators to change their ways. And perhaps most importantly, self-directed learning builds serious personal entrepreneurship: an incredibly valuable "soft skill" in an era of rapid economic change.
Here are 12 ways to begin pursuing your own self-directed higher education, right now, without college:
- Kickstart something. Organize a Kickstarter or IndieGoGo campaign to raise money for one of your creative projects, upcoming trips, or educational ventures. You'll learn how to develop a product line, manage a budget, and market yourself with social media. Here how to get started.
- Write for an audience. 19-year-old Jason Lovett publishes short Kindle guidebooks; 20-year-old Weezie Yancey-Siegel interviews people she admires; 24-year-old Cameron Lovejoy shares poetry from his life on the road. No matter how you do it, writing for an audience sharpens your mind and helps you figure out what other people find valuable. (For fastest learning, work with a professional editor and solicit as much reader feedback as you can bear.)
- Take free or cheap introductory courses in multiple subjects. Introduce yourself to fascinating new ideas, people, and potential career paths using Coursera, The Floating University, Skillshare, Khan Academy, TED talks, DO lectures, Academic Earth, Udemy, or local community college classes.
- Compose a goal list and share it publicly. Think of this as your self-directed syllabus. Sharing it publicly will help keep you on track, as you'll feel accountable to the friends and family who read it and get excited about your projects. (Here's my list.)
- Recruit a mentorship team. Assemble a small team of trustworthy and knowledgeable people from whom you can seek guidance for your self-directed journey. If possible, include someone who currently works in your field of professional interest. Search Zero Tuition College to find mentors who understand the self-directed path.
- Develop a hands-on skill. Think: cooking, electrical work, sports instruction, or automotive repair. Such skills aren't easily offshored or automated and therefore offer an excellent part-time or fall-back work option (as well as much-needed relief from a computer screen). Don't dismiss such work as intellectually devoid; it's not.
- Couchsurf and volunteer your way across a country. International travel can be an incredible learning experience if you take the time to immerse yourself in the local culture. Do this—and save lots of money in the process—with the websites Couchsurfing, HelpX, WWOOF, and WorkAway.
- Start a tiny business. It doesn't cost a lot of money to start many types of businesses — perhaps $100 — and you don't have to think of it as a long-term venture. Whether you succeed or fail, you'll learn powerful lessons that most colleges can't teach.
- Teach. Record a series of instructional videos (they might land you a New York Times piece), offer a free online course, lead a hands-on class, tutor someone, or create a workshop for a conference.
- Enhance your peer community. Face-to-face community is a vital part of higher education. Without being formally enrolled, you can find community through online interest groups, local events, and workplaces. If you're seeking a huge concentration of 18- to 25-year-olds, simply move to a college town and join an off-campus student house.
- Practice, deliberately. "Deliberate practice" (DP) is the psychological process through which people attain deep expertise. Unlike regular practice, DP involves custom-tailored instruction accompanied by immediate, high-quality feedback. You can use DP to become a better violinist, swimmer, artist, or businessperson. But more importantly, you can learn the methodology behind the process and apply it to everyday learning situations. Start here.
- Build an online portfolio. Demonstrate your capacities to potential employers by creating a website that tells your story, displays your biggest accomplishments, and highlights the value you've created for other people. When someone asks you what you've been doing with your time instead of college, point them here. And keep your eyes on Degreed, RadMatter, and Knowit: new ventures that may help you quantify your self-directed learning and enhance your portfolio.
These are just a few ways to start giving yourself a well-rounded higher education without college. Do you have other suggestions? Please share them in the comments below.