08/27/2013 01:50 pm ET Updated Oct 22, 2013

Is a DIY Education Right for You?

We need to correct the mistaken belief that education should be a DIY endeavor.

Recently, I wrote a post titled "The Problems (And Solutions) Of Higher Education," which presented three key problems facing higher education and offered solutions for what we can do to fix them. In this post, I'll share my view on DIY education.

A recent post by Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post argues that college grads make more money than non-college grads.

In fact, they [college graduates] make over $500,000 more over the course of their lifetimes, on average. That works out, as we've noted before, to among the best returns-on-investment around. It works out to an annual return of around 15 percent a year. The stock market, by contrast, averages 6.8 percent annual returns, and housing averages 0.4 percent a year.

And, an article in The Atlantic by Jordan Weissmann explains that where you go to college has a significant effect on your earning potential. So where you go to college is almost as important as whether you should go to college at all.

Men who went to an institution that was one standard deviation better on its quality measures saw their salaries jump 8.1 percent. For women, the boost was 17.4 percent. The report's author calculated that for males, the increase could translate to an extra $107,000 over the course of a lifetime. For females, it might mean an extra $173,000. To put that in context, people who go to college make somewhere between $412,000 and $570,000 more on average than those who don't, according to various estimates.

The increase in lifetime earnings for college grads is the key problem with the DIY education movement. Graduating from college is correlated with higher lifetime earnings. Graduating from an elite college is correlated with even higher lifetime earnings.

So what does DIY education correlate with? It depends.

In his article titled How to Get By Without a College Degree (And When You Need One), Eric Ravenscraft suggests that a DIY education will turn out quite rosy because you could gain necessary skills without the burden of college debt.

But using examples like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg as college dropouts who succeeded is misleading. Very few people will ever reach the type of financial or career success that Gates and Zuckerberg have, even with a degree from an elite university. What's more likely is something similar to Mr. Ravenscraft's own experience: "Over the last eight years I've pushed shopping carts, shot wedding videos, worked in private investigations, sold software and video games, all in addition to writing."

A DIY education can provide the same level of knowledge as a formal education for a fraction of the price, if not entirely free. But you're giving up a lot in the process:
  • The network of peers
  • The student-teacher dynamic
  • Mentorship from teachers, friends, and advisors
  • The corporate-acceptability of a degree

All of those iTunes U classes you took might provide a knowledge-base but they can't provide a reference for your job application. You may have learned how to code Python, but you haven't had a chance to develop a network of friends who'll refer you to a job. And even if a DIY education is free -- or close to free -- there's no evidence that you'll see a boost in lifetime earnings commensurate with a college education.

There's a bright spot in the DIY education movement -- the Thiel Fellowship. Fellows receive a $100,000 grant that pairs skill development with networking and mentorship instead of going to college. It's certainly a step in the right direction, but it's not a scalable approach to educating the masses.

That's why a DIY education isn't a sustainable solution to the exorbitant cost of a college education.

It's also one of the reasons why I co-founded yourClass, which is a marketplace for live online education. It's an education platform where you can learn anything with a DIY feel to it - but with the benefits that come from a traditional education: live interaction with a teacher and a network of classmates.

Instead of focusing solely on skill development, like so many edtech startups have done, we need to look at dramatically lowering the cost of providing a holistic educational experience. We must find a cost-effective way of developing student competency while also providing a network of peers to provide that first job referral and the teacher to provide a reference for that first job.