5:04pm, September 25, 2013, Topics: Tuition, student loan, higher education, return, independent college
The cost of college tuition has risen faster than nearly any other good or service in America for more than three decades. A bachelor’s degree at New York University, the most expensive university in the country, will now set you back $244,000.
The average student loan borrower pays much less but still walks away almost $27,000 in debt for an undergraduate degree. Student loan debt has outpaced credit card debt in this country, and the percentage of people who default on their loans after just three years just rose to 13%.
These eye-popping prices have inspired a raging debate over whether college is really worth the money anymore. Some prominent voices in the entrepreneurship world, such as PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, say no. Some of his Thiel Fellows drop out of Ivy League colleges to pursue their dreams.
Economists and social scientists scoff, arguing the average return on an education remains robust; in today's economy, you need at least a technical degree or certificate to qualify for anything better than a fast food or warehouse job.
The only hole in this argument is that it usually takes much more than what a formal education provides today to be successful, either in your career or more broadly, in life. Mid-level skilled clerical and managerial jobs, the kind that our industrial-era education system was optimized to prepare workers for, have disappeared overseas or are increasingly handled by software. You need a specialized set of higher-order thinking skills, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, creativity, design thinking, a sense of humor, and a killer social-media profile to compete in the job market today. The problem is, you can't rely on developing most, or even many, of these qualities from a traditional college syllabus.
Kio Stark, who has a background in interactive advertising and also teaches at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, published an ebook last year titled Don't Go Back to School. She interviewed more than a hundred successful independent learners who had either dropped out of college or had skipped grad school to instead do what they loved to do--whether it was computer programming, writing, business, acting, fine art, journalism, or even philosophy. "A lot of the people I spoke to felt that they had no autonomy over what they were learning in college. They were taking tests rather than getting to do more independent thinking," she says.
For the past several years, there's been a growing movement of people taking a direct, entrepreneurial approach to accomplishing the jobs that a college degree ought to be doing, and often for a much more affordable price. There are quite a few resources and communities out there to support this kind of entrepreneurial independent learning. Some are programs with connections to existing universities. Some are venture capital-funded startups. Some are nonprofits. But the landscape is growing so fast that the choice quickly becomes chaotic: Should you throw your lot in with Coursera or one of its MOOC competitors? Curate your own YouTube University? Make the rounds of Meetups, Bar Camps, and unconferences? Pay thousands to an online video channel or an in-person startup like Singularity U? Or can you get by with a couple dollars in fees at the local library?
What is your best, most direct, and most customized route to gaining the skills, confidence and connections needed in today's business world without the time or cost of traditional education?
To answer the question, and in keeping with one of our favorite learning techniques,Fast Company posed a gamelike challenge: Create an independent college degree equivalent for $10,000 or less.
We've narrowed the career choices to a few fast-growing, dynamic areas that will be familiar to our readers:
- Entrepreneurship: "The $10,000 Business Degree"
- Programming: "The $10,000 Technology Degree"
- Design: "The $10,000 Design Degree"
- World Changing: "The $10,000 Social Innovation Degree"
Many of the programs we're profiling are new on the scene, but they already have plenty of success stories from satisfied learners. Will you be next?
Here are some key strategies used by the independent learners who took part in Kio Stark's NYU study.
- Learn by doing. It makes a lot of sense to organize your learning around a real-world project. This could be starting a business. Or building a robot. Or for Benjamen Walker, whose passion is philosophy, it was starting a philosophy podcast so he'd have a reason to read major works and interview the big thinkers on the subject.
- Find your tribe. "One of the main themes is that learning is a very social act," says Stark. "One of the main benefits of traditional school that people cited is that they jump into ready-made learning communities. If you go it alone, you have to make that for yourself." Molly Danielsson's passion was composting toilets. So she moved to Portland, where a lot of other people shared the interest and started a salon called Talking Sh*t to convene a community that was interested in the legal and scientific questions.
- Focus on the process. Pursuing independent learning isn't easy--not if you're doing it right. There are detours, opportunity costs, and uncomprehending family members to contend with. The bonus, says Stark, is that independent learners emerge with a "real feeling of mastery," a sense of earned confidence that is, not incidentally, invaluable when talking to employers. "Everything about our workplaces is changing," she notes. "In some ways, being an independent learner is the best qualification you can have. It shows your ability to be flexible and learn on the job. Those are increasingly important qualifications for any job."