hacking your education

Do You Really Have to Go to College?

By Dale J. Stephens, NY Times, March 7, 2013
As high school seniors await thick envelopes and weigh their options, one young man is making the case for another college choice: None of the above.

The last time Dale J. Stephens appeared on this blog, he was described as “something of a heretic in the world of higher education.” He argued against the five reasons people give for going to college.

Mr. Stephens, a vocal proponent of self-directed learning, is the author of “Hacking Your Education” and the founder of UnCollege.

In his commentary below, Mr. Stephens challenges the notion that college is the only way to become successful.–Tanya Abrams

This is the time of year when high school seniors across the country are checking the mail obsessively, hoping the letter carrier has delivered that all-important, life-altering piece of paper: the acceptance letter to their dream school.

You should know, however, that not everyone is paying attention to the mailbox. Some teenagers are making plans to engage in self-directed learning.

All your life, parents, teachers, and guidance counselors have drilled the idea into your head that you must go to college. It has been made clear that if you don’t get good grades and attend a four-year college, the rest of your life will be a dismal failure.

I’m arguing that all of this is wrong. The social cues that defined what you thought about education ought to be questioned.

There is a community of people who are making a different choice. Instead of going into debt, they are taking the future into their own hands. They are using the real world to find mentors and learn practical skills. They are traveling, volunteering, interning and apprenticing.

While many might see this path as extremely risky, I argue that going to school and graduating with an average of $26,000-plus in debt is at least as risky in today’s uncertain job market.

Of course, debt is not the only factor to consider when making decisions about higher education. Learning outcomes are also important, but there are disturbing numbers there as well. According to “Academically Adrift”–a book based on a study about undergraduate education in the United States–as many as 45 percent of students show “no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning or written communication during their first two years in college.”

Furthermore, some recent college graduates are not faring too well in the job market. According to the economist Andrew Sum of Northeastern University, more than 44 percent of college graduates under 25 who were area studies majors were unemployed in 2009 or working in a job that did not require their degree.

Today, self-directed learning is easier than ever. Not long ago, if you told someone that the Internet was coming, there was no chance they would have believed you. Now, you can learn, on your own, the skills you need to succeed. Not only are the resources free, but they’re accessible from nearly anywhere in the world.

If you’d like to learn how to code, you don’t need a $150,000 piece of paper to tell you that you can. Instead, you can do it yourself. The best part? People will pay you for it.

The connection economy we live in today has had drastic effects on the incentives and economics of education–yet it seems that colleges haven’t really taken notice.

Now, entire course loads can be watched online. The breadth of information on the Web is so vast that if you think you don’t have the resources to learn something, you’d be lying to yourself.

While the educational experience at college is flawed–with 90- to 120-minute lectures simply inducing passive, lackadaisical learning–Silicon Valley has cost-effective solutions to it, even if you opt for the system.

Massive open online courses, commonly referred to as MOOCs, are now replacing lecture halls. Students don’t have to sit in a classroom anymore; they can learn on their own terms, at their own pace. They choose what they want to learn.

It’s fluid, it’s flexible, and it’s an education designed for the student.

Self-directed learners, or hackademics as I’d like to call them, aren’t just learning for a fraction of the cost. In many cases, they’re doing it for absolutely free.

With educational resources like Udacity, edUx, Coursera, M.I.T. Open Courseware, and Khan Academy, you can go from grasping the fundamentals to synthesizing entire class loads, without the burden of crushing, unforgivable debt (Oh yes, it’s unforgivable). As the New York Times reporter Tamar Lewin wrote, “No one knows just how these massive courses will evolve, but their appeal to a broad audience is unquestioned: retirees in Indiana see them as a route to lifelong learning, students in India as their only lifeline to college-level work.”

Right now, we need to see in terms of return of investment. Our generation came in believing that with a college degree, came the security of a job and the tangible skills to do it. We also came in believing that the price was bearable.

Not anymore. Now, we see students in paralyzing debt, coming out of college settling for a job they didn’t want. The simple fact is, with a connection economy as powerful as ours, the real world is starting to give a greater return on investment than the manufactured one we set up in college.

Devbootcamp, a nine-week Ruby on Rails course, teaches novices how to program for the cost of $12,200. Yet, the return on investment is incredibly high: Three months after completing the course, 90 percent of graduates found jobs, many of them with starting salaries as high as $80,000.

The reason this happens is because the curriculum doesn’t focus on being a “well-rounded student,” which is intellectual newspeak for “more classes.” Instead it focuses on, as Michael Staton likes to call it, “extreme employability,” which aligns the curriculum with job incentives.

In Pareto-speak, it’s finding the 20 percent of the material that reaps 80 percent of the rewards. If you have the flexibility to choose your own education, you also have the flexibility to choose your own life. This is the blessing of the hackademic.

We need to see college as a choice, not a requisite. Social norms dictate that we all need to go to college–but if you look through history, how many times have social norms steered us in the wrong direction?

What’s at stake is the livelihood of the people who are here to prosper. It’s the difference between graduates racking up debt they can’t pay off, and hackademics living with the freedom they were told was coming. Life started out simple–do as you’re told, and you’ll be O.K. Yet, ironically, this is exactly the kind of thinking that’ll get you into trouble.

The rules are being rewritten, and colleges aren’t taking action. In fact, it seems that they aren’t even taking notice. Now, life is on you. Now, I’d argue, is the best time to take charge of your education. And by doing so, you might just be taking charge of your life.