Education: Smart kids figure out clever alternatives to college

Published by: Dan Calabrese on Tuesday April 23rd, 2013

Dan Calabrese

By DAN CALABRESE - Yes, there are other ways.

I've been saying this for some years now, and it usually earns me shocked reactions from people who can't believe I would actually question the value of that sheepskin. Why, all the studies show that college graduates earn $1 million more on average over the course of their lives! How can you question that?

Well, I question it for a lot of reasons, not least of which is the $1 trillion student loan debt bomb we're now facing in this country. But simply on an individual level, it's a question that you have to ask if you're intellectually honest: College now routinely costs $100,000 or more over the course of four years, and that's four years by which you've delayed the start of your earning in order to get your degree. If you figure you could probably earn at least $15,000 a year just doing some sort of work and living at home, then you've spent $100,000 as opposed to earning $60,000 during that time. You're $160,000 in the hole by the time you're 22.

Is it worth it?

Well, I suppose you have no choice if college is the only way you can set yourself up for a successful career. But as a lot of industrious young people are discovering these days, it isn't. USA Today reports:

Alternatives to college:

• Learn from the pros. Instead of teachers and classes, The Mycelium School, founded by Matthew Abrams and launching its first class of 12-14 in September, brings in more than 150 visiting instructors, from designers at Google's Innovation Labs to best-selling authors to serial entrepreneurs, who impart real-world knowledge to participants. Participants get a collective $45,000 to build a business based around social change, a great way to learn both business savvy and the way communities work, Abrams says. Participants leave with entrepreneurial experience and a supportive network of more than 150 gurus in just about ever,y field from modern dance to venture capital.

• Work for free. Enstitute will set you up with a two-year mentorship with an entrepreneur in a tech start-up, a digital advertising firm or a non-profit. In addition to the 40-hour-a-week mentorships, program participants get weekly meet-and-greet sessions with business hotshots such as clothing designer Marc Ecko or Bitly chief scientist Hilary Mason. The hope is that after a two-year mentorship, participants will have all the skills, experience and connections they need to make it in the real world. "A lot of academia deals with the abstract and intellectual pontification," says co-founder Kane Sarhan. "My biggest problem with academia is there's no practicality to it whatsoever."

• Get connected. Blake Boles started the Zero Tuition College social network because he saw kids who weren't in college struggling to find a community in like-minded people. Members interact based on skills they want to learn and are able to teach. "The clear fact of the matter is that colleges have the monopoly on young adult social life," Boles says.

• Teach yourself. UnCollege, lead by Thiel Fellowship recipient Dale Stephens, 21, leads conferences rallying together kids who want to find success without having to go to college. UnCollege's first Gap Year program begins this September and covers everything from sending participants abroad for three months to helping them build their own companies. All the learning though, you've got to do yourself. Stephens says not going to college actually makes you a better learner, more mature, self-reliant, and motivated. Why's that? "This is because in college these things are taken care of and you're simply told what to do," says Stephens, who has never been to college.

These are all interesting initiatives, but the truth is you don't even need to get involved with stuff like this. An industrious young people who works hard enough at it can find a company that will agree to unpaid internship, which you can do maybe half a day before you go and work an eight-hour shift at Taco Bell or the car wash. This is real work you can put on a resume and use to learn the ropes of a profression. You can start your own business. You can enroll in a class that teaches you a particular skill without having to go through (and pay for) a four year program to earn a degree.

I'm 46 years old, and yes, I have a college degree. But no one has asked me for years if they could see it, or if I even had one. I get opportunities today based on the experience I have. The higher education industry wants you to believe there is no way to get that experience without first coming to them, and they want you to pay pretty handsomely for the privilege so they can fund their faculty salaries, administrative expenses and operational overhead.

How is that working out for college graduates? Not well, as a disproportionately high unemployment/underemployment rate and mountains of student loan debt illustrate. When a proposition can no longer justify itself on the basis of value delivered vs. the required investment, people start finding other ways to skin the cat, no matter how loudly the established player tries to insist it is the only way.

The smartest young people are starting to figure it out. There must be some other way.

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