I never let my schooling interfere with my education – Mark Twain

This post has been sitting unfinished and unpublished for about two months. With the release of new studies showing that 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college I thought it was time to finish it up.

My purpose for this post is to (1) show that college is not always the right way to go and (2) give ideas for alternatives. Essentially that the question isn’t always “where”, but should also be “if”. You’ll see that I don’t believe college is useless for all people or for all reasons, but that there are a lot of better ways to get an education. Ironically, the University of Florida will be giving me my degree in Economics this May. What might make that slightly less ironic is that I will have spent just 2.5 years in classes to get that degree. Nearly every person I’ve told this thinks I’m crazy, they think I’m giving up some of the greatest time of my life. I’ve enjoyed my time here and have had fantastic experiences, but if I were to graduate high school again there’s no way I would go straight into college.

There are plenty of abnormal Steve Jobs/Bill Gates dropout stories that excite people about the idea, like it’s a characteristic of winners. But statistically those are extreme outliers. These stories are not helpful in deciding to go to (or drop out of) college. They are inspiring, sure, but what I think is even cooler is that you don’t need to be one of those outliers to gain your education without schooling. When I was working at Grooveshark there was this high schooler who would always code for the site unsolicited. He spent hours and hours without pay in the Grooveshark forums providing tech support. He contacted everyone he could at the office (even me, the lowly intern). He made it so that, by the time of his high school graduation, Grooveshark would have to be crazy not to hire him.

The college industry looks a lot like the real estate bubble before it burst. The supply of degrees is increasing while the value of degrees is falling. There is a popular notion that now you need a graduate degree to compete for the good jobs. That could be true, but my idea of a ‘good job’ and other peoples’ is different. MBAs seem especially ridiculous (again, for most people), it just isn’t necessary to throw yourself into debt to go to classes. Tim Ferriss (yes, I’m a fanboy) tells a story (and gives a detailed roadmap) about how he began his MBA at Stanford, quit, and took the money he saved to create his own education.

People seem to think that going to college is the only safe route to ‘success’. It’s funny that this belief can exist in a world so near to the 2008 crash. Unemployment is still extremely high and there are plenty of college graduates who aren’t getting jobs. Shit, there are plenty of adults with decades of experience who can’t find decent work. I think this shows us one thing, the only way to job security is usefulness. This applies to entrepreneurs as well. If you are the most useful person around you can’t get fired. If you’re business is the most useful around then you can’t go out of business. Make value for other people and you’re safe. The funny thing about a college degree is that it doesn’t create any value. It only shows an employer that you may be capable of some useful tasks.

Me and some common pro-college arguments:

You go to college to figure out what you want to do, what you like. Going into college I was mainly interested in three things: Libertarian ideas, trading, and making movies. Graduating, those are still the most interesting things to me and none have been enhanced by my college career. In fact, I’m an economics major and my ability to grasp what’s happening in the world is almost totally thanks to the internet and a willingness to read, not their bullshit textbooks.

You go to build your network, meet people. This may be the most valid argument, but it’s still pretty weak. There are plenty of ways to meet interesting people outside of college. Meetup.com, Facebook, Twitter, and any type of club all provide places to meet people. Cameron Herold of 1800-Got-Junk says he’s going to make sure his kids hang out at country clubs or other places movers’n’shakers are.

The education isn’t great, but you need your degree to get a decent job. This is true for people who want to work for employers who determine your value by your certifications. These are the same places that will be wow’d by your involvement in student government and other clubs. It works for most, but I think more and more people want to work at companies who look at what the individual can do, has done. My Economics degree is like my SAT score, people can look at it and say, “well he jumped through those hoops well”. More and more companies, especially ones worth working for, are looking at what you can do, what you’ve actually created. Also, an increasing amount of people are striving to work for themselves.

Here are examples of things I’ve done without a college permission slip (it will read a lot like a resume…):

Affluence.org – I wrote popular blog entries, emailed potential customers, tested code, and got my real life degree in internet marketing. I learned more practical knowledge in this one position than in the rest of my college schooling combined.

Grooveshark.com – I got a job at one of Time’s 50 Best Websites of 2010 because I knew the internet and, more specifically, knew the ins and outs of social media. A glowing letter from my wonderful boss at Affluence.org didn’t hurt either. As a ‘community developer’ I interacted with customers across several platforms. I created several videos announcing features and thanking customers and created their first music video contest with thousands of dollars in rewards.

Trading – I have been trading on and off for the last five years. Everything (useful) I know about the markets is thanks to two mentors and a ridiculous amount of hours on the internet and analyzing price charts. After seeing my performance over the last year, several people have put money under my management (without solicitation).

The point is that I have done profitable things without a college education. I’ve also seen a lot of other kids do the same. I’ve seen a girl create a cleaning business that hires as many as 600 employees at parts of the year. A guy create a cycling apparel company. An artist begin to make a living doing what he loves. A freelance web designer support himself. It’s not all entrepreneurs and artists either. I know a kid who opted out of school because he wants to work for his dad’s A/C company and eventually take it over.

When college is right: My sister is going to be graduating high school and is going straight into college. This is exactly the right move for her. She plays volleyball, good enough for the Savannah College of Art and Design to pay her $40,000+ a year for her to step on the court. However, I don’t think going to college makes sense just because it’s paid for (although it begins to make more sense). If you’re going to be mulling around uselessly for four years then I still don’t think it makes sense. But Lolo is going to a school that skips the bullshit and goes straight into what she wants to learn. As a fashion student there she will learn everything she needs to know about the fashion world, along with the people in it. That is school done right.

College Alternatives:

  • Take a year off. Go explore the world, find people and things that interest you. If are worried about the “I don’t know what I want to do with my life” thing, this is a really cool option. If you take the time to consciously explore things that you’re interested in (and meet people that are already doing them) you’ll have a much better idea where you want to head. Then after a year, decide whether a formal college education is your best option.
  • Get a mentor. Find a small business in the area you’re interested in. If you want to work on cars, become an apprentice. If you want to be a florist, work for a florist. If you want to trade, find a trader (they are the most kind people on the internet). If you want to make movies, pick up a Flip and make movies. Basically go DO that thing instead of wasting four years of not doing it, or half-doing it at best.
  • Technical School might be required before you get a mentor in certain areas.
  • Freelance. There are plenty of opportunities for kids who have already honed their skills in web and graphic design to do work locally.
If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life. A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls. He walks abreast with his days, and feels no shame in not “studying a profession,” for he does not postpone his life, but lives already. He has not one chance, but a hundred chances.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Some people of notice who see the difference between schooling and education:

Cameron Herold was the CEO of 1800-Got-Junk? and now is a business speaker and consultant. He has a nice long talk about how he is raising his kids to be entrepreneurs. He’s also given several TedXtalks.

Seth Godin says in Linchpin that schools should teach us two things: How to solve interesting problems and how to lead. This guy is the marketing guru, he literally sets the standard that almost all marketers try to follow.

Ben Casnocha, an entrepreneur and current college student, is less known but does some very good thinking about college.

Peter Thiel has offered grants of up to $100,000 to 20 entrepreneurs under the age of 20.

Even Yahoo! reported on a study that shows students learn next to nothing in college.

Business Insider’s Top 100 Entrepreneurs Who Made Millions Without A College Degree

“Overall, the picture doesn’t brighten much over four years. After four years, 36 percent of students did not demonstrate significant improvement, compared to 45 percent after two.

 

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1.20.11 – There have been some great comments under the Facebook link. I wanted to put two here. The first is from one of the best businessmen I know, Scott Mitchel. The second is from a UF student studying for zoology (which requires a college degree).

Scott:

Great article Kyle, and a timely topic I discuss often. One interesting point not considered in your analysis is the credibility benefit of having a recognized and respected degree. Imagine if a Doctor had to prove his medical knowledge to each patient or an entrepreneur had to prove their basic business knowledge to each potential investor? Having a respected and recognized degree not only increases your initial value of labor in a market but also establishes a baseline of knowledge that is otherwise time consuming and difficult to prove time and time again….. in my humble opinion.

When I asked about his consideration of a person’s college education:

I always consider a person’s education background when hiring people, investing in companies, or even simply forming partnerships. It is only one of many factors so it is not to say that I won’t invest in a business unless the CEO has an MBA. However, my discussion with that CEO is much more focused on his vision and business ambitions when he has an MBA rather than determined if he has general business knowledge when he does not. Just like any credential, from an M.D., J.D., Certified Mechanic, or Licensed Massage Therapist; having the credential does not necessarily indicate that you are good at what your accredited for, it simply represents that you have a base set of knowledge and some determination to finnish what you started. The amount of time you save proving that you possess that base set of knowledge to everyone you meet in business for your entire career is much greater than the amount of time you’ll spend just getting the degree. Anyone can be successful with or without the accreditation in business. It’s a matter of how much time you’re willing to spend proving your abilities rather than pushing, expanding, testing, and improving them. This is just one man’s opinion….

[An example] Sure Kyle. I have a successful friend that I regularly do business with that did not graduate from undergrad. He has started several successful startups in the Internet space, yet whenever he goes to raise money, the first 20 minutes of thevaluable hour he gets to sell his concept to hedge funds and investment banks is spent answering general accounting and business questions. That wasted twenty minutes, heck even wasting two minutes, in front of these guys (which is often very difficult to get in front of in the first place) can mean the difference between financing your $20 million start up or just living life thinking “what if”. Having an MBA at least says to them “Look, I know the basics and you know the classes and the coursework I went through to get this credential. So, let’s talk about the business model and not about whether or not I could build it and run it.” I fail to see the difference between business degrees and medical or law degrees except an arbitrary state licensing requirement. Just because a guy went to med school does not mean I want him operating on me. Just because a guy went to law school does not mean I want him defending me. Just because a guy has an MBA does not mean I want to invest loads of money in him. But for all of these, they sure do help with me qualifying their knowledge and abilities.

 

Rachel:

Definitely, education inflation is an issue. But in highly competitive fields, or in fields where there is not much turn-over, any edge you have can help to hedge your bets. A lot of companies value experience over GPA’s, but experience (internships) are not easy to fall into for certain fields without attending college (and thus having a college GPA).
I want to be a zookeeper, for example. Anywhere I can gain experience, beyond volunteering for the humane society, requires me attending college. And I don’t think they’re going to hire people to take care of animals who don’t have experience taking care of animals. Zookeeping jobs are also fairly static in their availability, and there aren’t usually many openings as far as I can tell.
In my case, I also don’t see getting a masters in zoology as going to help my case any, as masters science degrees involve researchresearchresearch when what I need is experienceexperienceexperience.
The system is kind of stupid, and with that I agree. And there is definitely education inflation, which is a problem.
When I left highschool, I wanted to write books. I still do, but I am not going to get a degree in journalism or English because those aren’t “pre-requisites” for being published and wouldn’t help anything.
After taking a lot of my science courses, I have found there are a few things I could literally do all day regardless of being paid, and they relate to genetics and phylogenies. If I was to ever decide I wanted to do research, I would go back for an MS or a PhD in genetics. Those are sort-of pre-requisites for doing research, either at a university or at huge companies that produce genetically modified foods.
I also learned that I REALLY like teaching, and I REALLY like teaching middle schoolers through an awesome minor that gives practical experience with that. Qualified math and science teachers are ALWAYS in short supply, ESPECIALLY for middle school grades. If I cannot find a job zookeeping, I could probably find one teaching.
While your horizons may not have expanded, keep in mind that sometimes you find these things out accidentally.
Just the perspective from someone outside the business college.

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