Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degreeby Blake Boles
Do you need college in order to be taken seriously and earn a real living? Conventional wisdom says yes. But true success relies upon self-knowledge and entrepreneurship: two qualities that you can obtain effectively and inexpensively without traditional college./strong>/em>
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Do you need college in order to be taken seriously and earn a real living? Conventional wisdom says yes. But true success relies upon self-knowledge and entrepreneurship: two qualities that you can obtain effectively and inexpensively without traditional college.
Better Than College provides the step-by-step guidance and inspiration necessary to design your own higher education. This book teaches you how to find community, stay on track, and get hired or start your own venture, all without a four-year degree. Curious college students will learn to think clearly about their motivations, plan a gap year, or navigate life after school. And Better Than College will show parents how self-directed learning can lead to a lifetime of achievement-no expensive institution required.
- Tells Peak Press
- Publication date:
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- New Edition
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- 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.37(d)
Read an Excerpt
BETTER THAN COLLEGEHOW TO BUILD A SUCCESSFUL LIFE WITHOUT A FOUR-YEAR DEGREE
By Blake Boles
Tells Peak PressCopyright © 2012 Blake Boles
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGOOD REASONS TO SKIP COLLEGE
What Could You Do with $20,000?
Imagine that you've been accepted to the college of your dreams, and the school has given you a full-ride scholarship. In celebration, you and your family spend your college savings on home improvements, philanthropic donations, and an extravagant vacation.
But then tragedy strikes. The college calls and says that it's closing. Yet they make you an offer: instead of leaving you in the cold, they'll give you $20,000 per year so you can give yourself a higher education. The catch is that you can't spend it on another college. You've got to do it yourself.
So the question is: what would you do during the nine-month academic year if you were given $20,000 but couldn't go to college?
* * *
I've asked hundreds of teens, young adults, and parents across the country to consider this thought experiment. Their replies are consistent:
I would travel the world.
I would use it to pay for living expenses so I could intern or volunteer and figure out what I really want to do.
I would start one or two businesses and not worry about whether they fail.
I would put it away for the future.
I thought hard about my own answer. If I had $20,000 to spend on my education for a nine-month academic year, I would spend:
$4500 for six months of living expenses (room, board, and transportation; $750 per month) in a thriving city where I could live with friends or interesting strangers.
$3000 for 100 hours of private life coaching or instruction in writing, entrepreneurship, sports, music, art, or a foreign language.
$2500 for a three-month budget backpacking trip through multiple countries (both developed and developing).
$1500 for new software, a new laptop, or equipment needed for my learning projects.
$1000 as startup funds for one or two business ventures.
$1000 for two or three round-trip plane tickets, five long train trips, or one epic road trip to attend conferences, competitions, and big events and to visit family, friends, and mentors across the country.
$600 for a literary feast: a one-year university library membership and 40 new books.
$500 for smartphone service (invaluable for self-directed learning on the fly).
$200 for high-speed internet, which opens the door to Google, TED Talks, YouTube, university webcasts, blogs, podcasts, and everything else on the Internet.
$100 for one year of website hosting for a blog and portfolio.
$100 for a pair of athletic shoes for running and pickup sports games.
$5000 to invest in a mutual fund.
If I followed this budget for four years, adding $5000 to my mutual fund each year (at 4% yield), I could actually end up with a $22,000 nest egg—almost the amount of debt with which the average college student graduates. And that's assuming my business ventures don't work out.
Then there are the activities I could do that would cost nothing:
Interning, volunteering, or working for an organization that I admire.
Seeking the mentorship of friends, family, and other trusted people.
Interviewing, shadowing, or apprenticing with experts in my fields of interest.
Reflecting, journaling, and meditating.
By focusing on these low-cost and high-value activities, I may not need to spend even $20,000 per year on my higher education. With creativity and resourcefulness, I could spend $10,000 or less per year—a sum readily accessible with a combination of hard work, fundraising, and parental support.
The Price of Self-Knowledge
Here's another thought experiment:
Imagine you just got accepted to college. It doesn't matter whether it's Stanford or State U—either way, you've passed one of life's great hurdles, and you're on your way to your future.
Now imagine it's four years later, and you've just graduated. Let's assume that you gained a ton of knowledge, connected with intelligent people, and earned a degree, all of which you use to land a well-paid job.
Now it's the first day of work. You're the new kid from MIT/Stanford/Reed/State U/etc. You're on top of the world—and you've got your college education to thank for it.
But then, one day, the honeymoon ends. All of a sudden, no one cares about your degree or connections. Instead, you're being judged on a new set of criteria: Do you take pride in your work? Do you work well with others? Can you show up on time and motivate yourself? Can you teach yourself new skills? Are you actually a good fit for this position, or did you take it based on misguided assumptions?
Just like everyone else in the world, your long-term success hinges upon a set of knowledge and competencies that have little to do with your grade point average, personal connections, or a framed piece of paper. More crucially, your success depends on your self-knowledge.
Self-knowledge is the deep understanding of one's personality, values, strengths, flaws, and work habits that arises from:
immersing yourself in new lands, workplaces, and cultures;
exploring new philosophies, spiritual beliefs, and political views;
striving to understand the questions that fascinate you;
pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone (and perhaps recruiting someone else to push you too);
meeting, conversing with, and attempting to understand hundreds of new people; and
reflecting on your experiences.
Self-knowledge is the skeleton key that unlocks the answers to a number of questions: What are my deepest needs, and how do I fulfill them? In what environment do I work best? Should I work for myself or someone else? How can I improve myself? How can I personally change the world for the better?
People who lack self-knowledge may have a hard time finding satisfying work, gaining genuine respect, or forming deep relationships. People with self-knowledge, on the other hand, can find work, respect, and relationships even in difficult circumstances.
Of course, you can gain self-knowledge in college as well. That's one of the big reasons—stated or unstated—that many people want to attend college, and professors, guidance counselors, and other college staff can help shape students' lives in many positive ways. But it's also possible for students to go through college without ever seriously challenging their beliefs, pushing their comfort zones, or seeing how other people live. When you combine this possibility with an incredibly high price tag, college becomes a big gamble.
If you're awarded some massive scholarship, then perhaps you can afford this gamble. If you or your parents can foot the tuition and living bills without sacrificing sanity and security, then maybe it's okay to experiment with college.
But for everyone else—for those students and families who must make large sacrifices or take out very large loans to pay for college—the cost of this gamble is high. You don't need to pay upward of $20,000 per year to find out who you are and what you do best.
When you gamble on college, you also gamble with a second resource, one that is more precious than money: your time. Even if you can afford college, it may not be right for you. If you go to college and take little away from the experience, you will lose some of the most precious and opportunity-laden years of your life, wasting time that you could have spent traveling, starting businesses, getting exposed to new fields, pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, and meeting new people. College is not the only place these things can happen, so if you're going there to answer the all-important question—Who am I?—your time may be better spent elsewhere.
Gap Years and Testing Grounds
Skipping college isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. You can treat Zero Tuition College as a gap year and simply take a one- or two-year break between high school and college.
The logic of gap years is simple. Who do you think will make a better doctor?
Cameron, an 18-year-old who goes straight into a premed major from high school
Jessica, an 18-year-old who postpones college for two years to travel across rural China (seeing real, preventable suffering), work as a ski patroller (treating actual injuries), and read books about the medical industry
But ZTC doesn't only give you experience. You can also think of it as a testing ground. For example, what if Jessica realizes that medicine is not her raison d'être and ends up in Shanghai doing graphic design? Or writing dispatches about the mining industry? Or working at a medical device startup?
Then her gap years have paid off. By taking time to test her assumptions, she has saved herself (and her family) a tremendous amount of money, time, and trouble.
Some people think that the opportunity to become a doctor justifies a heavy gamble. "You'll have time later to explore yourself," they say. To them, delaying college is irresponsible; instead, you should move forward as fast as possible.
But if your goal is long-term happiness and security, then self-knowledge is the best investment you can make. There's virtually no penalty for starting college a few years later than normal. Yet if you start college "when you're supposed to" but have no idea why you're there, this blunder comes with a huge penalty—wasted time and potentially massive debt.
Make no mistake: society needs college-trained doctors, PhDs, architects, engineers, and (not quite so many) lawyers. And some 18-year-olds have the experience necessary to jump directly into these fields. They've seen the inside of a profession, and they feel a deep calling. But most don't.
Other students jump into a licensed profession and get lucky: they go to college for four, six, or eight years, enter the workplace, and find satisfaction. They pay back their loans while enjoying their work.
But what about the rest? Maybe their gamble locks them into a profession that doesn't align with their talents or deepest interests and values. Maybe they discover a workplace that's riddled by bureaucracy, is not conducive to happiness, or is quickly becoming outsourced. But they lack the freedom to explore the world, research new job markets, start businesses, take unpaid internships, or undertake long-term retraining because they're saddled with student debt. So they choose instead to labor in unhappiness. The net result of all this gambling, of course, is a world filled with dissatisfied workers.
The solution? Don't borrow tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars to certify yourself in a profession about which you know nothing. Build your self-knowledge. Explore the world, earn some money, read your heart out, try many different types of work, and carefully research your college options. Call it a "gap year," "Zero Tuition College," "market research," "time off," or whatever else works for you. There's no need to rush.
Financial Security Without College, Part One
Without traditional college credentials, how can you secure a place in the modern economy? Let's begin to answer this question by discussing what the modern economy looks like—and where it's going.
You've probably heard that we are living in a "high-tech era" that requires college-level skills. That's the rationale for everyone (including you) to get a college degree—and maybe a graduate degree too. But, as economist Alan Blinder explains, this may be a dangerous oversimplification:
Many people blithely assume that the critical distinction [in the workplace] is, and will remain, between highly educated (or highly skilled) people and less-educated (or less-skilled) people—doctors versus call-center operators, for example. The supposed remedy for the rich countries, accordingly, is more education and a general "upskilling" of the work force. But this view may be mistaken.... The critical divide in the future may instead be between those types of work that are easily deliverable through a wire (or via wireless connections) ... and those that are not.
Blinder is saying that modern technology changes everything. For example, when a hospital used to take an X-ray, it relied upon an in-house doctor to examine the X-ray. Today, that same hospital can send the X-ray to radiologists in India who will examine the scan for a fraction of the cost of a US doctor (especially in the middle of the night, when US doctors are sleeping but their Indian colleagues are not). Radiology is a field that requires both high skills and high education, yet it's not a highly secure form of work—because X-rays can be easily transmitted through a wire.
Now consider automotive repair, a so-called low-skill field that doesn't require a college degree. Because a real-life human is still important for diagnosing and fixing car problems, no one in a foreign country can compete with a mechanic in the United States—and therefore the job is more secure. Communication technology doesn't radically destabilize the automotive repair market, despite its "low-skill" and "low-education" status.
Another way to look at the stability of different types of careers, according to the economist Frank Levy, is to consider instead whether they are rules-based or not.
Work that is rules-based can be broken down into a set of established instructions that lead to a clearly defined final product. Assembling electronics, printing books, and flipping hamburgers are all examples of rules-based work.
Work that's not rules-based has no required path, set instructions, or clearly defined final product. Non-rules based work—such as design, art, writing, marketing, and many technology jobs—demands creative thinking.
Clearly, non-rules-based work is a safer bet for people in developed nations. Daniel Pink explains:
During the twentieth century, most work was algorithmic [rules-based]—and not just jobs where you turned the same screw the same way all day long. Even when we traded blue collars for white, the tasks we carried out were often routine. That is, we could reduce much of what we did—in accounting, law, computer programming, and other fields—to a script, a spec sheet, a formula, or a series of steps that produced a right answer. But today, in much of North America, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, routine white-collar work is disappearing. It's racing offshore to wherever it can be done the cheapest. In India, Bulgaria, the Philippines, and other countries, lower-paid workers essentially run the algorithm, figure out the correct answer, and deliver it instantaneously from their computer to someone six thousand miles away.
What Pink describes above is offshoring, a term with which you are probably familiar. Using modern communication technology, foreign workers can easily take over the rules-based work available in developed nations. Between these communication advances and the development of automation—the replacement of human labor with machines—modern technology is rapidly transforming the modern economic landscape. According to Pink:
Just as oxen and then forklifts replaced simple physical labor, computers are replacing simple intellectual labor ... software can already perform many rule-based, professional functions better, more quickly, and more cheaply than we can. That means your cousin the CPA, if he's doing mostly routine work, faces competition not just from five-hundred-dollars-a-month accountants in Manila, but from tax preparation programs that anyone can download for thirty dollars.
What do these trends mean for you, the young person who wants to explore the world without forsaking workplace security?
It first means that finding a stable job is more complicated than simply going to college. "Secure" white-collar jobs are being offshored as quickly as "secure" blue-collar jobs are being automated. No one—not even a college graduate—is fully protected from these changes.
Second, the ability to evaluate a prospective career for its susceptibility to outsourcing and automation will prove incredibly valuable—much more so than any college degree. For many people, the most secure work will be non-rules-based (i.e., creative) and require one's physical presence (i.e., not easily delivered over a wire).
But most importantly, modern economic trends highlight a new fundamental truth: whether you like it or not, today you're an entrepreneur by default.
By "entrepreneur," I don't necessarily mean a businessperson. The term was first coined by the 18th-century French economist Richard Cantillon, who considered an entrepreneur to be any person who took risks, bore uncertainty, and could not expect predictable returns on his investments.
Excerpted from BETTER THAN COLLEGE by Blake Boles Copyright © 2012 by Blake Boles. Excerpted by permission of Tells Peak Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Blake Boles is an author, entrepreneur, and educator. He owns and operates Unschool Adventures, the travel
company for self-directed teens. Blake currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina, and he travels widely. He is 29 years old.
Follow Blake at www.blakeboles.com.
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