High School

Do-it-yourself college

Considering the less traveled roads of higher education

By Robin Noble

The variety of higher education options has increased tremendously since our high school students were born (roughly 1997-2001), driven by the simultaneous explosions of information technology and the cost of a four-year degree. 

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High School Parent | College Parent

Today, your student’s higher ed buffet includes more choices at potentially lower costs than ever before. If she’s willing to pick around the square meal of a traditional four-year university, your student can assemble a feast of educational experiences more meaningful, affordable, and even prestigious than was imaginable just five years ago.

But a “do-it-yourself education” involves navigating relatively uncharted territory. Take some time to brief yourself on the possibilities so, when your son says he wants to piece together an online degree while volunteering in India, you can discuss the proposal intelligently.

Start by considering the end game

In evaluating any higher education plan, it’s a good idea to consider the whole point of higher education. Writer and trailblazer Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY-U, whittles the goals of higher ed down to three essential buckets:

  1. Content: knowledge and competency
  2. Social skills and social connections
  3. Accreditation: the official endorsement that offers instant credibility (a.k.a. a degree)

The four-year university is designed to deliver all three, and it’s a fact that comprehensive alternatives to college are still hard to find. But entrepreneurs are seizing new opportunities to offer choices beyond the traditional model, capturing its benefits while drastically reducing its exorbitant costs.

Seeking to avoid debt

Many of us parents have experienced the downside of student loan debt firsthand and we want our children to avoid it completely. Seeing opportunity, entrepreneurs are developing solutions to lower educational costs.

For example, students now have more opportunities than ever to earn credit for what they already know. Similar to Advanced Placement exams, today’s students can sit tests with companies like Uexcel to gain credit for lower-level college courses (calculus, psychology, physics) or with the American Council on Education to earn academic credit for formal training taken outside traditional degree programs. There are many more assessment providers, giving everything from language exams to equivalency tests for ex-military personnel. Many of those tests are proctored and identity-verified and thus accepted by an ever increasing number of universities.

You can find a comprehensive list of these testing providers and many other low-cost DIY educational alternatives in Ms. Kamenetz’s e-book The Edupunks’ Guide to a DIY Credential. Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the free guide is a comprehensive workbook for those interested in pursuing a DIY education.

Who pursues self-directed education?

Some of the brightest and most curious students are well suited to self-directed formats but are not always aware of their options. For students who genuinely desire learning but have no interest in a traditional campus experience, Blake Boles has a few ideas.

Mr. Boles is the author of Better than College. He believes motivated students — even 18-year-olds — can take control of their own learning.

“There are some people who really should go to college — if you want to go into a licensed profession, become a scientist or professor, please go to college, it’s where you belong,” Boles says. “For everyone else in the world, you might not need to go at all.”

In What You Could Do with $20,000, Mr. Boles breaks down a substitute spending plan (instead of paying tuition) that brings a student closer to self-enlightenment, the quality Boles sees as key to being a successful adult. His imaginary $20,000 includes investing in a private tutor, international travel, independent living, and some entrepreneurial ventures. It’s a compelling presentation.

In addition to his thought leadership on self-directed learning, Mr. Boles has developed a cadre of resources, including the website Zero Tuition College, an online community for self-directed learners that emphasizes mentorship. He recomends other companies like Unschool Adventures, an organization that leads trips for non-traditional learners ages 14-19, and Uncollege, a provider of gap year programs for young adults.

Acknowledging that credentials are difficult to come by in non-traditional education routes, Mr. Boles recommends ways to document one’s learning and self-promote (with personal blogs, LinkedIn type social sites, etc.). Likewise, Ms. Kamenetz offers planning strategies to define goals and pursue them successfully. These are solid resources for the highly motivated, independent learner.

Travel to learn

Travel has long been accepted as one of the great alternatives to higher education, especially right out of the gate — the gap year plan. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) offers extreme outdoor adventures around the world that include college credit, through its affiliation with the University of Utah. The company’s one-year (October – March) exploration through Patagonia offers students up to 27 academic credit hours and a life-changing wilderness experience. Tuition and other costs are about $30,000, but if all 27 credit hours are applied towards a degree, the price may seem reasonable.

The challenge is, unless the student is pursuing an outdoor education degree, it’s unlikely that more than half of the NOLS credits would actually apply. In fact, whether it’s a course like NOLS, other “endorsed” gap year travel, online coursework or community college classes, students have little control over the transfer of their earned credits. It is always up to the institution to which they are applying.

The University of Denver explains it this way to incoming freshmen seeking a gap-year deferment: “Our staff approves all gap-year requests in advance, and one restriction is that students are not allowed to enroll in a degree program at another institution. We mostly recommend that students refrain from taking any college courses, but on a case-by-case basis, we do approve an occasional course or two.”

If your student wants to pursue a gap year or other self-directed learning in anticipation of a college degree, it’s important that she consider the plan carefully, and check with the target institution far in advance.

Learning with heavy hitters

An emerging resource for non-traditional learners is MOOCs (massive, open, online courses). The explosive growth over the last three years of MOOCs can be credited to some big players offering substantial online classes for the masses for free.

MIT and Harvard University together run one of the largest and most successful MOOCs, Edx, which offers a wide variety of classes characterized by true rigor and prestigious professors. As of October 2014, Edx had more than three million users enrolled in more than 300 online courses.

Even larger is Coursera, which partners with top universities and organizations worldwide to offer free online courses. Princeton, Brown, Stanford, Columbia, Duke and many others teach everything from Chinese to cryptology and public speaking. Master Class is a new online venue for superstar-taught classes (Dustin Hoffman on acting, Serena Williams on tennis).

Could your very motivated young student take courses on Edx or Coursera for her own edification, combine those studies with travel and internships, and apply it all towards a real world work setting? She absolutely could.

However, she won’t be able to piece together a traditional degree entirely with these classes. Both organizations offer “certifications” for a fee, and Coursera has five courses approved for college credit by the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service. Again, acceptance of such credit is up to the target institution.

Edx and Coursera give young students access to intellectual leaders in a wide variety of subjects, but right now they can only serve as one facet of a learner’s pursuits.

Being open to the future

There are many ways to circumvent the costs of the traditional university experience. In the realm of unconventional learning, there are no turnkey alternatives yet to be sure, and parents need to help their students avoid expensive dead ends. Our main job may be to make clear the limits of our financial support, and be accepting of our students’ approach to transitioning from childhood to adulthood — through a traditional four-year college or by another less conventional route.

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