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Alternatives to College: Get Paid to Learn

As part of the research for my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Kickstart: Use Your Education to Accelerate Your Career, I’ve been researching alternatives to college. Given how COVID is impacting universities, I think people are being forced to reconsider the real value of traditional college.

A traditional 4-year college is not the right choice for everyone. It can be expensive, time consuming, and may leave you with a mountain of debt which you may never escape.  There are other options which may pay you immediately; may do far more for your career; and are likely much faster.

We’ve ranked below some educational options for you, roughly in declining order of how much money you can get paid. Much better that someone pays you than you pay someone else, right?  What other options can you think of that I should add to this list?

An exceptional, and very competitive, option is the Thiel Fellowship (thielfellowship.org).  “The Thiel Fellowship is a two-year program for young people [under age 22] who want to build new things. Thiel Fellows skip or stop out of college to receive a $100,000 grant and support from the Thiel Foundation’s network of founders, investors, and scientists.” No strings attached: $100,000 to build whatever it is you want to build.

Another option are the technology accelerators, e.g., Y Combinator https://ycombinator.com/ ) and TechStars (http://techstars.com/). These will give you capital (typically $100,000-$200,000) to build a new company, and you can pay yourself a salary out of that capital. You need to have an idea and typically a prototype before they’ll accept you.  Going through these accelerators is a better and more actionable credential than going to many universities.

An emerging category of accelerator are the “Talent Investors”. These typically provide many of the services you would see in an accelerator: mentorship, office space, investment into the company. However, there is a key difference — Talent Investors fund individuals, rather than companies. They typically pay you a modest stipend (e.g., $2,000/month) for several months to research a startup idea. Examples include Antler (https://www.antler.co/); Entrepreneur First (https://www.joinef.com/); and Hackmind (https://hackmind.ai/).

Another idea is serving in the military. Military training teaches you real-world skills that you’ll never get in a traditional college, and in certain roles you’ll work with sophisticated technologies that typical universities cannot give you access to.

Another option are targeted education programs which are squarely focused on career prep, and dispense with most of the traditional overhead of universities. These do not give you a degree, but they’re dramatically cheaper as a result.  Praxis (https://discoverpraxis.com/) costs $12,000. “During …. bootcamp you’ll learn the [business] skills employers are looking for as well as how to showcase those skills, and then you’ll put them to use during your apprenticeship while getting paid. During the apprenticeship you’ll make a minimum of $15,000, and the average salary upon graduation for Praxis grads is $50,000/year.”

A vibrant category are the coding bootcamps. Revature teaches coding at no cost and helps you find a job. Lambda School (https://lambdaschool.com/) “teaches the tech skills you need to launch a new career in just 9 months. You don’t pay tuition until you land a job making at least $50k a year.‍”  For an overview of coding bootcamps, see Coursereport.com. If you want to borrow money for this purpose, you may find ClimbCredit.com helpful.

The last option is to simply teach yourself. Famed writer Ray Bradbury said,

“I didn’t go to college, but when I graduated from high school I went down to the local library and I spent ten years there, two or three days a week, and I got a better education than most people get from universities. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-eight years old.”[i]

Bradbury did this way before the internet was widely available.  Now you can teach yourself almost any skill online at no cost. Empirically, this does take a high level of self-control and motivation, and most people benefit from a structured program around them. If you take this path, it will typically be challenging to get your first paid job, because you’ll be lacking traditional credentials. However, once you’re employed and do well in your job, your lack of traditional credentials will matter much less.

The simplest way to do this is via a MOOC (“Massive Open Online Course”).  Many offer professional certificates, and some offer courses in conjunction with traditional colleges, including Berklee College of Music, Carnegie Mellon, Emory, Ivy League schools, and universities outside the U.S.  Businesses offering classes include Disney, Goldman Sachs, IBM, and The Linux Foundation. Courses are typically free unless a student intends to obtain recognized credit, such as a degree or certification.

Among the major MOOCs:

EdX (https://www.edx.org/)

Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/)

FutureLearn (https://www.futurelearn.com/)

Khan Academy (https://www.khanacademy.org/)

MIT OpencourseWare (https://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm)

Open Education (https://sparcopen.org/open-education/)

OpenLearn (https://www.open.edu/openlearn/)

For a good overview of self-education, we suggest Michael Ellsberg’s “The Education of Millionaires: It’s Not What You Think and It’s Not Too Late”.

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