Independent study, a replacement for college
There are many things wrong with higher education today, as I’ve argued on this blog. It’s way too expensive. The amount of bureaucratic overhead is simply ridiculous. The focus on education as vocational training has deeply undercut appreciation and practice of the liberal arts. It has become too business-oriented, meaning that ratings by the customer—the students—count for far too much. The gospel of publish or perish has if anything become worse, and the quality of scholarship has suffered. Far too few faculty members are actually tenured or paid what they are worth.
But beyond all this, we have a special reason for concern. For anyone committed to the liberal arts in particular, the stories we hear coming out of academe are increasingly alarming. I won’t make the case here, but it’s not at all unreasonable to think that students, especially in the “soft sciences” and humanities, will simply be indoctrinated by their professors and bullied by their fellow students if they are not politically correct enough. There is a point at which the amount of intellectual dogma, dishonesty, and intolerance is so overwhelming that a college education (and especially a liberal arts degree) becomes more an exercise in indoctrination than training the rational mind. No doubt it depends on the institution, the major, and the professors. It’s really the luck of the draw. But I would be concerned. I am concerned for my two children.
However that might be, I think we need another sort of option.
I’ve already argued that getting an education via tutors and a degree via examinations is a good way to pop the education bubble. What I want to do now is record a few thoughts on how a student might actually pursue college study independently. (This is not advice; or, follow it at your own risk!)
Move to a city with a lot of professors. Most big cities would do, and while Boston is maybe the most famous college town, other excellent ones in the U.S. would include Chicago, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City.
Find one or a few good academic advisers. If they aren’t 100% committed to you, pay one who will be. This person will help you plan your course of study, give you advice on many things, receive regular reports from you on your work, and encourage you and kick your ass as needed. Obviously, you’ll want to find someone fairly like-minded, especially in terms of your academic goals. It needn’t be (and probably shouldn’t be) someone who has the title “academic adviser.” Many academics will do just fine.
With the help of your academic adviser, map out your course of study for a year. It doesn’t have to be complete, but you should know a year in advance what you want to do.
I’d create a web page explaining what’s going on. This way you just send people to that URL where they can learn what you’re doing, what you’ve studied so far, read samples of your work, etc. This will make it easier for you to get professors interested in helping you.
Professors are not all created equal. Lots are brilliant, excellent teachers, and very fair-minded, even today. Some are just execrable. So here you’ll have to do your research. Find professors who are inspiring, clear (or understandable to you, anyway), and make time for you (but they should be if you’re paying them).
Pay professors by the hour. One hour a week ought to be enough. The main thing you’ll be doing is reading and discussing what you have written about a subject the professor knows about. Maybe offer to take them to lunch.
If a professor sends you to a grad student, forget ’em, unless you’re doing introductory work, or just getting tutoring for some standard course. For more advanced work, look elsewhere. Trust me, I was a grad student for eight years. They will be cheaper but they won’t be as good. Of course, grad students can grade and tutor certain kind of work and that can be well worth it.
I’d want to live centrally so I can visit professors from various campuses. I’d also want to live with some other students who are doing what I’m doing, rather than with enrolled students. I think independent students living together would encourage each other to stick to it. You might even be able to get some sponsors that way; a group of you doing this is a good cause, well worth supporting.
You don’t have to think about your studies in terms of discrete courses. You can, and it might be a good idea. But reading a series of books or article collections, however long it takes you, is also a good idea. Bear in mind that grad schools will still probably want you to quantify your work if you ever want to apply to one.
The bulk of your work, unless you’re in one of the hard sciences, will take the form of reading and writing. You’ll read books and other things, and write essays, and your professors will read your essays and give you detailed feedback. Then you’ll revise. Of course, in science and math you’ll have to do problem sets and pay to get those graded.
Consider auditing college courses if you like. Offer to pay the professor to read and mark up your writing and exams, if that’s possible. If it’s possible for you to sit in on discussion sections, as long as it doesn’t cost too much, you might consider doing that.
There are lots of free courses online. You probably know that. They are a great resource; you could use them instead of attending boring lectures in big impersonal lecture halls. Live lectures can be great, but it’s the luck of the draw again. In any case, lectures aren’t good enough on their own. You will get a better college education if, in addition to watching lectures on video and reading books, you speak face-to-face in real time with an expert passionate about the subject and interested in you in particular. That’s really essential.
Do a “senior thesis” or “senior project,” i.e., an extended piece of writing or other significant professional accomplishment on a narrowly-focused topic that requires about a year to finish. This will be impressive to grad schools and be a reasonable basis (in part) on which experts can judge your level of accomplishment.
You probably have a few different options for securing a college degree. Suppose you have put all your work on a website. This includes papers, comments by professors, exam scores, the whole nine yards. (Of course, it can be password protected.) On the basis of that, I suspect some professors would be willing to sign their name on a statement (probably for money to compensate them for their time in making the evaluation honestly) to the effect that the amount of work that you have done is equivalent, or more, than the amount of work normally needed to secure a B.A. or B.S. in in their field at their institution, and that your level of scholarship is also commensurate with that of a college graduate in the field.
A GPA? Transcript? You might even finagle a GPA for yourself. Get professors to agree in advance to grade you on chunks of work. Have them edit a document that you write, stating what was accomplished, credit equivalent at their institution, when the studying was done, and the name, institutional affiliation, specializations, and contact information of the professor. They write the grade in and sign it. You make a PDF of this signed document and save the original and give them a copy. Do this for all the independent study courses you do with various professors at various institutions, and make all the PDFs available alongside the grade in your self-made “transcript.” My guess is that that will work for many purposes.
Award yourself a “B.A. (or B.S.) by independent study, endorsed by…” On resumes, you can add a brief paragraph explaining how you got a bachelor’s degree without having enrolled anywhere. For example, a philosophy graduate might on his resume (I’m totally making this up), “B.A. Philosophy by independent study, endorsed by Profs. Smith (Harvard), Jones (MIT), Kim (Boston University), and Wang (Boston College).” Then in a footnote you describe your program and, especially, you link to the endorsements by the professors who did your final assessment. Make sure these endorsements are uploaded correctly on LinkedIn or some other such website where people publicly endorse other people.
Be prepared to pay professors for endorsing your work and “awarding” you a degree. Especially if it is an independent professor, someone you didn’t study with (or, not much), it’s going to take them time to look at your portfolio and decide that you’ve done the work and have shown the knowledge that you need to show.
Will employers accept your “bachelor’s degree”? I can’t make any guarantees (the risk is all yours!)—but why don’t you ask some? Speaking for myself, if I looked at your page and your statements checked out (e.g., I saw the PDFs, got confirmation from the professor that the program was legit, and saw the LinkedIn endorsements), then I would. In fact I’d say, “Here’s an entrepreneurial, independent-minded go-getter. This is the kind of person I’d like on my team!” Of course, boring conventional types might turn their noses up at this, but hiring decisions for good jobs are often not made by boring, conventional types.
This is going to be much cheaper and probably better education than you’d suffer through at most universities these days.
Finally, if you do this—or have done it—then email me with your story at email@example.com. I’d love to hear about it.
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.