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 protected]. I’d love to hear about it.





Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

6 responses to “Independent study, a replacement for college”

  1. Jen

    Wondering if you’ve heard of Lumerit and if so what your thoughts are…It sounds to me like the closest thing to your suggestions out there right now…though it does have student transfer into a traditional program to finish…

    1. I had not heard of Lumerit—interesting. I like my program better; this seems like just a replacement for community college. Cool, though.

  2. Wen Tsu

    I am interested in reading an update on your sons education.

    I know that they are too young, but as a parent, is this something that you would feel is a reasonable path for your own sons post-highschool?

    Which professions do you see this NOT being a barrier to entering?

    1. I’m thinking so. But before I make any strong recommendation (I’d treat my boys as adults when they’re 18 and want to leave this decision up to them), I’d want to call around to various CEOs, HR people, and other business people I know to see if they would hire someone with a background of this sort. I’m pretty sure I know the answer, but I’d definitely want to double-check. I wouldn’t be surprised if some big corporations would reject this sort of thing out of hand, because they’re looking for drones. I just doubt my sons will be looking for drone-type jobs.

      Professions? Well, I don’t know. If a student had his/her heart set on medicine, or law, or whatever, then it would definitely be a good idea to talk to the admissions offices at medical and law schools.

      Anyway, I think we’ll give this a try in the next seven years, as H. gets beyond the benefits of self-study under my loose direction. Then we’ll start hitting up some OSU professors or grad students for tutoring and see how it works out.

  3. OneThoughtMayHideAnother

    I saw your recent comment on Facebook regarding colleges going bankrupt, which made me think of this thought-provoking blog post of yours. I was wondering if you’re familiar with Jordan Peterson’s project to create an online liberal arts college. I thought you might find it interesting. I’m sure Peterson would find your input valuable, too, if you two ever happened to get in touch.

    I can’t find a single essay that would describe his project, so I’m copying pasting some notes he has written about it on his Patreon site over the past two years:

    >> June 2017:

    >> I have been speaking with a number of tech and finance people as well as interested educators about starting an online university concentrating on the classic humanities (with a strong emphasis on critical language skills: literacy, articulation, argumentation & rational thought). We’re in the serious planning stages, trying to determine how to generate an online university that would have built-in technology enabling constant improvement of content, highly credible and difficult-to-attain accreditation, as well as inexpensive and wide access). It’s a very exciting idea, and my colleagues and I are very motivated to pursue it, and quickly. We’re going to start, we think, with a vast historical timeline, as well as a series on 100 of the great books of the world (with a concentration on the classics of the Western canon). 

    >> June 2018:

    >> First: I have been making substantial progress on the online university project (and devoting Patreon support to that end). I have three very sharp people working on it, with a minimal product already sketched out and a sold developmental plan outlined. Imagine that university has two primary functions: assessment/accreditation, and education proper. We are trying to address both simultaneously, tying assessment/accreditation tightly to the education process itself. 

    >> Not dated:

    >> I am developing my plans and consulting with others to bring accredited online humanities education to as many people as possible around the world. My colleagues and I (who include excellent engineers, programmers, financiers and educators) want to take the humanities back from the corrupt postmodernists, and offer education of the highest possible quality everywhere at 1/10 the price or less. We’d like to solve the accreditation problem as well, offering degree-equivalents with real psychometric value: best student in 10000; best in 1000; best in 100; best in 10; best in 5 (and no certification granted below that). We want to automate and crowdsource the problem of teaching people to write. We want to set up the courses so that (1) the content itself is constantly graded and improved and (2) the same goes for the accreditation process. We’ll start with the humanities, including history, generating something approximately a four year liberal arts college degree, teaching people how to be responsible, literate, effective, powerful, confident citizens. We want to conduct real research into how people learn (and how they learn fast) and use the results of that research to make education better. It’s high time for the humanities of the new millenium. However, it’s a multiyear project, at best. 

    1. Oh my–I had no idea that he was interested in this. I might have to reach out!

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