Better Than College: Part 2

Blake Boles is the author of books, articles, and web projects about learning and finding good, meaningful work without going to college whose work I have followed for some time. His recent web projects include Zero Tuition College, the Grown Unschooler Opportunity Network, and Trailblazer: "a gathering for self-directed learners, ages 18–22+. From June 10–15, 2013, you'll connect, learn, and grow with other young adults blazing their own trails through life."

Blake's most recent book is Better Than College which we discuss, as well as how he came to support the world of homeschooling and unschooling so energetically even though he, himself, was never homeschooled. This is the second part of a three-part interview.

Pat: I really enjoyed in Better Than College how you show how an unschooled student would be able to assess their skills in order to give them a way to prove to an employer or a college that they are worth hiring. How do we get more employers to recognize the value of self-education credentials? Do you have any stories about that you could share?

Blake: I think there are two paths. The first one is simple: gain experience in what you love to do and then apply for a job; you get the job based upon your experience, not your credentials. I think everyone is familiar with that path.

A quick story about a guy I know, a former Not Back To Schooler named Ben Hayes. He’s one of those lifelong unschoolers who just played games all the time. He played card games, he played computer games, video games, etc. His parents let him do it. At age 13, he’s living in the New York City area, his mom gently suggests to him that he inquire about an internship with a game startup company in the city. He did and he got the position. He worked for them as an unpaid intern for two and a half years.  Then, at age 16, when he was legally able to be hired they said “Would you like a job with us?” and he said “Sure, that’s great.” He was a game designer at age 16. Then at age 17, he saw a lot of his friends going off to college so, he said “I’m gonna give it a shot too.” He went to Eugene Lang, which is a design-oriented college in New York City, and he went for a semester. It wasn't quite working out for him. He transferred to another school. Again he realized that a lot of the people who were going to college were not going for the reasons he thought they would be and so he actually stopped going to college and then got hired by another game start -up company where he currently works and is making mobile application games. So I feel like that's a basic example of the how unschoolers can do what they love.

They can build up relevant experience and then find a job based on that, but that's not as easy as that paints it out to be for many other people, largely because I feel like there's so many people who when they talk about alternatives to college, they're really just talking about the tech industry. They're talking about computer programmers and web designers and other people who can largely teach themselves everything they need to know by themselves, online, and then build up a resume working from anywhere and then get a job in Silicon Valley just based upon their experience. It's the Zuckerburg and the Gates and the—I don't know. There's a million other start ups.

We could rattle them off, but it's that story and I think technology is unique place because it just moves so much more quickly than college can and to get a a computer science degree nowadays and then graduate you still might be a year or two behind the curve just because college classes can not keep up with what's being created. So I think we have to be careful to use the tech fields as a representative example of how anyone can skip college and still be highly successful.

So that was my disclaimer regarding that story, but for other people what I recommend in the book is that instead of trying to push your way through the front door of a company where you'd like to work, instead find creative and clever ways to get noticed by somebody already working in this dream company where you'd like. Get their attention and then get a referral for hiring. It's kind of the number one informal way that hiring is done based upon this Careerbuilder survey. I feel like everyone has an experience with providing referrals or receiving one and using that. It's networking your way into a job.

I think that’s a strategy that people who skip college need to cultivate, because there is this reality that even if the college degree is devalued because there are so many of them out there it has become almost an expectation for more professional-type jobs, is the college degree. So you do need a creative way to get around that expectation. I talk about in the book about creating portfolios based upon what kind of field you're in and just getting somebody to notice them by doing good work and creating value for people and then getting somebody in an organization to notice it and give you the referral. That's the alternative path to getting hired. In terms of credentialing, I know you asked about that, I'm sure you're aware of this little budding badges movement which again I think is very contained within the tech and the programming world right now and it's useful for that.

Pat: Yes. Badges and certificates instead of 4-year degrees.

Blake: It's essentially competency testing and I think it would be interesting to see if those got extended out more. In the MIT and Harvard classes that are free online, if they actually could start offering single competency tests for American History and then you could put that badge on your portfolio. That might go in a direction that's fruitful.

Pat: Yeah . . .

Blake: It's just I don't know yet.

Pat: I'm very intrigued and have my eye on the idea that every class counts as a counterbalance to the notion that the four-year college experience makes you a well-rounded individual. I know it's really strong in our culture, but I think it's really wrong and not true. I don't think that it's ever been true, but I think that it's really reached the point where people realize that you need more than just four years of being on campus. That in and of itself doesn't make you a well-rounded individual. How do we broaden this option for more people, for nonhomeschoolers? I think your book is a really good step towards letting people know that there are other options out there. How do we get people to feel comfortable with these options and not always default to the purchasing of the safety net college degree? What advice would you give to an 18 year old or a 17 year old in that situation where their parents are pushing them to go to college?

Blake: That's a tough one. I guess I'd ask first of all if it's going to involve a lot of family sacrifice or loans to go to that college, because honestly if someone said, "Well, I have a full scholarship to Northeastern. I won't pay a single dime," and they realize it's going to be a four-year program plus a year of internship. I feel like I could talk to the person and say, ""Well, is there anything else you can kind of investigate and see if there's other cool stuff that you're really interested in doing right now and are you just kind of going to this college program despite the scholarship because it's what's expected of you?" If the answer is, "No. I don't really have any other possibilities." Then maybe it's a good idea for that person to go to Northeastern because at least the money isn’t a gamble. The risk is almost non-existent. But you're still gambling with your time. If that person goes and drinks away four years and then does a shitty job in the internship, then yeah. That's a wasted opportunity, but that's a hard question and not one that I have a great answer to. How do you convince someone to do the internship now? Say, “Postpone college. You can always go back.”

Pat: Right. That's usually what I tell them, too. You can always go to college. In fact, 20% of all college debt is held by people 50 and older.

Blake: Yeah. I believe it. There are lots of people going back for Master's degrees they probably don't need. I think that's why it's more likely that people who skip college and do cool, self-directed learning stuff is, I think, going to be directly related to the number of people who are skipping high school or skipping middle and elementary school and doing self-directed learning. I believe it is a very daunting thing to tell someone who just graduated from high school, "Alright. Now just actually pause on the college path which is what you've been mentally preparing for the past 12 years and now go do self-directed learning full-time." It's easier if there is some sort of gateway into that, which could look like homeschooling or unschooling or alternative school. It could look like somebody taking a gap year, which is a concept which is much more friendly to tradition, to people who are from more traditional educational backgrounds, because it implies that there will still be college afterwards. So there needs to be some sort of introduction to the self-directed learning that comes before that critical decision moment of, "Should I go to college or not?" Otherwise I think it is very difficult and I think there will not be quick changes around that.

Pat: What about someone who decides while they are in college that they want to do something more involving and meaningful to them than college?

Blake: I write about this woman who was unschooled, Brita, and how right before she went to college, she got introduced to wheel-thrown pottery. It was just through a local community class and she got really into that and this was just in this few weeks she had before she was going off to her first year of college and so she went to college and two things happened. First of all, her passion for pottery increased and she got to design a few classes since it was a fairly alternative college around the study of like ceramic, history of ceramics, I think, and got to take a few art classes that were ceramics-based but then she did have to take a bunch of other classes because it was a liberal arts four-year program and she was just really dissatisfied. She was let down by the classes and the instruction that she received. She started out as a very bookish, intellectual person. So she was going for that intellectual experience, but when she took classes on philosophy or on gender studies she thought that it just felt like a lot of intellectual masturbation. A lot of people throwing around really big words that they never really cared to define and just trying to sound kind of pompous-sounding thing and it wasn't the sort of deep inquiry that she was really expecting would come out of the four-year college experience.  And so it was the instruction and the kind of the peer discussions that kind of end up letting her down and then at the same time she saw graduates from this expensive, alternative college going off and working at like Whole Foods.

Pat: Yep.

Blake: And so putting all those pieces together, she decided after she went for a full year and then she came back for she did a bunch of pottery in the summer after her first year and then she went back for just the first week of her second year of college and she got there and she was doing orientation and she was like, "Forget this." She decided that she could teach herself ceramics much better and she could also continue kind of giving herself the broadening education through doing stuff she'd already been doing as unschooler through reading books, through traveling a lot, and going to conferences, doing stuff online, and so all those three pieces that the sort of sub-optimal kind of general, liberal arts education. The very limited education she was getting in In her field of passion which was ceramics. Then, the not well foreshadowed job prospects afterwards. I think that’s what all those pieces added for her, her decision to stop going to college. She got an apprenticeship with a potter in Cambridge, Massachusetts and then another one with another potter in Boston. She is currently making really beautiful crystalline, glazed porcelain pottery, which she sells for hundreds of dollars, both locally and online. She recently traveled to India too, just another part of that broadening your education.

Pat: I’d like to talk about that. First of all, there seems to be more awareness about choosing not to go to college because of the Peter Thiel Scholarships. The Thiel scholarships encourage entrepreneurship rather than college attendance. But the criticism that I heard about that strategy is, “Well sure that’s okay for them because they would succeed no matter what because they are so smart. But, what about the average person?” In your first book, College Without High School, you pose three self-knowledge questions as a tool for helping people figure out if college is the best next step for them.

Blake: Yeah, certainly. Just to quickly comment on the Peter Thiel program. It has received criticism because he’s largely calling these young would-be entrepreneurs from Ivy League schools. Something that not a lot of people know about Ivy League schools, actually, I shouldn’t speak to all of them. I know Harvard, at least. Any student who is admitted there can leave for any period of time and then immediately go back to Harvard. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, he dropped out of Harvard but, if Facebook hadn’t worked out in Silicon Valley, he could have gone back to Harvard and immediately re-enrolled.

I try to provide examples of more of what we call average young people in my book. The process I explain is, first of all, find self-knowledge. Which is kind of a weird place to start because, this whole process of doing self-directed learning will create self knowledge. You have to start from somewhere, so you ask those three self-knowledge questions.

Based upon that, you give yourself assignments. I use the word assignments and I have no baggage around that because I feel like you do need to give yourself some type of well-delineated project that you’ll like to accomplish—or projects, plural—while you are doing your self-directed education. Because, if you don’t give yourself some type of structure, some set of goals, it can be a very scary and frustrating period of time.

Third, with the assignments that you give yourself, I encourage people to create value with them and share that value with other people. What that means is value for other people. It’s the basic entrepreneurial ethic. So, if you do want to learn about ceramics, you could do it in a way that is more typical of the teenage self-directed learner, where you’re taking in all the information and you are building your skills and that’s great. But, I try to point the difference out between the two types of self-directed learning: Self-directed learning 1.0 and 2.0 , as if they're operating systems.

1.0 is the love of learning with which everyone's born. “I'm gonna learn how to play chess because it's interesting.” “I'm gonna dig up bugs in the yard because they're interesting.” Then 2.0 is doing stuff because it's interesting, but starting with other people's needs in mind. For example, Brenna did the pottery apprenticeship. And so she was helping this potter while also learning along the way. And then she would create pottery and she would sell it on Etsy. And that's a way of offering value to other people while also gaining skills and some money for yourself. This way is not doing self-directed learning in a highly insular way, but doing it where you are trying to help other people along the way. Fourth, don't try to do it by yourself. Find support, include peer community, include mentorship, and also some form of structure and accountability. Staying accountable to the assignments that one gives oneself is one of the biggest challenges for self-direction, especially for eighteen- to twenty-two-year-old self-directed learners. And I feel like that's a lot of the reason that people do go to college even if they feel like there's lots of interesting stuff they could be doing on their own—they're a little scared that they won't follow through. And then finally, a fifith step is to market yourself. And that's where the networking stuff that I was talking about before I came in. That's where building some sort of compelling portfolio, usually an online portfolio, is important. I think that's by far the best way to communicate your accomplishments and your talents now days. But there are other ways to signal. And then building your community and essentially having a community in the network sufficient with providing you with a job referral or helping you travel across the world cheaply. And so I think if you put all those together and you just hit repeat then you've got a basic recipe for doing self-directed learning at the college level.

End of Part 2