Better Than College: Part 3

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 third part of a three-part interview.

Pat: I've often heard that college admissions officials want to know how you made use of the resources available to you if you apply with a non-traditional educational background. You know you don't need a ton of money and a ton of counselors and support mechanisms for homeschooling. You can create those elements as you go along. And that's one of the things that I think scares people about homeschooling and unschooling is that we are creating it as we go along. The school system has been in existence for a hundred and fifty years, so we think it's been there forever. But it hasn't been there forever. As Gatto likes to say, children were marched under the eyes of the militia to school because parents were resisting school at first. But now we're so used to it, it's the opposite. Parents are like, “How could you possibly take your child out of school?” So it's flipped around. One of the things that you do quite well is to be an exemplar of the idea, “If it's not there lets make it.” For instance, I see one of your new projects is the Grown Unschooler Opportunity Network.

 Blake: Yeah that's right.

 Pat: I like it how you're creating sort of like a LinkedIn for unschoolers. Can you tell us about that and how it's growing?

 Blake: Well it's very small I think there's like eight opportunities on it right now. They're great opportunities though. And really that's just one of those little projects I've started and it's now on my back shelf. There were some unschooling parents of Not Back To School Campers who said we want to have some interns come work in our cafe and they said can you spread the word about this somehow. And they said there should be some sort of network for this. So I just spent the afternoon whipping together a database and web site and threw it up there and got like a little newsletter. And I think there's like fifty people subscribed here. I just started it this summer. It's like a little baby. I don't want to say it's going to become some grand thing because it might not, but that's okay. I think that maybe the ethic that you are talking about is constantly doing little experiments.

 Pat: It is!

Blake: And assuming that maybe four out of five of them will fizzle but one out of five is going be a big success. It's kind of like the venture capital model. And you don't worry too much about the fizzles because that's just life.

 Pat: And you learn from them.

 Blake: That's right.

 Pat: That's what we forget—it's not a failure. It might be a financial failure but it gives you the knowledge to move forward. Failure can be worth its weight in gold in a lot of ways.

Blake: One afternoon and then I managed to hook up one 19 year old with this awesome internship experience. Cool! That’s worth it.

 Pat: That’s one of the messages that I think is so important to get out, that we can make a difference individually. We can do something, we don’t always have to rely on a big institution or go through the 12-year ritual of schooling before we can something that makes a difference to us and others.

Every culture for centuries had some sort of initiation right where children went from childhood into adulthood. For us, it was high school, now it’s college, and school keeps elongating how long you’ve got to stay out of the workforce and stay out of real life. Your approach is to put people in it as soon as possible and to try and explore. You start with small baby steps and you get better. So, you start wherever you put your oar in and start paddling.

 Blake: That’s right. I agree.

 Pat: You encourage people to think big and embark on grand plans. To go from the general to the specific and to then figure out how to do these things. Well, what do you tell these people who follow this advice but, who then are met with unsupportive people who think that they are being impractical or grandiose?

Blake: I guess, ignore them. Find communities of people who do understand your approach and who will support you in this big dream. Sure, sometimes people, especially teenagers, bite off more than they can chew but, there’s a better way to respond to it than “you’re crazy, don’t try that, go take the traditional route.”
The proper response to that is saying it sounds like you are biting off more than you can chew. Why don’t we break this down, instead of circumnavigating the globe 12 times this year, why don’t you try going to China first? Break it down into a smaller step. Yeah, that’s pretty much my response to that question. Ignore the naysayers and find the people who support you in this path.

That kind of sounds like selective ignorance, and maybe it is, but if you and I listened to all the people telling us that what we are saying is just wrong and it’s hurting people because it tells them not to go to school or college then we would just be sitting here as useless sacks of bones.

Pat: That’s right. You do a great job at the beginning of Better Than College of exploding the myth of college as a place to grow and be exposed to different ideas, people, and experiences. But the main argument that drives the question about going to college for most people is that they think they will earn more money simply by being a college graduate. You do a really good job of addressing that. Can you summarize that?

 Blake: I think it’s important to recognize, not try to argue that college degree holders don’t make more money because they do, on average. The important part is not to let the word average just get slipped in there willy-nilly. Because, first of all, there are wide variations across average income based upon where you go to school and also, what you study. So, the petroleum engineers from MIT are going to be making grips of money. They are going to be making more money than they know what to do with. But, the child and family studies majors from state university are way down there on the other side of the average. Many of them might be going on the premise that they’re going to be making this giant premium of $450,000 or more over their lifetime.
That’s what the Georgetown study says. It used to be $800,000 more of your lifetime but, that turned out to be a footnote on a College Board study that got rescinded. A Wall Street Journal article said it’s more like $280,000 when you take into account tuition fees, student loans, and forsaken work opportunities.

So, it’s not the million-dollar premium that we hear about but, that number just gets stuck in people’s heads. Then all of a sudden it’s very easy if you decide to do child and family studies at state university to think, “Oh, my gosh! I’m gonna be making so much more money than people who don’t go to college. Those suckers.” When, in fact, you might be the one who ends up with debt that you have to immediately start repaying after a six-month grace period. There are other people who don’t have college degrees that are making more money than you: small business owners, firefighters, real estate professionals, sales managers. There are all sorts of professions that really do not require college degree although, many people might have them because they got their child and family studies degree and then years later realized, “Oh crap. Maybe I should go sell real estate because I’m not making any money with this freaking degree.”

 So, exploding the averages I think is one of the most effective ways to do that. Then, I make a more philosophical argument about the ability to succeed as an entrepreneur as being one of the fundamental, important, soft skills to have as an adult in today’s world. Because, the rapid pace of change makes the ethic of entrepreneurship more and more important.

 To be honest, I think that if you get coddled from kindergarten up to graduate school and you never have a chance to struggle in the real world then building a sense of personal entrepreneurship might be a very difficult thing and struggling to find an internship to find part time work while you are supporting your art.

There are other basic challenges that young people experience when they are in their early 20s or late teens. I think those are so valuable and those are such formative periods. I feel that when you go through them you learn how to quickly deal with change. You learn how to hopefully, be happy on a small income, you learn what are needs and what are wants. That kind of education doesn’t come from people who just plow through the education system for 16 or 18 or more years. Some people call that the school of hard knocks or real-world education but I just like to call it entrepreneurship.

 Pat: You also bring up this issue called lost opportunity cost. This refers to the issue that if I choose to enter this business venture, I’m closing the door on other business ventures, so they are lost opportunities; if I spend my time here I’m not doing this. We don’t think this is true for kids, too. In fact, we feel that if you don’t go to college, that’s your lost opportunity. How do we encourage people to think a little more broadly about these lost opportunity issues?

Grace Llewellyn did a talk for us one year. She criticized a letter in GWS where the girl said that she'd like to work with fish and the ocean and the dad says, "Oh. That means you're going to become a marine biologist. So you're going to have to go to college." And then Grace pointed out that we don't need to think that way. I mean, you could also work with fish if you're a musician through whale songs and dolphin songs. If you're an artist, through drawing. If you're a conservationist or if you're a physical, you could join the Cousteau Society. You could become a SCUBA diver. There are so many ways that you could approach the field of marine biology other than just, "Oh, I'm going to become a certified marine biologist." Because those are all these other opportunities that get lost by having our imaginations so schooled about our options. One of the great things that I think that the growing unschooler network, your Zero Tuition College social network, and Better Than College do is show how many other ways there are for approaching these big issues. If someone comes to you and says, "I want to become a marine biologist," for instance, how, from a Better Than College point of view, would you show them to do this?

 Blake: Okay. If somebody had said to me at age 18, "Why do you want to study astronomy and physics?" And if I had honestly responded what I would have said was, "I got rewarded with good grades in my math and physics classes in high school and I watched this one movie, Contact, with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey which gave me this very romantic vision of what being an astronomer looks like." What’s missing from that component, of course, is doing anything that astrophysicists actually do, which include like crunching numbers and quantum physics or spending any time with somebody who actually worked in that field. It was really just more mythology than actually self-knowledge.

So for the person who is the aspiring marine biologist the question is: How do you know that you want to be a marine biologist? Have you spent time around working marine biologists? Have you talked to any say professors or graduate students or recent graduates or marine biology programs in college if that's what you're thinking you need to do? My guess is that Grace reacted to that question strongly because she knows someone who is a Not Back to School camper and then started working for the camp, Evan Wright. He was a 16-year-old high school rise out and he was very interested in marine biology and spent many of his late-teens and early-20 years doing marine biology work and never through a college program but as a volunteer, as an intern. He did a lot of rescue work which is where they're always looking for essentially young, cheap people with lots of energy to go help pull animals out of nets. I believe he worked with the researcher as an assistant and so I think there was proper responses. If you don't yet know why you think you want to go into this marine biology program, then go get the primary experience necessary to make that decision. Essentially go get, go find, yourself knowledge and that's where there's the creativity gap right there. That's where a lot of families and young people themselves don't see opportunities. They just see a big, blank wall because it's always been, like, if you want to learn something you've got to do it through the institution and so the hard part for promoting this idea or just alternative education in general is demonstrating the viable alternatives and talking about stuff like internships or volunteer programs, or just informal, online learning in a way that makes it convincing that, yes, you can learn a lot about a field without jumping into a committed four-year program that costs tons of money and then, in fact, let's say this girl wants to learn marine biology, and she spends a year or two doing something that looks like Zero Tuition College or a gap year, or doing internships and research. And she talks with a lot of different people in the field, and she discovers that, for the kind of work that she wants to do, it really does require the type of education that they're going provide at a college program. And not only that, she finds out  there are the three top colleges in the United States for this type of marine biology. Then she's making a highly informed decision that's so much smarter than the decision she was going make two years prior to that. So that's my hope, not that a bunch of people stop going to college, but that people make more informed decisions about it, which is just not happening right now.

 Pat: Another nice thing that you've done that I really appreciate is you've made this book, Better Than College, available for free to people who can't afford it, but mainly I guess you were aiming for high school or college-age kids who are looking and may not be able to afford it, right? You want people to buy the book, otherwise.

 Blake: Yeah, exactly. I'm hoping that nobody will skip reading the book due to lack of means. I didn't publish this book with the intent of it becoming like my full-time personal income, you know. I still do lots of other stuff.

I was more interested in getting the ideas out there. What I learned through my first book, College Without High School, is that, a book to me is much more useful as a big business card. After I did the first book, then I was able to speak at unschooling conferences. I found that a bunch of cool opportunities came up that were non-monetary, but very rewarding. And so I knew going into this that I'd be shooting myself in the foot money-wise, but I also feel that there's kind of a fatalist argument to be made, that, you know, pretty much any media that gets produced nowadays, TV, music, books, will get pirated eventually, but at the same time there's always going be a market for, you know, excellent written content, great music, and well-done TV shows. And there will be people who will pay for this because it's easier to just pay for it on Amazon and get it shipped to your house, than it is to go search around for some free version.