I remember talking with the head of the Computer Science department five years ago. I was stuck with a prerequisite that was going to extend my time in college by a whole year.
The class was on databases, and I felt I had a good understanding of the topic already. I had worked for several years in software, and knew much of the material that would be covered in the class.
I asked the professor if it would be possible not to skip the class, but simply to wave the prerequisite requirement so I could graduate on time. He said no.
“You know, Kevin, an undergraduate degree isn’t the right choice for everyone.”
I was three years into my degree at that point, and it was infuriated to hear that kind of dismissal. I took the class anyway.
On the first day, the teacher came in and threw up a PowerPoint presentation. In the bottom corner was the text:
Copyright © 1997
I don’t have a degree.
I was not a good college student
I love learning. I was a voracious reader as a kid; I got good grades; I tested well. I like to think of myself as pretty good at the whole “self-guided education” thing. I’m the type of weirdo that browses MIT OpenCourseWare for fun.
But I was a horrible college student. I was severely depressed, and I was an alcoholic. Not the “frat party” kind of alcoholic. The polishing-off-a-750ml-bottle-of-Jack-Daniels-every-night kind of alcoholic.
I did well on my tests; I didn’t do the homework; and there were definitely classes I didn’t attend more than twice.
The biggest problem for me was one of ego. I thought I was smarter than many of my professors. I felt that they were deliberately rationing out material over the course of a semester that could be easily handled in a few weeks. I resented the course structure that felt like a complete waste of time.
I wasn’t entirely wrong. But that attitude wasn’t going to help.
We have a broken college system
College moves at a predictable pace. We set up material that the average student can manage in a semester, amidst a lot of partying and drunken nights out. This makes things easier to standardize, but for those who want to advance at their own pace, it’s a nightmare.
Let’s top that off with the fact that the costs of post-secondary education have skyrocketed, while the financial value has decreased.
(yes, yes, college is about “life experience” and “finding yourself”. You can’t measure its value based on employment! But I would submit to you that there are “life experience” options that are available for significantly less that $30k a year)
Let’s also keep in mind that we’ve been telling sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds that college is critical, and encouraging them to adopt staggering amounts of debt, while providing no financial education.
High school students are told to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt, when they’re least equipped to make that decision!
So who needs a degree?
So I cut and ran. I worked hard as a student employee in software, build open-source libraries, and did some contracting work. I skipped classes for a week to go to a developer conference in San Francisco and networked with other professionals.
For my efforts, I was offered a job working remotely that boasted a higher salary than my university’s average graduate. In your face, college!
I continued to develop my skills and learn on my own, and I’ve had a very successful career thus far. I’ve moved to New York, I work for Mashable, and it’s the greatest job I could ever ask for.
But I don’t have a degree.
And there’s a part of me that regrets that. There’s a part that worries it’ll eventually provide a ceiling to my career growth. I’m in a field that’s relatively friendly to us “or equivalent experience” folks, but there may be a limit.
I’d like to think I’m finally mature enough to understand the value of a formal education. It’s flawed, and there’s a lot of procedure that may be a waste of time. But there’s also access to a wealth of knowledge and direction that you might not get with self-guided education. The ability to have someone tell you “you probably ought to learn X” has immense value.
This would be the perfect time for me to go to college. I’ve learned some discipline. I’ve gotten over (most) of my emotional hangups. I want to learn, and I want to gain what I can from a degree program.
I would love to live in a world where college was something we all put off until our mid-twenties.
But unless I was willing to quit my day job, going back didn’t feel like a possibility.
The new wave of education
I’m going back to school — in a weird and exciting way. I recently applied to UW Flexible Option. The premise of this program is online education that’s not based on huge amounts of coursework. It’s based on competencies.
If you already know the material: great! You pass!
The idea here is to provide an opportunity for folks to apply their existing skills and knowledge toward an accredited degree. It’s comparatively cheap, it’s flexible, and it’s smart. The idea that we have the opportunity now to pursue a degree on our own terms is, frankly, amazing. And I want to be a part of that.
Shut up and take my money!
I’m the type of person that goes out of my way to use the “automated checkout system” in stores. Sometimes it takes longer, or is a bit of pain. But I like the idea, and I like to imagine some marketing exec pouring over the numbers and deciding “We need to invest more into automated checkouts! People love this!”
I want post-secondary education to be more like this.
It may turn out that having a degree won’t matter for my personal career.
But I want there to be a system where people can learn on their own terms, and receive tangible credit for it.
I want us to be able to decouple learning and expertise.
I want us to build a road, but not the roadblocks.
I want educators to say “We need to invest more into this!”
And at the very least, I can get that stupid piece of paper.