Fast Company's Guide To The Generation Flux College Degree

College is unaffordable, inefficient, and sometimes irrelevant. Here's a guide to navigating the new education paradigm.

The cost of college tuition has risen faster than nearly any other good or service in America for more than three decades. A bachelor’s degree at New York University, the most expensive university in the country, will now set you back $244,000.

The average student loan borrower pays much less but still walks away almost $27,000 in debt for an undergraduate degree. Student loan debt has outpaced credit card debt in this country, and the percentage of people who default on their loans after just three years just rose to 13%.

These eye-popping prices have inspired a raging debate over whether college is really worth the money anymore. Some prominent voices in the entrepreneurship world, such as PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, say no. Some of his Thiel Fellows drop out of Ivy League colleges to pursue their dreams.

Economists and social scientists scoff, arguing the average return on an education remains robust; in today's economy, you need at least a technical degree or certificate to qualify for anything better than a fast food or warehouse job.

The only hole in this argument is that it usually takes much more than what a formal education provides today to be successful, either in your career or more broadly, in life. Mid-level skilled clerical and managerial jobs, the kind that our industrial-era education system was optimized to prepare workers for, have disappeared overseas or are increasingly handled by software. You need a specialized set of higher-order thinking skills, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, creativity, design thinking, a sense of humor, and a killer social-media profile to compete in the job market today. The problem is, you can't rely on developing most, or even many, of these qualities from a traditional college syllabus.

Kio Stark, who has a background in interactive advertising and also teaches at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, published an ebook last year titled Don't Go Back to School. She interviewed more than a hundred successful independent learners who had either dropped out of college or had skipped grad school to instead do what they loved to do--whether it was computer programming, writing, business, acting, fine art, journalism, or even philosophy. "A lot of the people I spoke to felt that they had no autonomy over what they were learning in college. They were taking tests rather than getting to do more independent thinking," she says.

For the past several years, there's been a growing movement of people taking a direct, entrepreneurial approach to accomplishing the jobs that a college degree ought to be doing, and often for a much more affordable price. There are quite a few resources and communities out there to support this kind of entrepreneurial independent learning. Some are programs with connections to existing universities. Some are venture capital-funded startups. Some are nonprofits. But the landscape is growing so fast that the choice quickly becomes chaotic: Should you throw your lot in with Coursera or one of its MOOC competitors? Curate your own YouTube University? Make the rounds of Meetups, Bar Camps, and unconferences? Pay thousands to an online video channel or an in-person startup like Singularity U? Or can you get by with a couple dollars in fees at the local library?

What is your best, most direct, and most customized route to gaining the skills, confidence and connections needed in today's business world without the time or cost of traditional education?

To answer the question, and in keeping with one of our favorite learning techniques, Fast Company posed a gamelike challenge: Create an independent college degree equivalent for $10,000 or less.

We've narrowed the career choices to a few fast-growing, dynamic areas that will be familiar to our readers:

Many of the programs we're profiling are new on the scene, but they already have plenty of success stories from satisfied learners. Will you be next?

[Student Image: Darren Liby via Shutterstock]

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17 Comments

  • Todd Wilmore

    Having learned through varied life experiences and being self taught in others, having earned a BA and MA, and having taught at universities for over 16 years, I think we miss the point. A college degree is a construct of society. It is not necessary for developing critical thinking, that can happen in any environment with mentoring and coaching. It is not necessary for learning content as that is available everywhere. It is not the sole source of networking, we do that everyday by being involved with professional groups and at work. It is a fine way to spend 4 or more years if you have money and income. However, the primary reason we believe college is vital is because we are told so - by colleges and more importantly, by companies that still look for a degree first, yet acknowledge that degrees don't produce ready workers. Once business agrees to hire based on other factors than a degree (google open badges), and commits to spending more time and effort on training new workers, college becomes a place for specialized learning such as medicine and science. Don't accept that this educational model is the only alternative. Everyone will not create Facebook, but anyone can succeed with a patchwork of learning and a lot of motivation.

  • Saskamodie Jones

    College (in America at least) is a business. At this point touting that you have a college degree is like bragging about your Ralph Lauren Polo shirt. When everyone has one and some several what is the real worth anymore? Higher education is an imperfect meritocratic screening system. It's a false standard by which to judge occupational competence. The education bubble is bursting because it has become a plutocracy. The growing interest in our modern day with alternate means to higher education is merely a market reaction to unbalanced conditions.Like a Ralph Lauren Polo the cost of higher education is over inflated for what should be an ordinary commodity. It's not where you got your education that should matter. Just that you have one and that it fits.

  • Katie

    As a student who is essentially on one of these self-made, low-budget college degrees, I have to say thank you. Since I decided to graduate a year early, I have been told countless times that I'm going to regret having done this one day, or that I'm missing out on opportunities. There is such a pressure that still exists on our generation to go to college (whether you want to or not), and take a nice, well-paid job to work at until you retire. But that's simply not the job, economic, or opportunity landscape anymore, as I'm appreciative of you addressing in your article. I must agree that college has provided me with great opportunities, and that I owe much of my sense of direction in life to my experience here. But I just happened to have some sense of direction at 18 as well, and lucked out that my gut feeling about my choice college was right. I have thoroughly enjoyed college, but I have also had to cut as many corners as possible to pay for it--applying for the honors program for a half tuition scholarship, becoming a Resident Assistant to get room and board, and then taking online classes at my local community college one summer to get ahead in credits. Not to mention that most of the opportunities and great experiences of the last few years have been due to extracurriculars, not classrooms. 

    Is college still relevant, helpful, and important? I say that yes, it definitely is. But it wasn't as essential as I thought it would be when I got here, and that's why I'm now graduating early. It also clearly wasn't essential for the numerous people I graduated with who went to college out of obligation, and are now back home, out of school and working because they feel like they wasted 1-2 years of their lives. I'm ready for some practical job experience, and I think that's one of the key issues now: finding experiences that are relevant to what you want to do. That should be the goal. Many of us still feel like we have to go to college because it's the only option, and I think that's what messes a lot of us up. Throughout high school we are told that college is the only path, so we spend four years preparing for it instead of keeping our eyes open to what motivates us. Like I said--I lucked out. I had a feeling I would find what motivates me while at college and I did. But as far as I can tell, I'm kind of a minority. 

    I think something important that we must now do is not disregard college, but change our thinking about it. Instead of imposing college on young high school students, teach them that it's now one of many practical options. And if college doesn't work out for students who do choose it, don't call them failures. That's only demotivating and counterproductive to encouraging young, bright minds. And even more importantly (to me, personally): don't claim that there's any one, correct way to complete college. That's like telling a bunch of puzzle pieces they can all fit in the same place... now that's just silly. 

  • Cold Fire

    I use Accredible.com in my self directed learning process. I am an aspiring gardener and I grew up in the country around a lot of that. I think it is definitely something you can teach yourself and that is what I am doing. I do know that certain professions like in the medical fields and some scientific will require degrees, but I definitely advocate people searching and finding what they could possibly teach themselves. Maybe we are all not Gates or Zuckerburg, but to say that it can not happen to the average person is a little wild to me because we all have to start somewhere. A lot of CEOS have come from the most humble beginnings. We must all have the courage to believe we can start somewhere, self directed learning or not. I think the power and will to succeed is within the individual. It's natural for some people whether they are selling drugs or running Walgreens. When you naturally have that entrepreneurial or hustler spirit, you can do almost any damn thing you are thrust into.  

  • Heather

    I agree with others in the fact that I feel an undergraduate degree is almost essential these days to remain competitive in the job market (unless your parents or relatives have great connections in your industry of choice). Obviously this is not even a discussion for medical or scientific fields where a doctorate or masters is required to even be considered qualified to practice. As a business major and M.B.A. graduate I feel my undergraduate degree allowed me to compete for jobs, but am still wondering whether I made the correct choice on getting my M.B.A. Obviously it makes a candidate stand out a little more having a higher degree, but most businesses I interviewed with made it apparent they valued on the job experiences over the higher degree. I think the experiences I gained from being a graduate research assistant were more valuable than the actual classes attended. That being said, with my current dramatically reduced savings and costly student loans I often find myself wondering if the degree itself is really worth the financial cost. I think especially in the business world, it is more about working your way up the ladder and proving your value rather than being able to flaunt a degree. 

  • Ho

    I'm amazed that this argument is still being presented by reasonably intelligent people. First, it's dishonest to compare some of the icons of innovation (Zuckerberg, Thiel, etc) with "Joe Average Student" and it's even more dishonest to lead "Joe Average" into thinking that he could be like them. You're trying to generalize a tiny portion of the population to the larger pool and it's just not valid. For the huge majority of students, their only chance (emphasize chance) of a job that yields above average income is through attainment of a college degree.

    Second, intelligence/aptitude aside, most people (traditional college age or adult students) lack other personality attributes to adequately explore an area of interest (i.e. motivation, critical thinking, and discipline). They need someone to guide them through a line of inquiry. Most people could be considered Unconsciously-Unconscious on a wide range of subjects (i.e. they don't know what they don't know). They may think they have a handle on a subject but, because of their complete lack of knowledge on a subject, they aren't aware of an entire additional line of inquiry. It's human nature to assume that the obvious is the right answer but, in my experience, our is world beautifully complex and the obvious is just a first step into much deeper exploration. Most people (with the exception being the icons of innovation) stop at the obvious and think they're finished.

  • Kenn7727

    This is an insightful response, and often writers draw on the microscopic few who have the immense social footprint. I would add that a greater burden should fall on pre-college educators to "prepare" all learners with a more powerful sense of learning -- not for a career or a job, but to always be "in process" for making decisions, solving problems, being creative, etc.  By the time college or the alternative hits - "kids" should already be prepared with an entrepreneurial attitude toward earning a living and living a dynamic life, no matter what the form.

  • Akamenetz

    I completely agree that the need to revitalize our education system begins at the early childhood level. To respond to the first commenter, the problem is that the qualities necessary for success today are not designed into a traditional education 
    (maybe at its best--but it's just as dishonest to generalize from Stanford/MIT as it is to generalize from Zuckerberg-Thiel). I believe that promoting entrepreneurial, creative, passion-driven and self-directed learning is the right answer for most people, not just for superstars. In my perfect world all people would get the scaffolding, support and structure they needed to pursue their learning passions independently and the developments I describe in this story are examples of that happening.A college degree is not sufficient, and in some cases, it is not necessary.

  • Dwaynee

    I need to be careful not to offend my college partners but this article is right on time because this is how I started my career. I never attended a design school but went on to have a 23-year career as a professional footwear designer(at Nike and JORDAN) and retired to start my own academy(pensole.com) because I didn't like the quality of portfolio's I was seeing from design applicants. My programs are 4 to 6 weeks(12 to 16 hours a day straight), I teach the 3 things you listed above in addition to other professional development skills and in 3 years over 60 of my students are working professionally at some of the industries top companies. Thank you for validating my educational approach because for someone who did not attend design school to start a design school has people scratching their heads.... Thank you for this article.

  • Kenn7727

    Just tweeted this with a Plz Read. To comment some obviousness: depends on the college. Many allow kids to design their own programs (we have triplet hs seniors applying right now). But expense, US News/WR rankings, testing, etc all run roughshod over the learning. What a kid possesses as a result of hi-school on down matters a lot as well, and how his/her parents "taught learning" at home. But all those traits/abilities/competencies you preach - every kid should have them, however they are acquired. Jobs and the marketplace aren't what they were in "my day." As a recently retired headmaster of a private elementary school, I believe every school has to lighten up on the teaching, and go heavy on the learning. That's still not happening enough at all. Thanks for a great piece here!

  • Akamenetz

    Triplets--wow! 
    I agree with you that the skills and competencies are important whether you get them in college or not. I think the DIY path is one of many developments that are hopefully pushing colleges in the right direction, toward greater accountability for the work that they do.

  • Aimee

    "You need a specialized set of higher-order thinking skills, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, creativity, design thinking, a sense of humor, and a killer social-media profile to compete in the job market today." I'm sorry, I think these are exactly the skill sets you acquire in college, especially if you are going to a quality institution (doesn't have to be Harvard). And our students deserve more of this, not less. I think we've become too divisive on these issues and have conflated the needs of all higher education students when there are obviously multiple, appropriate paths. Adult learner? Sure, perhaps a do-it-yourself approach is appropriate. Genius?  Sure, you'll probably do fine if you drop out of college (you were already at an Ivy League school which means you've already benefited from all kinds of advantages the average student won't have). 18 year old taking their first steps towards a career? Then, a "traditional" college experience (at one that is the best fit for you) is the best way to develop critical thinking, to learn and practice oral and written communication, and to have the kind of mentored experiences (research, civic engagement, governance) that will prepare you to land your dream job. The question is whether the jobs are there for you in the first place.

  • Brian Petro

    College is still worth it, and I am not sure why this debate is even going on. Even low end jobs are requiring more and more education. Yes, you will go into debt doing it, but you could also go into the same debt trying to start your own business.

    What we really need is to have better career counseling in high school. Talk to students about what they want to do with their life, and how college could play into that. Not all careers may benefit from a college education. And if they do want to go, find affordable schools.

  • Ben N

    Definitely agree with you here that the value of a college degree may not stack up to the staggering costs. I have a degree in history but I work as a copywriter in advertising. Sure some of the skills I learned at school (like how to write a good paper) are useful, but at the same time, in just 3 months on the job I probably learned more useful skills for my everyday work than I did in college. My degree is more a badge than proof of value.

    My only question is, if I were to have pursued one of these alternative educations, how does that reflect on your resume? When you are self taught and can't put a fancy Ivy League degree at the top of your resume, how do you stack up against the candidate who does? I mean, most jobs require a college degree to apply, and it makes you a lot harder to prove your value if you don't have connections. Yes, doing internships is huge boost when job hunting, but I feel like you instantly lose credability if you can't say you've at least got a bachelors regardless of its use on the job.

  • Akamenetz

    Credibility is constituted differently in different industries. The industries I cover in this piece (entrepreneurship, tech, design, social entrepreneurship) want you to prove what you can do. Knowing people is important too. A hot name on a diploma is a shortcut to legitimacy but I know too many Ivy League grads with mediocre (at best) careers to have full faith that it will pull the weight that should, by age 30, be coming from your accomplishments.

  • Biff Beluga

    Ok, so now what do we do about the industrialized society that requires a Doctorate for a menial job at a rate of $15.00 per hour? I think I'll take my chances going in debt for college for a better return at the end. We all can't be Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. Many of these "start-ups" are going to go bankrupt as a handpicked few grow to be big corporations. I suppose everyone will then jump on the next bandwagon, albeit with no credentials recognized outside the "street-cred" of being a college drop-out. I hate the way the education system is organized as well, but until society changes and recognizes skills gained through life experience and common sense we have to deal with outdated curricula and stifled creativity at America's Universities.

  • Bill Koerner

    I can't believe it, but I told my college-aged kids not to pursue a college degree, unless it was really of interest, and I have two college degrees. Course, even my two degrees are not enough to keep me employed...