Sunday, June 17, 2012

How Self-Directed Learners Earn a Living Without a College Degree

Guest post by Blake Boles, author of Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree. This post is excerpted from the chapter “Financial Security Without College, Part Two”

How do self-directed learners actually make their livings? Can they earn a decent amount of money? Who has taken this path successfully?

There are a number of stories about self-directed learners who skipped or dropped out of college. The following story is one that succinctly illustrates the answers to these questions.Ben Hayes, a lifelong unschooler from New York City, spent much of his youth playing games of all types—video games, computer games, board games, and card games. At age 13, he got an internship at Gamelab, a NYC-based game design company. After Ben spent three years building his skills and demonstrating his value, Gamelab hired the 16-year-old as a full-fledged designer and started paying him a steady income.

At the same time, Ben was intensively playing Magic: The Gathering (a card game), working his way up through the tournament system. He soon became one of the top-ranked Magic players, a position that allowed him to explore the world as he traveled to international competitions.

When he turned 17, it seemed logical to Ben to give college a shot. He applied to Parsons, a design school, and was awarded a merit-based scholarship, but after one semester, the choice seemed wrong. Ben transferred to another NYC-based college for a semester, but his classes continued to leave him unsatisfied. He decided to go back to focusing on what he loved, building and playing games. Ben is now 21 and works as the lead designer for Playmatics, a computer gaming startup.

While self-directed learners must embrace their inner entrepreneurs in order to find financial security, they don’t necessarily have to start businesses to make a living. Many, like Ben, simply take jobs that match their passions. After building a solid track record with one or two companies, self-directed learners possess real work experience—an asset that employers value greatly—and their nontraditional educations become a nonconcern. In fact, their backgrounds often can become a valuable distinguishing factor during the hiring process. Another way that self-directed learners make a living is by focusing on what they love, building mastery, and then producing a respected piece of work. They publish articles, build websites, film short movies, code software, or create art, and, when their work garners the attention of a wider community, they figure out how to use their newfound audience to make a living of some kind. Sometimes they perform or compete in a major venue; sometimes their accomplishments go viral on the Internet.

Many self-directed learners do start their own businesses. Sometimes these businesses are wildly successful (think Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates), but more often they’re small and simple yet generate enough money to let a young adult live independently, travel often, and do what they love. By embracing entrepreneurship at an early age, self-directed learners give themselves enough time for trial and error so that they can build a reliably profitable enterprise.Sometimes self-directed learning instead leads you back in the direction of formal education, and you find yourself in a cooking school, long-term apprenticeship, high-level training program, or, yes, even a focused college program that provides a route to profitable employment.Finally, many people who don’t go to college gain competency in a hands-on vocation that’s universally valued and unlikely to ever be offshored or automated, such as health services, construction, electrical work, landscaping, cooking, or small-scale farming. They then use the vocation as a part-time income generator or temporary back-up job.

For example, after I finished my self-directed college program (which handed me a degree but absolutely no job opportunities), I took two short and inexpensive courses that trained me as an Emergency Medical Technician and Wilderness First Responder, positions that I then used to work as a medic for summer camps and outdoor education programs. I also exploited my ability to cook for large groups—a skill I taught myself while in college—to earn money in food service while I was working on my writing.

Most college-skipping self-directed learners pursue many of these paths at once. Just as Ben Hayes focused on paid employment while also competing in Magic tournaments and experimenting with college, you can work toward creating a respected piece of work, build a small business, seek meaningful employment, and develop a vocation all at the same time. By keeping multiple opportunities open, self-directed learners build their financial security without forsaking their interests and values in the process.

What about money? Don’t college graduates make more money than nongraduates? On average, yes, they do. But there are a few important caveats.In a 2007 report, the nonprofit college-preparation organization College Board stated that college graduates make $800,000 more in their lifetimes than their non-college-educated counterparts. However, they retracted the number in 2009; the author of the report said that $450,000 may be a more reasonable estimate.[1] When including the costs of student loan payments, forsaken work opportunities, and ballooning tuition fees, the number may even be as low as $280,000.[2] This is still a significant figure, but it is not nearly as much as we’ve been 
popularly led to believe.

The “average” lifetime earning gap also conceals a huge income variation based on one’s college and field of study. Petroleum engineering majors can easily earn twice the income of child and family studies majors. Princeton and MIT graduates typically earn three times as much as Coker College alumni.[3] Graduates with liberal arts degrees from noncompetitive colleges may well earn less than sales managers, real estate brokers, and other people whose positions don’t require a college degree.[4]
Here are a few more reasons why the lifetime earning gap between graduates and nongraduates shouldn’t scare you:
  • When you don’t include graduates of the Ivy Leagues and other elite colleges, the gap in average lifetime income narrows even more.
  • Income is not the same thing as wealth. Many college graduates (and adults in general) may have high incomes, but they might also be up to their ears in debt.
  • Earning a high income can become a detriment to learning how to live frugally, which is an incredibly valuable life skill in the age of the entrepreneur.
  • Money is just money; time is life’s true commodity. If you’re going to college in pursuit of some mythical six-figure income, that’s a poor gamble to make with four precious years. On the other hand, pursuing an adventurous, self-directed education guarantees you a value-filled experience.
Blake Boles is the author Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree, which launched last week ( If you’re a student or teen, you may download the book for free.  Follow Blake at

[1] Mary Pilon, “What’s a Degree Really Worth?” Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2010, [2] Ibid. [3] “Degrees That Pay You Back” and “Salary Potential By School Location,” 20112012 PayScale College Salary Report, PayScale, accessed February 20, 2012, [4] “20 Great Jobs That Don’t Require a Degree,” CNN (CareerBuilder), posted February 24, 2006, Specific income figures from various colleges, majors, and professions change annually, so I’ve tried to make statements that will generally hold constant. Crunch your own numbers by visiting sites like or searching online for average earnings.


  1. I would like to see a counter post to this wherein you have someone talk about how a college education can be valuable and highlight examples of people who have gone on to have success after having gone to college (and graduate school, etc.), because while this is interesting it obviously only presents one side of the coin and kind of presents itself in a misleading way.

    Gates and Zuckerberg are examples of college dropouts who wound up being very successful, but they've also stepped on enough people and smaller entrepreneurs along the way that they've also been portrayed as villains (especially Gates), and some of the other examples provided are examples of the type of people I guess you could say are "outliers." In other words, they generally are the exception to the rule.

    Too many people who decide not to go to college or drop out do so with people like this in mind, thinking, "Well if they made it, then I can make it," but they never do because they aren't as self-driven as some of those other people are. In fact, you can make the argument that they need a more formal structure and the motivation to work that comes with that formal structure because mom's couch in the basement isn't a great motivator.

    Furthermore, I'd like to add that it always irks me when people discuss college in the context of job training because while there are plenty of professions that can be "trained for" in college and graduate school (my wife just got her MBA and clearly is using that as part of her ongoing professional development), higher education also exists for learning's sake.

    I don't know, maybe it's just the BA that I got at the hands of a bunch of Jesuits in Baltimore talking, but I really figured out the value of continuous learning while I was there and I'm not upset that not every single class I took in four years isn't being applied right this second in my career.

    Value still exists in a formal education.

  2. @Tom Panarese,
    The counter post is the ongoing narrative in America that is forced upon every student. Whether they like it or not, whether they want it or not, they will be forced to be college ready.

    I don't agree that people decide against college because of folks like Gates or Zuckerberg. Until recently, people decided against college because it wasn't forced down their throats or necessary. I was raised by such people who held successful careers as an accountant, television director, and sound engineer.

    Sure, college makes sense for some, but it shouldn't be forced upon all.

  3. Great Post! Thanks. My son (nearing 30)spent most of his twenties in higher education. His first round was an arts degree and when he could not find a job paying much more than minimum wage, 2 1/2 years after graduation, he returned to take a second run at college. The 2nd time, he studied architectural technologies and graduated with HUGE debt. He now needs another 2 year program to get a job that will give him a livable wage. He can not afford the last 2 years until he pays down his earlier debt. He figures he will be close to 35 when he is finally an architect. Still, he can not be guaranteed all this will give him financial security before the age of 45, as he will be digging himself out of a mountain of education debt.
    He recently told his younger brother to forget college and go to work at the main local employer. All his friends that took that route own houses, have investments and travel at least once every couple years. He truly regrets falling for the stories about the security that college might give him. He and his classmates do not see this success.
    He graduated in the top 1/4 of his program both times. We have to stop selling these kids a dream and forcing them into debt while sending them to chase the dreams of past generations.
    Some college graduates will achieve success, others will not. Some drop outs go on to become millionaires, some do not. Life and education offer no guarantees.

  4. I don't get it. Who is forcing people to got to college?

    If you are 18 and can be "forced" to go to college I am not so sure you have the skills to survive as a 19 year old self directed learner/leader.

    1. Is it "THEY"? THEY can force you to go to college?

      I don't know. You can't even be forced to join the military, so I am pretty sure that nobody beyond maybe a kid's parents are forcing anyone to go to college.

      That last sentence on your post is spot on.

    2. "They" could be many institutions or proponents of the “college for all” mantra. Kids are indoctrinated in with this belief from a very young age. The following quote is taken from a Washington Post Opinion piece.

      “It’s correct that education experts have rarely, if ever, suggested that everyone would go to college. But they’ve created a climate in which going to college is the main or only standard of success in high school. If you don’t go to college, you’re judged second-rate and a failure. From students’ perspective, college-for-all is the reigning ethos.”

      This philosophy is new to the last 40 years. The date at which the change came varies from state to state, nation to nation. But as recently as 1972, you could become a nurse by working side by side with a registered nurse, as a nurse in training, at a nursing school, which was often free with room & board provided. Prospective accountants worked their way up through the ranks in an accounting firm, learning the job hands on from mentors with more experience. When they were ready, a few years into their training, they could choose to write the professional exams. A journalist worked in a newspaper or newsroom from a very young age. Even an budding architect would learn working aside a mentor, taking a few courses at night along the way.

      However, now, students rarely have this option. They pay to learn lessons that they were paid to do in the past, as they learned. In the 21st century, we have come so far as to offer college courses in carpentry. manufacturing technologies, mining technologies and many more. In the past, these fields were learned hands on and on the job. Students who, in the past, would have worked from the age of 17 or 18 in these fields, now must pay to go to college, and incur debt instead of earning a living while they learn.

      Yes, we do “force” students into the college for all stream. It may not be a gun to the head force, but it is a societal force.

    3. @Brandt Schneider
      I didn't say students were being forced to go to college. I said they were forced to be college least if they want that shiny diploma at the end of their 12-ish year stint.

      If you weren't aware that the government was forcing this upon most all students, perhaps the Common Core Standards created by the testing companies and publishers have yet to hit your state. Check them out. When you see CCR that means college and career ready. Everything teachers do now beginning from the entry of school has to align to college readiness.

      Students now have less choice over what they learn and, like it or not, they are ALL forced down the same academic / college track.

      Of course, as I've written here before, not only do the testing companies stand to make a bundle off this, so does our government. The student loan debt is higher than the credit card debt in America and it is the only debt that doesn't qualify for bankruptcy. If ya don't pay what you borrowed, plus all the interest, by the time you retire, they take it from your social security.

      Forcing all kids to be college ready increases the money flowing to the government substantially...whether kids finish the requirements for their often watered-down college degree or not.

    4. Looking at it from the top down, this looks like a fine argument. Looking at it from the bottom up, you begin to see the flaws because while common core standards do emphasize college and career readiness, they are not a monolithic structure where teachers are made to be automatons to simply "plug and play."

      There is nuance that I think you're ignoring. Put more simply, I can guarantee you that plenty of teachers will find ways to game the system, so to speak.

      Look at it this way: as with most things in our public education, common core will be implemented 51 different ways across the states (unless you're in a state like mine, which has opted out of common core for reasons that are mostly based on reactionary politics) and further down the line, those standards will be implemented differently from district to district and classroom to classroom.

      In fact, it's one of the few times that this quagmire in our public education system can work to students' advantage. It starts with the right people who listen to students' needs: administrators, counselors, and teachers. Any one of those three can help change the climate and culture of a school in spite of whatever is being pushed down from on high.

      There's a push where I work for readiness but it's readiness for a future and not necessarily any specific track. I work in an area where college is not affordable to quite a number of people but it is pursued because those students who do not go into a career in a trade (electrician, carpenter, mechanic, etc. -- and we have a great vo-tech program) realize that the alternative to going to college is a future that is not very bright. Our guidance counselors all seem to realize this and help these students go after every possible scholarship/grant and really work hand-in-hand with what is a very solid area community college (a cc that often feeds into one of the top public universities in the country) and do what they can to help alleviate the financial stress by taking an on-the-level, realistic approach with their students.

      I know what it's like to have student loans that you pay off for years and I know what it's like to have moments where you wonder if college was worth it; however, I try to go beyond personal bitterness to see that as educators, we still need to help students prepare for their futures, whether or not it involves further education.

    5. At 50, I am returning to school because at least a BA is required to go into the line of work which I am going into as my third career. I've been able to make a 6 figure income without a college degree working for companies that paid based on performance. A degree would have opened more doors for advancement for me, but was not a hindrance to my financial success. There was a period of two months when I was unexpectedly looking for employment. I could not get my foot in the door with most companies because I did not have a college degree. I believe that is what is meant by being forced to have a degree. I have more college hours than is required for a degree, but they have been in subjects that were of interest to me, and not enough with any one school to be awarded a degree.... yet. I am in a position now to pay books and tuition without going into debt, but the big payoff is spending the rest of my life in a field that I absolutely love. Being college ready is not the best option for our educational system. I don't understand why there is not an option for some to become educated as skilled labor instead of being made college ready. Teach living skills, trade skills, and real world skills instead of the current course of study to those which will benefit.

  5. College has become the standard or "default" choice. It has become the "right" path. What it happening is people have discovered that because of the cost, the math of having a college education doesn't always work out. I believe you have to take time and decide on where your passions lay and then decide what type of education works for you. I also believe you don't have to go to college out of High School.

    Finally, no path is a guarantee of success. That is part of life. Plot your path, be ready to change, and enjoy the ride along the way.

  6. I wonder if Blake Boles had a traditional education he would have known where the caps lock key on his keyboard was. That is a value-filled quality to have.

  7. Where are all these caps? I saw a few other people mention that, but I don't see them myself.