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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
 Mary Pilon, “What’s a Degree Really Worth?” Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2010, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703822404575019082819966538.html.  Ibid.  “Degrees That Pay You Back” and “Salary Potential By School Location,” 2011–2012 PayScale College Salary Report, PayScale, accessed February 20, 2012, http://www.payscale.com/best-colleges.  “20 Great Jobs That Don’t Require a Degree,” CNN (CareerBuilder), posted February 24, 2006, http://www.cnn.com/2006/US/Careers/02/24/cb.no.degree.jobs. 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 PayScale.com or searching online for average earnings.