If I were 19 again; thoughts on college

The cost of college has been going through the roof. But the last time I saw a job candidate who stood out because of something related to college was a long time ago. And in my field, I cannot think of a single piece of academic research in the last 10 years that impressed me.

I think if I were 19 again, I would not again go to college. Mind you, I’m saying this as somebody who has a doctorate (and thus, seemed to like academia extra well). But times have changed, college has not, except for the skyrocketing cost, and something has to give.

If I were 19 again, this is what I’d do:

  1. Find myself a series of odd, time-limited jobs in the industry that I am interested in. Call them internships, or studies in menial work that expose me to real people doing the kinds of jobs I want (e.g. software development). Low pay would be okay. Part-time would be best. If not available, work for free, but around and with good people. Bring them coffee, wipe their shoes, whatever, and soak up everything.
  2. Get involved in an open-source project. In my case, I’d probably look for something that requires broad engineering skills, like an autonomous quadrocopter: software, electrical, mechanical, reliability engineering etc. There’s lots to learn there.
  3. The other half of the time, start at the beginning of iTunes U, and listen to all the great lectures of the amazing people they have there. Gobble up anything and everything that sounds interesting. Try to understand it in-depth. Collect and work through as much background materials as necessary to be able to.
  4. Find some like-minded individuals on-line. Similar age, similar interests. Self-organize a weekly on-line seminar where we report to each other what we learned this week, and discuss it. Solve the equations together. Help each other understand quantum gravity. Whatever.

I predict that by the time four years would have passed (or whatever time one would spend for a college degree), I would have learned more, understood what I learned better, earned money instead of lost money, had already a wealth of relevant real-world experience, and had a ton of fun in the process.

Why exactly again do I need college?


P.S. Arguably, this works best for software development, followed by electronics, and some other engineering disciplines. It probably works less in other areas – like medicine, where certification is required, which in turn requires degrees. One may want to ask, however, about any discipline whether it is better to spend in-person classroom time with a 3rd-rate bored lecturer, or a nobel laureate on iTunes U who can be rewound as often as I want. Homework can be done without cost, seminars can be self-organized; what remains is labs and tests if needed for certification. Why would it be a good idea to take newspapers to boring lectures (as I was known to do at college) instead of having fun and learning more in the process?