On Unschooling

I’m reading a book about post-secondary unschooling, Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will by Dale Stephens.

As an education researcher, I see an academic degree as an institution’s stamp of approval. The school is willing to tell the world that you know something or are capable of something. If they are wrong about you, it’ll hurt their reputation. To curate a group of students who know that thing (whatever it is), schools usually need to teach. But teaching is only incidental to credentialing. Credentialing is about utilizing someone else’s reputation.

The basic arguments of Hacking Your Education are that:

  1. You can learn faster outside of an academic program.
  2. The extra time and learning will enable you to build your own reputation, leading to more success than relying on a credential that borrows the institution’s reputation.1

Ultimately, Dale’s argument is about the opportunity cost of getting a credential. He argues that the time, energy, and money spent to get a degree would be better spent elsewhere. Transparently, this is a gamble that will work out better for some folks than for others.

My story

The book is helping me re-evaluate my own education. I was a great student with A’s the whole way through, but I underperformed in some ways. I earned an ordinary non-honors high school diploma, attended a lower-ranked college than I could have been admitted to, and chose a relatively easy major. My first jobs after college were lackluster.

It wasn’t laziness. I’m a self-starter. But I wanted things outside of the narrow path to a stellar career. Mostly it was travel. I did foreign exchange in high school instead of doing an IB diploma like my brothers. Then I did another foreign exchange program in college. My engineering-major friends made fun of my easier department, but it gave me flexibility to explore extra subjects outside of it. I never knew what I wanted to do as an adult, so why pay extra tuition and stress myself studying for a degree I didn’t want with conviction?

I remember the moment my future career fell into place. I was living in a place I hated, doing an internship I hated when it dawned on me that I should do a PhD in economics. It clicked. That was what I wanted, finally!

And it wasn’t too late. I had two semesters left in college. If I added a summer and changed my minor, I could just barely complete the pre-requisites for econ graduate school. I worked hard toward that goal. Until I changed my mind. Graduating with little debt, internship experiences, and a great GPA, I was confident – confident enough to take another detour off the path toward career success. I didn’t want to be an “adult” yet. Instead of applying for professional jobs after graduating, I strung together short-term jobs that interested me in the state government. Within the year, I found a scholarship and followed another foreign exchange program out of the country.

That last overseas trip was the farthest I strayed from a conventional career path. But it was the best trip. I met a girl. I decided that she was truly who I wanted. At first, I tried to stay in the country near her. After my program ended, I took a job selling fake motorcycle parts on Ebay and working in the country illegally. I sucked at it. And marrying my dream girl required me to grow up. I also still liked the idea of going to graduate school for economics.

I began the long climb back toward a professional career. My parents bought me a flight home since I was broke, and I went back to the same $10/hr seasonal government job I took after graduating. I got bed bugs from the used mattress in the room I rented. I had applied to start graduate school in the fall but was rejected by all the schools. So I kept working in state government, with another internship and eventually landing a permanent job.

That time was depressing, but I was focused. I spent an hour per night talking to my girlfriend since marrying her was my top priority. (You can only have one top priority.) I was passionate about my job, which I had taken over a higher-paying alternative. And I was re-applying for graduate school. Years of stewing on the idea gave me absolute assurance that I wanted to study economics.

After two years struggling in Indianapolis, things came together. I’d gathered the financial security to ask my girl’s parents for their blessing to marry her. I was accepted to graduate school on the second try. My wife’s visa application was approved. Within weeks of starting graduate school, we got married. Graduate school was a slog, academically. I’ve never done anything harder. But I was certain about what I wanted and needed. Our first daughter was born during my second year there.2

Learning vs. credentialing

I always understood that I could explore within limits as a young adult. There is safety in academic and career success. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I could estimate well enough to guess that a college degree would help me land somewhere good. When I finally figured out the career I wanted and decided to step into full adulthood, it only required bending my path rather than making a full U-turn. I was already in the neighborhood.

Gaining skills and credentials requires investment. Literally, we call it human capital investment. When you know exactly the career and life you want, deciding on the correct human capital investment is straightforward. When you’re uncertain like I was, it still makes sense to invest in yourself based on your best guess. You’ll want to explore more than someone who is certain and keep your options open.

Not all learning can be proven via a credential. Often, self-directed learning is faster if you don’t try to prove it to anybody. On the other hand, evidence of skills – rather than skills themselves – is how we humans evaluate each other. One has to balance.

For most people, life will be easier if you have a degree. But doing the hardest, most expensive degree you can achieve might not be the best choice either, unless you know exactly what you want. The choice framed in Dale Stephens’ book for post-high school is binary: Either attend an extremely difficult, expensive, fully absorbing college or drop out of college completely. But the reality is a continuum. You can gain the minimum credentials needed while still setting aside time to flexibly learn and create.

The key is efficiency. The worst thing you can do is waste your time and money, whether by laziness or by working hard at the wrong goal. The absolute worst thing you can do is to combine those mistakes by going into debt at an expensive school and failing out.

Instead of unschooling, maybe you can call my philosophy min-credentialing.

  1. The author of the book seems insufferable. He’s a 25-year-old writing a self-help book about DIY career success through hustling, dripping with elitism. The book is 10 years old, so I looked to see where Dale is now. Obviously, he burned out and suffered a quarter-life crisis within a couple years of the book’s publication. His current website seems a decade humbler and more mature than the writing in the book, and he uses his middle name now. Some of my favorite books are autobiographies by authors with obvious character flaws they’re not aware of. It adds an extra layer…I hope that’s not why you’re reading my blog post. 

  2. Nothing scares and motivates a guy like having a baby. In economics, it’s called the Fatherhood Premium

Written on August 12, 2022