Considering College During a Recession? Think Again.

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"I'm going back to school." It's a common decision when someone wants a job promotion or a career change. And that's especially the case during an economic downturn. Can't find a job? Go back to school. More education can mean job re-training, or it can simply mean a time-out from the work world altogether -- a time to live on grants, scholarships, and student loans.

But as the cost of college tuition skyrockets and the burden of student loans outpace other forms of consumer debt, going back to school might not be such a great plan. Add to that the wealth of educational resources now available online, the possibility for people to learn new skills and to gain new knowledge outside of the traditional college classroom seems to be a compelling argument not to head right back to school.

And that's the case author Kio Stark is arguing. Stark is in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign, crowd-funding what she hopes will be her next book -- a guide to help independent learners figure things out on their own.

Stark's book will join a number of others, including Uncollege's Dale Stephens' Hacking Your Education (due out from Penguin in 2013) and Anna Kamenetz's Edupunk Guide, which are making a similar argument: college may no longer be necessary.

Stark's own background makes this project particularly compelling. She's a grad school dropout and currently a grad school instructor (she teaches at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program). As such, she's familiar with the inner workings of the university system -- how it serves and fails to serve the needs of students.


"College didn't used to be about getting a job," she said. And if anything, the traditional liberal arts degree was simply "vocational training for being an academic." For those of us on a career path might be well-served by that system. But for others, college might not fit the bill.

"If you're interested in a 'protected title profession" -- a doctor or a dentist, for example -- "then yep, go to school. But if what you want is to be a learner," then college might not be necessary.

What is necessary, Stark argues, is to help remake some of that college infrastructure outside of school, namely helping independent learners build or locate their own networks so they can access other folks who are in that professional or learning community. How can students find resources, build their own "curriculum," get their hands on the right tools, and locate the right mentors?

As for Stark's book project, she plans to interview people who are self-taught, including Cory Doctorow on how he learned to be a working writer, and Quinn Norton on how she learned about neurology and psychology as a science writer.

"The idea of learning independently can be daunting, so I started writing down my own strategies and interviewing friends who learn on their own, asking them how they do it," Stark writes in the description of the Kickstarter campaign. " In my research, I've found that people who learn stuff independently develop strategies and infrastructure to give them some of the necessary things that they’d get from a school setting. I want to be able to share that learning framework so that more people can figure out how to do it on their own."

In some ways, that's easier said than done. While it's possible to learn any number of subjects online, just having access to information is far from the end of the story. Despite the financial burden and the time commitment, college does offer an infrastructure -- ideally at least -- to make this learning happen. There's the faculty, the library, the course catalog, the syllabi, and the student population, for example.

But there's a growing argument made by Stark and those like her that that infrastructure is not worth the cost.