Alternative to College for High School Graduates

I think I wrote about this idea on the old v-i, but I can’t remember. Because of the high cost of college, I recently had a conversation about an alternative to going to college, something I wouldn’t mind for my children. My concept is based on the St. Johns College’s approach:

Through close engagement with the works of some of the world’s greatest writers and thinkers—from Homer, Plato, and Euclid to Nietzsche, Einstein, and Woolf—students at St. John’s College grapple with fundamental questions that confront us as human beings. As they participate in lively discussions and throw themselves into the activity of translating, writing, demonstrating, conducting experiments, and analyzing musical compositions, St. John’s students learn to speak articulately, read attentively, reason effectively, and think creatively.

My understanding is that St. John’s College students basically read the Great Books and discuss them in small groups. For the math and science books, they will sometimes replicate older experiments or solve mathematical problems posed in these classic works. Essentially, the approach comes down to reading really good books and then being able to write and discuss them. Now imagine if a St. John’s College graduate (or some well-read person that was a good teacher) started a “school,” where about ten students would read the Great Books, meet to discuss them, write about them, and do occasional project (replicate experiments, solve math problems, etc.). That’s basically my alternative to sending my kids to college. If I was confident in my teaching ability, particularly of these books, I would consider doing this for my kids. Besides this obstacle, here are some other potential problems that come to mind:

  • Motivation of the students.
  • I would have loved to attended St. John’s College, but I felt that way after four years. I’m not sure I would have been motivated or well-prepared as a freshman. The approach I’m advocating works if the students have the minimum level of motivation and capacity to do this approach. Of course, any student attending college has to be motivated to study. However, studying the Great Books may require far more from students, especially Freshmen.

  • Securing a qualified instructor. Finding someone that could lead discussions and correct papers on the Great Books may be more difficult than I think. Ideally, the instructor would have read all the books and possess a good understanding of them. Then again, maybe this isn’t essential.

If both these conditions were met–if my children had the motivation and capacity to read, discuss, and write about the Great Books, and I had a qualified instructor, I would be very open to this approach as an alternative to college. But there is another problem that I didn’t mention above:

  • Not having a college degree can hurt employment opportunities. The most practical value of a college degree is employment. Regardless if the correlation between a person’s worth as an employee is strongly correlated with having a degree or not, the reality is that a college degree is an essential key that will open doors of opportunity for employment. Those doors will be closed for those without this key.
  • Missing the social experience. My kids wouldn’t get the social experience that college provides, meeting with different people with different backgrounds and ideas. This is even more true if my children went away for college.
  • There are several ways to deal with these issues, though. For the first problem, my kids could study the Great Books and then go to college. I like this approach because hopefully after a few years of reading the Great Books (and working, volunteering, and possibly traveling), my children will have a much clearer idea of about their vocation.

    For the second issue, a trip(s) to another country(ies), where my children could live (and possibly work) for a few months, could be a remedy for this. Depending on the costs, I think I’d happily make the exchange.

    One last comment. Even though the Great Books route would likely to be cheaper than most colleges, there would still be a cost. How much would it cost to pay for an instructor or tutor? What about the books themselves or any other costs? My sense is that the instructor’s fees would be the largest expense, but it would still be much cheaper than

9 thoughts on “Alternative to College for High School Graduates

  1. Why would the cost be cheaper? I’m not sure why the cost for regular college is so ridiculous, but I was wondering why you are confident the Great Books route would be significantly cheaper.

    You said ten students, but let’s make it four classes of ten students or 40 students total. These forty students would have to pay for the professor, probably one admin person and a building or room. Yeah maybe it would be cheaper in that sense, but I’m guessing still expensive. But this student wouldn’t have any access to on-site libraries, gyms, dorms, or anything else a normal campus would have such as art equipment/supplies. laboratory supplies, and maybe not even computers or a computer lab just to name a few.

  2. What I had in mind is very similar to paying a tutor, and finding other students to join in (and pay). If we’re talking about three one hour discussions per week, maybe a little more or less; and you include preparation and correction of papers, I would have to believe this would be far less than the average college tuition.

    What might be the problem is that I’m not fully appreciating the difficulty with finding and paying for a competent tutor. A part me of me believes I could find a smart graduate student or a smart retired professor–both looking for extra income, but not needing to make a lot of money. Would finding someone like this be really difficult? When I retire, I would consider doing something like this, and because I might not provide the best instruction, I wouldn’t expect to be paid a lot. To me, this isn’t a bad deal for the student. If the student has enough motivation to read the books, and they have the capacity to understand them, the instructor isn’t that important in my view. Yes, someone with real skill at facilitating a discussion or providing background information could be helpful, but I really think that is secondary. In my experience, I would say that 75% of my education came from books, and a lot of what I valued from that education came from books. (Lectures are probably the lowest on the list.)

    But this student wouldn’t have any access to on-site libraries, gyms, dorms, or anything else a normal campus would have such as art equipment/supplies. laboratory supplies, and maybe not even computers or a computer lab just to name a few.

    If you told me my children had the motivation and capacity to read and understand the Great Books, I could easily forgo these things. If they read the books, and could intelligently write and discuss them, I’d be really, really happy. In terms of their academic education, there’s almost nothing else I’d want for them than this.

  3. OK, I worked a potential cost for this. This could be totally unrealistic, so let me know what you guys think.

    Instructor fee: $20 per hour.
    Hours per week: 20. This would entail at least three 2 hour sessions. That leaves 14 hours for preparation and grading. ($400 per week.)
    Semester: 16 weeks. I wasn’t sure about the length of the semester so I just choose four months. ($6,4000 per semester)
    One year of school: 2 semesters. ($12,800)
    Number of students: 10 ($120,800)

    This does not include benefits like insurance, nor does it account for taxes. With taxes, the payment would obviously be less. But if we’re talking about a recent graduate or a retired professor, doesn’t this seem like a pretty good deal?

    For parents and students, this obviously doesn’t include books and supplies. One quote I saw for the entire Great Books set was $750 (and that would be a one time payment for books). So for the parents and students that’s $13,555. Round up to $14,000 for supplies. (This assumes that students will live at home or this doesn’t include room and board.)

    One thing $20 per hour per student really means $200 per hour with 10 students. That seems high. Suppose we drop that to $100 per hour and therefore $10 per student. You’re not talking approximately $7,000 per year.

    Besides the motivation of the students, the other factor would be finding the right person. How hard would it be to find a recent college graduate (from St. John’s College perhaps) or a recently retired college professor that would be good at doing this? Maybe it’s a lot harder than I think.

  4. Man, if you are talking about a $10 or $20 per student “tutor” leading this group, your first assumption of “not having a college degree can hurt employment opportunities” is absolutely correct. It’s hard to determine a person’s worth in a interview or pre-job test (good or bad). I think one of the main value of universities is it serves as a “first step” filter of good future workers versus bad ones. It’s not fool-proof, but there is probably a good correlation between bad student and bad worker. Not to say your St John’s college thing couldn’t do the same filtering, but it’s hard to have good credibility with only ten students and a $10 – $20 tutor leading the way.

    1. You mean, job opportunities for these students would be significantly hampered because the tutor was paid so little? If so, do you think the situation would change dramatically if the tutor was paid a lot more, but was basically a no name individual?

      My sense is that the degree to which a college degree helps job opportunities is based on the prestige of the institution. The salary of the profs seems far less important. (I wouldn’t really seek out this information when analyzing a college, but maybe that’s a mistake?)

      What’s more important is the status of the tutor. What are their credentials. Still, unless they were well-known or had a good reputation among academic circles, I tend to think the tutor’s pay would be less of a factor.


      Another idea occurred to me. The publishers of the Great Books should create a certification program for tutors (if they haven’t already). They could also design a two year or four year program to teach the Great Books.

  5. I’m going to guess at least until “your school” has a reputation, the only way it can have credibility is the credibility of the teacher. To label him a tutor or my words not yours “just a facilitator” and being paid very little, that has to hurt the way others will view the students.

    1. I was thinking this endeavor would largely be unknown, and because of that, the approach would hurt the students’ ability to get good jobs.

      One way to counter this, which I mentioned above, is that the students could eventually attend a college. Why not just go to college in the first place? Besides reading, writing, and discussing really good books, the students would get a better idea of what they would want to study (hopefully).

      The approach seems risky, in terms of employment. But I value reading, writing, and discussing the Great Books so much that I think I would be willing to take this risk.

  6. Ted Gioia, the music critic/writer, recently offered his blueprint for remaking the newspaper industry, and that made me think about this thread again.

    Here are a few sections that made me think of this thread:

    Reinventing an industry

    If you plan to reinvent an industry, you must identify the key weakness of your competitors. If you can’t find one, you move on to something else. Just imitating what everyone else does isn’t enough—you have to pinpoint the stupid move the existing players are making.

    Then you exploit it.

    In the case of the universities, one weakness is the high cost, based on things unrelated or indirectly related to learning (e.g., athletics, facilities, administrative positions, marketing, etc.). My idea is to reduce the costs by reducing or eliminating expenses for things that have little to do with learning. Now, I realize students go to college for other things, but if the cost of college is a big problem, one solution is to strip away the non-essentials, emphasizing the acquisition of knowledge and important skills. (I would include having enriching experiences like interacting with people from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds). If my children have to forgo non-essentials, but they acquire these skills and knowledge–at a fraction of the existing cost–I would take that deal.

    Interestingly, based on this poll of young students, maybe many of them would feel the same way?

    What will tuition monies pay for?

    My hypothesis is that journalism in the digital age increasingly resembles these other talent-driven businesses. The key assets go home at night, and are much more important than a printing press or physical distribution network.

    I will win at this game because I will hire the 100 smartest people for my creative team

    This is similar to my thinking–namely, good teachers, are the most important part of the college. (The quality of books and material used for learning are also important. Next, I would say the quality and make-up of the students.) The buildings, campus, amenities, extracurricular activities–those are far less important. My sense is that by reducing or eliminating these expenses, we could dramatically reduce the cost of college, while attracting really good teachers.

    (By the way, I would make a distinction between great teachers and great researchers. They’re not mutually exclusive, but they’re not necessarily the same, either. Moreover, a great teacher may not be a leading thinker in his field. That is not as important as long as they are great teachers. For me, great teaching involves the ability to explain complex ideas in a clear and understandable way; the ability to organize and present the appropriate information, both qualitatively and quantitatively; the ability to accurately evaluate students and know the steps needed for students to improve; the ability to facilitate good discussions. I would say they all need to be good writers and know how to teach and evaluate writing as well.)

    These teachers, plus good books, plus a diverse student body are the ingredients that will lead to a good education. (The students themselves have to also have sufficient motivation and commitment as well.)

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