Don’t Let College Interfere with Your Education

Although online education is growing rapidly, many students still combine distance learning with traditional instruction. I was one of the few who earned my bachelor’s degree exclusively through the Internet, without setting foot in a college classroom.

My school of choice was Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, New Jersey. The college offers an impressive array of degrees—obtainable both online and through a traditional classroom—and is flexible in accepting credit hours from other institutions.

I made a decision early on that college was about getting a piece of paper, not an education. My goal wasn’t to become a better-rounded individual, or even to gain a greater understanding of my major area of study. Rather, it was to gain the educational credential that employers now use as a screening device for most jobs. And my experience confirmed what I had expected—that post-secondary education today has only a lackluster ability to provide real value aside from that credential.

I don’t mean to say that I had no interest in studying or working hard in school. To the contrary, I found college easy but dull. I preferred to pursue my chief educational goal—learning the craft of journalism—through non-standard methods. I learned far more from reading books independent of coursework, practicing writing, and sitting under the tutelage of professional journalists than I ever did through college classes.

My approach isn’t the right fit for all students. Some want a classical liberal arts education for the sake of gaining appreciation for the world around them. Others want to master technology-related subjects that will assist them in their chosen careers.

College did have the benefit of exposing me to history and literature that, likely, I wouldn’t have studied on my own. But the liberal political bias inherent in the coursework—even at community colleges—hampered the experience. And I could have learned what I did through the courses just as easily on my own, had I been motivated to do so.

Online learning fit nicely with my background. I was home-educated through the twelfth grade and accustomed to learning outside the normal school atmosphere. By the time I was ready for college, self-motivated education was second nature.

I found that I learned far more through self-directed study, independent of a classroom, and by on-the-job experience than I did through college work. That’s why I made a point to intern and freelance as much as possible.

Such work had a two-fold benefit. First, it allowed me to gain valuable journalistic experience and to develop contacts that eventually led to a full-time job. Second, it provided enough income to help me pay for a large portion of my education, ensuring that I graduated without the burden of student loans.

Distance education was efficient. In my senior year of college, I took on an 18-credit- hour semester while working a full-time job. At a traditional school, only the unusually courageous of heart might carry such a load, but distance learning made it much easier. Several of my classes only required a combination of reading assignments, taking tests, and participation in discussion boards. I devoted only a handful of hours to them per week and still earned As and Bs. If classroom attendance had been required, it would have taken up a much greater share of workday time.

Similar to a regular college, part of the game of online education was learning what the professor valued and then providing it. Many times, instructors would supply that information in the syllabus. Other times, I had to figure which part of the course was most heavily weighted. I still put in plenty of effort, but it was strategic effort because I could only afford to devote so much time to my studies due to my job responsibilities.

Overall, I found my on-the-job experience far more valuable in terms of education than my college coursework. Even in my senior year, when I was taking the equivalent of 400-level courses, I already knew most of the material by learning from other professionals and by actually working alongside them. Reading about my major area of study was interesting—doing it was far more useful.

As an added bonus to my online learning approach, I was hired full-time a year before graduation as an associate editor at the John Locke Foundation, so I didn’t flounder in a poor job market for months or years before landing an entry-level position. It helped that I had interned so much during my college years. (I’m not alone. According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 38 percent of college students who interned at a company while in school ended up working full-time at the same company after they graduated.)

I wasn’t invested in getting “the college experience,” either. I’m not a huge sports fan. Binge drinking, illicit sex, and rampant drugs had no appeal. Although I didn’t have a campus life to participate in, those needs were filled in other ways—through my family, my church, and my existing network of friends.

In summary, distance education is an excellent method for self-motivated learners. But that is key. Students don’t have to face a professor or teaching assistant if they don’t complete their assignments on time; it’s much easier to ignore a Web page or an e-mail. For those committed to getting experience in their chosen field of study, and to staying out of debt, however, it’s a terrific option.

Distance education isn’t for everyone—nor is it an effortless option. In fact, for students who aren’t accustomed to self-motivation and lots of reading and writing, distance education might actually be more difficult. It all depends on a student’s skill set and which educational approach he or she prefers.

If nothing else, my experience with online learning taught me that a college degree isn’t required for vocational and financial bliss. A degree can aid a career, but it’s no golden ticket to a dream job. Hard work, determination, and a willingness to think outside the box are what count in the long run. That’s particularly true in a poor job market flooded with B.A.s. Increasingly, the college degree is becoming what a high school diploma used to be—a rite of passage, but little else.