Hitting the Books — Without Hitting the Banks

Hello and welcome to part two of our Long Weekend Double Header!

Keeping Up With Tradition
For as long as I can remember, the Tuesday after Labour Day has been the first day of school. So, it only seems fitting that this blog post should be about hacking post-secondary education.

This is an idea that has been gathering momentum for several years now. I live in Canada, where the cost of post-secondary is high, but not necessarily out of reach. However, I know that’s not true in other parts of the world.

At the beginning of August, Forbes Magazine told us that student loans now make up the second highest form of consumer debt in the US. Only mortgages are higher. These are sobering statistics: the average borrower will graduate with almost $27,000 in debt, and 10% of those graduates will have racked up more than $40,000 in loans.

All of this — for an education that doesn’t guarantee you a job. Small wonder that alternatives like the UnCollege movement have started to spring up.

Let’s Investigate Some More
Over the past few months, I’ve looked at a variety of book resources that talk about education hacking. These are three that I thought were especially interesting:

    Hacking Your Education
    Written by Dale J. Stephens

    The Personal MBA
    Written by Josh Kaufman

    The Art of Non-Conformity
    Written by Chris Guillebeau

We’re going to look more closely at the alternative educational program presented in the “Art of Non-Conformity”, which Chris Guillebeau calls “The One-Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience”. All three books present excellent ideas, but I chose this one because it was so tangible, but at the same time, quite flexible.

It’s proposed to cost about $10,000 — which is much better than $40,000 — but let’s see if we can use some library resources to get the cost down even lower. You’ll see the building blocks of Chris’ program below in blue, with the Library Life Hack suggestions in yellow.

Subscribe to the Economist and read every issue religiously. Cost: $97 + 60 minutes each week.
If your library has Zinio, use that and your library card to access The Economist online. Failing that, come in to your closest library each week. The Economist is a standard title in most periodical sections. It’ll get you out of the house and you’ll save $123.
Memorize the names of every country, world capital, and current president or prime minister in the world. Cost: $0 + 3-4 hours once.
I definitely can’t improve on the cost, but if you head to the kid’s section, they usually have an electronic version of Encyclopedia Britanica, where you can find it all in one place.
Buy a Round-the-World plane ticket or use Frequent Flyer Miles to travel to several major world regions, including somewhere in Africa and somewhere in Asia. Cost: variable, but plan on $4,000.
There isn’t much I can do for the ticket price, but libraries generally have extensive travel sections. Use those to get the most out of what you spend on your accommodations, food, transfers, etc. They’ll also help you figure out what to go see when you get there.
Read the basic texts of the major world religions: the Torah, the New Testament, the Koran, and the teachings of Buddha. Visit a church, a mosque, a synagogue, and a temple. Cost: Materials can be obtained free online or in the mail—or for less than $50 + 20 hours.
Libraries will usually have at least one version of each of these texts. Based on the least expensive versions available from chapters.indigo.ca and amazon.ca, you’ll save $54.53
Subscribe to a language-learning podcast and listen to each 20-minute episode five times a week for the entire year. Attend a local language club once a week to practice. Cost: $0 + 87 hours.
Podcasts are terrific because they’re so portable. If you’re more of a visual learner, I can also suggest Mango Languages, which is accessible online with a current library card. Mango offers more than 50 languages, ranging from Azerbaijani to Yiddish.
Loan money to an entrepreneur through Kiva.org and arrange to visit him or her while you’re abroad. Cost: Likely $0 in the end, since 98% of loans are repaid.
I totally endorse this — I’m a Kiva lender myself.
Acquire at least three new skills during your year. Suggestions: photography, skydiving, computer programming, martial arts. The key is not to become an expert in any of them, but to become functionally proficient. Cost: Variable, but each skill is probably less than three credits of tuition would cost at a university.
Right now, three credits of tuition at the university I attend will set you back $670, so that’s a good-sized window to experiment with. The three I picked were photography, illustration and screenwriting. The total savings came to $272.03 and you can see the book lists here.
Read at least 30 non-fiction books and 20 classic novels. Cost: approximately $750 (can be reduced or eliminated by using the library).
I drew up a list of the ones I thought were most appropriate for my interests. You can find them here, and the money saved by using my library card came to $684.74
Join a gym or health club to keep fit during your rigorous independent studies. (Most universities include access to their fitness centers with the purchase of $32,000 in tuition, so you’ll need to pay for this on your own otherwise.) Cost: $25-75 a month.
Going to the gym may be an important reason to get you out of the house during your year of alternative schooling, which is a perfectly good thing. However, if you’re strictly focused on saving money, libraries have excellent video resources that will help you learn a home practice in yoga, pilates, and tai chi. You will also find libraries well-stocked with books on developing running and weighlifting programs. You can likely save anywhere from $300 to $900 over the course of a year.
Become comfortable with basic presentation and public speaking skills. Join your local Toastmasters club to get constructive, structured help that is beginner-friendly. Cost: $25 + 2 hours a week for 10 weeks.
Toastmasters has such an excellent reputation that I would hesitate to advise you to look for a free alternative. Bite the bullet and do the real thing. I think it’s worth it.
Start a blog, create a basic posting schedule, and stick with it for the entire year. You can get a free blog at WordPress.org. One tip: don’t try to write every day. Set a weekly or bi-weekly schedule for a while, and if you’re still enjoying it after three months, pick up the pace. Cost: $0.
I can’t offer anything here, except that there’s lots of useful, current (and free) advice on sites like copyblogger.com and problogger.net.
Set your home page to http://wikipedia.org/random. Over the next year, every time you open your browser, you’ll see a different, random Wikipedia page. Read it. Cost: $0.
Nothing to add here either.
Learn to write by listening to the Grammar Girl podcast and buying Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Cost: $0 for Grammar Girl, $14 for Anne Lamott.
Take “Bird by Bird” out of the library. You’ll save $13.68. Grammar Girl is still free, though.
Instead of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, read The Know It All by A.J. Jacobs, a good summary. Cost: $15.
If you take “The Know It All” out of the library, you’ll save $13.71.
TOTAL COST: $10,000 or less.
TOTAL COST: If you’re really determined, you can probably squeak through this year with just the cost of your travels and your Kiva loan. I’m going to estimate $6000.
*The total cost of the self-directed, alternative graduate school program does not include housing or food, but neither does the tuition for traditional school programs in the U.S. and Canada. Freedom and independence, however, are included at no extra charge.
*What he said.

Show Me the Money
This is already a pretty long post, so I’m going to wrap up quickly. Based on the items that I could actually affix a price to, if you embarked on a year’s studies like the one shown above, your library card would save you $1161.69. Now, that’s what I call a cha-ching!

Free Stuff!
Let’s close the doors to higher learning for now. There are so many exciting things happening in alternative education that I would need several more posts to cover them all. But for now, let me leave you with a challenge. Write up a list of the 30 non-fiction books and 20 classic novels YOU would read if this was YOUR year of self-directed studies, and send it to me at librarylifehack [at] gmail.com. In return, I will send you your very own copy of “The Art of Non-Conformity”. Absolutely free. Doesn’t get much better than that, folks. : )

Have a great week!


Note that the “The One-Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience” has been reprinted here with the permission of the original author

8 thoughts on “Hitting the Books — Without Hitting the Banks

  1. I think this is a great idea in theory! I know a lot of people who are not in school but choose self-directed learning in some way. Using the Great Courses, for instance. Or reading a particular list of books. There is only one problem: this is all meaningless in a system that requires a piece of paper at the end of it to prove you did any of it. I can say I read a broad selection of literature from Beowulf to Chaucer to Graham Greene ( I really did too!) but that is not a credential that is recognised by an employer. Look at the Alberta Government or even the County of Strathcona; the job postings require a degree. Often they don’t even care which one but they want one. Also saying you read X or Y doesn’t mean you understood it or can write analytically about it. Passing a course at an accredited school does mean that, to a greater or lesser degree. The Uncollege idea may be a great way to continue your learning but practically it doesn’t do anything for you.


    • Hi Leslie!

      Welcome back! Nice to see you here again.

      You bring up some excellent points. We’re living in a time when there’s this odd tug-of-war between post-secondary education and the ability to earn a living. I think that students are really starting to question what they get in exchange for their tuition. Here’s my take:

      1) At this point in time, we still need that first piece of paper. And it’s usually a bachelor’s degree.

      2) Of the three books I looked at, “Hacking Your Education” was the most radical. “The Art of Non-Conformity” and “The Personal MBA” actually talked about hacking a graduate degree. That’s a major difference, and it makes a lot of sense to me, in light of Point 1.

      3) As to the reading component … I liked that the graduate studies program in “The Art of Non-Conformity” laid out a concrete series of activities, but built in a lot of flexibility. I think by the time you have a bachelor’s degree, you’ve figured out what you’re interested in. So putting together a reading list of 30 non-fiction books that would advance your knowledge in your chosen field shouldn’t be that hard. (If you look at my list, you’ll see that it’s very heavily skewed towards marketing). The 20 classic novels? I think it’s meant to broaden your cultural horizons.

      4) Check out MOOC Advisor — more than 2000 courses, and many now have exams, assignments and some basic credentials. Here in our part of the world, Edmonton Public Library has started offering a Learn4Life program. These are six-week instructor-led online courses with mandatory attendance, final exams and certificates of completion. Free education is starting to look more and more like regular education. It’s kind of wild, isn’t it?

      Now, I’d be a complete hypocrite if I didn’t confess to my own story … at the age of 48, I caved in and decided that I needed to finish the coursework to get a bachelor’s degree in business. If all goes well, I’ll graduate (debt-free) with my own piece of paper in 2015.

      I like most of my courses. But there are some that I’m fairly sure I will never, ever use in my chosen field. I’ve rolled my eyes, handed over my credit card, and given in. But guys like Dale Stephens, Josh Kaufman and Chris Guillebeau? They decided not to give in. They looked for a different way. And you know, I’m happy to give some airtime to their ideas, even if they might not all be 100% practical.

      Yikes! Are you still with me? That’s almost a second blog post all by itself.

      Anyhow, Leslie, thank you for asking the question that probably sits in several other minds. I hope I did it justice!


      • I totally get your answer! And I love that places like EPL are starting to offer actual courses that have some rigour so you feel you actually accomplished something. I think our society’s over reliance on grades and numbers and pieces of paper is something that will begin to change as we see that the system as it stands is feeling quite archaic. Ken Robinson has some interesting TED talks on education if you are interested. I read somewhere today that education is for the school to do and training is for the employer to do and I wonder how far apart those things are sometimes. For instance, an MA now isn’t enough, they want you to have a PHD and maybe some Post Doc work. Heck, you are practically ready to retire by the time you’ve done all that, especially if you have to work as well (as most folks do). I wonder how much is requirement for requirement’s sake, you know? Anyway, a very interesting discussion. I have always felt that those who are curious will learn no matter what subject and what age and we seem to have more and more outlets to do that. Yay!


      • Yay indeed! Thanks for the tip about Ken Robinson — I listened to the audio version of his book “The Element” last summer and loved it. I’m going to have to go to the TED site and see the follow-up talks. Thanks for all the thoughtful commentary!


  2. Fun article! I am a big believe of taking your education into you own hands, and you don;t have to be an autodidact to do it. The new phenomenon of moocs (massive open online courses) are free and cover every topic imaginable. Some you can even get official college credits (like on https://iversity.org/courses). The world is your oyster!


    • Hi Ronan,

      This is fascinating! Have you tried any of iversity’s courses? They look excellent — really well-organized.

      The whole MOOC phenomenon is very interesting to me personally, as I’m completing a traditional degree that blends classroom and online. A MOOC is really only one step beyond that.

      Thanks so much for the comment!



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