Is School Wasting Your Money?


Which is better: self-education or going to school? Are self-educators deluding themselves, believing they can teach themselves better than professors who have studied in their field for years? Are people who go to school just wasting their money on subjects that could be learned faster and more efficiently from a trip to the library?

In my recent post looking for self-education material, I received many comments in favor and against formal education. I personally believe that a mix of formal and self education is ideal. Both have weaknesses that are difficult to compensate for without the other.

My Background

As some of you already know, I’m a second-year University student studying business. My formal education certainly isn’t as extensive as many of the readers here and I still have years to see whether the extra time and money spent in school will be worth it later on. However, seeing as I’m currently in school, I’m coming from a perspective similar to many of you.

I’ve always seen self-education as a big priority and school as little more than a distraction. I’ve taught myself computer programming, psychology, graphic design, nutrition, philosophy, evolutionary biology, finance and other subjects. Many of the readers here undoubtedly have even more self-education, but for the under 20 category, I feel I’ve taught myself a lot.

School Versus Self-Education

I don’t believe anyone here will argue that schools are perfect. They have strengths of self-teaching or you wouldn’t pay so much in tuition. The question is whether these weaknesses are acceptable, and whether there is some way you can minimize them.

Strengths of School:

  1. Accreditation – Barnes and Noble isn’t going to give you a degree, no matter how much you read there.
  2. Structure – Schools tell you what to learn, what tests to take and what homework to do. That added structure reduces the uncertainty in trying to develop your own self-learning program.
  3. Expertise – Instead of haphazardly learning yourself, or relying on shifty sources for information, you get access to the brightest minds in the country (in theory, at least).
  4. Instruction – Not sure what to do? That’s what office hours are for.
  5. Coverage – Self-education can miss out topics that don’t seem immediately relevant but are crucial for later understandings.
  6. Depth – Although I’ve pursued self-education with force, rarely has my efforts reached the same depth of understanding from taking a course.
  7. Networking – Self-education doesn’t usually gather a large network of contacts, potential employers, associates and mentors. (Although it can be done)

Strengths of Self-Education:

  1. Cost – My tuition for this year cost my roughly five thousand dollars (a little less, due to scholarships). That bill is nothing compared to the tens of thousands spent at Ivy League institutions in the States. Self-education is nearly free by comparison.
  2. Flexibility – When I wanted to learn how to program computer games, self-education allowed me to learn rapidly the information I needed. Formal courses would have taken a year or two to deliver the same information.
  3. No Artificial Pressure – The only goal of self-education is understanding. Formal education pushes you to get good grades, win scholarships and get pieces of paper that say you’ve learned something.
  4. Faster – I’ve always found the pace of school to be incredibly slow. While the sluggishness has given me room to add in more personal projects, had I been self-educating I could tolerate at least 2-3 times the pace.
  5. Practical – When my self-education has been linked with business projects, I’ve been able to earn money while learning. This is the opposite of the situation in school, where I pay to learn.

How Can You Fix Formal Educations Flaws?

By “fix” I don’t mean in the broad, overhauling the education system sense. Rather, is there some way we can change our approach to school that reduces some of its weaknesses, namely:

  • Cost
  • Slow speed
  • Rigidity
  • Artificial pressures
  • etc.

The answer is, unfortunately, probably not. There are a few things you can do to change your approach to formal education, but it is mostly a take-it-or-leave-it situation. Either you accept the weaknesses of formal education and go along with it anyways, or you buck the system entirely and pursue the path to self-education.

Can You Supplement Formal Education with Self-Learning?

This is a better question. If school can’t be fixed without changing the entire system, perhaps you can change your approach to self-education to compensate. Since self-education is incredibly flexible, improving your approach to self-education seems like an easier prospect than dismantling University.

This approach of focusing on self-education, while keeping school in the background, has been my strategy for the last several years. School still has the advantage of providing a solid foundation of learning, accreditation and social opportunities. But if learning, growth and effectiveness are your goals, just going to school doesn’t seem to cut it.

How Can You Improve Self-Education

Improving self-education isn’t a simple matter. It is easy to take schooling for granted and forget how important the extra structures, expertise and guidance can be in learning. If you want to improve how you learn outside the classroom, it requires a little more strategy than just picking up a few books.

The list for how to improve self-education could go on forever, but here are a few key points to think about:

  1. Improving Depth – Dabbling in different subjects is good thing. But, if you want your self-made knowledge to compete with school, you need to develop a curriculum. I read roughly a book a week, which gives a lot of fodder for self-education. I plan on adopting four-month long study periods where 90% of the books I read will be devoted to a specific topic (say world religions, investing or nutrition).
  2. Increase Usability – Courses in school are often criticized for lacking practical value. Why not take advantage of a practical education? I’ve found starting small projects to be a fantastic way to rapidly teach yourself skills and understandings that you would otherwise miss.
  3. Increase Standards – Breaking your back for an A+ might not make a lot of sense, but at least grades provide a yardstick to measure by. How can you adopt self-testing measures to monitor how your personal education is moving forward?

  • SJ |

    That’s a very interesting question you brought up.

    In my about page, I tell visitors straight away about my stand that there is but little correlation between academic achievements and personal/financial success.

    The formal education system can only offer so much… it misses out on crucial elements such as life skills.. which you are more likely to pick up through self-education. In fact, like you, I learnt psychology and a lot of other fascinating subjects outside school.

    Is School really that bad?

    Well, not really. I believe formal education still have a lot to offer, for example instilling discipline. I’m not advocating for people to just quit school and then try and figure out what to do.

    You should… no… you MUST supplement formal education with self-education… in areas that schools are not likely to provide you with a good grounding.

    Real education does not begin and end in school. Real education starts when you graduate…

    Happy New Year,
    Personal Development for The Book Smart

  • Alik

    Happy New Year!!

    I would add mobility as a big value/strength of self education. You need school [the building, geographically one single specific location].

    Happy and productive self study in 2008 :)!!

  • Annie

    Wow, I didn’t know you were so young. It’s a good to see someone my own age blogging about stuff like this.

    I am also a second year university student and have given much thought to this “formal education vs. self-education” argument. Obviously, I ended up choosing to pursue formal education (at an art school). However, I supplement my art education with things I teach myself. For example, I decided to drop my Graphic Design minor because I felt that I could teach myself, but I’m more weak in my storytelling and business skills, so I had to take the formal route with my major, Illustration. Among other things, I am also teaching myself Mandarin Chinese and adding to my high school level French.

    Oh, another benefit of formal education is location/travel. Going to school in a different place is nice because living on-campus sort of eases you into living in a new environment. Traveling abroad longterm is also a bit easier in this sense.

  • Ann M.

    Hi Scott – Just wondering, when you read books, what is your note taking method? Do you have any other actions that you take based on them?

    The method I am trying out involves reading books, and using the little book note post-it stickers. I use red ones for action items, and then the other colors to refer to any reference items. I also write any notes on the page with the sticky note. Once I’ve read the book once, I go through it quickly and re-read each bookmarked page. If there is a red sticky note then I complete that recommended action. If there is another color then I will take notes on it in a word document named “Author – Book”. This provides me an easy way to access books I’ve read in the past. It also works well since I read many library books that obviously must be returned.

  • Derrick Kwa


    Just wanted to point out one thing about the “Structure” point. I think the lack of ‘structure’ can be viewed as a strong point of self-learning. It trains you to think more about what you’re doing, and why you’re learning, instead of just going through the motions. Yes, it’s riskier, and there’s more uncertainty, but the uncertainty provides good training for future.

    Also, about networking and expertise, with today’s connected world, it’s a lot easier to get connected with others. I’ve had the likes of Seth Godin replied my emails, and been able to connect with people like Jeremiah Owyang. So yes, it might be slightly harder, but it’s still very much possible.

    Just my 2 cents.


  • Maria

    Employers still prefer employees to have formal qualifications.
    How can you prove you’ve learned anything through self-studying?
    Although University degree doesn’t mean you can function in REAL life.

    I’m myself student of University’s external program (University of London) which is my handy way to gain work experience while studying and does give a certain advantage comparing to those just graduated.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    As to my notetaking style, it is fairly sparse. I go through the book with a highlighter my first time around, and if I need to really solidify the information I scan through a second time making notes.


  • arabic fonts for tattoos

    It is appropriate time to make a few plans for the longer term and it’s time to be happy. I’ve read this put up and if I may just I desire to recommend you some fascinating issues or advice. Perhaps you could write subsequent articles referring to this article. I desire to read more issues approximately it!