Three years ago, I invested $32,000 and the better part of two years at the University of Washington for a master's degree in International Studies. The verdict? It wasn't a complete waste of time and money. Once I accepted that 80% of the course requirements were designed to keep people busy, I enjoyed the other 20% of the work.
If you're strictly interested in learning, however, you may want to get a better return-on-investment than I did. Here's how to save $32,000 (or more) through your own self-directed, alternative program. Feel free to revise, subtract, or drop out whenever it's convenient to you.
The One-Year, Self-Directed, Alternative Graduate School Experience
• Subscribe to The Economist and read every issue religiously. Cost: $97 + 60 minutes each week.
• Memorize the names of every country, world capital, and current president or prime minister in the world. Cost: $0 + 3-4 hours once.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• Loan money to an entrepreneur through Kiva.org and arrange to visit him or her while you're abroad on your big trip. Cost: Likely $0 in the end, since 98% of loans are repaid.
• Acquire at least three new skills during your year. Suggestions: photography, skydiving, computer programming, martial arts — or even the flying trapeze. 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.
• Read at least 30 nonfiction books and 20 classic novels. Cost: approximately $750 (be sure to support Powell's!).
• 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.
• Become comfortable with basic presentation and public speaking skills. Join your local Toastmasters club to get constructive, structured help that is also beginner-friendly. Cost: $25 + 2 hours a week for 10 weeks.
• 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.
• Set your home page to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:Randompage. Over the next year, every time you open your browser, you'll see a different, random Wikipedia page. Read it. Cost: $0.
• Learn to write by listening to the Grammar Girl podcast on iTunes and buying Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Cost: $0 for Grammar Girl, $14 for Anne Lamott.
• Instead of reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, read The Know-It-All by A. J. Jacobs, a good summary. Cost: $10 or less.
TOTAL COST: $10,000 or less
Note: 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.
Study hard! See you tomorrow.