Unschooling College: Many Ways

I left high school at the age of 15 to homeschool, at 18 I started to travel the world, write, and run my own businesses. I’ve never been to college full time. And now I value “unschooling college” and “worldschooling” just as much as unschooling high school.

Unschooling college can mean many different things and there are many ways to do it.

First of all you can actually get college credit and a degree from an accredited university in more creative ways than physically attending a full time college. This is sometimes called “distance learning”. It’s usually much more efficient: requires far less time and money.

Distance learning can include taking classes over the internet through watching videos or corresponding with a teacher over e-mail.

It’s also possible to take tests that can give you a certain amount of college credit depending on how well you do on the test. You can take tests on literature, American history, Spanish etc. You could have learned the info from job experience, every day life experience, travel, from hanging out with your grandmother, or doing your own intensive study just for the test.

One of these schools has a motto along the lines of: “Learning happens in the mind not in the classroom.” In other words: as long as you have knowledge, and can prove it, it doesn’t matter where you learned it.

It’s possible to get a college degree in less than a year or two at a fraction of the cost. This gives more freedom and requires more self-motivation: like unschooling.

The expert on this is John Bear and his daughter Mariah Bear. This is their most recent book: Bear’s Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning. John Bear is also an expert on phoney degree mills: he’s the one who is called to testify in these types of court cases. So apparently if he recommends a school program it’s probably legit.

I started on this path to a more efficient and freer college degree at one point and it looked like it could work out fine. But in the end I decided I didn’t need it. I’ll talk about that more below.

What excites me actually is getting a really good education through living and working as an adult in the world. I’m talking about working and traveling to get experience and expertise rather than a piece of paper.

The bottom line for employers is that the people they employ do a good job and are not difficult to work with. Degrees really just get you in the door. After that it’s about how well you work.

Some jobs you simply can’t get without a degree. So that you will have to go a degree somehow.

But many employers you might have to start out in a low paying position or even volunteer but that is a way to get your foot in the door. And when you’re getting real experience you might become more valuable than someone who has a degree or certificate in the field but no experience.

What I really encourage people to do though is work for yourself! I encourage people to run their own businesses following their own passions. Like unschooling working for your self is usually a lot more efficient: pays better without all those middlemen. And of course it also allows for more freedom.

That’s what I’ve done with my landscaping business. And now my Worldschool Travel Tours business.

Sometimes starting your own company takes very little start-up time or money. That was the case with my landscaping business: I sent out the word on e-mail lists that I was looking for work and things poured in.

Maybe it helped I had worked on a farm, for a florist, and briefly at a garden center. But the vast majority I learned on the job often from my customers’ own instruction.

Others businesses like my travel tours take years in the making. The amazing thing is I was “building my business” without even knowing it by doing what I loved. I traveled the world and wrote about it because I was drawn to it. I had no idea that I was getting experience and building connections with people who might eventually become customers in a business I didn’t know I was going to start!

I was doing it because I loved it and couldn’t help do otherwise.

So in the end I do just really encourage people to pursue what they love. It really can lead to a livelihood you might not even be able to imagine right now.

You might still need to make a living doing something less meaningful that at least pays the bills: like my landscaping company was for me. But it’s still possible to find something you really love over time.

But the truth is college symbolizes many things and has many intended purposes: not just a way to get a degree, get a job, and make money.

College also serves as a socially recognized acknowledgement of a certain level of accomplishment. It’s a way to prove you’re a smart and valued adult.

College is in some ways the closest things we have in the modern world to a common initiation into adulthood.

I think this is what attracted me to college when I was 22 years old. I had had powerful and very meaningful growth experiences while traveling. The idea of a college graduation really excited me:

I wasn’t interested in the rest of college: just the graduation!

So I started down the path of getting a degree through distance learning. Then seemingly by chance a woman who runs a big unschooling conference found me through my travel newsletter. She asked me to speak at her Rethinking Education Conference in Dallas, Texas with hundreds of unschoolers in 2007.

Since that invitation to speak I haven’t had the slightest desire to go to college or even get a college degree. Speaking at that conference was the acknowledgement that I needed.

Now I’m proud of the fact that I can make money, I’m intelligent, and I’m valued by my community and society without needing a piece of paper.

I’m not saying everyone needs to speak at an unschooling conference! But I think there are other, often more meaningful ways to get everything you might like to get at college: an education, a way to make money, and real acknowledgment.

And if you’re looking to college especially for adventure: I recommend world travel as a much more exciting and cheaper alternative!

11 Responses to “Unschooling College: Many Ways”

  1. Cindy says:

    Hey Eli,

    I love these BIG topics you are bringing up. I have several young people in the middle of living the decision of how to find their place in the world, and I have a few practical questions for you about this topic.

    First, I hate to say it, but what about socialization? One of my children decided on the college route simply to get around more people her age. Most people between the ages of 18-24 are in college, so to find peers at the same stage and goals as her, she decided to join them. For 1.5 years, she started unschooling college, but this is what drew her to college, among other things, at age 20.

    Another young person definitely wants to pursue an unschooled college life and go into his own business, but the practical issues of first, insurance (as this son has some high medication needs), second, how to live independently (he lives at home, which is fine, but has a hard time wanting to work another job in order to support his passion because he finds it hard to shift back and forth), and third, again, finding peers that he can be friends with or date that can respect his lifestyle (since the world views this as “adult living in the basement like a bum” perspective).

    One idea I get from you, and another young person I know, is to have him work something for a half year, and work his passion the other half year (living off the money he previously earned). But, this son has a hard time wanting to do something mind-numbing and “not worth” the pain and suffering to get to the other side. This is a son who values creativity and feels half dead if he cannot express it on a daily basis. All in all, we’ve been working out the kinks, but he’s not really in love with his life right now because of the logistics of meeting his real medical needs, his financial contributions, and his passion.

    The other son seems quite content pursuing college as his means to the career choice he wants. Because he lives with high functioning autism, and it can be noticeable from a work standpoint, he feels the degree will help get him in the door better than his presentation ability at this time. Plus, he seems to enjoy the challenge.

    So, any thoughts for the previous roadblocks?

    • Eli Gerzon says:

      Oh socialization!

      Well, thank you Cindy for such insightful comments and questions on my posts! I really appreciate your comment and the other recent ones to the True Freedom post. And I am going to respond soon!:

      It’s true it’s rough that many 18-24 year olds even, unschoolers, are in college. One thing is it is possible to do some college activities and get hooked into the social scene without enrolling.

      But what actually came to my mind first is what I did: travel. That’s another thing a lot of 18-24 (and beyond) year olds are doing. Seriously, I always say even if you’re traveling alone you can always travel with a group if you want. People are always meeting at hostels and traveling together for as long as they want (one afternoon or for months).

      It’s not the same as college. But I’m not sure how much I like the socialization there anyway. Like college it’s temporary and it’s quite possible you’ll never see them again. But you sure meet more diverse people and some do become life long friends (as some do at college too).

      I think part of the real socialization is issue just being different. Having less to relate to with the average person. I don’t think it’s usually a very healthy or positive common experience but college is a common experience.

      What’s wonderful about this time period now is there are more and more unschoolers choosing to not go on to college. Or trying it out and then deciding against it in the end.

      As far as living at home, I don’t think that’s actually that big of a deal. I know a lot of young adults who do that. Some contribute to the family finances, some don’t. But I can understand that can be an obstacle to having confidence, especially if other things are already bothering you. Just he can rest assured it’s not that uncommon.

      I am lucky I don’t have any big expenses like medical issues or anything. But again, if he can live at home and build a business up, I say go for it.

      Switching off working some months and just pursuing your passion other months is definitely a great option.

      Honestly, when I hear about someone just unable to do any type of work without feeling really bad I think two things (and I really don’t know but this is what comes to mind): there’s something very healthy about the person in their desire for meaning and there’s maybe some deeper needs that need to be met somehow. Some healing work that maybe needs to be done, something that treats issues on a deeper level than medication.

      Personally, I’m not a big fan of medication. But I’ve sure done a lot of other types of healing. I wrote about it some on this post:

      Bottom line is I can’t really speak for your family but those are some ideas that come to mind. And just the fact that you’re all working together trying to figure-out what actually works for everyone sounds awesome.

  2. Cindy says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights and experiences, Eli. It helps just to be able to talk about it and brainstorm, whether things that we have tried, or don’t fit, or may work; it’s about thinking of options.

    My daughter’s first thoughts had been to live by a campus and plug into the activities while pursuing her writing. After trying it a bit around here, it just didn’t seem to work fully because people seem to value the “commonality” idea and she wasn’t really “one of them”.

    On the other hand, even after just one semester, and into her second, she knows she’s “different” in so many ways coming into college as an always unschooled person. She has enjoyed talking with Peter Kowalke from time to time as he seems to have had the same experiences she is encountering. She knows college is not the ultimate answer, but as you said, she’s trying it for now, knowing she may or may not finish if it doesn’t meet her goals.

    I admire the unschooled mind as it always understands options abound. My children don’t seem to think that they are ever “stuck” in any one decision. That’s liberating right there.

    As for my son, yes, medication sucks. But, at this point, it is literally life or death, so we choose life. Throughout the past 2 year journey, we have tried as many options as possible in hopes it could transcend the need for medication, but alas, it has not. (I read your post, and yeah, we tried the flower essences, accupucture, spiritual healer, as well as less out-there stuff . . . LOL!) Because our society values school, obviously they allow a young person to be on a parent’s health insurance if they are a full-time student. We have even been creative in this area, but I wish there were more options in this area.

    That said, I think my son and I need to have another good conversation about what he would like to try and see what we can work out. Are you speaking at Cameron’s conference? I was thinking about my son and I going to that since it is, I hope, talking about exactly this. Maybe being around other unschoolers taking this path will encourage him. He may also get inspiration for new ways of looking at his goals for his own business.

    The other thing is that he probably knows inside that he doesn’t have all the “abilities” to do his own business without supports from others with attributes he lacks or gets stressed over. He is highly creative. The personal interactions of marketing or salesmanship might be difficult for him, but these are areas I’m good at. Maybe he’ll marry someone good at these things 🙂 What do you think? Usually most people are not a one-man show when it comes to a business . . . how do you get certain “jobs” done that are not up your alley?

    As for your traveling idea, I know that is an exciting choice for you. My oldest son I’m talking about here would also enjoy it, though I think would be more likely to want to be in a group (and is extremely excited, as I said, about joining you next year to Japan). My daughter would enjoy a traveling trip, but it wouldn’t be her “thing” on a consistent basis. So, I guess it’s about finding what you love, as you mentioned, and seeing how that can evolve into a potential life work situation, whether looking for it or not.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  3. Sunshine says:

    Hey Eli,

    I’m just copying & pasting from our twitter convo. right now, since I’m in a bit of a time crunch. Hopefully it will help someone else. 🙂

    Oldest wants to travel world discovering new species of animals. Youngest wants to open & run tiger rescue. Local vet, u canvolunteer starting at 16 + work + they train you as vet tech. Tampa Big Cat Rescue does internship at age 18 for I think 1 yr. So with those two options plus all their independent research and studying they do, I think they’ll do beyond fine. ;)”

    I will add that there are other options we are looking into & pondering, because we have a special needs child & because I never have done things the “normal” way (lmbo), and that is family communal living when the kids are grown. At that point, they’re grown, doing their own thing, everyone will be traveling in various capacities, but “home” is HOME for everyone. I’ll get into detail for that one more at another time if it needs further clarification. 🙂

    In light and love,
    Sunshine 🙂

  4. Cheryl says:

    Cindy, I love this: ‘I admire the unschooled mind as it always understands options abound. My children don’t seem to think that they are ever “stuck” in any one decision. That’s liberating right there.’ Mind if I quote you?

  5. Eli Gerzon says:

    @Cindy Yes, as I said, I don’t really know and can’t speak for your family: my comment about not being a fan of medication and recommending alternative healing wasn’t really helpful in your case!

    But I hope just discussing in general in helpful like you said. I’m glad your daughter has been helped by chatting with Peter. And I’m sure she does realize she doesn’t have to stay and can get as much out of it as she can and then leave when it stops serving her.

    I am planning on going to Cameron’s conference but I’m not sure if I’ll be doing any speaking. I’m actually speaking at an inclusive homeschooling conference in Illinois the weekend after so I plan to take it easy at Cam’s con.

    But I think it will be wonderful for so many unschooling young adults to converge, support each other, and share ideas. As I said before, it’s really cool there are more and more unschoolers looking for alternative ways to enter the adult world.

    As you said, even if unschooling young adults decide to go to college: we’re still different. So it’s great to connect with and support each other.

    The idea of your son taking care of the creative aspect of a business while working with someone else who deals with people and money sounds great. That’s something my mom has been running into with her business.

    She’s taken care of all of it for years but sometimes different roles and a division of labor, like we talked about in that other post, is great. I’d def encourage him to do that: doesn’t have to be a wife either, any business partner! 🙂

    It’s true travel is not a lifestyle for most people. Like you said it’s about following your passion. And I do think that often leads to meeting the people you want to meet anyway.

    But there can be some initial loneliness in that, that’s something I definitely know about. I do feel like I’ve reached the other side in that way though. So you can encourage your kids in that!

    Again, I really appreciate you sharing your family’s experiences and your thoughtful comments and questions Cindy!

    @Sunshine Thanks for RTing (ReTweeting for non Twitter people:) this here! I love hearing about your kids’ passions and plans. That’s so cool.

    And yeah, seems like a lot of families do the kids travel all over but come back to HOME base. But maybe I didn’t understand what you said completely if you do want to get into more clarification like you said….

    @Cheryl I’m realizing the best part of my posting on my blog really might be the replies people are leaving, eh? 🙂

    • Cindy says:

      Well, Eli, we thought we could attempt the alternative route, until it was quite evident we could not. Maybe when his body stablilizes, we can check out options again . . . maybe.

      Hey, you’re probably speaking at the HOUSE conference! I spoke at that conference for years; it’s one of my absolute favorites! I didn’t get in my offerings in time for them to consider me for the second year in a row . . . boohoo, especially now that I know you will be there.

      Now I want you to discuss more about this that you said:

      “So it’s great to connect with and support each other.

      But there can be some initial loneliness in that, that’s something I definitely know about. I do feel like I’ve reached the other side in that way though. So you can encourage your kids in that!”

      My children have particularly felt a LOT of loneliness, particularly starting in their mid to late teen years and into adulthood. No one is like them, and they are quite happy with their center they enjoy unlike their peers, but yet, there is no one to connect with, except me, which they are grateful for, but yearn for companionship from others who feel the same as they do.

      Any tips for making this transition easier or shorter? In my own way, I totally get their situation because I equally find it difficult to find kindred spirits.

      I’m only half kidding now, kinda, but I wonder if a conference for young adult unschoolers can also double as a dating network. My young people realize that it can be a bonding component, to find someone who “gets them”. So, they can talk about their life work and passion at the conference, and then see if there are any hook-ups also! (Okay, so I’m still a mom, too . . . LOL!)

  6. Cindy says:

    Here’s a cool story shared on my homeschooling creatively list:

    A friend of mine pulled her son out when he was going into 8th grade. He complained how school was too boring, and he really wanted to learn how to work on helicopters. He wanted to be a mechanic on helicopters. Sooo, his mother got him an apprenticeship to a car dealership, and specifically, in the mechanic’s shop. He worked there 3 days a week, in the afternoons, from 12 to 5pm. Their agreement was that he still had to do school work at home, but during these three afternoons, he worked at the shop. Now, their agreement was also that if he didn’t finish his school work or he wasn’t giving his best effort, there would be no going to the mechanic’s shop. By the time this young man was 16, he started taking helicopter, flying lessons and learned all the “ins and outs” of a helicopter. He eventually got his flying license, and he quit the mechanic place and went to work for the helicopter “people.” Upon high school graduation at 17 1/2, he was repairing a lot of helicop
    ters. At this time, he joined the Army, and now is one of the top helicopter repair people in the Army. I believe his current rank is Major. He flies and repairs helicopters, literally all over the world.

    It’s easy to see from where he ended up that the “lessons” required of him were irrelevant . . .

  7. Eli Gerzon says:

    Hi Cindy,
    Wanted to finally respond to your comment! Sorry, I just didn’t respond that evening and let it go…

    First of all I’ve really dealt with loneliness myself. But I’ve dealt with loneliness and feeling different before, during, and after unschooling high school. So I didn’t really attribute it to unschooling.

    Actually, I thought I unschooled because I’m different. But it sounds like some life long unschoolers, it’s vice versa: feel like they’re different because of unschooling.

    Anyway, I try to get something out of my interactions with all sorts of people schooled, unschooled, American, foreign, radical, conservative, etc. And I think there are different types of lonelinesses to address: family, casually social, intellectual, romantic, etc.

    And I guess I get different parts satisfied by different people: here online I’ve been feeling the least lonely ever in terms of intellectual connection. This blog, Twitter, adn Facebook has been wonderful!

    Then sometimes I hang with friends here in Boston where it’s just fun to hang even if we’re not intellectually interacting so to speak.

    Romantically, I would say I’ve been in love with my work for the last few years! That’s been my passion. I’m just starting to feel like I could also have a relationship (I’ve WANTED one on some level but haven’t REALLY on another level for years now).

    As far as the transition: my only idea is to follow your passion and I think you’re going to naturally find the type of people you share something with. Put your heart into your passion and people will be attracted to that.

    And not to sound like a broken record player: but I do think travel helps! When you travel you realize you have to do a certain amount of adapting in social situations. You can’t expect another group to adapt to you and you can’t expect you’ll completely connect or understand each other (except in rare special moments perhaps).

    And while I say I enjoy connecting with all sorts of people, it is true that there’s a certain connection I get with unschoolers that I really value…. Your half joking idea of unschooling dating network sounds great to me! 😉 LOL

    I think you’re not the first unschool mom to think of that in regards to conferences! In the end seems like lots of unschoolers marry other unschoolers but lots marry non-unschoolers too….

    And that is a cool story: how that guy knew he wanted to do work with helicopters and got to start at such an early age! It definitely is clear he didn’t need to do those extra “lessons” but I guess too much in the way either!


  8. […] ago, I wrote a post called Unschooling College: Many Ways about the many options for people to “unschool […]

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