Why I’ll never pay for education again

There is a whole world out there just dying to share information and you’d be mad not to take advantage of it.

I don’t regret going to university. I don’t regret earning my Bachelor’s degree. But if I could do my Masters over again, I wouldn't waste the money.

Fresh out of high school, going to Uni was a life-changing event. I walked in the doors as a shy, awkward social failure, and came out a confident and proud young woman. I met amazing people and learned a great deal about life, friendship, networking and drinking. If you live in a country where a Bachelor’s degree is affordable, just do it.

My Masters, on the other hand, cost me a bunch of money and taught me nothing at all. The thing is, if you have one degree, don’t bother paying for another. Or if you have held any sort of office job for a year, save your money for more important things. You already know everything you need to study on your own. You know how to find and read articles, critically evaluate them, and formulate your own thoughts. You probably do this every day in some form or another — at work, when reading the news, even on Facebook. All you need is a bit of direction.

No university in the world can offer me the rich and varied Masters that I’m currently making for myself.

My Masters, bless its little cotton socks, is ostensibly in Food Security. That’s what it says right there on the label. I did a lot of readings, wrote a few essays and there I was. Master (or Mistress) in Food Security. Elated as I was to have graduated, I also felt rather depressed. I’d been so busy trying to fit a study schedule around a full-time job and a full-time social life that I’d forgotten to learn. After two years of studying, I didn't know the first thing about food security!

I was still passionate about the topic, though, and I was determined to keep learning. Which is right about when MOOCs hit the world. And me. In a big way.

(*MOOC = massive open online course)

I enrolled in “Global Food Security: Addressing the Challenge” on Futurelearn. Run by Lancaster University, this eight week course was more in-depth, thorough and eye-opening than my whole university Masters had been. I was hooked.

Since then, I've gone on to learn about global health, water biology, epidemiology, mapping, community journalism and even accounting. And I'm not done by a long way. I just enrolled in some maths and engineering courses. No university in the world can offer me the rich and varied Masters that I'm currently making for myself.

And it’s not just MOOCs. There are so many resources available out there, from YouTube to Slideshare, webinars and podcasts, as well as good old fashioned institutions like libraries and pubs.

It’s 2015, and it is entirely possible to build your own personally-tailored Masters in Whatever the Hell You Want (MWHYW).


I started off by saying that if you want to go to Uni, go right ahead and do it. It’ll probably be the best experience of your life. But if your motivation is to learn a new skill or deepen your understanding of a new field, there are better ways. If you already have an idea of how tertiary education is structured, you can just dive right in to the mad world of online learning. Even if you have never been to Uni or a community college, there are courses out there for you.

I know I want to study, but I don’t know how.

If this is you, never fear. There are a number of courses which are specifically for people who think that they’re not ready to learn. And they’re free! If you’re considering studying and you’re a bit nervous, check out some of the foundation courses that are available.

  • Futurelearn has “Preparing for Uni”, which takes a look at the basics of tertiary learning. Asking questions, being curious, critical reading and the basics of research.
  • Coursera offers “English Composition I” which is a great course specifically for learning how to read and write critically.
  • Coursera also has “How to Succeed in College”.
  • If you want to really test your mettle, Saylor has an entire course called “Try College 101” which is pretty comprehensive.

If you have these skills, I reckon you can learn just about anything.

I’m ready to learn. Where do I start?

Find a MOOC and do it.

That’s it.

You want to do a DIY MBA? Go to Coursera, look at the options under Business & Management or Economics & Finance.

Find something that looks interesting.

And do it.

You have nothing to lose.

Ditto Environmental Science, Global Health, Computer Science, Chemistry, Law & Policy or whatever else floats your intellectual boat.

Once you start, you will find other resources. Check out this comprehensive list here as a starter. Saylor Academy even has complete structured self-paced courses in just about anything you could want. Watch full-length seminars on YouTube. Sign up to free webinars. Listen to podcasts on the tram. Join your library and visit it often. Find out about local events and go! Get on the mailing list of your local university and attend free talks.

There is a whole world out there just dying to share information and you’d be mad not to take advantage of it.

And then when you know a thing or two more than you did before, go to the pub and talk to your mates about it.

Pros and Cons

Learning on your own terms

The biggest advantage of online learning is that there is no anxiety. A MOOC is not going anywhere. I watch the videos on my computer at breakfast, do the readings on my phone at lunch. Or not. If I fall behind, I can’t send the Prof an email asking for more time. She’s not there. She doesn't care. If I fall too far behind, it doesn't matter. I can keep auditing the course. I can do it again later in the year. And there is no financial penalty. This freedom actually makes me feel more empowered, more excited and less anxious about finishing a course. Which also makes me a better student.

But if you are committed to actually completing a course, you have to find the time each week to do it. There’s no getting around it. Whether it’s at midnight after the kids have gone to bed, or on your phone on the bus, you have to find the time.

Going beyond the basics

A MOOC can only ever offer a basic introduction to a topic and not a complete understanding. I think that’s true of most university courses. You don’t expect to learn everything from a professor. You expect to learn enough to be able to go away and learn more on your own, in the real world, using real examples. Most courses, whether offered by a bricks-and-mortar campus or through online delivery, are only going to give you the building blocks.

But if you know where to look, and if you actually want to learn something new, the resources are out there. Doing an introductory course in financial accounting may make you want to learn more about double entry bookkeeping. A webinar about designing posters may get you excited about fonts. Knock yourself out. Look that stuff up. Have fun.

Did I say I’d *never* pay…?

At the end of the day, someone has to pay. All those online courses don’t magically run themselves. When I say that I won’t ever pay for education again, I mean that I'm never going to fork out thousands of dollars for a degree that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.

That’s not to say that there aren't plenty of courses that are worth your dollars. The Wharton School has a Business Foundations course that will cost you $90 per unit and give you a solid basis for a DIY MBA. No it won’t tell you everything you need to know, but it’ll give you a good start. It might even blow your mind a bit (when I did the Marketing course, I was completely blown away. I've been working for 15 years and really had no idea how a business runs). And $380 for a certification from the University of Pennsylvania is not a bad investment.

I’m lucky — I got to go to university and study and learn a bunch of stuff. And now I’m sitting here in my home office saying — oh, you don’t need to go to university. Nice for some, right?

But really, if you want to get a little bit ahead in this crazy world, and if you think investing thousands of dollars into a degree will help you, just pause a moment. See what else is out there. See how you can do it differently. Especially if you don’t have those thousands of dollars. Even if you've never been to uni, even if you've never finished high school, it doesn't mean you can’t learn exciting things that can make you a more informed, interesting and educated person.

Go out there and learn something new. Hell, learn ten new things. And then go out and celebrate with a pint.

Nat Newman is a freelance writer from Australia. She is addicted to learning, writing, reading, exploring the world, and investigating toilets. Not necessarily in that order. You can find her @lividlili or intermittently on lividlili.com

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