How to Give Yourself a Superior College Education for Virtually Free
Update: As of November 2016, things have gotten even better than when this article was originally written. The Great Courses now offers its courses online (viewable on computer or phone) for as little as $14/month. The new service is called The Great Courses Plus.
Modern technology is rapidly making the brick-and-mortar university obsolete in its present form. Many college lectures are already available online for free. There are also third-party courses, which are typically of superior quality, and cost much less than physical college courses.
Please note that I’m not talking about expensive online degree programs. I mean buying lectures or courses individually and teaching yourself. If you have money to burn, or don’t mind borrowing $50,000, and have a desperate need for a piece of fake parchment with your name printed on it, then there are plenty of colleges and universities that will be happy to take your money, and in return will fill your head with 60’s era New Left baloney. But if what you want is a solid education, the point of this article is to show that you get this on your own, and for a lot less money.
The leader in third-party college lectures is The Great Courses (TGC; formerly, The Teaching Company). They already have an extensive catalog of nearly 400 classes on DVD, CD, or for download, with more on the way.
TGC lectures have many advantages:
- At a regular university, only a few professors will be ‘superstars’. But TGC recruits the top professors from around the world. All lectures are given by intelligent, interesting, motivated, and skilled presenters.
- The production values are high. Lecturers are well-dressed and well prepared. Talks are given in pleasant settings that enhance the learning experience.
- You can watch or listen to them whenever you want; lectures can be paused or replayed.
The list price of TGC courses ranges from around $50 to $250 (much less than one pays at a university). However, there’s no need to pay full price. First, many libraries have TGC courses, and these can be watched for free. Second, most courses are available used at places like Ebay and Amazon. Third, a group of students can get together and swap courses. This means that one can typically get a used TGC course for $50 or less.
As proof of concept, let’s see if we can construct the equivalent of a four-year college education using existing TGC courses. We’ll assume that the goal is to get a well-rounded, Liberal Arts education, with a balance among science, history, literature, social science, and fine arts.
We’ll divide the curriculum into four years, and a year into two semesters, with four courses per semester.
[Update: as of November, 2016, The Great Courses Plus offers unlimited online viewing of their catalog for $20/month or less. Check that site first to see which of these courses are included there.]
Year 1 (Semesters 1 & 2)
- A Brief History of the World
- Classics of American Literature
- Psychology of Human Behavior
- Biology: The Science of Life
- Art of Reading
- Joy of Mathematics
- How to Listen to and Understand Great Music
Year 2 (Semesters 1 & 2)
- Understanding Calculus
- History of the United States
- Introduction to the Study of Religion
- Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology
- Nutrition Made Clear
- Development of European Civilization
- America and the New Global Economy
- Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology
Year 3 (Semesters 1 & 2)
- World’s Greatest Paintings
- Cycles of American Political Thought
- Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition
- Oceanography: Exploring Earth’s Final Wilderness
- Game Theory in Life, Business, and Beyond
- Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies
- Discrete Mathematics
- Our Night Sky
Year 4 (Semesters 1 & 2)
- Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature
- Meaning from Data: Statistics Made Clear
- Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning
- Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception
- Why Economies Rise or Fall
- The Cathedral
- War and World History
- Physics and Our Universe: How It All Work
Assuming an average cost of $50 per course, the total cost would be 8 x $50 = $400 per year, or $1600 in total. As noted, if your local library has any course, or you can borrow one from a friend, it’s free. [To be revised taking into account the even less expensive online subscription plan.]
Additional Educational Resources
TGC lectures usually come with detailed course guides, including outlines, bibliographies and study questions. To enhance learning, you can consult the suggested readings and even write out answers to the questions. True, this might require more discipline than having a professor motivate you with grades. But if you really need someone else to ‘kick your butt’ for motivation, a life coach is much cheaper than university tuition!
The one thing that DVD courses lack is the sense of community one hopes to find at a college. But you don’t have to pay tuition to join a college community. Just rent a room in Berkeley, Austin, or Madison and join the intellectual culture; spend your days in self-study and evenings in recreation and conversation with intelligent people. Attend lectures and films, and take advantage of the opportunities for civic activism. Use the library. You might even find that self-study is giving you an edge over your college-attending friends.
It’s true that DVD or online classes don’t result in a diploma or degree (yet). But, honestly, are those things necessary? Yes, some employers require them. But the better companies place more value on the person. Showing that you have the dedication and self-discipline to teach yourself might impress these employers more.
Universities cannot continue to charge huge tuitions and load students with debt.
Hopefully, public opinion will push them to change. One thing they could do is to expand advanced placement options, such that students may test out and gain automatic credit for courses and subjects they’ve already mastered. In theory, someone could self-study, but have the university certify their competence.
Alternatively, we might see third-party companies fill the gap by administering, for a small fee, standardized tests or oral exams, and then issuing a certificate of completion or diploma.
- The Great Courses Plus (streaming)
- The Great Courses (DVD and CD)
- YouTube Channel
- 10 Free ‘Great Courses’
- Great Courses Discussion Forum
- 1200 Free College Lectures – not as good as The Great Courses, but worth a look