A Beginner's Guide to Getting an Education Without Going to College

Sharpen your pencils and get ready to teach yourself everything you want to know, minus the exorbitant tuition fees.
August 17, 2020, 11:00am
A Guide to Getting an Education Without Going to College
Photo by Justin Lewis via Getty Images
How we're adjusting our routines, habits, and mindsets for a new normal.

This academic year is set to be an exceedingly challenging one. Confusion and concern over properly contending with COVID-19 has led to a drastic rethinking of formal higher education as we know it.

It could be that higher education is unaffordable for you right now because of the current economic situation (as though it hasn’t been financially prohibitive for many people for many years, evidenced by the staggering amounts of student debt in the United States). Maybe your institution isn’t offering all-remote learning and you don’t feel safe returning to campus. Or, you have issues with Big Education, like how schools can pipeline non-white students into the criminal justice system, are reliant on pursuing winnowing opportunities in a increasingly precarious workforce that is constantly in flux, and prioritize dominant ideas and ideologies. (Hence, the calls to “decolonize education”—I recommend Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed for a take on education as a tool for liberation).


Maybe you just want to try something different than college! All of these are valid reasons to create your own understanding and develop a practice around how you want to keep learning in a rigorous way, as opposed to a more hobbyist approach to a particular topic of interest, without having to cough up tuition fees.

Self-directed learning might put you at a disadvantage as far as access to course materials, instruction, peers and community, and other resources associated with institutions. But you’re also at a distinct advantage you wouldn’t otherwise have: You're able to learn at your own pace outside of the often inflexible and unaccommodating structure of traditional classes, and to learn about the things you’re interested in that might fall outside of a set curriculum within a program or major.

If you want to engage with a particular topic in depth, you can create a plan for yourself in order to be more methodical, accountable, and organized. Today, we’ll look at a basic primer for teaching yourself as you go, including suggestions for structuring your self-education practice. Toward the end, there are links to materials and online learning programs that can help you as you go.

How to Study at Home

Before you get started, think about what you’re hoping to get out of this, and how you want to approach your learning in terms of time, self-assessment, collaboration, and so on. Here are some ideas to help guide that process.

Be clear about what it is exactly that you’d like to learn about and how you'd like to learn about it.


Consider why you're interested in self-directed learning:

  • Are you interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake?

  • Are you interested in a new body of information that you can share with others as it is needed in order to be helpful to your community?

  • Do you want to learn a more vocational body of knowledge or skill set?

Whatever you decide is perfectly fine, but it will inform your approach in different ways! If you’re not sure: Despite its focus on online teaching, this guide to figuring out learning objectives from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is a clear and helpful way of identifying a purpose and direction for your studies, no matter what they are.

Identify some keywords to direct and narrow your focus. It might make sense for you to choose a topic you’re generally interested in, like a survey course (i.e., a course that deals with a topic in a broad and comprehensive way) on the history of popular rebellions, modern LGBTQ literature, or microeconomics.

Many professors share their syllabi online, so look around for available lesson plans you can reference on the topic you'd like to study. For example, you might be interested in how Pauline Maier taught the undergraduate course Riot, Strikes, and Conspiracies in American History and choose to focus on the specific five events in that course, or follow David Carr's syllabus for Press Play, his Medium class about media and journalism.


Create your own curriculum—here are some different (and overlapping) guides to setting up a plan here, here, here, and here. While it's more tailored to the construction of formal academic curricula (and, specifically, to geoscience), the Cutting Edge Course Design Tutorial by Barbara J. Tewksburg and R. Heather Macdonald is a helpful guide for making your own curriculum—take that level of detail to heart, if you like.

Create a plan, a schedule, a budget, and, if you want one, a study group.

Make a time-bound schedule to help keep you focused. In this pandemic, anxieties are high and we can be especially easy to distract because of the relative isolation. I'm a graduate student who loves to learn, but I’m incredibly prone to overwhelm when there’s a lot that needs to be done, so I can tell you firsthand: Locking yourself into a routine and schedule around your learning can be helpful.

I make two- to three-hour blocks of time for myself for reading and writing (on weekdays only!) and stop working when the time's up, no matter how much or how little I’ve written. It might help you to designate time each day or each week for reading, writing, film-watching, or whatever else is related to your education plan.

Set up your courses similarly to an academic calendar if you’re interested in more structure. This way, it’s much easier to look at a calendar and work through material each week.


The length of academic terms vary: Quarters last for 10 weeks, trimesters last for 12–13 weeks, and semesters (the most common schedule in the United States) last for 15–16 weeks. Depending on your topic, your study approach, and the resources at your disposal, it might be beneficial to choose either a longer or shorter course length for yourself without feeling pressured to finish in a certain amount of time. You don’t have to replicate an academic course at home, though: These time lengths can simply be benchmarks.

Now: Where will you do your work? Can you pick a designated space if that helps you feel more focused or organized? Do you need to communicate with your family or housemates about having private time? Space considerations are important, though material conditions vary: Class and identity, as well as family and financial responsibilities, especially given the pandemic, play a big role in the amount of space and uninterrupted time that you may have.

Think about a budget for and the availability of course materials. How much can you reasonably spend on whatever supplies (books, notebooks, writing utensils, etc.) you think you’ll need? Are there free or low-cost options, like the library, available to you? Will you have reliable access to a computer and the internet?

Try group-based learning—even if you're doing it yourself, you don’t have to do it alone! Social media has been an invaluable tool for forming community around shared interests: Tweeting or creating a Facebook post about making a virtual reading or study group might help you identify co-learners and shared topics of interest.


If you want to learn with others, find agreed-upon virtual meeting times that can be most easily assimilated into people’s everyday routines. It might make sense to create a cloud-based account (e.g. Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.) so you can exchange resources and coursework. Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) is a great platform for facilitating collaborative learning and peer education.

Keep track of your progress, check in with yourself, and figure out what accountability means to you.

Monitor your learning process and progress. While you won’t have a formal assessment at the end of the “course” to determine how much of the information you’ve retained, it might be good to take stock of what methods of learning work(ed) best for you—whether those are auditory (listening to or watching lectures), visual (creating concept maps, my personal favorite), or kinesthetic (using flash cards or standing while working) methods—or a mixture of those—so you can tailor future learning for yourself accordingly.

Make a small presentation for yourself or your group to share the new ideas you’ve synthesized (explaining things to others helps with retention!), or write some kind of reflection of the course considering what you learned, whether you met your objectives, what could be improved upon, and, especially, the things you enjoyed and did well.

Be both accountable to and gentle with yourself. A self-directed curriculum like this is about agency, curiosity, creativity, and patience. Be honest about the time you are able and willing to allocate to this work, stick to your schedule as much as you're able, and if you aren't able to all the time, that’s OK.

What to Read

One of the most fun, crucial, and terrifying parts of any self-directed learning mission is deciding what to read, whether it’s an author’s entire body of work or it’s all the material related to a concept, person, or event.

In the past few years, many academics (particularly in the social sciences and humanities) have increased their focus on translating their research into analyses and commentaries that are accessible for and relevant to the public instead of kept in the confines of academia.


A number of websites that offer social commentary and historical analysis have also put together freely available syllabi. These are terrific starting points for diving into a particular subject, though the suggested works are not always hyperlinked, meaning you would have to source them on your own.

Some reading lists and study plans that I have enjoyed:

  • Decolonizing Conservation: Sara Cannon, a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of British Columbia, created this reading list for non-Indigenous conservation scientists and others to more carefully consider the relationship between conservation biology and colonialism.

  • BAR Book Forum: Part of the Black Agenda Report, BAR Book Forum is an incredibly curated selection of reviews and conversations with thinkers, writers, and authors on a wide range of topics around African and Afro-diasporic issues.

  • Nature: The "Books and Culture" section on offer contains prescient reviews and commentaries about contemporary and historical scientific issues, debates, and politics.


  • All Monuments Must Fall: This collaboratively produced syllabus emerged to offer analysis for the Black-led uprisings to topple racist monuments and memories in the United States, as well as a broadly international lens around racial geographies.

  • Decolonizing Science: This helpful reading list by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein relates science to colonial harm, specifically oriented towards the debate around the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on the Mauna Kea and indigenous land sovereignty.

  • TED Ideas' Math 101: The purpose of popular mathematics, which are reflected in the books suggested on this list, are a useful way of approaching and better understanding mathematical thinking.

  • The Standing Rock syllabus: This is a downloadable syllabus created by the NYC Stands for Standing Rock committee, which compiled a number of written works about both the Dakota Access Pipeline and histories of Indigenous resistance in the U.S. more broadly.

  • Nursing Clio: This is an open-access peer-reviewed project about issues related to gender and medicine. The website compiles a list of relevant digitized archival collections, teaching resources, exhibits, and online platforms.

Unfortunately, the nature of academic publishing is such that interesting and informative journal articles often exist behind paywalls. If you’re looking specifically for open-access academic writing (academic research that does not require readers to pay for access—rest in peace, Aaron Swartz), there’s:


  • PubMed Central, a free full-text archive of the medical and life sciences literature contained in the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine

  • Google Scholar, which can yield free PDF versions of articles of interest

  • Unpaywall, a useful app which legally redirects you to a free version of a journal article if you happen to encounter a paywalled one
  • and ResearchGate, websites where academics upload and circulate their work; the former is accessible with a Google account, and the latter permits non-academics and non-scientists to access their large database of papers

An amazing not-so-secret secret: You can ask the author of a given work—a paper, study, or other academic text—to send a copy of it to you. It might be intimidating for you to email an academic that you don’t know and ask for a hard-to-find PDF, but many people will gladly send one upon request.


Finally, here are some places where you can find free ebooks:

  • ManyBooks, a library of multi-genre public domain books (i.e., books to which intellectual property rights do not apply, because they were created before copyright existed)

  • LibriVox, a collection of free public domain audiobooks in multiple languages

  • Online Books, a digital library of books, research publications, and archival collections all maintained by the University of Pennsylvania

Free (And Cheap) Courses You Can Take

If the idea of making a course from scratch is a little daunting, there are online programs, like Coursera, where you can take university courses on a range of topics for free. While courses are structured more traditionally (there are lectures, quizzes, and so on), you can still move through the learning at your own pace, and the programs quite helpfully estimate the amount of study time you should reasonably dedicate each week for the material.

There are lots of other free e-learning websites, too, like:

  • EdX and Alison, which are both learning platforms similar to Coursera (but the latter allows for the creation of study groups)

  • Khan Academy, a video-based resource for instruction for math and science topics for mostly secondary school and university levels

  • OpenCulture, an open-source platform where you can download courses via ebooks, audiobooks, videos, and other materials

  • Duolingo and Memrise, two popular free apps for basic language learning—and here is a list of paid apps that are subscription-based or have a relatively low monthly cost

There’s no template for the single best way to learn—only a set of methods and approaches that work best for the individual, aka you. The project of education is a personal and sometimes lifelong one, and I hope that you’re able to go about it in the most enriching and satisfying way possible—which is to say, your own. Good luck, scholar.

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