06 June 2012

Book Review

40 Alternatives to College by James Altucher

By his own admission, the number of alternatives to college that Altucher chooses to write about is largely arbitrary.  This is occasionally reflected in the seeming randomness of his list, which includes illuminating alternatives like “writing a book” or “writing a movie script.”  Not that these two things are the same, but listing them separately seems like a bit of a stretch.  And, having written a book myself while in college, I can’t say that this is necessarily an alternative to it since doing both things are not inherently mutually exclusive.

However, Altucher’s broader point is well-taken:  you don’t need to go to college to accomplish something or become well-rounded.  In fact, he offers a list of free (generally non-accredited) college course that one can take if one is simply interested in something.  He also does a great job listing alternatives to college that are superior to the product given one’s intended purposes.  For example, Altucher recommends that instead of going to college to learn about the entertainment industry, one should simply produce their own entertainment, like movies, television shows, books, and so on.  He also highly recommends starting your own business with the money you would have spent on going to college.

While his list of alternatives is fairly valuable, if a bit repetitive at times, the most valuable part of his book is the first half, wherein he debunks the assertion that college grads earn more on average, than non-grads and non-attendees.  His main critiques are focused on the oldness of the statistics upon which the assertion is based and also on self-selection biases.

Altucher also takes some time to debunk the myths of college’s alleged value.  He observes that “socialization” is generally used as a euphemism for sex and booze, and he also notes that learning “how to think” is often just bunk.  Altucher also spends some time noting that there are many important life lessons that college does not teach which furthers his argument that college is overrated.

The book does have one significant shortcoming, and that is a failure to consider the need for credentials.  Because of a decent amount of regulation, particularly as regards those who desire to work in the medical industry, there are some jobs that simply require credentials.  These jobs often pay rather well, and the cost of attaining the credentials to get these jobs is generally worth it (in the sense of having a good ROI).  To simply toss these sorts of jobs under the bus and decry college and higher education as completely worthless is nonsensically extreme.  Still, the fact of the matter is that college is not essential for the vast majority of labor market participants.

In all, the book is brief, fairly thorough, and to the point.  This book is best suited for older teenagers who are thinking about college, and for the parents of those children.  I recommend it as a gift for kids graduating high school.  Or, better yet, for kids on their sixteenth birthday.  They may as well plan in advance.


  1. College is essential if you want a particular credential (like BS in STEM)... OR... if you want to meet and marry someone who will soon be getting such a credential.

  2. @Steve- Even then, credentials are only essential if you plan on using them. For example, you could hypothetically train yourself to write code and then freelance it from there, and be successful without having credentials.

    I'm not as sure about marriage. Surely there is some way to game that system. Maybe by hanging out on college campuses without actually enrolling. I don't figure that will end up all that well, relative to one's aims.