Higher Education For Free?

Anyone who’s traveled will tell you that it’s an excellent education. There are things you learn about yourself and the world that can’t be learned any other way. Geography, history and foreign language, subjects that may have bored you to tears in high school, suddenly become living, breathing things of riveting interest and daily necessity.

Travel brings those subjects to life because, of course, the purpose of education is to teach us about our world; it’s too bad that what we often get from that process is a cheap imitation, with all of the sparkle and gloss rubbed off.

As someone with a degree in the process of formal education, but who decided to approach the project from from an unconventional angle, I propose looking at this a different way.

Instead of focusing on education as an important preparation for living a successful life, let’s tip it on its head and consider the alternate reality: that living a successful life, from cradle to grave, ought to be a continuing project in our ongoing educations.

There are things you learn about yourself and the world that can’t be learned any other way.

I can hear you rolling your eyes over there, on both sides of the aisle: “Yeah, yeah, we know, travel is education, and we’re always learning, we get it, no need to discuss it again.”

And then there are the passionately education minded who are thinking, “Great, just what we need, another article by a college dropout who thinks she’s doing okay… for now… telling young people why they don’t need to bother finishing their formal educations.”

Settle down, this article is neither


Yes, travel is an education, and one I believe in deeply, but no, I don’t think it’s “enough.”

I’m a firm believer in a thorough and rigorous education with an end game that includes at least one University degree for anyone who has that aptitude, and a wide range of options for those who don’t. It is entirely possible, in the modern age, with the tools we have at our disposal, to pursue a degree or two, advance your skill set, change your career through continuing education and not compromise the quality of your education one iota, while at the same time pursuing your dreams of travel right now.

The most obvious answer is attending university online. Everyone knows about this option. It’s important to do your research and avoid “degree mills,” and recognize that your degree options will be more limited by an entirely online degree.

However, most schools offer an e-campus where many of the general and required courses can be taken without showing up bodily for class. Have you considered the option of taking your first year or two “online” and then transferring those credits into a brick and mortar option (either at the same school as online, or a different one) to finish up the location specific portion?

It is entirely possible, in the modern age, with the tools we have at our disposal, to pursue a degree or two, advance your skill set, change your career through continuing education and not compromise the quality of your intellection education one iota, while at the same time pursuing your dreams of travel right now.

Our daughter, Hannah, is doing this. She’s been taking her basic undergrad classes from Oregon State University for two years now. Next fall she’ll enroll in a Canadian University to finish up. We’ve had her books shipped to Thailand, Borneo, New Zealand, Australia, and the USA.

Worried about sitting exams abroad? Most British International Schools provide proctoring (in English) for a fee. Some classes even use an online proctoring service that makes it even easier.

We picked up a young man with his master’s degree in neuro-biology along the highway between Te Anau and Milford Sound, New Zealand. He dazzled us with stories of hitching all the way from China. After we left him, he made is way up into Thailand where he spent this winter studying hard for entrance to a doctoral program, while learning Thai and hiking in the northern hills.

Of course higher education need not mean you’re plunking down the money for a degree right at this second. There are so many ways to learn and even quantify your accomplishments in a way that schools, or a potential employer, could understand.

There are so many ways to learn and even quantify your accomplishments in a way that schools, or a potential employer, could understand.

Degreed.com is working hard to organize outside the box educational experiences alongside more traditional ones in a way that is accessible to the general populace as well as inclusive of the educational establishment. This is the place to begin by entering everything you have so far in your educational tool box and the place to continue to record your personal enrichment and educational experiences. Of course, it’s free.

Is your interest piqued?


Are you considering the idea of combining your gap year with continuing your education in an organized way? It’s very doable! Go ahead and take cooking classes in Paris, a massage therapy certificate in Guadalajara, a bar tending course in Jakarta, and music lessons in China.

Record all of those things towards your eventual goals, but why not also take an Intro to Fisheries and Wildlife, Literature Analysis, Spanish 101 and 102, as well as Advanced Algebra while you’re at it? Check your university of choice for their online options; they are many.

I’ll get you started with a list of the free possibilities that are out there:

  • Open Culture: Their tag line is, “The best free cultural and educational media on the web,” and they’re doing their best to live up to that. Here’s a link to 900 Free Online Courses from Top Universities
  • Harvard: Even Harvard has made some of their courses free online. As do Yale, MIT, Duke, Stanford, and Berkley, in case you’re wondering about the top tier schools.
  • Coursera: I love Coursera. So many cool options, and they are actual, real, live, interactive classes with a teacher and other students, assignments that you turn in and evaluation that results in recognition for completing the course. Our daughter is working on one of these now, in preparation for a conference she’s set to speak at this fall. There are currently 635 courses to choose from.
  • WEU: Pronounced We-U, this is an absolutely free university, 100% online that accepts everyone. It is not accredited or degree granting yet (they’re in the application process) but there’s no doubt they’re pushing the boundaries of higher education and are worth having a look at.
  • EdX: Yet another online venue for accessing free university courses. They give students the option of qualifying for a certificate of achievement for their course or simply auditing.
  • The Open University: Offers free online courses for all. Over 700 current offerings are listed.
  • iTunes U: Doesn’t everyone already know about this one? If not, you haven’t been paying attention. There is an avalanche of information here. My only criticism? I hate how it’s organized.
  • Great Courses: Okay, this one is not free. Actually, this one is kind of expensive, but I have to list it because it’s great. These are fantastic university courses delivered in a variety of formats. We use them for high school courses for our kids and can’t speak highly enough about them. If you have sticker shock, try looking on Amazon or Ebay, for used copies. Audible.com even makes some of the audio versions available to their members.
  • Tuition Free Universities: I have to mention this because I’m continually amazed that Americans don’t know about this. There are tons of free universities out there, many of them in Europe (where people pay the big bucks to do a year abroad… when they could go for free?). These are accredited schools, in first world countries that provide top quality educations. In addition to the free schools, university (in general) outside the USA is FAR cheaper. Why not consider traveling for a year while working on your basic course work, and then attend a brick and mortar school for a fraction of the cost (or free) in a country you love. You won’t sacrifice your intellectual education, you’ll gain valuable international experience, you’ll probably become fluent in a second or third language, you’ll graduate without debt… AND you’ll have traveled. A friend of ours got his master’s degree at a high end German university, completely for free.

Why aren’t more people doing this?

Sean wrote a great article debating whether one should travel or get an MBA.

I submit that it need not be an “either-or” proposition. Travel is of unquestionable educational benefit. A university degree is a kind of currency that greases so many of the wheels as we move forward in life.

Why not step off of the institutional treadmill, think outside the box a bit, and achieve both while not sacrificing your dreams, or saddling yourself with future debt that will strangle you for a decade?

Have you thought about this before? Are you doing it? Do you know someone who has? Let’s share some ideas, shall we?

Read more about travel and education:

manifesto - value dynamic possibilities

Photo credits: Wesley Fryer


Leave a Comment

  • Terri Lynn Merritts said at 2014-04-21T07:48:24+0000: You can get a fully accredited associate's, bachelor's or master's degree at Excelsior College entirely online. The college was started originally by the state of New York but is independent now. Many people serving even in Afghanistan and Iraq get fully accredited degrees here. They are non-profit and accredited by the same accrediting agency that accredits all of the colleges and universities in that area. www.excelsior.edu Federal financial aid and school scholarships available.
  • Vagabond Gene said at 2014-04-18T03:16:51+0000: Thanks for putting this together Jen. We travel and go to traditional colleges/universities at the same time. My husband has gotten his bachelors and masters degrees almost completely online as a Family Nurse Practitioner (other than clinical hours) while I have done all of my prerequisites online for a nursing program. During that time, we traveled to 40 states and four countries "living on the road" so it can be done! Oh, and I also "home taught" our four children while we were on the road and they all skipped a grade level when we got back. Education and travel are so much better when combined!
  • Tami Smith DeLuca said at 2014-04-17T15:09:22+0000: I had, of course, thought about this (or fantasized about it!) but you just brought it all to reality! Thank you Jen! I've got some serious planning to do.
  • Tiffany Turner Fite said at 2014-04-18T01:31:55+0000: Great inventory of resources! And, inspiring as usual!
  • Ruth Anne Rasmusson said at 2014-04-17T22:37:22+0000: Great collection of schools here. Thanks, Jen.