Interview with a CEO: Ridiculous Student Loans vs. The Future of Education


Treehouse founder Ryan Carson

Treehouse founder Ryan Carson

Higher education in this country has really hit some choppy seas in the last 15 years. Many are calling it ‘broken’, but being more of an optimist I think of it as just going through a big, messy transition. This is creating both winners and losers, as the skilled or lucky are able to surf gracefully atop the wave of change, while the unlucky are pounded under the barrel and emerge with missing teeth, $200,000 of debt, and poor job prospects.

At the losing end of the spectrum, we’ve got today’s typical middle-class family. The parents lead standard consumer lifestyles, following a script of high spending and a low savings rate. Many are still stuck with mortgage payments by the time their two kids graduate from high school. They can’t cover the full cost of tuition of the the out-of-state schools their kids select, but luckily there are government-backed student loans available, originated by private banks. You can get Enormous loans these days, and everyone is doing it, so it must be okay, right?

The justification is that education is an investment in yourself, the career scene is more competitive than ever, and the higher earnings provided by a university education more than justify the cost of the education. Student loans are Good Debt, right? Interest rates are pretty low, college is life-enriching, so let’s go.

So the young adults go out and follow the script, borrowing as much money as they are allowed and using it as if it belonged to somebody else. On-campus housing, the full meal plan, a car, bars and restaurants, plus the actual fees proposed by the school.

“These three textbooks rang up to $295.00 at the school bookstore? Whoa, that sounds expensive. Oh well, throw it on the student loan, it’s all part of the greater good. Hey! That’s a cool sweatshirt hanging in the background! Throw that in too!”

I saw this pattern in my own engineering school days, where I went through blissfully free from the thought that borrowing money was an option. I was forced to apply engineering principles to my own costs – from choosing the university closest to my hometown, all the way down to sharing a single used copy of each textbook with four other engineering students, photocopying pages as needed. It seemed difficult at the time, and I envied the luxurious lifestyles of the rich-parent and big-loan crowd. But looking back, it was actually a lot of fun, and the hard work provided a foundation for some great things in the future. On the other hand, a huge portion of my four years was spent learning things completely irrelevant to my field of work, and completely outside of my area of interest (untold credits in advanced calculus and centuries-old differential equations being among the most notable).

At the end, my classmates and I all graduated with the same degree, but have taken vastly different financial and career trajectories since then.

Despite my miniature frugal rebellion, I followed a straight-laced path. I got the good marks in high school and in university, slogged through years of irrelevant math classes, submitted my transcripts and photocopied diploma to the discerning high-tech companies, and got nice professional jobs. I put up lots of flair items in my cubicle and rarely lost my employee ID badge with the magnetic swipe strip for access to all the buildings on the corporate campus. I made 401k contributions and investments and paid plenty of taxes, eventually emerging to an early retirement…

…where I learned that the entire business world I had come to know was just a tiny, and rather boring, slice of the real world. All this time, other people had been following different paths, starting businesses in their 20s and even teens. They were able to learn faster, work harder without feeling like they were working at all, earn more money and have more fun – by tuning in to their own passion and letting themselves run.

Given the right attitude and view of the world, I could have bypassed much of the bureaucratic nonsense of my education and gotten an earlier start, ending up in a fun and self-guided life like the one I lead now – much earlier.

Just compare my own straight-laced story to this one from Rockstar Internet Entrepreneur Chris Guillebeau. This guy simply has an interesting perspective on the world, and how to prosper in it. He talks and writes about his unusual perspective, and this somehow turns into business ideas, infinite money, and a cult following. He makes it look easy, because when you set an intelligent person free on a task they enjoy, they do find it easy even while they produce some great stuff. Tim Ferriss and my frugality arch-rival Ramit Sethi are two other examples of the “hey, that looks too easy” phenomenon.

The rise of the Internet has also empowered new writers to be able to profitably self-publish, musicians to be able to Rock internationally without asking the permission of a corporate record label, and teenage hacker geniuses like the iPhone jailbreaker geohot to build bright worldwide empires from the comfort of their parents’ basements.

And now that I’ve stopped spending so much time conforming to the standard script of working hard in a corporate job, taking side courses in management and technical subjects, and maintaining a tidy cubicle, what has happened? Suddenly I too just get to do stuff that doesn’t feel like work, and yet I get to learn more than ever before and get paid for it.  Are these all just isolated examples of a few lucky internet personalities, or is there a real pattern here?

As part of the answer, I have recently had the pleasure of talking with someone who has feet in all three of these worlds: Ryan Carson is a conventionally-educated computer scientist who has since gone on to found several companies, and is currently founder and CEO of a company that is specifically challenging the old educational model and allowing students to self-teach themselves in advanced subjects. And apparently he even knows Tim Ferriss.

In a recent goals post on his personal blog, I noticed he has plans to “Successfully place 12,000 people per year without university degrees into good jobs (50k per year).  I love this goal and the idea behind his company, Treehouse. It is a company that creates high-efficency learning courses in high-demand subjects. And it is all about breaking up the old notion that education should be expensive, exclusive, and formal, and replacing it with the idea that the Internet has made information and communication virtually free. And it is information and communication with other people, rather than lifelong research tenures and ivy-covered stone blocks, that are the foundation of allowing people to learn things and produce value.

MMM: Thanks for stopping by, Ryan. What was your own education and career path, that led you to where you are now?

Ryan Carson: Honored to be here, thanks. I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado and went to Colorado State University where I graduated with a Computer Science degree. I wanted a bit of an adventure so I moved to the UK after graduating and got a job as a Web Developer (Coldfusion baby!). I did that for four years and then got married and started my first company in 2004.

I’ve been an entrepreneur ever since and am now building my fourth company, Treehouse. The first one failed (I didn’t know how to price and sell things) and I sold the other two after building them into profitable businesses.

Treehouse is an online school that teaches you how to code and design so you can make things like iPhone and Android apps, websites, web applications and more. We also have a business course so you can learn accounting, marketing and finances. It’s $25 per month for access to all our courses.

MMM: How many active students and how many graduates are there in Treehouse programs at this point?

RC: We have 22,000+ students right now from all over the world.

MMM: What subjects has Treehouse produced courses for, and what are your plans for future content?

RC: We have the following courses (we call them Learning Adventures)

We’ve got 14 full-time teachers so we’re going to keep cranking out content as fast as we can.

MMM: How do the costs of your programs compare to universities – in terms of both money and time commitment to reach certain goals?

Treehouse: $25 per month for six months, $150 total
4-Year University: $89,688 and four years

With Treehouse, if you start with no technical knowledge you can be job-ready in about six months. This presumes you’re too busy to dedicate full-time to learning. If you dedicate eight hours a day to learning, you could be job-ready in 1-2 months.

Presuming it takes you six months on our program, it would only cost you $150 total ($25 per month). This is a little more affordable than the $89,688 cost of a typical 4-year university :) The tech skills you learn at a 4-year university are immediately out of date once you graduate and they don’t even help you get a job when you graduate.

After you finish Treehouse, our goal is to place you in a great job paying $40,000+ per year. You can then keep your skills up to date for only $25 a month.

I believe this is the new model for education – affordable, on-demand, up-to-date and job-ready. Mark Cuban just posted a great piece on this called Will Your College Go Out of Business Before You Graduate?

MMM: Are there online tests and other proof of completion, or do students demonstrate their mastery in some other way?

RC: Yes, we have Code Challenges which are in-browser coding tests where you have to write real code to pass. Once you pass, you earn Badges to demonstrate your knowledge. We also have multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank quizzes for non-code topics. You can try out our most basic course that teaches you how to make websites (HTML & CSS) for free here.

MMM: How do you picture Treehouse interacting with conventional education, and other education companies in the future? Competitors? Cooperators with a universal system for accreditation?

RC: We believe Treehouse can make you job-ready, straight out of High School, without having a college degree. We’re teaming up with high schools to empower their teachers to be able to teach, using Treehouse as their curriculum. Our Jobs team then helps place the talented students straight into jobs. Once a student gets placed in a job, they can continue learning with Treehouse to stay on the cutting edge.

Our first group of high school pilots are completing in June and the students are already looking very promising. We’re finding it easy to identify employers who are ready to hire these high school graduates at $40,000 per year. I don’t know about you but I certainly couldn’t have made $40k straight out of High School :)

MMM: Dyn-o-mite! Getting teachers to run these modern technology courses in conventional schools is a great idea. I would have loved to learn real skills like that in high school computer class, instead of “How to use Microsoft Word And Excel”.

I should note that it’s definitely possible to earn $40k out of high school, if you have skills that you develop throughout high school (carpentry, etc.). And to be fair, starting salaries in software for those with university degrees are much higher than $40k – more like $100k with a good education in a good job market.

But the same person who could get that good education and $100k job, could also start at $40k out of high school, and with four years of experience and promotions, be over that salary level by that point. Minus the cost of the formal education, and plus the smaller salary earned in the intervening years. So even on an apples-to-apples basis, it could be a win if there are enough employers who would go for it.

RC: If you’re already in college or working in a job, you can easily use Treehouse in your free time and re-train for a technology job. We’re finding that a lot of college professors are signing up for Treehouse Group accounts and assigning Treehouse Badges as homework.

Ultimately we’re trying to replace the need for college credits. It’s becoming clear that a traditional degree is no longer required for a job in technology. It’s all about your skill set and whether it’s up to date. My 12 year old Computer Science degree is now worthless because I learned an old language.

Obviously other career verticals like medicine will require traditional degrees and I don’t see that being disrupted in the near future.

MMM: Yeah… but I do know a few doctors who have choice words to share about the cost and inefficiency of modern medical education – even at the fancier schools. Ok, next question:

How does Treehouse interact with employers – do you have companies knocking at your door to get early access to graduates? Do you have any coordination for job placement?

RC: Our Jobs Team was created recently and their mission is to …

Find employers who are looking to hire web designers, web developers and iPhone/Android developers
Place Treehouse Students into great careers with these employers
We’re aiming to eventually place at least 1,000 Students per month into exciting technology jobs that pay $40,000+ per year.

MMM: How do you think a bright 16-year-old would fare, for example, staying up late on weekends to blast through the Treehouse IOS or Android development programs and putting out some apps which they share with the world and with potential employers? Is this an enormous shortcut or a big mistake?

RC: I think this is an enormous shortcut to success. Up until now, Universities have had this mafia-like grip on the job pipeline. You had to pay them a $100,000 toll to get to Job Land. That time is coming to an end and we’re entering a new age where anyone can educate themselves, on their own timeline, and get the job-ready skills they need. All for 0.17% of the cost of a traditional University degree in 1/8th the amount of time. It’s insane and I’m so honored and excited to be a part of the revolution.

I know from personal experience that we would always hire a developer who has built a couple real projects and put them out into the wild, over a college graduate with no real-world experience. Programs like Treehouse allow people to build real things, get them out to the public and then learn from that experience – all for a fraction of the time and money cost of University.

MMM: I’ve always thought of the MMM readers as ideal candidates for self-education, because way too many of us are techies, and we tend to like dispensing with cultural formalities in favor of getting real stuff done. Others are interested in a career boost, getting out of a currently stagnant track. On top of this, I hear from teenagers, students, and recent grads frequently, looking for advice on how to run their career and their finances to obtain freedom in life as early as practical. Do you have any advice for these people?

RC: In my life, I’ve always been naively optimistic and that’s worked well for me. I did a 1-hour talk where I summarize this methodology but basically the main reason why I’ve been lucky to get ahead financially, professionally and personally is because I assume anything is possible. I’m not more talented or intelligent than anyone else. I simply believe there’s only one rule in life: “Treat others like you want to be treated”. After that, it’s wide open :)

MMM: – thanks for joining us and thanks for making such a difference with your own company. I will definitely be following your progress from afar (and surely tracking you down next time I am in Portland as well!).

RC: Thank you so much for the interview. I’m a huge fan of MMM so this has been a real honor.

MMM: Aww, shucks.

While this article is a zoom-in on self-education, it should not be viewed as a complete end-run around university education. The message I’m hoping to share with potential students (and with my own son as he gets older) is just this:

  • Education of any sort is good.
  • If you’re going to buy it, shop around just as you do with any other purchase.
  • Always work to maximize your own value and minimize the costs if money is at all an issue.
  • Begin with the end in mind, and don’t just follow everyone else blindly.
  • Don’t borrow major money for a degree, unless you know how you will earn the money to pay it back within a few years after graduation.
  • The world is changing much faster than the traditional educational system can change itself. So use this fact to your advantage rather than getting crushed by it.
  • There is a much bigger world out there than the Employer/Employee model that most parents teach you about. Most of our parents spent their careers in a different economic model than what we have today. If you have entrepreneurs as parents, you’ll get closer to the full story. If not, be sure to talk to others who run their own companies or work for themselves.

It is essential to believe that “Jobs are something that people, including YOU, create”, rather than “Jobs are a scarce commodity that must be chased and appeased with human sacrifices”.

More on Futuristic Education

This whole “free learning online” thing has been going strong for years, and yet is just getting started in the grand scheme of things. But besides the Treehouse you have just met, here are a few more that have drifted across my own screen in recent weeks:

Coursera: actual courses from various universities, made available mostly free

Khan Academy: a smart and personable guy just started making some YouTube tutorial videos to teach his family and friends, and it took off, eventually getting the attention and backing of Bill Gates. Nowadays they’ve got a video library with over 3900 videos in various topics and over 225 million lessons delivered.

EDX (a collaboration between Harvard and MIT): Big-name courses, made available for free – with options to pay a discounted fee to receive actual course credits.

creativeLIVE: A selection of neat-sounding courses in the Artsy arena (photography, business, design, photoshop, video&film). To complete the circle of this new online world, you’ll find Tim Ferriss and Ramit Sethi on there as instructors, teaching their stuff even as they continue to run their own businesses based on the idea of learning stuff online.

It’s an interesting world out there these days: knowledge is virtually free, and there has never been a better time to ditch your TV and Playstation completely – and dig in to some more enriching entertainment!


  • My Financial Independence Journey February 7, 2013, 6:11 pm

    I’ve been interested in some these inexpensive online courses for a while now. I’ve taken some of these courses for fun (I’m a nerd) and they’re actually pretty good.

    On the other hand, I’m not really sure that these programs will be as revolutionary as they claim to be. I suspect that most people will still need a college degree to get a descent white collar job.

    Where I these programs as being particularly powerful is as a supplement to a standard high school or college education as a way to add actual skills to applications rather than BS volunteer work. Or as supplementary class material or even inexpensive tutoring.

  • BobH February 7, 2013, 6:28 pm

    It should be noted that as every communications technology (radio, tv, internet) was introduced, there were claims that it would make education problems evaporate. People in the 1950s seriously believed that everybody would be a PhD because you could just broadcast lectures from Harvard over the airwaves. Bam! Problem solved.

    Radio, television, and the internet are wonderful, amazing things. However, it’s been true for about 100 years that a smart, motivated, hard-working individual could educate themselves nearly free of cost by going to the library. And that’s a wonderful thing! Just don’t think that all of a sudden we don’t need schools and universities.

    Btw, I think Mr. Chomsky has some light to shed on this topic:

  • ToughMother February 8, 2013, 3:22 am

    +1 to Justin who notes that community colleges are a great place to take your general education/distribution requirements — costs are low and professors are dedicated teachers.

    Not to mention the many career programs to be had at community colleges that are 1-2 years in length at low cost. Some career paths just can’t be translated to all-online (dental hygiene, hvac, precision machining, clinical lab skills, etc.). Moreover, many students don’t have the skills or capacity to self direct their learning. Many need academic and life support which the online environ again doesn’t provide

    MOOCs are great for some students in some fields for certain careers. So too is traditional higher Ed. What is nice going forward is to have the option of matching learning delivery methods to individual fields, careers and the learners themselves.

  • Dancedancekj February 8, 2013, 5:41 am

    “I do know a few doctors who have choice words to share about the cost and inefficiency of modern medical education – even at the fancier schools.”

    I am currently in way too much debt for me to even share this here. It’s a debt emergency, and a very large one at that.
    I do blame myself solely for getting myself into this situation, but I feel a bit cheated. I was always told to study hard, go to school, become a doctor, and things would be rainbows and sunshine. Nobody ever tells you about the part after you graduate from professional school, that part of the story just kind of mysteriously disappears from any conversation.

    While I was attending school, tuition increased by 20%. Interest rates jumped 100-200% on my loans during that time period. There were few scholarships or grants available, since I was a health care professional that was going to have the ability to pay them off easily in the future. The only feasible scholarship would have been the military, but I chose to avoid it for some personal reasons (although it is sure sounding like a good idea right now)

    Currently I am making far less money than I can afford to. I watch as the education I worked hard to obtain and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for is wasted. Insurances downgrade procedures year after year, while patients are paying more and more for procedures. I live in fear of being sued for malpractice. I listen to people complain about how they hate the dentist, or how expensive procedures are, while I only get paid 30% of what is actually collected from insurance after all is said and done. Fighting with inept administrators, fighting with patients to pay their bills on time, fighting with insurance companies to get what little money we can get for our procedures – it gets exhausting.

    If future me could have warned undergraduate me about what was coming, I would have definitely picked a different field. Being so jaded after only two years of working isn’t what I was hoping for in my life. I picked dentistry for many reasons, but did not manage to oversee the debt it would put me into. All I can do now is work like a dog, slowly grow my Mustache, and get the hell out of it as soon as possible.

    • shavenllama February 8, 2013, 10:39 am

      Regarding the NEED for more more more medical professionals and the ensuing rainbows and unicorns-
      I have a family member who found himself unemployed towards the beginning of the recession. Instead of wallowing, he went ahead and went back to school and earned his RN. He got straight As in every class he took, graduated in the top of his class (or at least top 5, not sure his actual rank), and couldn’t find a nursing job anywhere. He’s interviewed all over the state, and even into other states. No luck. He recently took a PT position as an in-home caregiver and they love workign with him.
      The lack of work available has hit probably 50% of his class.
      Meanwhile, all you ever hear from schools, media, etc is how going into the medical field is a can’t-lose proposition, the aging population needs these skills, blah blah blah.

      So yeah, I totally feel you on feeling cheated and possibly even lied to. :(

      • stellamarina February 8, 2013, 5:11 pm

        They still need them. There is just not the money to pay for them.

  • BC February 8, 2013, 9:13 am

    Glad that the US higher education system is going through this shake-up, it is so desperately needed. That said, there are ways to go through the current system without taking on a lot of debt. My husband and I are examples of taking two different roads and both coming out with degrees from Ivies and very little debt simply because we were both naturally debt-averse. It was this mysterious little instinct to avoid debt that we have to thank. We always could have taken out more loans but that didn’t sit well with us, and so we never had a big discussion about it, we just kept plugging along and finding other ways.

    I went the route of working a lot of side jobs, going to community college, living at home and transferring to a nearby University for my bachelors. My single mom had saved some for my education and I paid for the community college credits. As a result, my degree came in under budget. She gave me the remaining funds as 2 IRAs and some mutual funds and sent me on my way. Years after that my second employer after college paid for my master’s at an Ivy’s continuing education program while I worked full time. I never took out any student loans.

    My husband was the true scholar. He took out $14,000 in federal loans for his bachelors degree for classes that he and his parents couldn’t cover. It was a small state school. Then he went to work at a top-tier university and started taking classes there for free towards a masters. When he decided to be a full time masters student he took an educational leave of absence from his job and took on TAships in classes that he hated but covered tuition, insurance and a stipend. In the end he got a free $100,000 degree and left with $30,000 in a retirement fund. For his PhD an Ivy paid him and his tuition and provided health insurance as well as the opportunity to travel the world. Now he’s working his dream job as a botany professor.

    Both roads took a ton of hard work, patience and sacrifice. Lots of waitressing and juggling a career and classes on my end and him harassing admins to get those sought after TAships in addition to “growing a second brain” (my words) of knowledge in his field. Both paths fit our personalities (I prefer working and learning skills on the job. He loves research and the classroom.)

    I’m glad that the old university model is being challenged and new ways of gaining job skills are being developed. Just want to put a plug in there for finding frugal ways to get through the current system.

  • Doug February 8, 2013, 10:38 am

    That’s an interesting take on the high cost of education, and big student loans. It’s true that the cost of a college or university education has gone up, even if you take into account inflation, since when I was in school in the 1980’s. However, like Mr. Money Mustache I looked for ways to cut costs, and wasn’t spending a fortune on luxuries like fancy expensive clothes, going out drinking, and going off to Florida during the February break was absolutely out of the question.

    I also agree with your comparison to engineering with respect to cutting costs. It amazes me how engineering students, or engineers and technologists in the work force, can understand abstract concepts like how to reduce eddy current losses and hysteresis losses in a power transformer (I’m in the electrical field, as you can see) to increase its efficiency, can’t correlate those ideas to reducing losses in their everyday life.

  • CPA February 8, 2013, 8:38 pm

    I have been reading MMM for several months now and I am completely hooked. I love reading all of your posts. This one especially hit home for me because I also put myself through college (both BS & MS). I was fortunate enough to get a 2 year scholarship and grants my first couple of years but then my mom got remarried my Jr. year of college and I didn’t qualify for the grants any longer because I had to claim my step dad’s income. (How bogus is that?) I got a part-time job (working about 30 hours/week) and took 18 credit hours/semester those last couple of years to make sure I got the full bang out of the flat tuition rate for up to 18 hours. I also chose a school that was only 20 minutes from home so that I could live at home and not have to pay for room and board. With all of these combined efforts I was able to graduate with a 4 year degree in Accounting from a very good school with less than $3,000 in student debt which I was able to pay off shortly after graduating. Then once I passed the CPA exam it didn’t really matter where my degree came from all anybody cared about was that I was a CPA.

    My kids are almost college age (a Jr & Sr in high school) and we have had many conversations with them about choosing an instate school and starting at community college to control costs.

    I now teach full-time at a local community college and our associates degrees transfer to almost all of the big state schools. We are also getting ready to pilot a new program in the Fall 2013 semester to try to reduce the cost of textbooks for students. The program is being developed so that student’s will not have to purchase textbooks at all. The only cost they will have is the $220 it cost to enroll in the course (which is dirt cheap by today’s standards). The professors are being directed to choose either one of the free open source textbooks that are available on the web or to come up with their own examples and problems for their classes. We are going to offer at least one session in our most highly enrolled courses to see how it goes. I really hope the pilot program is successful because textbooks at a community college can be almost as expensive as the courses themselves and is sometimes a huge barrier for my students.

    Keep up the good work MMM.

  • DaftShadow February 9, 2013, 4:04 pm


    I’m not sure why this isn’t in the list, but I wanted to make sure to give it props. For anyone who prefers to learn entirely in a self-paced fashion, Udacity provides the best platform of any of the MOOCs. And, in comparison to Treehouse, udacity is free. :)

    Coursera may have a lot of classes, and EdX may have the biggest names attached… but Udacity is the only one that really has a platform based around true on-demand self-learning. The others are building their curriculum by simply replicating the classes that they are already doing, and putting the content online (aka, MIT OpenCourseWare). It’s fantastic that the information is coming available, but it’s not yet “on demand”, and it’s a truly frustrating and de-motivating way to learn.

    If anyone wants to see a true illustration of the coming education boom, check out Udacity.

    • Kay in Mpls March 30, 2015, 8:25 am

      Just visited udacity and it costs $200 per month for at least 6 months to get a “nandegree.”

  • ApplePi February 10, 2013, 2:07 am

    I LOVE the idea of Treehouse U and love that you got to interview him.

    I know I’m involved in a project to train doctors about nutritional health online. We’re launching it next month in Canada and it will be for credit courses, all FREE.

    People tend to look up to doctors and other professionals as these amazing repositories of knowledge, but the truth is, in many cases, they can’t keep up with new medical advancement and they have family and work commitments just like the rest of us.

    This is especially true in natural medicine, which is hard to find funding and under-regulated. The problem with natural medicine is that you can’t patent a plant, so there is relatively low interest in doing research from major pharmaceutical firms.

    Doctors and pharmacists are interested in increasing their knowledge of the subjects, it’s just hard to find trustworthy info.

    Note, the courses will be open to anyone.

  • Ed Mills February 10, 2013, 5:23 am

    There is a revolution taking place right before our eyes and most students and educators are woefully unaware of the mushrooming changes and options. I know I go out of my way to spread the word among my students and colleagues about Udacity, NoExcuseList.com, and now TreeHouse.com. My biggest beef is the fact that grades 9-12 and the first two years of college are redundant for most students. For example, all U.S. students take American History; why should they have to take an introductory U.S. History course in college? So much time and money are wasted in college!

    I am currently working on an article: How to Hack a College Degree in 12 Months for Under $5k. I am putting that out there to make my sorry derriere get’r done.

    Yet another great article 3M.

    • JZ February 10, 2013, 10:36 am

      Well, in part it’s because high school History classes teach garbage that no college professor recognizes as “history”. High school history isn’t there to teach you about the past and how things came to be, it’s there to indoctrinate people into the common mythos of the country. The actual events are a lot more complex and nowhere remotely near as cut and dried. By the time you get into college, you’re considered to be grown up enough to know some of the real stuff.

      This is a separate problem though.

    • Emmers February 10, 2013, 1:05 pm

      “For example, all U.S. students take American History; why should they have to take an introductory U.S. History course in college?”

      Isn’t this why we have AP classes and AP tests? Most high school courses aren’t taught rigorously enough to count for college credit; AP courses (especially AP US History) are a pretty bright exception.

      For example, my high school physics class (which I took junior year) was all algebra-based. It was great for learning the basics of physics and getting used to the *idea* of the sorts of problems you’d do in a real physics class, but it is not REMOTELY equivalent to Physics 101. (For starters: you need calculus for that.)

      • Glen August 1, 2016, 7:22 pm

        LOL, for me, the few hours I spent in AP US History were among the most painful of my entire educational career. Here’s an actual transcript that I remember quite vividly:
        Teacher (reading from lecture): “The French WITH the help of the Iroquois Indians”
        Interrupting Student #1 (taking notes): “Could you repeat that?”
        Teacher: ” The French WITH the help of the Iroquois Indians were”
        Interrupting Student #2: “Could you repeat that again?”
        Teacher: “The French WITH help of the Iroquois Indians”
        Interrupting Student #3: “I’m sorry, could you say that again?”
        Me: (punches self in face, resolves to drop AP US History)

  • Jennifer February 11, 2013, 6:07 am

    No one may actually see this since I’m posting so late… but I work for a library and we have either launched Treehouse or are about to as a free service for patrons.

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 11, 2013, 9:06 am

      Wow, great idea!

      As for the common “commenting on an older article” lament: Don’t worry about nobody seeing it – blog articles don’t just die as soon as the next one comes out.. at least a few people are reading through all of them every day (1200 people read this particular article yesterday, for example).

  • Evan Lynch February 11, 2013, 2:46 pm

    Good interview, but I take objection to his comparison on costs with $89,688 being the cost of a four year degree. I got my BS in 2008 and it took me less than half that, probably $30k in total at most, although I was fortunate to have parents willing to pay for it, and most of that went to housing, not the university itself. Despite not taking four years to finish, I probably got my BS in one of the cheapest ways possible: first half, the general education done at a local community college to where I grew up, and the second half, the actual major done at a four year state school. It’s certainly very easy to spend that 90k on a BS, but it’s not at all necessary to do so.

  • Mr 1500 February 12, 2013, 8:55 am

  • PFgal February 13, 2013, 1:54 pm

    This is interesting timing. Just a couple weeks ago I put a question out there on the forum asking for advice about how I should direct my self-learning in order to enter these fields. I got some great responses and am now taking a Udacity course on Python. (The forum post is here: http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/forum/ask-a-mustachian/looking-for-career-advice-from-mustachian-engineers/ )

    There’s a lot of talk in the comments about how these types of programs should/shouldn’t replace a more typical 4-year university degree. I have mixed feelings on that, but I do think that these are a great idea for older folks who want to change careers. I already have a B.A. and an M.A. and have no desire to get another degree. Since I can’t go back and tell my 18-year-old self to choose a different major, learning new skills on my on own online seems to be the way to go. At the very least, it can’t hurt. And at the most, it could lead to great new job opportunities!

  • Aaron B February 14, 2013, 9:27 pm

    Hey everybody

    This is really last minute but http://www.appsumo.com is offering a year of treehouse gold for $50 vs $500. It’s only on for a couple more hours I hope you see this comment in time! I don’t get anything by telling you but it is a pretty mustachian deal.

    DO IT

  • GubMints February 15, 2013, 7:08 pm

    Unfortunately, Student Debt is the next Housing Bubble.

    At the hospital where my wife works, there are PT’s and OT’s with $120-$180K in student loan debt.

    It will take these poor schlubs FOREVER to pay this off at their likely wages of $40-$50/hr (aka $80-$100k/yr).

    When this bubble pops, are the issuers of private and public student loans “Too big to fail”?

  • Jennifer February 17, 2013, 8:13 pm

    Wow, no one’s mentioned CodeAcademy? It’s free! =D

  • Chris K. February 18, 2013, 8:00 pm

    I agree with GubMints. Student loan debt it the next bubble. I’m in college right now using my GI Bill so hopefully I will be able to get out with out too much. Going to school to be a PT so I will likely have some. Has anyone every heard of Blake Boles? He’s a leader in the world of “unschooling” and wrote an awesome book called Better Than College. It’s probably the best gift for a high school grad next to a job. Short, sweet and to the point!

  • Mary Jo February 21, 2013, 6:44 pm

    awesome article! Nice to see someone is improving our education system and thinking beyond the norm.

    I would rather higher someone with skills then a important 4.0 degree!


  • Julie Kay March 6, 2013, 9:10 am

    Love the post and the interview. I do see this trend moving forward and greatly affecting higher ed… but one thing I’m not seeing in the Treehouse and other similar program’s curriculum is a full liberal arts education that a university degree DOES provide. Sure, anyone with aptitude and some intelligence can learn to code, but what do they know about literature, about Mozart, about architecture, the Renaissance? Yes, anyone can self-educate themselves on these topics but WILL they do it? At a university, you HAVE to complete courses in a broad range of subjects. You leave university as a truly educated person. This can’t be replicated by internet courses… not yet anyway.

  • @pfinMario March 8, 2013, 9:22 am

    It’s really tough to differentiate with this topic.On the one hand, we — the people — totally created this education bubble. So many jobs that wouldn’t have necessarily required a degree a generation ago do now… Not sure what the answer to that is.

  • Freeyourchains April 22, 2013, 7:17 am

    Just a heads up, all these Java, C++, Ruby on Rails textbooks can be found at your local library especially campus library, or online campus library for $0/month.

    Since you are self-teaching yourself with Treehouse at your self-teaching pace for $25/month, you could save some money and self-teach yourself at your self-teaching pace for $0/month.

  • Frugal in DC May 3, 2013, 7:58 pm

    Another reason not to take out large student loans: the college recruiting practices of many employers. Most employers these days recognize that it’s important to have a diverse workforce. They look for colleges that have high-quality degree programs and diverse student populations, regardless of whether they’re public or private.

  • Dan Williams May 7, 2013, 10:22 pm

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Western Governor’s University yet. (http://www.wgu.edu/) Their tuition is ridiculously low, they are fully accredited, and they offer a nice selection of advanced degrees.

    FWIW- I have a “useless” English BA and, despite fumbling around in coffee shops for a year or two after school, have built a career in a 8 years that earns a quite sufficient salary…in a stable industry…with great benefits…and plenty of future upside for advancement. For the most part, I like what I do each day and feel good about the contribution I’m making to society through the work I do. It’s taken a bit of hard work, but mostly it was showing up and being willing to take chances, act on principle, etc.

  • AA June 27, 2013, 7:44 am

    • Debt Blag June 27, 2013, 8:23 am

      Is it though? It can really depend on how the question was asked. I have a plan, budget, and make sufficient income to pay mine back, but of course I’m worried I can’t pay it back.

      • AA June 27, 2013, 1:23 pm

        It makes me sad because of things like:

        1. How many of these people took on a debt to get a degree that didn’t provide them a skill that could be used to pay it back?

        2. How many of these people didn’t take advantage of things like in-state tuition that could have lowered their costs?

        but mostly the big one…

        3. How many of these people are in the situation where they worry everyday as a result of their choice of stupid cars, stupid lattes, and stupid places to live?

  • jk October 10, 2013, 8:55 am

    First of all, thank you MMM for what you do. It’s very much appreciated. Secondly, I’m also a big fan of Salman Khan and the Khan Academy. By chance, have you heard of a similar site for language instruction? (Specifically Spanish and French)

  • Not too late October 28, 2013, 5:01 am

    So timely!

    Over the last few weeks, when I would visit my library’s homepage, I kept seeing a banner on “Learn WordPress”, “Learn to develop an app”, etc. Sounded intriguing, but I never clicked through.

    Found this article today and then figured I would re-visit my library’s site again to read through the computer skills banner cited in the previous paragraph. Turns out, I get Treehouse through my Library card (which I pay for through property taxes). I am investigating what to learn and will chart some goals for myself to get through the content.

    Thank you! Thank you! This gave me the kick in the pants I needed. So excited to learn.

  • Rhone D'Errico November 4, 2013, 12:30 am

    This post is one of those I couldn’t let go of after reading it a few weeks ago. It just kept rolling around and around in my head. I kept checking out the Treehouse site and thinking at some point I might give it a spin; I’m a healthcare professional with a long geek streak, and all the courses looked great. Reading Ryan Carson’s personal blog was truly inspiring as well.

    Well last night I found myself with nothing to do, so I signed up (for one month of silver, frugality doubly enforced by current funds), completed the Wordpress track, and set up my blog. The idea was equally inspired by MMMs “How to Start a Blog” post, and once I get some decent content up I’ll post a comment there as well.

    This comment is more about Treehouse, and I love it so far. I’m going to give the programming tracks a spin. Being a Nurse Practitioner (NP) who can program and do web design has a very Buckaroo Banzai-esque vibe which appeals to me on a deep level. The site and concept are awesome, and I look forward to exploring it further. I have little doubt that once funds allow I will upgrade to a full year of gold, and just go crazy in my spare time learning this entirely new skillset. Huge thanks to Treehouse and all involved, and MMM for bringing this to my attention!

    I’ve also been involved in education, I love it, and I agree 100% with the precepts of this article. My own profession (nursing) has an educational system rife with archaic techniques and methodologies. We need to bring some of this tech company thinking to our schooling and profession.

  • Jason December 20, 2013, 2:23 pm

    Since MMM is about self-improvement (and since I personally enjoy when people correct me, as it’s an improvement to my knowledge which will pay dividends over time), you should know that it’s “strait-laced”, not “straight-laced”. The orientation or arrangement of the lace isn’t the point; it’s how tight the lace is, since the phrase makes reference to a bodice or girdle, whose laces are tied in a tightly-fitting (or “strait”) fashion.

    Great article, as always.

    • Glen August 1, 2016, 7:33 pm

      Well, if you like being corrected, then you will be happy to know that “straight-laced” is widely accepted, and is in fact now more common than “strait-laced.”

  • Jaybird February 8, 2014, 3:30 pm

    Thanks for this post. Interesting that I read it almost 1 year to the date from it’s original posting. I am definitely going to sign up for Treehouse.

  • Jason February 26, 2014, 10:30 am

    Ho, Mustachians!

    Jason here, I found the MMM site in early January 2014 and I am intrigued! I have been digging through the archives (which can be quite overwhelming) and just found this from the Mustachian 180 post.

    Treehouse looks AWESOME, I have been ‘meaning to’ learn more HTML/CSS for my own edification for some time, especially since I am helping a non-profit with a basic web site.

    Another online learning site that I have heard good things about (via the Accidental Tech Podcast):


    They don’t have the badge/testing system that Treehouse does but they have a much broader range of training videos (generally application-focused). Here’s hoping some of you find it useful.


  • The Roamer May 14, 2014, 11:00 pm

    WOW! MMM you really continue to amaze me. The topic matter that you cover is such a wide variety I understand it all comes back to money , but still its cool. I really enjoyed this article as I have kids and my general feeling has been that they can pay for their own college and before I knew about MMM I even though that a little debt was a good thing as it would force them to learn how to manage their money. I got into college debt and had to juggle a few other things and I really do feel I became quite proficient at managing money but now with MMM I know they don’t necessarily need debt to learn those lessons. I was also feeling that maybe degrees wouldn’t be so necessary in 13 year i guess we’ll see but I still plan to limit my help.This article was great I also like how you link to other bloggers sometimes I click and read other times i don’t but thanks for the introductions to ERE and Pat Flyn and others

  • Laura April 8, 2015, 7:55 am

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on MBAs. Obviously, if I’m going to retire early, it won’t be a help, but while I’m working it could provide a nice income boost. There are also lots of scholarships out there, which would decrease the cost, sometimes significantly.

  • Stephanie November 12, 2016, 10:28 am

    Thanks for the links at the bottom! I already finished my college degree (not that I’m even using it…) but I like to continue learning different topics. I’m already enrolled in one of these classes!

  • Mrs Fu Mon Chu May 18, 2018, 3:41 pm

    Reading this post a few years on from when it was written it seems even more relevant than ever. Our son has ditched college for an apprenticeship. At 19 he’s already thinking about retirement. Not only is he saving drastically but he’s earning a good salary and works with a really fun team. His confidence has soared – compared to his peers he’s a real grown up and I benefit (a little!) as he pays us a small amount of board which probably covers the amount of cereal he eats weekly, if that, but it’s good discipline to have to hand over something in terms of living expenses – I think. Anyway thanks for the great posts on jobs that don’t need degrees. It inspired me to write on the subject, too, over at our blog. We’re complete newbies so would welcome any input and advice.

  • Mark Schreiner October 20, 2020, 6:11 pm

    Education/learning has some basic general elements:

    — Syllabus: what to study to learn
    — Model/teach: Someone shows or tells the learner what is to be learned (unless the teacher is “hard knocks”, which is an inefficient way to learn)
    — Learner practices/experiments
    — Someone provides feedback (teacher, mentor, or life via “hard knocks:”)
    — Learner tries again to reinforce/master

    The learner requires motivation. This could be external (forced to learn) or internal (wants to learn for own reasons).

    Formal education provides a syllabus, a teacher (as well as other students to learn with/from), practice (homework/tests), feedback (grades on homework/tests), and motivation (grades and being forced to attend by law (up to age 16) or convention (expectations of self/family/culture).

    As pointed out here, self-motivated, self-directed learning is the least expensive and probably most productive. Abraham Lincoln had books, we have books plus the internet.

    For most people (especially children), motivation is lacking for a number of things that will later turn out to be useful to have learned. Most people enjoy reading per se. Fewer enjoy writing. Even fewer would study advanced math unless forced. Spelling, penmanship. There are society-wide benefits to have everyone know/believe certain things, even if for a given individual, learning them does not bring big benefits.

    Formal schools not only help students learn, but serve as a somewhat credible certifier of learning. A certifier is often necessary because for many areas of knowledge/skills, demonstrating/observing mastery/competence is costly. This is why some jobs require a degree. It has long been acknowledged that colleges have a strong certifier function, and it is difficult to believe that someone could graduate without having learned anything, so they also promote learning.

    Learning from books, internet courses, and home school all provide a syllabus, a teacher, and suggested practice/exercises. They may also provide feedback and tests for mastery.

    What they sometimes do not provide is motivation. By definition, these forms of learning rely in internal motivation. And they may also be weaker at certification for some areas.

    In some areas (coding, foreign languages, math), learning approaches other than formal school can do pretty well (because they are enjoyable per se, or because the material is codified and the field to be learned is “closed” enough that the learner does not need much interaction with humans). These topic areas are also certifiable: show an app that works, speak for 30 minutes with a native speaker, take a math test.

    Other topic areas require more external motivation and are more difficult to certify.

    Myself, I learned to code 6502 machine language on the VIC-20 (3K RAM) in the mid-1980s because I wanted to make my own video games. In high school, I was a COBOL maintenance programmer in the summers. BA in English lit. and Spanish lit. PhD in Economics. Never took a coding class, but now code daily (and write) in my statistical consulting work. My wife home schooled the kids, and they learned more, and more happily, in less time, for less monetary cost, until they got older and lost motivation and the job became too much. And now they are at school.

    The key is to understand yourself and the nature of what you are trying to learn. Take advantage of formal school when you must/want to learn something that is not amenable to self-directed learning via books or internet courses. Fun things, or fairly “closed” areas of knowledge (such as coding), you can learn better, faster, and cheaper on your own.


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