Want a Free College Education? Show Up to Class and Don’t Get Caught

catch me if you can

I am fascinated by the story of 28-year-old Guillaume Dumas, who recently announced that he spent 2008-2012 taking courses at Yale, Brown, Stanford and other schools without paying tuition.

How’d he do it? As he told The Atlantic, he walked into classrooms and acted like he belonged:

“I was just sneaking into classrooms in literature and philosophy and poli-sci and even psychiatry,” he says. Soon, sitting in on classes he wasn’t signed up for started to feel natural. “I just found out how to do it. When to hide. What kind of alibi to have or to behave with other students—what to tell, what not to tell,” he says.

He told The Atlantic that sitting in on lecture courses is a lot easier than trying to sneak into a smaller class, as anyone who’s ever “signed in a friend” to a lecture course can tell you. I have a hard time imagining someone sitting in on even a 30-person seminar without being discovered; at this point, the professor is walking from chair to chair and marking off each students’ name against his or her master list.

I’m also trying to remember, from my own college days, how much access a non-student would have had to academic buildings. All of our dorms had keycard locks, and I feel like some other areas of campus had keycard locks as well. That aside, it’s pretty easy to follow someone else into a building, especially if they are friendly enough to hold the door open for you.

Dumas, who is Canadian, told Fast Company that he undertook his non-traditional education as a form of protest:

“I think of it as an act of political protest,” he tells me, in his French Canadian accent. “I was angry at how university education excludes people who cannot afford it. What happened to the belief that sharing knowledge and great ideas should be free?”

The Atlantic asks whether Dumas’ free education devalues other students’ diplomas:

From this vantage point, a diploma starts to look a lot like a receipt printed on fine cardstock. It is proof not that one has learned something in college, but that one has paid for it. Without a diploma, how can Dumas prove to anyone—a potential employer, or even me—that he’s undergone an intellectually stimulating experience?

Well, a diploma is also proof that you’ve passed a bunch of tests, and—in the case of both my undergraduate and graduate programs—completed some kind of thesis project or comprehensive exam. I do believe that you can learn without practice, in that you can sit in on a literature classroom and understand Moby-Dick without needing to write a five-page paper on its symbolism, but in-class assignments and tests also demonstrate competence in a measurable way. A diploma is proof that you have presented competence in your subject as much as it is proof of anything else.

Likewise, simply having an “intellectually stimulating experience” is of little value to potential employers, who are more interested in what your intellect and competencies can do for them—and may be most interested in who you know, as The Atlantic notes in the same article:

Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and MIT found that what matters more than anything else in a job application is whether the candidate knows someone at the company.

This means the next step on this particular lifehack list might be to show up at the company you want to work for and act like an employee. (Actually, it would be smarter to show up at a company in the same industry as the company you want to work for, befriend the other employees, wait for one of them to get hired at the company you really want to work for, and use them to move your job application to the top of the pile.)

But Dumas doesn’t appear to be interested in getting hired at someone else’s company. He’s busy starting his own, the online Canadian dating service Datective. Entrepreneurship is, after all, a career that does not require a college degree.

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