Hacking Higher Education – Interview with Jay Cross of DoItYourselfDegree.com

In this age of low cost business startups and endless entrepreneurial opportunities, is a university degree still a worthwhile investment? In the past, there was no question that higher education was the key to better salaries and upward mobility. However, with total university costs approaching $100,000 or more for ivy league private schools, does it still make sense to make that investment?

What if you could get that same education for a fraction of the cost? Jay Cross of DoItYourselfDegree.com can show you how. Jay explains how do it yourself university education works and gives some background into his last 6 years of location independence in this interview.

Jay Cross DoItYourselfDegree.com

Please tell us about yourself?

I’m a 26 year old digital nomad from the quiet beach town of Stratford, CT. In my brief yet adventurous career, I’ve dropped out of high school, made the front page of Wired.com (“Students Toil as Spyware Hunters”), started a six-figure startup with my best friends, written for some of the top brands online, lived in three states, and founded my current project, The Do-It-Yourself Degree. I graduated from Excelsior College in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in general business.

When I’m not working, I love hiking, running, and watching the New York Mets. Some would say I’m a glutton for punishment. I say it builds character!

How long have you been location independent?

Since the summer of 2007.

How did you get started on that lifestyle?

My biggest goal as a college kid was creating a location-independent lifestyle. I didn’t want to be tied down. I looked into a few different options until eventually, a buddy of mine tipped me off that RentACoder.com was listing writing jobs. He was right: when I joined, there were a TON of paid gigs just waiting for me to apply.

A lot of them were worthless (ie, $2 for 500 words of SEO filler) but there were diamonds in the rough, too. For every 20 listings there was always one person willing to pay a higher rate, or seeking a long-term relationship. I made up my mind to win those clients over. I knew most other applicants would be terrible (see The Craigslist Penis Effect) so I developed a system for writing amazing applications and standing out. It worked. Slowly but surely, I generated steady work until a growing roster of clients was retaining my services every month. I wound up paying my way through school with freelancing!

Please tell us about your travels?

The last few years have taken me all over. I’ve visited Ireland, Las Vegas, San Diego, Newport Beach, Charleston, Raleigh-Durham, Baltimore, Denver, Fort Collins…on and on. I spent most of 2010 and 2011 in Philadelphia while running a startup with my two best friends. City life was cool — definitely an exciting time, but too noisy and crowded for a permanent home. 2012 was a blast, too. One of my friends moved to Chattanooga, TN and invited me to take the second bedroom in his apartment, just to keep him company and experience a new setting. I loved it! Thanks to working remotely, it wasn’t even a decision — I just packed my car and went. After a year of unforgettable hiking, white water rafting and southern cooking, we both got a little homesick and came back up north. Who knows where I’ll go next?

How have you funded your digital nomad lifestyle?

Originally it was those writing gigs on RentACoder. Early in 2009, I was lucky enough to meet the co-founders of an up-and-coming creative agency from Newport Beach, CA. I became their first-ever contractor, writing articles and blog posts for some of the top brands on the web.

At the same time, I spent a year working for John Carlton, one of my idols and “the most ripped-off writer on the web.” I did a little of everything there, from running six-figure product launches to recruiting affiliates, to customer support. Oh, and this was on top of the startup my friends and I were running. It wasn’t easy juggling all of this during college, but I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. It was a street-level MBA in time management and productivity.

Anyway, as that agency grew to include other services, like infographics, they brought me on full-time as a social media project manager. Coolest job ever! I got to help companies like Intuit and Vmware craft viral content for their readers. One of the infographics I worked on won “Infographic of the Year” at DemandGen’s 2012 Killer Content Awards.

Today I run The DIY Degree, where I teach independent learners how to graduate faster for less by “testing out” of college.

How did you convince your employer to allow you to work remotely?

I was actually in the rare and fortunate position of working remotely from day one. After two years of freelancing with that agency, it was just a natural progression for me to do my project managing remotely, too. The takeaway there is I had already proven myself in that environment. Pro tip: you really need to solve the “out of sight, out of mind” problem when you go remote. The boss can see your office colleagues with their own eyes, but remotes can fly under the radar even if they work their asses off. Find ways to fight this: status updates, weekly check-ins, quarterly reports, whatever it takes to stay visible.

Can you please tell us exactly what type of freelancing work you do?

My freelancing typically involved article writing for bloggers. After interviewing clients about their goals, I would propose topic angles and subject matter I knew their audiences would love. Then I wrote the articles, made any edits the client wanted, and got paid. It was piece-rate compensation: write more articles, make more money. Very straightforward.

Is that difficult work to get into?

Most writers have no clue how to sell themselves. They send clients a self-deprecating soliloquy — “I’m probably not worthy of your time and I barely passed English, but pleeeeease hire me!” Don’t do that. Think about the best freelancers in the world — do you think they beg and plead for work? No way! They carry themselves with confidence and professionalism, like they EXPECT to get hired. You don’t need to be a jerk, but you do need to be confident and, above all, client-focused. Make your pitch all about their needs, what you’re going to do for THEM. Finally, blow your first few gigs out of the water. That’s how you build your reputation, your skills, and your bank account.

How do you find your freelancing clients?

VWorker.com is worth checking out, but the signal-to-noise ratio is brutal. You have to comb through a lot of low-paying mercenary work to find good clients. ProBlogger’s Job Board is much better. Fewer jobs, yet much higher quality. When applying, try to stand out as the obvious winner. Research the client. Learn HIS writing style. Consider HIS needs. When I was freelancing, I routinely spent one or two hours crafting my applications. I wanted them to be so good that no one else had a chance.

You were an editor for Ramit Sethi at Iwillteachyoutoberich.com, how did you land that position?

I had been a fan of Ramit and I Will Teach for years. One day in 2011, he posted a job ad for a case study writer. “Don’t send me a resume”, he wrote — “just write a case study and I’ll hire the winner.” I wrote one and improved it over two rounds of feedback from Ramit, earning my way into the final round. When I won, he called me to offer not only the case study role I applied for, but also (if I wanted it) a content editor position. Turned out Ramit loved my experience working with John Carlton and my background in persuasion.

I was ecstatic! This wasn’t like breezing past the wannabes on RentACoder. Ramit’s audience is as sharp as they come and it was no sure thing that I would win. For the six months we worked together, I did everything I could to justify the confidence he placed in me. Ramit is the man. If it weren’t for DIY Degree I would probably still be at I Will Teach.

Please tell us about DIY Degree?

DIY Degree is a guide that shows you how to “test out” of college. Depending on the major you want, you can earn a bachelor’s degree in one year by taking $80-$100 exams instead of costly and time-consuming classes. It works anywhere in the U.S. (I traveled extensively while earning my degree) and in some foreign countries also. Total cost of graduating? Around $5,000 in enrollment and testing fees. I used this strategy myself. The University of Connecticut wasn’t offering the classes I needed, so I decided to put my research skills to work and find a faster way. Testing out was the winner. I buckled down and earned my final 36 credits in about 4 months — a workload that would typically take a year and a half. Then I decided to start a community around this DIY Degree strategy so other students could do it.

If you’re self-motivated and capable of putting effectiveness before ego, DIY Degree could be a good fit. It’s mainly for people like me, who don’t love school and just want to move on with their lives.

How much time and money do you typically save a student?

Anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000. It really depends on how much you were going to spend before. Someone who was prepared to shell out $75K at a middle-of-the-road state school could wind up saving $50,000 or more by testing out. Even if you “only” test out of five or six courses, that could still mean tens of thousands in your pocket.

What degrees are best suited for a Do-it-Yourself route?

Liberal arts degrees, especially business degrees. Psychology is also a good fit. Other majors can employ the test-out option for part of their degree, just not all of it. But as I noted above, even partial test-out offers tremendous savings in both time and money. Also, testing out isn’t the only way to earn fast/convenient credit. Check out my guest post at Personal MBA on turning MOOCs into credit.

What’s next for you?

My goal is to start a Moneyball revolution in higher education. Baseball changed when Billy Beane built a winning team for pennies on the dollar. His strategies were controversial at first—now everyone uses them. I’m no Billy Beane, but I see DIY Degree as a similar type of change agent. Testing out isn’t some nebulous, far-off reform…it’s a degree accelerator students can use today. My current project is creating a searchable database of every college’s transfer credit allowances. Lots of schools make it difficult to find or understand their policies. How many exam credits are allowed? Which exam formats are accepted? Which ones aren’t? I want to give students apples-to-apples comparisons of the fastest credit paths at every school they are interested in.

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

2 Responses to Hacking Higher Education – Interview with Jay Cross of DoItYourselfDegree.com

  1. That’s a cool education hack. I had no idea you could test out of classes once you got past high school. Ahhhhh, I could have saved so much!

  2. Alana says:

    A teacher I had in middle school once told us that her husband never went to or slept through the majority of his college classes because he was brilliant and could ace every test. I can only imagine how thrilled he would have been with DIYDegree.

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