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FREE College in NYC: A Ghosting Guide

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Sam is 25. He graduated in 2009 and now works as a freelance production assistant. When he is not working, he is reading socialist literature with his friend Carl, in the smallest two-person apartment in the Lower East Side. He also goes the New School for free as a ghost student.

“Ghosting” is the practice of sneaking into college classes without officially enrolling. Steve Jobs was a noteworthy enthusiast. After dropping out of Reed College, he began dropping in on interesting lectures. He credited one such calligraphy class with inspiring him to develop multiple typefaces for his computers.

Some people might call it “stealing.” I call it taking NYU & Co. up on their self-professed commitment to education.

In a way you’re already paying for a college education if you pay taxes. Who do you think subsidizes Stafford loans…Federal PLUS loans…Work/Study…and over six hundred more state sponsored aid programs? You do. Might as well take advantage.

So how can you edify yourself for free?

Well Sam doesn’t sneak around. He doesn’t hover in the back of a large lecture quietly taking notes on the DL. He takes small discussion-based social philosophy and journalism classes where he usually dominates the discussion.

He “enrolls” in these classes by simply sending the professor an email asking for permission to audit the class. By now he has formed relationships with several professors who are only too happy to let him participate like any other paying student.

There are some intricacies to asking permission. You need to demonstrate some genuine interest not only in the class but also in the professor. It is therefore recommended that you do your homework before writing the email.

You might also want to lie. Tell the professor that you go to CUNY or Fordham but that they just don’t offer the same level of depth you seek. Flatter him. It can’t hurt. After all, you are stealing an education. This is no time to get all morally uptight.

However, before you can even ask the professor, you need to find the course.

Schools such as NYU allow anyone full access to their course database (see their Albert Course Search). Other schools require that you log in to see the classroom and professor but they will still list a short description and the course title for the public. All you need to do then, is email the department head asking for more information and take it from there.

Of course, the professor may say no, but don’t lose hope because there are still plenty of opportunities out there.

If you can’t get a professor onboard, opt for the lecture courses and be prepared to sit in the back and blend in. The bigger the crowd, the safer you’ll be. You might also try dressing the part. For example, if you’re envisioning Columbia or the New School as your alma mater, you might want to think about jorts and a Fjällräven backpack (bonus: unisex).

You’ll also want to stake out the building beforehand. You don’t want to show up on the first day of class to find out that you need an ID to get into your building. Fortunately, if you’re not going into a lab or a dormitory, you can usually walk right in. Act natural, be casual, and try repeating the following mantra in your head: “I am not a creep preying on young co-eds. I am not a creep preying on young co-eds.”

Such a sneak-in, sneak-out strategy has its drawbacks. You won’t get the thrill of lively debates with your professor, but then you’ll still be learning and engaging in a ways you never could with iTunes U or Khan Academy. You’re getting all the benefit of an expensive education without any of the cost.

Yeah, you won’t receive a piece of paper at the end but if that’s all you were going for, then you deserve the $200,000 debt.

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Jules Owen - Wandering Wastrel

Jules Owen - Wandering Wastrel

Going to a rich kid school when you aren't even given an allowance certainly trains you to live large on the cheap. Armed with such expertise, Jules travelled the globe, surviving off of 50 cent beers and 2 dollar meals everywhere from Buenos Aires to Mumbai. Three years ago he returned to the United States, living first in Baltimore while he settled a debt with the IRS, then in Brooklyn where he plays music and writes. He aspires to one day live in a van on N.15th and Kent.