I've done both, through the system and out of it. I went to a higher education institute and learned most of what I know alone, using online resources and books.
In this post, I'll share the points that affected me. Others might view things differently and I encourage you to share your point of view in the comments section.
Learning alone, from online (or offline) resources gives you several degrees of flexibility:
You can choose the content:
You don't have to settle for the content that your education institute provides you. There are probably better resources out there, you can learn programming, economics, or architecture by handpicking the best resources every step of the way.
Searching for content will also give you a better understanding of your field of study, what are the main subjects to learn, what are the ways it's currently taught in. You can enrich your learnings with several media types, such as YouTube videos, books, and courses.
3.5 months. No more:
You don't have to stick to the 3.5 months semester format. If it takes you another month to learn a subject it's perfectly fine. The most important thing is that you end up understanding it. There is no such concept when going through college, if it takes you even 4 months, you "strike out" and need to retake that course.
It goes the other way as well. Sometimes you can complete learning a subject in less time. If your pace is faster no one forces you to drag it for 3.5 months.
You can schedule your learning time:
When taking a course at an educational institute, you're given a learning schedule and there's a specific time for classes and exercises. If it clashes with other things in your life, you'll have to adjust.
Self-learning allows you to fit learning into your existing schedule, or make lesser changes to your lifestyle. There's no real ability to work full-time when attending college, but it's possible if you can schedule your studies in the evenings and during the weekends. That said, there are obvious issues here that I'll touch in the cons section.
A growth catalyst:
To achieve the benefits of self-learning, we must grow and mature. This can be view as a con but I decided to list it in the pros. It's these experiences and hardships in our lives that spur growth. You have to be true to your word, invest the time required for learning and not trick yourself. It'll be hard. You might fail at times.
You have to maintain your integrity, not lie to yourself and do things outside of your comfort zone. The learning itself is just one of the challenges here. There's no group to drag everyone forward, no boss/teacher to give you exercises and there are no firm deadlines besides the ones you set yourself, which should be the hardest deadlines of them all.
Succeeding here will grant you mental sturdiness and competency. It will make you a formidable person, a force. You'll feel stronger because you'll know that you can execute plans and pull through inconveniences.
You'll also face the need to learn how to learn. This is an underrated skill that we rarely learn growing up. Self-learning will help you pay more attention to the way you learn and to your habits. You'll improve as you practice, thus be a more efficient learner.
Learn for you:
Self-learning usually comes from a place of need or desire. You either need the knowledge or are very curious about it (also sort of a need). Having a good answer to the "why" question will help you learn much better.
Self-learning allows you to choose your own "why". Growing up you didn't have a great part in the decision of what to learn and why. Now you're the authority. Maybe it's something you want to build, an improvement to your career path, or magical curiosity. The choice is yours.
Also, efficient learning requires a project, and self-learning enables you to choose your own. Choose a project that speaks to you, one that will make you feel it's a good use of your time. It'll give you a stronger purpose and a chance to use your newly gained skills along the way.
It's much cheaper to be a self-learner. You can get the same knowledge for either free or a fraction of the cost of college. Books, online courses, YouTube Channels, Podcasts, all give you a great platform to learn from. You can also get certificates at platforms like edX and Coursera at an affordable price.
Now for the cons of self-learning. Alongside the benefits of self-learning, there are disadvantages we should take into consideration.
Underdeveloped maturity effects:
Maturity develops with time. While still underdeveloped it can cause some pain.
Procrastination and excuses. Not finishing what you started or not investing enough time. These will anger you with yourself. You'll feel you're not cut out for it. Like you're not made out of self-learning material. Many people pass through this stage, and you should know that with dedication and persistence this can be overcome.
You need to be true to yourself about the amount of effort you invest and choose proper ways to exercise what you learned.
It's important to know when it's time to continue to the next stage. It's easy to stay in the new comfort zone of a topic you already understand. This requires maturity as well. It can cause you to stay at the introductory level or stick to tutorials and articles, not progressing with either the learning or the project you chose. I think the coined term is "Tutorial Purgatory".
Bringing people together is one of the most wonderful things about universities and colleges. I view it as the main reason for their existence.
Having all those people around you in college means that you can brainstorm a lot. You can gain access to the way other people think and learn. Learning from others is important and self-learning doesn't have that.
There are things you can do to compensate. You can be active in forums or, online groups, however, it's not a substitute for all that brain that naturally hangs out around you in environments like schools and universities.
Learning with people, there's also the "herd effect". It's easier to go through the experience of education as a herd, together. Students support and incentivize each other and share the load. It's a place we can start developing teamwork skills.
Also, it's more fun to learn with others. You have people to share newly learned concepts with. People to be curious or plot interesting projects with. Fun and connection is a great part of learning in particular and of executing in general and it's missed when learning alone.
With fewer people, there are fewer opportunities to develop your social skills and personal network. In college, you pass 3-4 intensive years together that create lifelong friendships and connections. While Self-learning, we meet fewer people with whom we share less time. It's a big con to consider.
There are usually no professionals to guide us when we self-learn. We can follow the advice of online tutors, but there's no one to approach personally and discuss your concerns and thoughts with.
The benefits of a mentor go beyond raw information. Good mentors show us the reasons behind what they do. They can give us the "why" that's always so important. Mentors also serve as professional role models, and unless you're actively searching, chances are you won't find one when self-learning.
Less respected certificates:
It's still the case that university diplomas are more appreciated than private course system's ones. There's also the problem of not having a certificate at all. If you study from a book, a YouTube channel or a private course, there's no one to certificate you.
It's a shame because when I study from books or courses, I usually end up knowing the material well enough to use it. With that, There's a shift going on these days, learners and employers decreasing their reliance on college diplomas. Experience speaks louder. The ability to execute start to matter more than whether or not you passed through a university. That said, diplomas still matter.
We should view these cons as opportunities to improve self-learning. We can generate ideas to connect self-learners and spur interactions and discussions. Ideas that can lessen these cons or maybe even solve them. I bet on self-learning for the long run as a scalable solution, therefore, I think we must.
Surely this list of pros and cons is not an exhaustive one, and I might add to it in the future. The idea behind this list is not to help people choose between self-learning and the academy. You should ALWAYS strive to be a better self-learner, and if you have the privilege, go to a college as well.