We’ve all been buying into the idea of formal higher education for a long time, and I think that it’s time we stopped and thought again. Education is a risk as well as an investment. Think about it. We’re telling young people to put off actually entering the economy in favor of taking out large loans for training that we hope will stay relevant over the course of the next 30-40 years. When we decide as a society whether sending more and more people to college is the right thing to do, we need to take into account the opportunity costs.
What could university aged students be doing if they weren’t in traditional classes?
How do the explicit and implicit costs of university compare to what could be accomplished independently in those four to six years?
Does the four year university system encourage a habit of lifelong learning?
I am not advocating that young ambitious people just drop out and take what they can get without training. Education is very important, but I see an education bubble in the United States. There is too much inflation in the price compared with the general economy, and higher education is almost undeniably one of the sacred cows that we all tend to see as an essential investment regardless of the mounting costs.
College graduation is seen by most firms as an entry requirement, and it makes sense to a degree. If you can get through four years of tests and classes you’ll also be able to show up at work and be productive right? Well maybe, but as a society we need to break away from this idea that college graduates are highly qualified and everyone else is unemployable.
So much of what I learned in university isn’t particularly applicable in the economy. I got really good at taking tests, but didn’t learn much about managing global projects. I learned to calculate the gini coefficient, but don’t find that to be exceptionally helpful in my daily life as a marketing manager. Most of what I know that allows me to be effective, I learned on the job, not in the classroom.
What if students could start working in an industry when their wage needs are low, and only take classes that really apply to their work?
What if they could, addition take unrelated classes to broaden their perspectives?
What if the cost marginal cost of educating one more student was nearly zero?
A big reason for my current thinking on the subject is the advent of sophisticated online education options that are much more efficient than their university counterparts. I am a huge believer in lifelong learning, so I’ve recently been taking classes at http://www.udacity.com/. It’s incredible to be able to learn about physics, theoretical computer science and cryptography in your spare time. Other programs like MIT’s OpenCourseWare and the Khan Academy open up even more possibilities. Paid online education is also possible through companies lynda.com making fast moving topics like software training really accessible.
Students need to learn to think critically, develop an appetite for knowledge and learn how to continue learning throughout their lives. In our fast moving technological landscape traditional education is too expensive, too exclusive, and too slow.