Is College Worth It?

New school year brings tough new questions

by Michael Levin | Updated 14 Aug 2015 at 1:46 PM

In the late 1970s, while working for the student newspaper at Amherst College, I interviewed an alum who had attended in the early 1960s. “Schools are so selective today,” he said. “I could never have gotten into Amherst today.”

I feel the same way today. Colleges and universities today are more selective, expensive, and controversial than ever in the history of education. Very smart people are questioning everything about the college experience, from its cost and often crippling debt load to its elitism and prevalence of student depression.

Many of the smartest people in the country are questioning whether a college degree is still worth the sheepskin it’s printed on.

A recent book offers insight into the question of whether college is worth it, which kind of college to attend, what to study when you get there, and whether most colleges will even survive in any recognizable form in coming decades.

In “The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere,” Kevin Carey suggests that the traditional four (or five or six) years-on-campus experience is rapidly becoming an endangered species, and not necessarily one worth saving. He writes that the whole post-graduate educational apparatus that parents and high school students worship is in danger of getting Uber-ized.

Challenging Conventional Wisdom
He’s not the only one questioning higher ed’s sustainability, of course. Send young people into a shaky economy saddled with $100,000 worth of debt isn’t just a financial question; it’s a moral one.

But that’s what’s going on in the world today, Carey writes. Indeed, millions of 20-somethings actually face the worst of both worlds.

College is a place where young people are supposed to learn enough so that they can compete in whatever corner of the marketplace they choose.

They’ve racked up huge debt but never finished their degrees. Even if they go bankrupt, student loans, like Banquo’s ghost, will continue to follow them for most of their adult lives.

So what’s college for? Carey says college is a place where young people are supposed to learn enough so that they can compete in whatever corner of the marketplace they choose.

The problem, though, is that colleges and universities betray their students by failing to teach them anything worthwhile. He’s not talking about underwater basket weaving. He says most schools are so focused on research that teaching becomes an afterthought. And even if students are taught, what are they taught?

Professors have to find more and more obscure and arcane subject areas in which to make their marks. They end up teaching courses on those subjects, which leave students highly educated in practically useless areas of knowledge, but no better off than when they started school.

Carey breaks down the real purpose of college and asks whether there are other means of attaining those same goals.

College, he says, exists to demonstrate to employers that a given young person was smart enough and well-rounded enough at age 17 to get admitted to a good school, and once there, to hang, socially and academically, with other equally smart young people.

Isn’t there some other way to demonstrate those facts without having to spend a quarter of a million dollars, or worse, borrow it? he asks. Thanks to technology, there are such ways.

A Different Approach
Carey shares his experience of taking an acclaimed MIT course on biology, complete with study groups, tutoring from grad students, and a broad palette of online learning tools at his disposal.

He’s not talking about his salad days in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since he did not attend MIT as an undergrad. He’s talking about a course he just finished, online, and for free.

MOOCs — massive open online courses — are becoming more commonplace with schools as illustrious as Harvard and MIT putting some of their course offerings online for the world’s taking. Carey’s “classmates” in his MIT biology class hailed from all over the world, with everyone participating and learning from one another as if they had all been admitted to MIT.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have become more commonplace, with schools as illustrious as Harvard and MIT putting some of their course offerings online for the world to take.

He is not the first to argue that the entire traditional college model is no longer the only way for young people to prove their bona fides to employers, or to gain the knowledge they need in order to function effectively as citizens.

College without tuition, for most, is about as technologically feasible as cryogenics or driverless cars. It’s not here yet, but it’s on its way.

Of course, not everyone is taking the issue of whether college still has value as a merely academic issue.

Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman and father of GOP presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, has  created a home-school curriculum for K-12 that permits, and actually encourages, students to take online college courses while they’re in high school.

As a result, students in Paul’s program can attain a Bachelor of Arts degree before their 18th birthday … at a cost of less than $10,000.

And Peter Thiel, the technology genius whose billion-dollar-babies include YouTube, Tesla, and a handful of other brand names, has started writing checks for $100,000 to worthy young people so they can start their business or technology careers without a college degree.

With all this pressure on the traditional college model, it would not be surprising if, a generation from now, half of the colleges in the United States went belly up.

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