The End of College?

(photo: Shutterstock image)

Over the past couple of weeks I've been involved in an interesting email discussion with my husband and some of our friends in which we ponder the questions: Will our grandkids go to college? Will "college" as we know it still exist then?

This latest round of discussions about the future of education was kicked off by a recent Wall Street Journal article which discusses the possibility of "merit badges" being used in the workforce in place of college degrees. The Journal lists a few harbingers of the future of education:

  • MITx, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's free online course series that will issue badges to those who complete it.
  • The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has a $2 million grant program to encourage organizations to adopt a badge system (to which more than 300 groups have applied).
  • Hedge-fund billionaire Peter Thiel's $100,000 "scholarship" that pays recipients not to go to college.
  • P2P (Peer-to-Peer) University, a successful learning institution in which anyone can be a student or an instructor, which was one of the first programs to offer badges.
  • In the K-12 realm, the free online-education provider Khan Academy offers students a "Great Listener" badge for watching 30 minutes of videos.

It seems like every month there are more examples like the ones above. As the article points out, these unorthodox ideas about higher education are gaining traction because "tuition is rising far faster than family incomes, employers argue that graduates don't show up ready for today's jobs, and academic disciplines seem increasingly insular."

Peter Thiel has famously predicted that there is a higher-education bubble, and just like the housing bubble, it won't be long before it bursts. Last year he told NRO's Matthew Shaffer:

Education is a bubble in a classic sense. To call something a bubble, it must be overpriced and there must be an intense belief in it. Housing was a classic bubble, as were tech stocks in the '90s, because they were both very overvalued, but there was an incredibly widespread belief that almost could not be questioned -- you had to own a house in 2005, and you had to be in an equity-market index fund in 1999.

Probably the only candidate left for a bubble -- at least in the developed world (maybe emerging markets are a bubble) -- is education. It's basically extremely overpriced. People are not getting their money's worth, objectively, when you do the math. And at the same time it is something that is incredibly intensively believed; there's this sort of psycho-social component to people taking on these enormous debts when they go to college simply because that's what everybody's doing.

Some have argued that Thiel is off-base with his housing bubble analogy. Whether or not he hit the nail on the head with that particular point, I think he's right with his overarching point that everything is about to change. The pressure on the higher education system is building, and it's now a matter of when, not if a new system is forged.

As I watch this all unfold, what I see happening is a great sifting, in which two competing ideas about what a college education is for in the first place are getting sorted out. As an illustration, imagine this all-too-common scenario:

A father sends his son to a prestigious college, with the expectation that a degree from this institution will lead to a six-figure salary for his son shortly after graduation. The son has a passion for linguistics, and ends up majoring in Lepontic Poetry. After graduation the son applies for jobs that would give him financial security, but employers pass over his resume, opting for candidates who majored in Business Administration instead. The upshot is that the father is frustrated because he feels like he didn't get his money's worth out of his son's education, the employers are frustrated because they don't see qualified candidates coming out of even the top schools, and the student is frustrated because he doesn't know what to do with his life now.

The problem here is that we have two entirely different visions of what college is all about: The father and the employers see college as a place to gain workplace credentials; the son sees it as a place to learn more about what he loves. 

I believe that this is the fault line on which the higher education system will split: New organizations will be created that offer workplace credentials, and traditional colleges will be free to research and teach without worrying about job training. And this will be a great thing. Our grandkids will be able to save time and money by getting badges targeted to the specific areas in which they work. And if they do go to college, they will be able to enjoy a wonderful concept that has been almost entirely lost by our modern education system: To learn simply for the sake of learning.