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A Call to Transform Higher Ed
on April 26, 2010
Everyone says they want a college education but fewer people in the US have a real chance of getting one. And why do young people want that college degree? Because they've been repeatedly told they need it in order to get a good-paying job. They've been fed the numbers that show that average earnings are highest for those with with advanced degrees, followed by four-year degrees, some college, and lower pay for only high school or no high school diploma. In the United States, there is a profound belief, seemingly upheld by these numbers, that a college degree is the ticket to the American Dream.
But the reality, told so eloquently in this small book by Anya Kamenetz, is that many find themselves priced out of going to college and those who go find themselves drowning in debt and more than half who start never get a degree. Because college has become so expensive, there is concern among students about the monetary value of their degree. Will it really pay off in terms of their salary over their working years? Is it worth taking out all those student loans? Should parents mortgage their house (oops, with the mortgage crisis, probably not an option), spend their retirement savings, or take out commercial loans to send their kids to college?
Is that even the right way to think about higher education? Is it just all about money? Whatever happened to the intrinsic value of an education? As it turns out, there have never been more options for learning, if we stop thinking about learning as only happening in classrooms in ivy-covered buildings on rolling green campuses. In this book, Kamenetz takes us on a tour of the smorgasbord of learning opportunities. Many of these are rooted in technology that can bring together teacher and student over any distance, can offer instant information on any subject. The internet has truly been the disruptive technology of our age. Many colleges now offer internet classes, but some newer approaches have used the technology to basically change the way information is delivered. What the author calls "the sage on the stage" - the lecture system - is being replaced with online learning that adapts to each person's learning style.
A new batch of "for profit" colleges (think University of Phoenix or Kaplan University) are experimenting with more approaches that attract and keep students. The traditional university gets its prestige, not from graduating students, but from its research activities and its exclusivity (the number of students it turns down). It is not focused on imparting students with knowledge, but on building up its "brand" and its image through its distinguished professors, who may spend little time with actual students. The for-profits have turned that around and concentrate on students. I found it a bit disheartening to hear that the profit motive is driving innovation in education. Shouldn't we as a society, through public education, be providing the means for every person to develop their skills and make a contribution? Have our institutions of higher learning let us down in a massive way?
I found the information in this book energizing, provocative and truly transforming in its potential. Since I confess to having been born just after World War II ended, I know I am not the generation that the author wants to reach with this book. But I have long thought the use of a college degree to screen out job applicants has been a poor policy on the part of employers. When I worked for a Fortune 500 company, part of my job was preparing presentations for managers. I remember one presentation that touted the fact that they planned to hire "Ivy-League MBAs" without any reference to what these hires would be doing; it was all about the prestige. Another time I saw this company lose an amazingly talented young man who was working as a contractor, but who they would not hire because he lacked a college degree. Shouldn't hiring decisions be made on the basis of who can best do the job, not on whether or not they have an MBA from Yale?
Speaking of my generation, older people are also attracted to these new options for learning. The January-Feruary issue of the AARP Bulletin had an article called "Free E-Learning." It listed a bunch of websites that offer learning in many subjects, and the article began with the news that all of MIT's academic courses are available online. I visited all the sites listed and added many to my bookmarks. Since I am retired from full-time work, I do not care about gaining an academic credential, but I do care about the chance to learn and these are wonderful resources!
For people like my 25-year old daughter, who does not have a college degree, what Kamenetz tells us about new ways to showcase your abilities and basically compete with the "degree as credential" is relevant. My daughter's talents are artistic and she has taken lots of classes, but her friends in the creative arts tell her that a college degree is generally not worth the cost, and that creating/doing something that shows ability is a more compelling path to opportunities. Kamenetz gives us examples of people who have used the educational resources out there to learn what they needed to know, then just started using it to make a lving doing what they do best and want to do. Perhaps as time goes on and more people take this route, companies will begin to look at people in terms of their skills and talent, not just their college credentials.
There have always been people who educate themselves for what it is they want to do with their lives. Others seize an opportunity outside college that may not present itself again. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard because he knew the time was right for small personal computers to take over some of what had been only possible with mainframes. Instead of taking classes, he dropped out and spent his time writing a version of the BASIC language for the Altair computer, which enabled it to do real work, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sure overall, college graduates earn more, but maybe it's time to think about a diversity of ways people can find their future, and about ways our institutions of higher learning can adapt to new realities of economics and technology... and better serve the American people.
I really loved this book, with its vision of a new and improved educational environment, in which self-education flourishes! Thank you, Anya Kamenetz for writing it.