I Went to College, but You Shouldn’t

Bryan Alexander is blogging with frequency again (hooray!), in his exemplary educator style — pose a topic, add information, perhaps include an informed opinion, and rather than end the blog with a definitive period have it linger for further discussion.

He is currently musing on the cost of college, the decline in college enrollments, and the general purpose of college in today’s society.  How are the current forces in society, culture and policy shaping the future of the system?

What does this kind of projection tell policymakers?  The regional growth formula of “meds and eds” would still work, perhaps.  Or that they should simply prepare for greater economic inequality, and assume education no longer reduces class divisions.

I responded on his blog, but am posting my response here as well.  My focus is on the argument that college is a waste of time and money, and people should forego it.  There is lots to unpack in that argument, but here are some touchstones.

1) Books like DIY U or Don’t Go Back to School are written from a very privileged position: both Kamenetz and Stark have extensive education backgrounds from prestigious universities. The “I went to school, and it was a waste for me” is disingenuous; that’s a personal belief that waxes dangerous if applied without context of environment . If they were picking themselves up by their bootstraps, they were already wearing Doc Martens.
2) If college is about getting jobs (some to a lot of it has to be by necessity), it is a broken model if the jobs are dramatically shifting. But so are vocations if we are moving toward this “knowledge economy” everyone speaks of as if it’s ethereal. Employers say they want people with critical and divergent thinking skills, people who are well-rounded and understand the ability to go from concrete to abstract back to concrete. That is the definition of education rather than training, so why are the new initiatives looking at training under the guise of “lifelong learning”?
3) The MOOCing population is well-educated and self-motivated. That will likely change as MOOCs start to offer credit as being done at SJSU and now looking like GATech, but it will only change for those private-private-public partnerships. Autodidacts don’t necessarily need the scaffolding and social learning that the majority of people do in order to retain and grow knowledge and wisdom. I hope that research on these credit-offering MOOCs goes past direct outcomes from the course and into longitudinal work on the effect
4) College does not have to be this expensive, and the MOOC does not have to be the Obi Wan Kenobi Only Hope of education. People point to the decline in public subsidy, and that is one argument, but that’s not coming back any time soon. Education can run as a government rather than a business, more in the line of Jerry Brown’s current CA budget that seeks to balance the ebb and flow of tax revenue. I am not a fan of Teach for America, but the AmeriCorps model of public service has tradition in our society. Of course, if there are no public structures to dedicate the first years of workforce experience to (and it’s quite a stretch to call TFA a public service), we are relegated to lectures brought to us by our good friends at AT&T.