A New York Magazine article about the value of higher education, "The University Has No Clothes" is making the rounds on FB and Twitter. It's a decent length article that explores the issue in some depth but the thesis boils down to this: a college or university education is a huge investment for a young person and their family. It creates an enormous debt hole before they even have employment. The question is: is the return on investment worth it? As a staggering statistic: student loan debt is outpacing credit card debt for the first time in history.
Not surprisingly, a number of folks, particularly entrepreneurial advocates, say 'no'. The argument is that the two to four years that person is paying to learn skills and gain knowledge of questionable value, they could instead be gaining real-world experience and generating entrepreneurial energy and value for themselves and others. I see this as motivated by the same cultural forces that have seen the positioning of social entrepreneurship against traditional NGO models.
There are a number of points advanced in favor of the anti-higher education thesis:
- It's a closed system - college grads only hire college grads resulting in price gouging for those who have no choice but to attend
- The cost of college has gone up 10x over the last 30 years while inflation has only risen 3x. Implication: it's a scam and those running it know.
- It's another bubble (like tech and housing) - "hyperinflated prices, investments by ignorant consumers funded largely by debt, and widespread faith in increasing returns"
- It's immoral to ask millions of youths to incur debt for an education for which they are ill-equipped. I.e. an indictment of primary and secondary education.
- Corollary: we should push more people into vocational programs instead of college
- You don't learn to read, think and network in college; you learn to drink and chase women (yes, the male bias persists)
- Youthful energy should be spent on industry, travel and/or charity instead of school. You can return to school later
- There's a glut of students (over-demand): 70% of high schoolers go to college/university now vs. 48% 50 years ago
- Only a little more than half of the students who go actually end up getting their bachelor's degree (the US has the highest college dropout rate in the industrialized world)
Additionally, there is the claim that the quality of higher education has dropped. A direct quote from the article:
Nearly half of all students demonstrate “exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent” gains in the skills measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, even after two years of full-time schooling, according to a study begun in 2005 by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa...In 1961, the average undergraduate spent 25 hours a week hitting the books; by 2003, economists Mindy Marks and Philip Babcock recently found, that average had plummeted to thirteen hours. In a typical semester, one third of the students Arum and Roksa followed for their recent book, Academically Adrift, did not take “any courses that required more than forty pages of reading per week” and half did not take “a single course that required more than twenty pages of writing.”
Ouch. The article is concerned to take an economic look at the value of higher education, and pays only lip service to the non-economic value of an education (i.e. to refute the 'chase women' point above). It makes no attempt to enumerate and give an economic value to the 'soft' value of an education - exposure to the wealth of knowledge of ours and different cultures, community with others outside of your limited social, economic and geographical sphere, opportunities for national and global travel, the ability for individual growth and experiment in a structured environment, etc. Rather, it asks whether higher education is an investment (more money over a lifetime of earning vs. high school diploma) or a luxury good - a status symbol that can be leveraged for greater opportunities.
As should be evident, the article lacks a little focus, but the implication is clear: for most people, higher education is way too expensive, doesn't provide promised value or does a terrible job at it, that much of what you learn isn't of worth (read: doesn't translate into money) or you can explore and learn yourself, and/or it limits your options. A self-directed, entrepreneurial path is preferable and the article ends describing a Fellowship designed to suss out and support budding entrepreneurs.
I'm not going to argue the point about the value of education - to me it's self evident. The author notes that two strong opponents of the higher education system cited are grads themselves and I certainly wouldn't be writing this blog post or doing PEL if I hadn't attended both undergrad and grad school. I'm also no opponent of entrepreneurship - I've tried myself and plan on doing so again. And it's not at all clear that entrepreneurs are stifled by higher education. To cite two paragons in my field, Michael Dell and Steve Jobs both started college and dropped out when needed to found Fortune 50 companies. [Side note: Jobs went to my alma mater Reed College and Paul Allen wanted to go too - check out this article. He didn't, but he did drop out after two years and go to Boston to hang with Bill Gates. So Hi-Ed doesn't seem to destroy tech entrepreneurial spirit anyway. Oh, and the article mentions Reed grads who went on to found companies too.]
My concern is whether PEL - and other podcasts/blogs like it - can be cited as evidence that you can "explore and learn yourself", bypassing higher education altogether. If you put all the resources of the interwebs together, can you not, with the appropriate self-discipline and engagement of like-minded fellow souls, equal or surpass what you get at august institutions of higher learning at no less time but certainly a fraction of the cost? Are you better off investing your time in us and our peers instead of some mid-level public institution? In short, are we encouraging a move towards the immediate creation of value and entrepreneurial energy vs. a smooth entry into adulthood through the academy?
My answer would be "no", but it is only justified with a true exploration of the value of education I avoided above. The only way to counter the claims laid out in the article is to state a case for the non-economic value of higher education, perhaps combined with an economic analysis of the true realities of the entrepreneurial spirit and evidence of its rarity. Entrepreneurs are typically unaware or unsympathetic to the differences between themselves and others and unrealistically generalize their experience. A system which rewards the qualities that few possess at the expense of the majority is hardly a suitable replacement for what we have, however flawed it may be. PEL is intended for all who are curious, but it wouldn't be what it is - or even possible - without Mark, Wes and I having spent the time studying, debating, reading, networking and the like on subjects we were both interested in and not, within the confines of the ivory tower. Then again, we aren't making any money off of this, so...