Higher Education Is About to be Disrupted Just Like Everything Else
I’m a dad of two public school kids. They’re still in the elementary grades, so I have a few years, but if one learns anything about being a parent, it’s to plan ahead. So I’ve been thinking about their futures. And college. I’ve decided that, like many other industries and sectors, higher education is about to be disrupted (or is it here already) 1 in the ways that buying books, listening to music, finding a place to stay, or getting around town are currently being disrupted. I’m not going to weigh-in on whether these disruptions are necessarily good. But the notion that banking your life savings, or a 2nd mortgage on your home to finance your children’s college education is an idea that deserves to be considered in the same way we once considered paying $4/gallon for gas a reasonable measure of progress.
Yet higher education faces severe problems. It is unaffordable for many, creating a more than $1 trillion mountain of student debt. 2 About half of students graduate. Politics and budget squeezes affect great public institutions such as the University of California at Berkeley and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The above is a quote from a recent New York Times article 3 on soon-to-be former Education Secretary Arne Duncan opining about the current state of higher education. Later in the article, it states that the average student loan borrower leaves with $28,950 in debt. Think about that. You could, in financial terms, think of it as an opportunity cost. And that isn’t even the costs spent to get to graduation. If I, instead, gave my kid a prepaid credit card with a $29K limit upon graduating high school and said, “good luck, kid”, I wonder what his options could be if she used those funds to create/hack/design her own life options.
I’ve been mulling over these things because it happens that there ARE alternative options to college on the horizon. A few years back, the venture capitalist Peter Thiel earned scorn by bankrolling a fund 4 to sponsor kids who decided to opt-out of college entirely, and instead receive $100K each to fund their own business startup. The rationale was that these kids would learn more by doing that than they would receive in a four-year traditional college. The uproar was intense from mainstream educators. I won’t go into detail but I felt it was a worthwhile experiment. Fast forward to today. In Chicago where I live, a new venture called Till School 5 is about to launch that offers high school graduates a 2-year, design-focused, “portfolio” approach to education. The young adults will work closely with professional practitioners on real-world projects, so that when they graduate, they will have real on-the-job skills. And the cost? About $16K per year, or just a little more than that fictional credit card I described earlier.
But what about all the other stuff that you experience at a traditional college? Or what about a two-year school? I went to a four-year school in a large Midwestern state. It was huge. Perhaps being a nameless, faceless student trying to figure out how to navigate a huge school, make friends, live with roommates, learn how to time-manage and schedule, and well, experience life are things that are baked-into the college experience. As is loneliness, isolation, racism, and cultural clashes. I don’t know. I’m sure some folks long for the good old 1800’s, where people struggled to farm out in the wilderness, devoid of electricity, running water, and indoor plumbing. But I’d rather be thankful for modern conveniences. It’s not like those life experiences can’t be duplicated in other settings. This, I think, is the same criticism levelled at online education. Can you make virtual interactions be the same as face-to-face ones? No, but as others have pointed out, we are now at a time when the rise of non-traditional students who need non-traditional approaches has never been greater. Something’s gotta give, and the sooner the better for us as parents.
Maybe, in the end, the purpose of school is to help our kids find their own sense of purpose. To prepare them for a life where they can set, and achieve, their own goals, not grind away to meet the needs of some bureaucrat or college admissions officer. Given decades of damage from our testing and accountability strategy, maybe it’s time to place our bets on a strategy that puts its weight behind engaging and inspiring our kids . . . and teachers. Imagine what our country is capable of if we figure out how to launch millions of purpose-driven kids into society prepared and energized to their world better through their talents, passions, developing skills, and ability to learn. Kids that are, truly, prepared for life.
In conclusion, I wanted to leave you with a broader question: What is the Purpose of School? This is a question posed by venture capitalist and education reformer Ted Dintersmith in a recent Washington Post article 6. The quote and resulting documentary above is his answer, and I encourage you to read the entire article and view the film. Our model of education is on a bubble which is about to burst, and I can’t help but plan for what’s next.