What if the whole system of college education in this country is mostly a scam? What if it’s a system that sucks untold billions of dollars out of our pockets, but provides very little in tangible value?
I felt that college was an absolute waste of time and money for me. There were a very few classes in which I learned things that felt worth the time and effort. (Thank you, Dr. Pound.) For the most part, I was jumping through hoops that didn’t matter. I learned almost everything that mattered (and absolutely everything I ever learned related to journalism) by doing the work, not by sitting in a class.
For a long time, I wondered if it was just me. Everybody else seemed to assume that a college degree was great and gave them a golden ticket for life. In the years since then, though, it seems as though more and more people are questioning this system.
Zachary Caceres has a new article at the Radical Social Entrepreneurs website that should make you question the value of traditional colleges — even elite colleges. It’s about how a Google engineer and ex-Stanford University professor is shaking up the world of higher education. (Read the article. It’s worth it.)
Last year, Sebastian Thrun was teaching a graduate-level class at Stanford about artificial intelligence. (Thrun is the man behind Google’s self-driving car, so he knows a thing or two about the subject.) He became frustrated that he was only reaching 200 students in one location, so he did something unprecedented. He sent out one announcement that he was offering the same lectures, quizzes and tests to anyone, for free. His simple offer found 160,000 takers.
Even if it were possible to get high-quality teaching to all of these thousands of people, it’s obvious that the elite colleges still serve a purpose. Right? The Stanfords and Harvards of the world earn their exorbitant tuition by attracting the best of the best. That’s the idea. But when Thrun looked at the test data, he found that it wasn’t true.
If his Stanford students were have been the best, they should have scored at the top of the collection of 160,000 students. Instead, his best Stanford student was the 411th best performer of the group. So 410 of these random Joes and Janes scored better than the best and brightest, which Stanford is supposed to be delivering.
If all we want is to set aside an elite group to brand as the best, the current elite college system works. But if we want there to be any meaning to that — if we want there to be any reality to it — the current system is a failure.
Thrun was so happy with the results of his experiment that he started Udacity, which he calls the 21st century university. It only offers 11 courses so far, but anyone can take the classes without charge. If you choose to get certification for the class, you can pay a fee to be certified for a particular course. The company says its plan is to “democratize education.”
As you might expect, Stanford isn’t exactly happy with this turn of events.
What is the purpose of our universities? If it’s to educate people about things they need to know for life, there are better ways to do it than the current bloated and expensive college system. If the goal is to simply perpetuate the myth that a select few people who go to top colleges are actually better than everyone else, the current system is great. The problem is that the story the system is selling is a lie.
Colleges are going to have to find a way to adapt to the model that radicals such as Thrun are creating. If people can learn the things they need to learn (for free) and then pay for certification if they need it, why will smart people bother shelling out the money for the old system? Why will employers keep asking for traditional college degrees?
The change might not come quickly, but I suspect it’s going to come. It’s going to bring educational opportunities to people who could never afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars — or even much more — in the traditional system. It’s going to give opportunities to people who the elite admissions systems would have never accepted. It’s going to make merit — and not all the other games that currently influence admission — the real measure of education.
Changing the educational system in this way will inevitably destroy the university system as we know it today. Whether they adapt or die will be up to them. What seems undeniable is that people such as Thrun are finding ways to get around these lumbering dinosaurs. We’re all going to be better off because of that.