Why Wait for College to Change?

The National Center for Education Statistics notes, “Between 2000–01 and 2010–11, prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 42 percent, and prices at private not-for-profit institutions rose 31 percent, after adjustment for inflation.” Despite the steeply rising costs of college, persistent underemployment of college graduates (sure, you’ll get a job over a nondegree holder, but do you really want to be part-time cashier?), and the disconnect between college’s image as a place that nurtures philosophical individuals eager to participate in democracy to its new incarnation as an expensive job training program, experts continue to push for the unabated consumption of college degrees.

The fact is, most new jobs created during the recession are low-wage, low-skill jobs. However, educationists put a positive spin on this situation:

Clearly, positions in retail and food services are not the best use of the hard-earned skills of college-educated workers, who have gone to great expense to obtain their sheepskins. Student loan borrowers graduate with an average debt of $27,000, a total that is likely to grow in the future.

But nearly all of those graduates are at least finding work and income of some kind, unlike a much larger share of their less educated peers. And as the economy improves, college graduates will be better situated to find promotions to jobs that do use their more advanced skills and that pay better wages, economists say.

What a bunch of assumptions underlie that final sentence, not the least of which is that their “advanced skills” won't age too quickly while they work in jobs unrelated to their skills after graduation. And what, exactly, are those advanced skills college graduates have that nongraduates do not? There are many ways to learn advanced skills besides college, and our young people are not waiting for their elders to figure out how they can monetize and credentialize a new schooling process: they are jumping right in and making it up as they go along.

My previous blog post discussed a company, Gild, that scoured the Internet for software developers, using software to unearth candidates rather than relying on the standard job application filter of college graduation, which misses many strong candidates without college degrees. Another approach is taken by Enstitute, a two-year technology program aimed at young digital entrepreneurs that uses on-the-job experience rather than class seat-time for learning. Of course, the critics of change and supporters of the four-year college degree insist that college attendance will imbue you with “important knowledge” or “critical-thinking skills,” that college is not just an expensive job training program. I find Enstitute’s response refreshing: The Enstitute’s founders contend that their program does teach critical thinking, but in different ways. “They are not debating Chaucer; they are debating product features,” says Mr. Sarhan, who graduated from Pace University. “But it’s the same idea of how do I write down and communicate an argument.”

This sentiment is amplified in the article by the director of innovation and digital partnerships at American Express, Jason Madhosingh: “It’s a race for top talent, and you would be crazy to ignore talent that is demonstrating execution and learning through alternative channels.”

Enstitute takes the four-year liberal arts education model and compresses it to suit the 40-hour apprenticeship week of its students:

Enstitute does offer a semiformal curriculum, requiring eight hours a week on topics like finance, branding, computer programming and graphic design, as well as English, sociology, and history, the content of which comes largely from online courses. The fellows also receive writing assignments every six weeks; outside academics and experts edit and review the work for writing style and grammar. Many fellows choose a less technical track for their course work and study subjects like Japanese culture or the poetry of Keats.

This is another example homeschoolers can cite for options besides going to conventional college. This example cuts two years off your college tuition and puts you in close contact with prospective employers while you are learning on the job. So while the masses are exhorted to continue going into significant debt to attend college there are others seeking new routes and blazing new paths for finding work worth doing and lives worth living. They are not doing lessons. They are learning by doing, by conversing with people who are older, younger, and different than them, and by accomplishing real work that will be used by people. And there are similar places that don’t require as much time and that don’t provide certificates, (for instance, Hacker School), but which help you become a better programmer and connect you with prospective employers.

That so many options are emerging for those with technical skills is a sign of our economic times, but it makes me wonder: Why can’t we extend this idea to all disciplines and further break down the barriers between learning and doing? Why are we so trapped into thinking that children must be initiated into adulthood by carefully regimented, four-year cycles of education?