Introduction

Recent developments in free education (Khan Academy, Lynda.com, etc.) have lead many to suggest that college is unnecessary: too expensive, too slow, to focused on physical in a digital world, etc. Peter Theil, Paypal founder and venture capitalist, has even gone so far to arrange that young, college-attending entrepreneurs apply to him to receive funding for ideas but that they drop out of school to pursue them. As ever, my friend Daniel Miessler has already added his voice to the discussion. This post is a response to that and is thus important background.

Why Is it That Only College-Graduated Voices Are Proclaiming College’s Obsolescence?

I think that the legitimate explanation Daniel is looking for is:

“We have just crossed a tipping point such that the advantages conferred by going to college are now undermined by the costs associated therewith and uncertainty of being able to obtain employment that provides a large enough pay advantage. Therefore while we ourselves went to college its promise and value has been undermined in the intervening time.”

Selection

Those is the “college is not necessary” camp are precisely the sort that, absent college, would have watched every video in Khan Academy and worked though the “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs” videos after a day shift: because they’re exactly the sort of people for whom college works best and who use it as a boost and networking opportunity to advance their inherent talent and drive.

They are like the powers of Charles Xavier: without amplification the power is awesome, but boosted (by Cerebro, for example) that same power can reach whole new levels of performance.

Classism

There’s an unacknowledged classist cant in this whole discussion which is that the “not-college” solutions are designed to be means by which the base level of education rises (supplement to our abysmal public schooling) at the lowest level. Thus when considering their good it is measured on scales of populations, not of regions or individuals. Like another cause that Mr. Gates champions, mosquito net distribution in Africa, over a wide enough dispersal, with frequent enough use, malaria’s social and economic impact can be dampened such that the population can stay slightly more coherent longer and can thus begin to be its own economic engine.

If someone were working at a shift-based, production-line job that happened to hinge on a few equations, and he wished to move ahead, online resources are a time-flexible, cost-conscious way to get into the promotion pool: learn more math, more management, more economics, etc.

Similarly, if one’s high school math teacher can’t get the basics of algebra across to a bright yet non-conformist kid (let’s say he’s only interested in programming), that kid will be “low-tracked” and his talent underutilized. We hope that he would take up Khan academy etc. and supplement the knowledge that his school district fails to ensure gets across.

In both of these cases there are great social and economic benefits provided en masse – like mosquito nets in malarial regions. But for our latter example, is the next logical step after graduating magna cum laude to take a job at the same shift plant and keep tearing though the online educational world until he can waltz into an IBM and dazzle with his C++ savvy? I’d argue not. The socialization, networking, research resources, and mentorship are all so good, and, yes, so localized at a college that even the staunchest college-meh voices would grant that he should go. But we don’t see Theil, Gates, et al. saying this and while I don’t want to say they’re being dishonest or misleading, to not put this argument out front seems to be so politically cunning that I can’t believe they don’t see it but are instead simply choosing not to say it. There’s something classist or elitist in there such that even as I may agree with the ends, something about the means is disconcerting.

Aside: Ironically, the reason it may be disconcerting to me (even as it is also compelling) is because I did go to college and I read The Republic very closely and see this as a sneak maneuver by which the oligarchic class takes up the mantle of telling the helots and plebs what their modus operandi ought be. And if the plebs can’t be motivated to vote let alone study consistently, maybe the oligarchs ought be in control.

And to me this betrays a hint of classist paternalism. A bit of “Well yes, if he’s college material he should go, but for all of the parents paying for lesser-tier colleges, don’t they know they’re being conned?” The fact that this statement never comes up and is analyzed openly makes me suspicious. The hard truth that “all colleges are not made equal and not all admitted have the same talent” makes me suspicious of the college-meh voices.

Were we say in most of Western Europe the conversation would look very different. The statement would be: “Of course, only engineers and doctors and lawyers and professors-to-be need college. Everyone else should get training in their trade and be proud of it: the world needs graphic designers and bakers and bookkeepers too, but they certainly have no need of 2 units of hard science.” To me the proof that the whole educational concept (“Everyone needs college” verus “College Education and Trade education are both OK”) is the utterance: “I took X, but you’ll never use it after you graduate.”

My View

  • You should go to a university if you love to learn something that universities are good at teaching. Linguistics, Computer Science, Medicine? Go to college, spend a ton, go into tons of debt, hope to make good on that wager at some point in the future.
  • If you do not love to learn some topic, for pure love of that topic itself, go to a “practical college.” This place will give you skills to succeed at doing an economically beneficial job with focus on job training, entrepreneurialism, mentorship, and success.
  • Employers must shift to a “show-me” model of competence (this is already happening in the tech world): if you can do the work better than college boy who drank and 2.5’d his way though school, you should get the slot