There’s a wonderful piece on The American Interest about the future of universities and how online education is about to do to traditional education what MP3s did to record labels. The whole article is worth reading, but one excerpt stood out to me:
“In their research for their book Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that 45 percent of the students they surveyed said they had no significant gains in knowledge after two years of college. Consider the possibility that, for the average student, traditional in-classroom university education has proven so ineffective that an online setting could scarcely be worse. But to recognize that would require unvarnished honesty about the present state of play. That’s highly unlikely, especially coming from present university incumbents.”
This relates to something I’ve been noticing in the past few years when people talk about their decision to go to college: there’s no analysis of the downside of the decision. There’s no acknowledgement of the problems and limitations of universities. This is something I’ve only seen when people discuss college education, as if colleges enjoyed some privilege of not being analyzed in terms of pros and cons. It’s all assumed to be positive.
However, there’s a reason for this, and it’s the fact that there’s no clear alternative. When we believe that college is the default, there’s no process of “choosing” in our minds, it’s just “the next logical step.” The reality is that it’s not our only choice, but the blurriness and confusion of anything outside the framework offered by universities makes most people gloss over the possibilities outside traditional education. Crafting a professional path that doesn’t include a college degree, though not impossible, is fucking hard. Trust me, I know.
Universities have a lot of problems and a lot to figure out if they don’t want to fade away in the upcoming decades, but they still play a very important role in taking care of people’s emotions, providing a clear framework (even though their promised outcome, a job, is no longer a guarantee), and in hosting millions and millions of young people that don’t really know what they want to do.
What’s the challenge for those wanting to disrupt and improve education, then? The challenge lies in offering clarity, not just new methods, content or technology. There needs to be a bigger focus on understanding why people feel they need to go to college, and offer them a framework that includes those benefits. Much of the “educational revolution” has been about delivery and improved efficiency, and they’re completely ignoring how important the emotional side is, and why it’s still the main reason people default to universities.
It’s the only place where they feel safe (for now).