The mismatch between modern undergraduate education and the needs of the modern economy is now untenable.

Colleges and universities provide students with an important socializing experience as well as a basic marker (a bachelor’s degree) of their intelligence and sociability, which people and companies use to determine the students’ worth.

But the way this is done nowadays is fantastically inefficient.  The American undergrad experience – the one with which I’m most familiar – is based on a romantic ideal of “liberal education” that most employers don’t want and most families can’t afford. Students end up spending four years on stressful, cram-it-in curricula based on lectures (and by the way, who really thinks that lectures are the most effective mode of learning? who thinks a lecture to a large, passive group is even representative of how people normally learn and function in working life?) as well as off-major subjects that they could just as well learn on their own for free. Universities also typically have massive fixed assets requiring tens of millions of dollars to operate each year–and thousands or tens of thousands of high-tuition-fee-paying students are required just to pay for all that bloat.

Atop those inefficiencies, there is the fact that undergrad tuition fees sometimes subsidize graduate research programs and facilities – including (and I can’t believe undergrads and their parents fall for this) rock-star professors who get mid-to-high-six-figure salaries and have their names plastered all over the undergrad brochures but in reality spend as little of their time as possible with undergrads. And then of course there is the country-club-and-party aspect of college, which isn’t all bad, but can be rough on those developing young forebrains, and is hardly something a thrifty parent or a self-funding student should pay for. (My undergrad university had an 18-hole golf course on campus!)

The big universities I’m sure will find ways to thwart and delay competition. The tax breaks bestowed on them by Congress already pose a barrier to competing education models. But ultimately the competition will have to come.  A recent Pew Research study found, among other things:

A majority of Americans (57%) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. An even larger majority—75%—says college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.

Companies and educational experts also don’t seem too happy with the quality of American undergraduate education.  A McKinsey Global Institute report, just out, notes in its executive summary that:

too few Americans who attend college and vocational schools choose fields of study that will give them specific skills that employers are seeking. Our interviews point to potential shortages in many occupations, such as nutritionists, welders, and nurse’s aides — in addition to the often-predicted shortfall in computer specialists and engineers

Alternatives to the current system are easy to imagine, and I think they will spring up quickly, once companies signal their willingness to look beyond the university paradigm for their hiring.

One alternative would be a micro-school made up of only a few teacher/tutors, with near-zero overhead, and a focus on a particular area of learning – say, finance or engineering. Imagine five teachers handling one hundred students per year, at $10,000 per student per year. Realistically, you could double that number of students, but even with that conservative, back of the envelope calculation, you’d be looking at an annual gross of $200,000 per teacher, and $150,000+ after subtracting for overhead.  Surely a great many clever people would find that kind of compensation attractive.

Colleges these days often devote much of the freshman year to the teaching of remedial math and writing skills.  In an alternative system, those skills could be taught in separate micro-schools for those whose high schools fail to deliver; and a certification of skills in those areas could be required for admission to more career-specific schools.

In the current system, colleges and universities are “accredited” and are expected to maintain adequate standards.  But clearly (for those who can escape the groupthink of standard educational culture) that combination of the teaching and certification roles sets up a conflict of interest.  The new system should separate certification from teaching by encouraging the setup of independent testing organizations, which would be the only tightly regulated elements in this educational economy.  Once they are in place, the ways in which students develop the skills to score well on certification tests would be less important, and could be very diverse; some students could even set up their own programs of independent, at-home undergraduate study.

Big university-type organizations would still exist to do research and handle graduate programs, but they would be supported mostly by their endowments and by research grants, as they are already, and they wouldn’t always have to be part of “universities.” I suspect that this freedom (i.e., to set up a graduate research institution from scratch, without the need for an existing university link) would attract a lot of philanthropy that otherwise would sit on the sidelines.  Why have your name on a mere university building when you can name and control your own research institute?

What about the minority who presently have the bucks to pay for an overpriced undergrad experience featuring those rock-star professors, and who prefer that option because it allows them to use their financial advantage to buy exclusivity, to the detriment of less-well-off parents/students?  Put it this way:  There will always be someone to take their money.



“Why go to college at all?” (NYT, 2 Feb 2012)



A discussion in the NYT which includes some of the central points I raised in the post: (NYT, 25 Apr 2012)



A new book, The End of College, whose author, a “renowned education writer,” restates the above points as his own– and gets a plug in the NYT.